I didn’t start my career wanting to be a salesperson, or to be in the business of persuasion at all. In fact, I wanted to have as little to do with selling as possible, so I got a degree in finance and went to work for a commercial bank in south Florida where I could happily crunch numbers without having to have much to do with people. At that time the banking industry was very heavily regulated, so we didn’t have to compete too hard for customers. In fact, we joked that banking was subject to the “3-6-2” rule—pay 3% on deposits, lend it out at 6%, and hit the golf course every day at 2.
In an unfortunate masterpiece of poor timing, I entered the industry just before Congress passed a whole new set of laws deregulating the financial industry, which soon forced clueless hotshots like myself to go out into the real world and try to bring in customers. I had to figure out how to sell, and quickly. I had no formal sales training and no way to differentiate my product (what’s more of a commodity than money?). But, because I like to eat and have a roof over my head, I went out and gave it a go. I’m sure I made every mistake in the book but gradually I got better at it, although with no method or systematic approach.
One day this all changed. I managed to get an appointment to see the CEO of a reasonably large local company to try to pitch him our banking services. I’m sure the only reason he gave me his time was because I worked for one of the larger banks, not because of any special skill in C-Level selling.
I walked into his imposing mahogany-lined office and introduced myself. We chatted for a short time, and then he got down to business. “So, tell me why I should bank with you.”
I’d dealt with this question many times before, but this time, I looked at him for a couple of seconds, and all that came out of my mouth was “I don’t know.”
I’m not sure which one of us was more surprised by my answer. There was an uncomfortable silence for a few moments, and then in a tone that implied he was trying to figure out whether to get angry or laugh at me he asked, “You want me to bank with you but you can’t tell me why?”
I had to think fast, because another weakness of mine is that I hate to look stupid, so I said, “Well sir, I have a lot of customers who are very satisfied with the services we can provide. We help some of them grow their businesses with loans and lines of credit, we help some with cash management services or investment advice. Until I know more about your business, I don’t know if you should bank with me. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
He said, “Interesting approach. Go ahead, ask me a few questions.”
I don’t remember exactly what I asked, but as the conversation went on his answers grew longer and soon he was telling me about how he founded the company and the pride he felt in what he had achieved. By the end of the meeting, he agreed to give us a small piece of his business, and he later became one of my largest and most important clients.
That’s the day that I learned the essence of selling. I realized for the first time that selling is not about who you are, or the products you sell, or the price you charge. These are all important, but selling is first of all about the customer. It’s about understanding them and their needs first. It’s about asking before telling. It’s about having the humility to admit what you don’t know, and the ego to find out. It’s about realizing that while your customers may see you and your competitors as all alike, they always see themselves as unique.
For many salespeople, their favorite topic is their product, or their company. How many sales presentations begin with slides that tell your corporate “story”, for example? There’s an old bit of sales wisdom that says: “Leave the product in the car.”
If you can’t talk about the product, what do you talk about? Talk about their favorite subject: themselves. People love to talk about themselves, and when you encourage this in a sales call, you accomplish three things:
From that unexpected beginning, I began to take sales and persuasion seriously as a process and as a craft. I read books, took all the training the bank started to offer, and gradually got into training others. As I learned to be a better trainer and a speaker, I saw that the approach is the basis of those crafts as well. It’s not how well you teach, but how much they learn; it’s not how well you transmit, but how much they receive.
I call this approach Outside-In Thinking. We naturally look at the world from the inside-out. We have our own thoughts, desires, needs and aspirations, and we look at the world—and at others—and try to figure out how we can get what we want through them. What is unnatural, but far more effective in the long run, is to begin by seeing the world through their eyes first, and then work backward to figure out how they can get what they want through us.
Of course, there’s nothing new about this idea. It’s embodied in the Golden Rule; Stephen Covey tells us to “Seek first to understand and then to be understood”; Fisher and Ury encapsulated the idea in their “win-win” approach to negotiating.
But I had to learn it my own way, and that’s the whole point, isn’t it?