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Anatomy of a Sales Strikeout

Sales mistakes are like outs in baseball: We try to limit them to singles, but sometimes we fall victim to double and even triple plays. Recently, I was on the receiving end of a triple sales blunder. Ouch! Here's a breakdown of what happened -- and the sales lessons that can keep you from making this triple faux pas.

I met a gentleman socially, and I casually asked him what he did for a living. He told me that he was in sales and that he sold composites. Then he mumbled something about pipelines, saying it was very complicated and that he couldn't explain further.

Assuming he doesn't work for the CIA and wasn't in danger of having his cover blown, he made three sales mistakes in that one exchange. First of all, he didn't sound too bright. I mean, you ought to be able to enlighten anyone -- your mother, a new Chamber of Commerce member, or a fellow soccer parent -- on what you do for a living. In this case, I was genuinely interested in what he did, since I write and speak about sales for a living.

THE PERFECT ONE-LINER. This is an example of why you need a good "elevator speech," so called because you should be able to explain what you do and how it benefits your clients in the time it takes to ride an elevator with a prospective customer. All you need is one sentence. In his case, he could have said something like, "I sell plastic composites to oil companies to help their pipelines last longer."

If you don't have an elevator speech, now is the time to develop one. If you do have one, review it to see if it should be updated or strengthened.

In my elevator speech, I say, "I work with organizations to develop creative new strategies that dramatically increase their sales." I can't take full credit for it -- I worked on it with marketing consultant Lois Creamer of St. Louis, Mo.

Notice that my elevator speech doesn't talk about how I deliver my expertise -- I don't say I'm a speaker or a writer or a consultant. Rather, I use the general word, "work," then focus on the benefit: "dramatically increase their sales." I've found that if folks are looking for someone to do a particular job in my area, they'll ask me.

TEAMWORK PAYS. Creamer recommends that once you craft your one-sentence elevator speech, you should repeat it 20 times a day for a week or two to hammer it into your brain. Write it down where you can see it throughout the day -- in your car, at your computer, or on your PDA. Even add it to your signature on e-mail and written correspondence.

Teach your one-sentence speech to all of your co-workers, from the receptionist to the chief financial officer to the shipping clerk. No company can afford to waste opportunities to let everyone know what they can do for their customers.

Think about it: Your company's employees go more places and make contact with more people than your sales team could ever hope to cover. They're like ambassadors. It's entirely possible that your newest file clerk, at her son's next Cub Scout meeting, will meet someone who needs to buy a lot of what you sell.

Remember to reward anyone who helps bring in a lead that results in a sale. That stimulates teamwork at the most meaningful level and leads to increased revenues. This sales-teamwork strategy also lowers sales costs, because it bypasses gatekeepers and establishes trust right from the start.

KEEP AN OPEN MIND. The aforementioned gentleman's second sales mistake was that he insulted me. He implied that I wasn't bright or worldly enough to understand what composites were. How did he know I didn't have a PhD in composites? He never tried to find out.

If you sell a technically complex product, start by asking folks something like, "Are you familiar with plastic composites?" -- or whatever the product is. If they say yes, ask them more about their experience, so you'll know at what technical level to respond. If they say "no," use an analogy to explain, in general, what you sell and how it benefits your customers.

The third mistake this man committed: He missed an opportunity to sell me something. Because he never asked, he had no idea what I do for a living. Maybe I own a major corporation that buys millions of dollars in composites every year. He'll never write that order -- not because his product or his company is inferior, but because his sales abilities are.

GIVE AND TAKE. After you give your elevator speech, be sure to ask immediately what they do. I hate to sound sexist, but I've found that men are particularly bad about asking this question of women, especially in nonbusiness settings. I go crazy when I think of all the sales lost every day because salespeople don't think to ask new acquaintances about their occupations.

In my brief exchange with this composite salesman, he completely struck out. Hopefully, analyzing the situation resulted in several good lessons for you. If you implement them, you will stay in the sales game longer, and your revenues will rise like the score after a grand slam. Happy selling!


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