I got the idea for this post while reading Dave Brock’s post about the importance of letting salespeople think, and the latest HBR offering from Matt Dixon and co., “Dismantling the Sales Machine”. Both articles were addressed to sales management, case urging them to allow salespeople to use their own judgment.
While I agree with both of them, it’s important to stress that the individual salesperson also has a personal obligation to make sure that they are properly using their most important selling tool.
It reminded me of a story that Richard Feynman, one of the brightest and most interesting scientific figures of the 20th century, told in his memoirs, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).
When Feynman was a kid, he was one of those bright nerds that liked to figure out how things worked, and he taught himself how to take apart and fix radios, which in the 1930s were cumbersome boxes full of vacuum tubes and electrical components. He quickly developed a reputation for his skill, and friends of his parents would pay him to come over and repair their radios. Most of the fixes were pretty easy, but one day a man showed him a radio that would make an ear-splitting noise when it was first turned on, but then gradually begin working normally.
Feynman listened carefully, but rather than opening the back of the radio, he then began to pace around the room. After a couple of minutes, the man impatiently asked what he was doing. “I’m thinking,” Feynman replied. What he was doing was trying to imagine what could cause the problem. He finally figured out that the tubes were getting power and heating up in the wrong order, so he opened the radio, rearranged them, and it worked perfectly.
Feynman said the man became his greatest word of mouth advertiser. He went around telling people the kid was a genius, saying “He fixes radios by thinking!” He never thought it was possible.
I wonder how many customers would think it’s possible for a salesperson to solve their problems by thinking? Most of them probably haven’t seen the feat performed. They tell the salesperson about their problems, but don’t see them hesitate before immediately pitching a one-size-fits-all solution. They encounter sales reps who have read their annual reports, but haven’t turned the knowledge gained into practical insights. They endure presentations that have been clearly cranked out by someone else.
If customers do encounter a salesperson who manifestly thinks before offering a solution, do you suppose they might tell all their friends about it?
Feynman’s story exemplifies analytical thinking, but complex sales require several other forms of thinking in addition. Here are a few, with some questions to help you think about them:
Flexible thinking: Can you thoughtfully plan a sales call, and then scrap the entire plan when an unanticipated problem or opportunity comes up? Can you deviate from company policy in a pinch, and then defend your decision back at the office?
Outside-in thinking: Can you think about the situation, from the customer’s point of view? Can you demonstrate the three levels of empathy? Can you truly listen with your brain and not your ears?
Win-win thinking: Can you figure out strategically how to grow the pie during a negotiation and not just tactically scrap for every sliver? Can you understand your customer’s business deeply enough to offer innovative ways to grow their profits?
Long-term thinking: Can you patiently build and follow an account plan that increases customer profits, builds barriers to entry and solidifies trusting relationships high and wide? Will you pass up the quick strike that is not in the client’s best interest?
Self-aware thinking: Jeff Immelt says you have to be “massively self-aware”. Can you take an honest inventory of your strengths and weaknesses and devise a continuous learning and deliberate practice plan? Do you make it a habit to conduct after-action reviews?