An Early Lesson (Issue 539)

In which we are reminded to focus first on relationship and value demonstration, then on the commissionable task.

On a spring afternoon long decades ago, we sat almost knee to knee in a hotel lobby after a sales and marketing conference we’d both attended. She, leaning back, almost lounging, on a hotel lobby couch. I, sitting on the edge of an arm chair, facing her, leaning forward. She reached into her purse, fished around, and pulled out a pencil.

“Sell me this.” Her eyes barely moved.

I looked at the pencil. It was a standard yellow wood #2 pencil that, in her hand, looked as big as a shovel.

“Come on,” she purred, extending her pencil-bearing hand toward me. “Sell me this pencil. It can be anything you want.”

I stared at the pencil. I looked up briefly. She sat motionless, silent, eyes fixed, without expression. I looked down, again, at the pencil.

“This pencil,” I began, “is designed to …”

“Nick!” Her voice cracked my name like the sound of a snapping bullwhip.

I looked up. “I…. I…. don’t know what you need.”

“Very good,” she said, smiling a little. “You don’t know what I need. Excellent. Now what?”

Another long pause.

“Ask me a question,” she suggested. I nodded. Of course! A question….. What question?

“What do you do?” I croaked, after a moment.

“Ah,” she said (choosing a role for purposes of our exercise together). “I travel the world giving lectures.”

“Oooh! To where do you travel?” I played.

“All over. Europe, Asia, South America. I’m on the road about 9 months a year.”

“Wow,” I marveled, now curious. “How do you take care of your house? Do you have pets? How do you take care of your bills?”

We were off and running and, to make a long story short, after 10 minutes discussion, the pencil became a home security system and I recommended it to solve one of her most pressing worries, information about her house – was the heat working, for example – when she was traveling.

Lewis Carroll wrote in Through The Looking Glass, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Often, writers and sales managers employ this sentence to encourage planning and goal setting, both very powerful practices.

Yet there’s another way to hear it: “If we aren’t trying to sell someone a particular product or point of view, we will see many roads to get us there.”

In other words, if we engage our clients and prospects in discussion (broadly, rather than just listening for cues about a specific product we want to sell), we will hear a much richer kaleidoscope of concerns, challenges, and opportunities to which we can respond.

Asking a question like, “What are your top-of-list priorities or concerns this month?” can open that discussion.

“But, wait,” comes a voice from the back. “We’re paid to sell specific products … loans, deposit services, treasury management. whatever. When we make sales calls, we’re asking questions and listening for those needs. We don’t care whether they’re concerned about their home heating.”

Well, yes and … first, we need to engage our clients, understand their context and environment, earn their trust, and learn what are their most pressing challenges and motivators.

If we begin sales calls laser-focused on finding needs for loans or treasury management products, we could miss the point that our client’s or prospect’s biggest concern at that moment could be daytime care for an aging parent or a competitor’s new product announcement or an internal disagreement about organizational structure.

“But, we don’t have products for those challenges.”

True, and if we go into those calls armed with nothing more than a transformable pencil, listening to understand and solve problems, that pencil could become a referral to a health care provider, an article we could share, or an introduction to a consultant or another client who has experienced that same problem.

Our clients look for competence and capacity in their suppliers and service providers. They also look for connection, understanding, and trust. If we imagine that we’re starting our calls armed with nothing more than transformable pencils, we have the opportunity to build stronger personal connections, demonstrate our commitment and capacity to solve problems, develop a sense of obligation (as in, “I owe you one for that”), and earn follow on conversations to dig into treasury management or whatever products and services we’re paid to sell.

Relationship and value demonstration first, THEN the commissionable task.

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