Superstitious Behaviors (Issue 704)

In which we are prompted to ask ourselves, “Are we working with a replicable, predictable sales process?”

My wife owns (and has been the only owner of) an Aztec Yellow 1978 MGB (which, lest I forget to tell you, is for sale). Body recently repaired and flawlessly repainted, she (the car) complements brilliantly the bright autumn leaves surrounding our home. Garaged and sparingly driven over the last 30 years, her mileage is far lower than you’d expect (45K). All that said, she’s a bit cantankerous to start after she’s been sitting in the garage for a few weeks. Downright unpredictable and, occasionally, maddening.

We have learned over time that, prior to attempting a start, we need to boost the battery with a float charger for a couple of days. The tricky part is the fuel pump. Located beneath the trunk floor, one knows almost immediately upon turning the ignition key whether we are in for a good time or a bad time starting the car.

If the fuel pump fires up immediately and, a few seconds later, one hears the swoosh of fuel hitting the carburetor, there’s a good chance that, at some point during the day, we’ll be able to get the car started. The question is: If the fuel pump doesn’t fire up initially, or it fires up but we don’t hear the fuel swoosh, what to do then?

Well, at some point, we learned that pounding the floor trunk floor with a half-pound rubber mallet can sometimes influence the fuel pump to start.

Then, even with the fuel pump started, the question is: What then? Do we turn on the ignition, depress the accelerator once to set the choke, and then engage the starter motor, leaving the accelerator alone? Do we do that for several start attempts, but then pump the accelerator? If the car doesn’t start within a minute or so of trying, do we leave it alone for a while? If so, for how long?

Over time, we’ve developed a set of behaviors that sometimes more often than not produce a started engine.

These are what psychologists call “superstitious behaviors,” behaviors that have worked once or twice, or maybe a few times, so we try them again and again, over time coming to believe that they are the truth – “THIS.. is the way you start the car.” Or, to make it sound more respectable, we say, “There’s an art to starting the car,” or “It’s a matter of experience.”

Similarly, most of us sellers have developed superstitious behaviors that “work for us” but are really not explainable by us or replicable by others.

These are the equivalent of me saying, “If I turn the key and the fuel pump doesn’t start, if I whack the trunk floor about ten times with the rubber mallet, often the fuel pump starts.”

I’d  say that because, a few times, the fuel pump started and because, truthfully, I have no other alternatives. I’m not a mechanic and when the only tool one has is a hammer…

This, in contrast to documented, fact-based, predictable sales routines – what we know that is reliable and replicable in identifying prospects, engaging prospects, starting conversations, and determining whether or not there are opportunities for us there.

When do we meet them? Where do we meet them? How do we position ourselves? What questions do we ask first to identify actionable opportunities? On what business challenges do we focus in preliminary conversations. When do we do a demo? All elements of a defined sales process.

So the MGB is a lovely car and, for someone with patience, mechanical skills, or sufficient money to engage an MGB witch doctor, it will be a great car for another 40 years. Sales managers often demonstrate less patience.

P.S. You might ask, “Have you taken the car to a competent MGB mechanic? Couldn’t s/he fix the problem?” The answer to the first question is “yes, multiple times.” The answer to the second question boils down to, “no, try using a larger hammer.”

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