Sales Strategy From the Inside Out: Not Your Typical Sales Pitch
Sales Strategy From the Inside Out: How Complex Selling Really Works
Not Your Typical Sales Pitch – Nancy Winslow Sales Support Manager Amstand Companies
Well, nuts. I haven’t felt this conflicted since I gave birth to the twins. It should have been my deal—my chance to look like a star. Now it’s Victor’s deal. Victor Herstad, that is, Amstand’s new vice president of business development. Once I brought him in, he grabbed it like a drowning man clutching a life preserver. And he hasn’t let go.
Still, I don’t see what I could have done any differently. It isn’t as if Victor snuck in and stole the process from me. I had to escalate it to him. There were just too many questions I couldn’t answer. Besides, what would a starring role really have gotten me besides a nice pat on the back? A big promotion? To a job with 80-hour weeks, constant travel, and worse headaches than I have now? I’d take a VP’s money, but a VP’s life—or lack of a life? No thanks. I’ll stick with having kids who recognize me.
Like I said, I’m conflicted.
I guess I should back up. This all started when I agreed to meet with Carrie Overton. She’s the new sales rep for GoTeam Unlimited, one of our suppliers. As manager of sales support for Amstand Companies, I see quite a few reps who want to sell us everything from training programs and recruitment services to customer relationship management software—CRM systems, if you know the lingo.
I was pretty frazzled when Carrie arrived for the appointment. I was fighting two sudden brush fires—the kind that always break out when I schedule anything, following the universal law that every meeting should occur at the worst possible time.
We had done a little business with GoTeam over the years. To me they were just another specialized vendor. I had met a few times with their previous rep, but I’d have needed to dig out his card to remember his name. A classic pitchman: great buddy on a golf course, no doubt, but essentially a talking sales brochure. Carrie Overton, as far as I knew, would be more of the same, a female version of good old what’s-hisname. I wanted her to introduce herself, give me a quick pitch for whatever GoTeam was pushing this quarter, and then get out of my hair.
Carrie opened with some personal questions, trying to build rapport with the client, as salespeople generally do. (I ought to know. My job is to support 200 of them out in the field.) We chatted a bit: I’ve been with Amstand for 12 years; in my current position here at corporate headquarters for the last eight; I have four kids, including twin sons; yes, they’re cute—that sort of thing.
She was pretty good at the personal-rapport bit. Maybe a little too much of a Type A personality to be great at faking intense personal interest in me, but pretty good. I mean, I don’t see Carrie and me as future Best Friends for Life, but I liked her.
‘…she moved on. But not, as I expected, to a sales pitch. Instead she began asking…’
She was smart enough to pick up on my impatience with the personal talk, and she moved on. But not, as I expected, to a sales pitch. Instead she began asking about Amstand Companies. So I gave her a quick overview. We’re a major North American distribution company, of course, originally known as Amstand Supply. We’re the leader in our industry, with a 25 percent market share. We’re successful, our stock is doing pretty well in a tough market, God is in His heaven, all’s right with the world.
I looked at my watch. “So what do you have for me today?” I asked, cuing her to deliver the pitch already.
That’s when she began to surprise me. Ordinarily, there’s nothing salespeople love more than that glorious moment when the preliminaries are out of the way and now they get to launch into their well-practiced spiel. But not Carrie Overton.
“I have no idea if we can do anything for you, Nancy,” she said. “We may be able to offer you a lot, but I don’t know enough about your situation yet to waste your time describing solutions to problems that may not exist. Can we talk a little more about Amstand and your role here?”
Carrie obviously had done some homework, and she started asking questions about the company and how we operate. Very good questions. Maybe she had been a wee bit mechanical with the personal stuff, but there was no mistaking her genuine interest in the business side. With a listener who seemed sincerely fascinated by what I do and who took careful notes, I started talking. Pretty soon I stopped worrying so much about those brush fires I had to fight. They could wait.
‘…there was no mistaking her genuine interest…a listener who seemed sincere.’
Prompted by her questions, I explained that our 25 percent market share came in part from some very smart acquisitions we have made over the past several years. But we like to think it’s also because of the way we do business.
Amstand has a strong, value-added sales force. That’s our biggest differentiator. Our CEO, Stan Hall, introduced the model when he got the top job 20 years ago, and he has stuck with it. Most of our competitors sell through catalogs—or now via the Internet—which means they have lower costs. But as Stan says, we believe that customers want access to flesh-and-blood salespeople who can help them and add real value to what we sell.
Not that I believe 100 percent of our sales reps are any more valuable than most of the ones who call on me, I thought. I kept that reflection to myself.
‘She asked me more questions…How do we stay ahead of the pack?’
Carrie recognized that this means it’s crucial for us to maintain a first-rate sales organization. She asked me more questions about how we operate and how we stay ahead of the pack. I said we’re constantly looking for ways to improve. Every company says that, of course. But in fact, I explained, Amstand’s new VP of business development, Victor Herstad, was promoted three months ago from a field-manager job with a specific mandate to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our sales process.
That’s when I got onto shaky ground. Carrie wanted to know what kinds of initiatives Victor and I were considering. (Clever of her. Not “What’s Victor thinking about?” but “What are you and Victor considering, Nancy?”) She asked some perceptive and specific questions that I frankly couldn’t answer very well. Victor himself told me that CEO Stan had ordered him to improve efficiency and effectiveness — E&E, we call it. But as to just how we might go about it, Victor hadn’t figured that out yet. Or if he had, he’d forgotten to send me the memo.
‘…she picked the right time to stop drilling down for details.’
I certainly wasn’t about to give Carrie the impression that I might be out of the loop. Under the E&E heading, Victor and I had talked briefly about several issues: best practices, getting new hires up to speed faster, filling vacant territories, reducing sales costs, providing better forecasting and better management information—a gamut of things. I told Carrie we were evaluating a number of factors and mentioned a few, keeping it deliberately abstract.
Maybe she sensed that I was getting uncomfortable. At any rate, she picked the right time to stop drilling down for details. She changed the subject and finally gave me a kind of brief pitch. But it was more a pitch for GoTeam itself than for any of its particular products or services.
Mainly she just said that GoTeam had been able to help several companies with issues surrounding E&E. One client she mentioned was featured two months earlier in a major business magazine for a dramatic turnaround in sales; I remembered the article. And she described GoTeam’s activities in a way that suggested expertise in a broader range of solutions than I had known they offered. I thought of them as a pretty narrow niche player.
Carrie said she knew I was pressed for time, and she asked me for another meeting. “As I understand it, you’re in the early stages of an important initiative at Amstand,” she said. She asked to come back next week with her boss, a GoTeam vice president named Ron Jensen, to get a better handle on our needs in order to see whether GoTeam could offer us anything truly valuable.
“Even if nothing else comes of it, I promise you’ll be glad you talked to Ron,” Carrie said. “You’ll never meet anybody who’s a better sounding board when you’re thinking through complex issues than Ron Jensen.”
‘I see a lot of salespeople who call themselves consultative, but I could count on one hand the number who behave like plausible consultants.’
Carrie hadn’t even tried to sell me a product or service, but she sure sold me Ron. And I was pretty well sold on Carrie herself. I see a lot of salespeople who like to call themselves “consultative,” but I could count on one hand the number who behave like plausible consultants—and it wouldn’t take all five fingers. Carrie was plausible.
Why not? I thought. Let’s have a look at her hotshot vice president. Maybe he’ll turn out to be the pitchman who really replaced old what’s-his-name, and I’ll find out that this tender concern for understanding our needs is baloney. But if GoTeam is for real, I’ve got a feeling they just might have some answers that could make yours truly a little old corporate hero.
So I agreed to meet with Carrie and Ron the following week.
Ron turned out to be as impressive as advertised. Now this guy is a business consultant. He really wanted to understand our needs on a deep level. Even his interest in my kids seemed genuine, maybe because he has those twin nieces. He and Carrie worked together like an experienced, professional team, in sync and respectful to each other. And they gave me more background on GoTeam, which has some surprising resources
‘Ron and Carrie worked together like an experienced, professional team.’
Mostly, though, they asked questions. “Sales efficiency and effectiveness” sounds impressive enough, but they wanted to know what E&E actually meant. That was great, but it was also a problem — because I didn’t know the answers. We touched on the areas I had mentioned earlier to Carrie—new hires, reducing sales costs, better management information, and so on—but E&E is really Victor’s responsibility, and I wasn’t sure what Victor had in mind.
I remember three terrific questions they asked—questions fundamental to anything we might try to do: How do you currently measure sales efficiency? How do you define an effective sales force? And how will you know when you have achieved the level of effectiveness you want?
Fundamental, but also above my pay grade. I finally admitted as much, more or less. Believe me, I don’t make a habit of passing salespeople up the ladder, but I told them that Victor should be part of this conversation. Ron asked if I would set up a meeting. Or, rather, all he actually asked me to do was pave the way for him to call Victor to see if he could arrange a needs-analysis meeting for the four of us — Ron, Carrie, Victor, and me.
I appreciated the fact that Ron wasn’t trying to cut me out of the loop, as a lot of salespeople would have, in his rush to get to the “final decision maker.” Then again, maybe he knew that if he ticked me off, I could fix it so he’d never get anywhere near an Amstand buyer ever again. That’s a mistake a few sales reps have made over the years. Nobody has made it more than once.
‘He knew that if he ticked me off, he’d never get anywhere near an Amstand buyer.’
At any rate, I agreed. After Ron and Carrie left, I told Victor that a GoTeam vice president would phone, and I urged him to take the call. “I think these people may have some good ideas for us on E&E,” I said.
Whatever Ron told Victor in that phone call, it worked. When the four of us sat down a week later, Victor was pumped to talk about our needs. In fact, there was a strange undercurrent of urgency to the meeting that I still don’t quite get. Amstand is doing just fine, after all. Anything we can do to improve sales E&E is important, naturally, and I realize it’s a priority for Victor. But it isn’t a life-or-death issue for the company. At least, not as far as I know.
Anyway, Carrie and Ron were as impressive with Victor in the room as they were with me. They really dug deep into what E&E meant and why it was important to us—and to Victor personally. Maybe I’m wrong about the strange undercurrent. Maybe the urgency just struck me because they spoke frankly about improving sales performance as Victor’s top priority.
At one point, I remember, Ron asked where Victor would rank improving E&E among all of Amstand’s stated objectives for the year. Victor said something like: “It ties directly into our major corporate goals for revenue and profit growth. Those are Number 1 and Number 2. So E&E is right up there.”
Then Ron asked, “To you, personally, where does E&E rank?” Number 1, Victor said.
I never thought about it from that perspective—which is kind of a “duh,” since I knew our CEO had given E&E to Victor as a major goal. But I’m not much of a political animal, and I don’t sit up nights thinking about things like, What’s the new VP’s biggest hot button?
‘Their solution will be aimed at important needs that we’ve actually got and they actually understand.’
Here’s the kicker: GoTeam still hasn’t tried to sell us a solitary thing. That will happen tomorrow, when Ron and Carrie come in to present their solution to our E&E problems. I assume it will be a package of goods and services. And I’m betting it will be not only comprehensive, but aimed at important needs that we’ve actually got and they actually understand. That would be a switch from the usual sales presentation.
If it’s a great solution, Victor will get to be the genius who found it, I won’t. He’s a good guy, and he’ll probably give me some credit. I guess I’m OK with that. If GoTeam’s deal allows us to cut back the number of vendors we use, so I can spend less time listening to a bunch of pitchmen and more time consulting with Carrie and Ron, I’d be extremely OK with that.
Conflicted? Yeah. But mainly, I can’t believe I’m actually rooting for a couple of salespeople.