The Tao of Sales
An Easier Way to Sell in Tough Times
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Sales Success Stories: We learn to stretch our own capabilities by observing others. Find what’s true for you and what challenges you in each of these stories. Ask yourself:

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Other Stories

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Help! I need to sneeze.

You don't like questions?

"Help! I need to sneeze"

© 2007 E. Thomas Behr, Ph.D.

I was calling, for the first time, on a potential sales training customer in the retail fashion business. It was Spring, and the pollen was in full bloom. I was meeting with the Executive VP of Sales, clearly the primary decision-maker, and her two sales trainers. To say that she was elegant, poised, sophisticated, charming and very French understates it. She was also by reputation a very smart, non-nonsense business woman. Perhaps not an Angel in Prada, but no Devil either.

After saying "Hi" to her two American subordinates, I greeted her in French, enchanté. After a few pleasantries, I quickly retreated back into English. My accent is OK, but my command of the language can take me only about five minutes into a conversation before it hits the wall. This was in the day of obligatory "dog and pony" shows, but even then, I worked hard to establish constant, positive eye contact and get some kind of audience interaction, every minute, with a range of questions. And what I saw, about a third of the way into the allotted 45 minutes for the presentation and Q&A, completely unnerved me. Her two American subordinates were very interested and engaged. But she looked like she'd just eaten a bad truffle.

There's a way Parisiennes breathe in through their noses, with a slight pursing of the lips, that can communicate a number of different things - all bad. Plus rather than looking at me, she was staring around the room, obviously distracted, and probably not hearing a word of what I was saying. She even looked away completely for a few moments, rummaging through her purse below the table, (probably looking for the business card of my competition). Then she politely interrupted me and said, "I'm terribly sorry, I know this is rude and completely inconsiderate of your time, but I'm afraid I have another obligation and must leave. Perhaps you can finish your presentation with my associates. One of us will contact you next week with our decision. Thank you very much for your time" Then she got up, and without another word, left the room.

My brain was screaming at me: "You've blown this sales call, and you don't even know what you did wrong. Jerk. You could have just stuck to business, but no, you just had to show off. She obviously saw right through your charade of speaking French and thought you were pretentious and insulting, not charming. An American charm a French woman like her? Right. You did it again. Plus she knows everybody in the business and is bound to tell them what a fool you were." I somehow raced through the rest of the presentation, stumbling as I went. I sensed that her associates were a little embarrassed for me, but certainly not enough to speak up in my favor. They asked a few questions, probably just to be polite, and we ended the meeting and they saw me out.

"Thanks for coming."

"My pleasure," I responded. Some pleasure.

So I was totally unprepared when she called me five days later, greeted me enthusiastically in French, graciously switching to English before I embarrassed myself, and then asked me to come in to discuss how we might implement the training program. We got the work, and delivered a wonderful program, at the Broadmoor in Colorado. It was only then that I discovered what had actually happened on the sales call. Her allergies had set in right as the meeting started, her Kleenex and antihistamines were in her office, the little napkin that came with the coffee was already a sponge, and she was trying to figure out a more elegant way of wiping her nose without using the sleeve of her Valentino Roma blouse. Plus a 2 megaton sneeze was getting ready to explode.

Lesson Learned: When things go wrong, it's almost inevitable that we interpret what we see and put our own "meaning" on events, creating a complex, usually negative "story" in our minds about what happened. Fear does that to us. "Be careful. You'll mess this up! … See, I told you so.! … You always do that." So powerful are those internal messages, that they "become" reality, and then we react emotionally to the "reality" we've created in our own minds - even if we've completely misread the situation. How to handle these moments (I suspect we all get them)? Start by disciplining yourself to recognize when unconscious "fear" dials up your conscious mind, and put your fear on hold. "I understand you're afraid. I'm busy now in a sales call and want to do my best. I'll call you later. Love. 'Bye." Remember why you're there in the first place ? to conduct the best sales call you possibly can. I let my panic cause me to forget most of my skill and technique. That was the real mistake that luckily, this time, I survived.

Judith Oroloff, author of Positive Energy, has a great addition to handling situations like these. She substitutes a positive interpretation for the negative "story." For example, if you see someone in the midst of a presentation, breaking eye contact and frowning, instead of assuming he's upset or disagreeing with you, assume he's totally caught up and thinking deeply about what you're saying ("Wow. I never thought about that. We missed that completely. This means we're going to need to…"). Since people's facial expressions are pretty similar whether their upset or just deeply concentrating, the positive interpretation makes as much sense as the negative, and will put you in a much better mind frame to do your best.

Sometimes all of us really do mess up with clients. That will be the topic for a later discussion. But regardless of what's happening (or in my case not happening) with the customer, we can only do our best, and trust that more often than not, our best will carry the day. Finally, don't try to predict or guess the future. Your crystal ball is looking at a different world than your customer's.