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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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Hey, Dr. Kevorkian. What Are You Killing Today?

You don't like questions?

Hey, Dr. Kevorkian. What Are You Killing Today?

© 2007 E. Thomas Behr, Ph.D.

"Bamboo Bob" Foley, of Morristown, NJ, is a super salesman, He buys, sells and installs bamboo and other tropical plants, typically for wealthy customers as a luxury product. One evening he got a call from an irate customer, a successful, ultra-aggressive, classic "Type A" bond trader for whom he'd installed a 2000' bamboo fence along the side of the property. "Foley," the customer barked into the phone. "Get your butt over here tomorrow. All the bamboo you planted for me died. You have to replace it." "Sure," Bob replied. "No problem. And since I'm there, we might as well talk about finishing the remaining 1500' of your property line. I'll see you tomorrow morning."

Bob showed up the next morning with his crew, replacement plants (and the new plants for the additional 1500' of bamboo he intended to sell and plant that day). The customer was out there in his Gucci loafers, TravelSmith shorts and an old JPeterman safari shirt, poking away fruitlessly at the dead bamboo with a plastic-handled pitchfork. One look told Bob that, as he'd suspected, the customer had failed (after having been given careful instructions) to properly water the new plants. "Hey, Dr. Kevorkian," Bob called out as he got out of the truck. "What are you doing? Trying to kill those plants a second time? They're already dead." He kept it up as he approached the customer. "I know I told you how to water the plants to keep them healthy. What happened, did I forget to tell you which end of the hose the water comes out of?"

Now, before you read this and go totally off - "You can't talk like that to customers!" - let me provide some context. Bob Foley has an amazingly irresistible smile, laugh and sense of good humor - irresistible because it comes from deep inside him. That's who he is - and what he does. Over the years, he's "branded" himself as "Bamboo Bob" to customers, suppliers, the industry and competitors. He's an unforgettable personality who is also one of the very top experts in bamboo in the Northeast. When people think about him, they start to smile, remember a funny interaction, and start to laugh. And if they're his customer, they also remember the quality of his work (usually because they look at it every day), and the good feeling that comes from a problem solved. Bob's philosophy: "put 200% of yourself into everything you do. After that take life as it comes, don't worry, be happy, ride the wave and enjoy the ride."

Bob instinctively knows what most of us learned, and then forgot. Our words make up a small fraction - no more than 10% - of the total message received, consciously and sub-consciously, by our customers. Bob's words certainly were insulting, and as we'll see, meant to be. His "message" however, was the same for this customer as for all customers he develops into clients: "I like you, I respect you, and I'm passionately committed to making sure you're more than 100% satisfied with my work, forever." In that regard, he's a lot like another super salesman, Tom Gau, described in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.

There was a lot more going on in this interaction. This customer was spoiling for a fight - because that's who he is. Bob knew that the last thing he wanted to do was get in a pissing contest with a Type A customer, because the customer wouldn't be able to let himself lose - no matter who was "right" or "wrong." Plus, while Bob replaced the dead bamboo at no cost - long term success is about providing superior service - the customer needed to accept that the dead bamboo was his mistake, not Bob's. Finally, there's the question: "Who playfully insults a guy like this?" Answer: his peers and equals. That's the relationship Bob was establishing.

So what are the 'lessons learned from this story? Certainly not that we should start insulting customers. Bob uses this approach (and many others) with customers because that's his style, and his style is linked to his persona - he does who he is. It works because he's taken the years required to utterly master his field and brand himself as "Bamboo Bob."

He's developed and earned the freedom, like any "Black Belt Salesperson" to be fully engaged, adaptable and creative in the moment with customers, so every customer interaction is appropriately different and unique ? and always the same. Customers laugh, relax, and enter into easy rapport. (So forget all that misapplied NLP business about mimicking customers' tone and body rhythms ? unless you've really practiced and are really skilled.) Customers like salespeople whom they feel like them. That's what Bob does. Kind of like bamboo: deep-rooted, earth-friendly, extraordinarily strong, resilient, flexible, fun, and totally practical. (Just for fun, check out his site You'll love it.)

Points to ponder: Do you enjoy, (I mean sincerely enjoy), your customers, not just the "easy" customers but all the customers you work with? (There certainly are "unlikable" customers out there. It's always worth considering if the aggravation of serving them is worth the cost to you and your business.) Do you work each day to learn more about what you sell and the complex customer "systems" in which most sales operate, especially in business-to-business selling? (In a rapidly changing world, you never know ahead of time what you'll need to know in the moment). Does the 10% of your verbal message align with the 90% of the subconscious message you send customers? (We can fake language; it's almost impossible to "fake" feeling.) Do you "sell by the book" or develop the skill and knowledge to be, like Bob, a "Black Belt Salesperson," spontaneous in each unique moment of each different call?

Oh yeah. Postscript: That same day, Bob sold and installed the additional 1500' of bamboo at a fair profit, covering the cost of replacement, made sure the customer would never forget again to take care of the plants, and turned a customer into a loyal client, who provides him with several big reference leads a year. "Nah. Forget those other […expletive deleted]. Go with Bamboo Bob. He's the best!"