The Tao of Sales
An Easier Way to Sell in Tough Times
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The "Right Way to Sell"

This is part of a series on what a lot of salespeople, authors and trainers call “techniques.” To me, techniques are more like the Forms in various martial arts that only gain power when used appropriately in response to the constantly changing situations one encounters - as part of a series of spontaneous coordinated physical actions. Techniques, like “Sales Models” can be mechanical, routine, rigid, and thus devoid of real power. 5 Steps for This, 10 Steps for That … so many steps; so little progress.

Think of the sales people who tell when they should ask, talk when they should listen, or push when they should create space for the customer to decide.

As salespeople, we would do better if we practiced techniques until they became second nature (as martial artists and championship athletes do) and then forgot about using them consciously, so they would be immediately available subconsciously in each moment.

What's the "Right Way" to Sell -- Part I

Selling has gone on since the first guy opened up a used camel lot in Babylon 6000 years ago.

"Whaddya mean scrawny and run down! You're confusing glamour with reliability. It's a long way to Egypt. Would you rather get there safely or be stranded in the middle of the desert watching the vultures arrive for dinner? Take my word for it - this one's not so much to look at, but he's as tough as bronze - pure méhari. I'm letting him go at this ridiculous price because I'm worried about you. Plus if you act now, I'll add in this lovely camel blanket - my gift to you. Throw it over him and you won't even see the sores."

What's the "Right Way" to Sell? That's like asking, what's the "right way" to win a tennis match, or what's the "right way" to play the Mozart Flute Concerto in D. Here we are, still searching through books, tapes and websites and investing money in conferences and training programs in search for the magical philosopher's stone for sales (that can turn a lead into gold.) Maybe we're searching in the wrong place for the wrong things.

What are the choices?

There's still a big market in books and experts that want to teach you how to get over on the customer - even though some of them pay lip service to understanding customer needs. ("Find out what the customer needs, then make him buy your solution.") And all the authors have a lot of advice to give: 16 Rock Solid Rules, 20 Best Practices, 25 Successful Sales Habits, 95.5 Real World Answers, 101 Ways to Double Your Sales, 150 "Secrets" (that is, things nobody else knows), 157 "Sales Bible" Tips, 250 rules for "Selling Anything to Anybody." I found my old copy of Tom Hopkins' Master the Art of Selling and started adding up separate tips and stopped when I got over 165. Maybe if we weren't trying to push and manipulate the customer, we'd need fewer tricks.

One of the newer wrinkles is the number of books that promise to show you how to outwit the customer in less time. "How to Get Anyone to Say 'Yes' in 8 minutes." "How to Use the 'Irresistible Offer' to sell anything in 3 seconds." Wow. That's pretty fast. Could somebody manipulate you in 3 seconds?

Of course each of these authors is the #1 foremost sales authority of all time. They'll even tell you. "I sold 3 gazillion Gnipfelwonks® in one year and I AM THE BEST SALESMAN IN THE UNIVERSE! Copy what I did and you, too, will be rich and famous."

Are there good insights and useful techniques in these books? Sure there are - (although a lot of them repeat the same advice in different words). But how do you separate the valuable stuff from the pile? And how do you integrate it within your own style?

I can't count the number of authors out there who have the one, fool-proof, sure fire sales process to become a winner. Here's a quick sample: Action Selling, Value-Forward Selling, Value-Based Selling, Strategic Selling, Spin Selling, The Patterson Principles for Selling … you get the idea.

Then, of course, there's the Dark Side, books on using psychological manipulation to "make the prospect feel obligated to buy," and "… recognize the right time for subtle high-pressure tactics." How about this as a sales pitch: "Imagine what it would be like if you could control people's minds - and had the power to motivate, influence and persuade them to agree to practically anything you propose … what would that be worth to you?" Mind control. Cool. Beam me up, Scotty.

There's now an equally big market in "consultative selling:" having the kind of expertise that lets you guide the customer towards the solution that's really right for them (your products and services, of course). In many of these books, the process is far more ethical, much simpler because it entails a dialogue with the customer. The moment of truth, however, still exists when the customer starts moving to a decision. Whose decision is it? Yours? The customers? Both of you? If the answer is the first response, I'd suggest this is still manipulative selling. You've just moved out of the used car lot into the board room.

There are also authors out there who really break new ground in linking sales success to collaborative decision-making with the customer. To see the authors I like and read, go to Resources.. But even as much as I read, respect and refer to these authors, their way is only their way, not necessarily yours.

So these are what seem to me to be the critical questions to consider:

What's my fundamental purpose in selling?

Pick the choice below that best matches your real intent as a salesperson. It will help to write your answers on a piece of paper because that will engage your whole mind in the question. I suggest taking time with this question, since the answer will be the foundation from which you act, consciously and unconsciously, and will thus determine the outcomes you experience and the results you get. John Hone, one of the "superstar" salespeople I talk about in this site, put me on to Jim Collins', Good to Great. It turned out to be the best business book I've read in years. If you want a quick insight into this first critical question, read what he has to say about "The Hedgehog" principle.

  1. Am I in business, all kidding aside, really just to get money from my customers? (If, so, be prepared to work hard, because even if you work from the Dark Side, at some level, most people resist being used for someone else's gain.)
  2. Am I in business to serve my customers? (Seems like a noble goal, until we remember that the Latin root of "service" is servus, which means "slave." Putting your customer first may mean continuously putting yourself second. That can be bad for your self-esteem and crippling to your business and profits.)
  3. Am I in business to provide expert advice to my customers? (Great - so long as you're working with customers who actually want and need that advice and so long as you really an expert. If not, you're back in Choice #1.
  4. Am I in business to collaborate with customers to help them solve their problems - and at the same time, build my business with loyal customer relationships as the foundation for growth? This is the choice I made, but with this choice, one has to make tough decisions about who is and isn't your customer, and be ready to live through hard times when the right customers aren't showing up.
When I've asked workshop participants this question, I often get a "Yes, but..." response. "Yes, I want to provide superior service to customers, but I also need to make money, meet my quota, satisfy my boss," etc. If this dilemma surfaces for you, then simply change the questipon to a "both/and" question. "How can I both provide superior service to customers and make the money I need?" That way you turn a potentially paralyzing obstacle into a creative problem solving exercise for which you already have the answer, if you're persistent and patient with the question. Since you're the one carrying out the solution, however, make sure it's your answer, not someone else's.

If you get stuck, try this technique of successful consultants (and therapists): Look at your answer and ask, "Well, why is this [your answer] important to me?" Then look at the answer to that question, and repeat the process. "OK. Then why is this important to me?" To get the depth you need you may need to repeat the process 3-5 times.

What unique value do I offer customers?

Based on the above, decide what's the most important gift you bring to customers, that most deeply reflects the personal convictions and beliefs you are most passionate about. (If you picked #1 above, you can skip this question.

Begin the life-long exploration of how to master what you know, what you do, and who you are.

One of many useful principles from martial arts that apply directly to selling is the awareness that technique and knowledge, to be used strongly and wisely, must be inseparably wedded to one's expression of self, rather than being something external that we use or discard. There are many ways to work with this principle. One might be to make sure that your most profound ethical, spiritual or religious values show up in every sales call, and that customers get to know you as the person who lives those values with them.

Mastery is not reading a book, attending a conference, or taking a training program. It's a daily commitment to improvement. How many practice balls does Tiger Woods hit? How many impossible shots does he practice hitting so that when he has to make one in a tournament, with pressure at its greatest, he can relax and hit the shot knowing "I've done this before."

The whole issue of learning by doing will be the subject of later articles, but I've been using the process with salespeople and managers for decades and it works. (Years later I found the approach discussed in Goleman's Primal Leadership, a book applying the insights and practices of emotional intelligence to organizational learning. Get the book and look up "stealth learning" in the Index. The principle is simple. Identify a new technique and practice it daily in safe situations (such as with family, friends or acquaintances or in social settings) until your level of comfort and skill is secure enough to use it with customers.


Finally, realize that your customers are your best teachers, not "experts" or authors (including myself). Talk with them on a regular basis about what you could do to better serve them. If you want to work on this, read and practice the Chi - Do it Now exercises in the articles.