Embrace a New Friend: Risk

Don't let your sales strategy become predictable. In today's fast-changing marketplace, not taking chances can hurt more than playing it safe

By Michelle Nichols

Recently, as I stood on top of the Park City (Utah) mountain where 2002 Winter Olympics ski jumpers began hurtling downhill, two thoughts came to mind. The first was that doctors could remove my entire brain, and I still wouldn't be crazy enough to head down that ramp, become airborne, and fly out into the wild blue yonder. At the same time, the act of contemplating the dangers set my inner salesperson to whispering this observation: "Ski jumpers aren't the only ones in the grip of terminal lunacy. Some of the things we salespeople do can make us look pretty crazy, too!"

Salespeople vary widely in their appetite for risk. The vital, three-part question we must ask ourselves is how much to risk, what type of risk, and when to roll the dice. Think of it as a new twist on that standard accounting acronym ROR "rate of return" -- except this time, ROR stands from return on risk.


  Some successful reps play it very safe and never stray from the tried and true. They may have a specific sales process -- three initial selling steps, say, three more on the second call, and a closing strategy that never varies and goes something like, "So, Mr. Customer, would you like it in blue or red?"

These folks tend to take their clients to the same restaurants, order the same food, and send over the same thank-you gifts. Predictability is the engine driving their results. Don't get me wrong: Absolutely nothing wrong is with being predictable if it puts runs on the board. If it doesn't, if your sales figures are slipping while your method and message stay the same, then you do have something to worry about. Quite a lot, in fact.

One danger of being predictable is that your competitors know just what to expect and can craft their sales strategies accordingly. As military history demonstrates, a general who has studied his opponent's plan is a heck of a lot more likely to beat him. Minus the gold braid and the howitzers, the same remains true for sales.


  It may sound like a contradiction, but playing it safe can be mighty risky. You don't want to be known as old-fashioned or out-of-date, and you certainly can't afford to have your product line seen in that light. With all that traffic pouring down the Information Superhighway, just a few keystrokes on any computer is all any customer needs to get up to speed on industry trends, market changes, and new suppliers.

If you strike clients as being unwilling to change, they'll see someone who's playing defense. It could be that you need a new sales message or a new way to communicate the one that has served you well but now appears to be losing some of its effectiveness. If so, redo, rewrite, rethink, and rejig -- and do it now, without delay.

I took a marketing risk recently when I posted a short video of a speaking engagement at my Web site. I wanted visitors to be able to see me in action, and I thought delivering it via the Web would give them something they can't appreciate solely by reading my columns.


  But what if the woman on the video didn't mesh with visitors' preconceived notions of the Savvy Selling columnist, whom they knew only from the written word. Would they be disappointed? Disenchanted? Might they take exception to my accent or speaking style?

By any appraisal, my decision to post the video had a definite element of risk -- and I took it one step further by concluding the video with a funny blooper clip, which made even my video editor nervous. The result? The positive response has been unanimous -- I have had heard nothing but praise for the video, and everyone loves the gaffe that winds up the show.

Taking a risk in sales can also pay off by making your message memorable. Long ago, to thank a client who placed a big order, I hired a women to walk into my customer's office and deliver a singing telegram while leading a live lobster on a leash. O.K., it sounds risky -- but my jaded customer roared with laughter as he reminded me of this stunt many years later, long after I had forgotten all about it.


  If change and risk scare you, beware. In this dynamic economy and marketplace, the riskiest course is declining to try something new. Customers don't want to hear, "For umpteen years, we've always done it that way. End of conversation."

If you can find a better or faster way to get your sales message through, it's time to seriously consider it. It could involve something as simple as moving your sales presentation from printed brochures to PowerPoint, or it could be a wholesale, top-to-bottom revamping of your entire approach. Obviously, the course you choose will depend on your individual circumstances, but the inevitability of change and the need to embrace it -- regardless of degree -- is a universal truth.

Another area where risks can reap big rewards is sales education. Trust me, your customers have been comparing prices and generally keeping up with how and where to buy. You owe it to them (and yourself) to keep your sales skills and methods highly polished. Read the latest book on selling, or go to a seminar or two. After all, in selling, unlike the Olympics, you don't get a silver medals for coming in second.


  Back at the Olympic ski resort, I saw a T-shirt that said, "You could ski off a cliff and die. You could ski into a tree and die. Or you could fall off the couch and die." That slogan sums it up: Everyone has a different appetite for risk. While only a few of us have the skill and intestinal fortitude to be Olympic ski jumpers, the constant changes that are part and parcel of the modern world can't simply be rejected as "not for us."

Like it or not, changes arise, and making the essential adjustments will always entail a measure of risk. So don't dwell on the inconvenience and uncertainty of change. Instead, focus on the potential rewards. With any luck, you will be more successful tomorrow. Happy selling!

Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston. She welcomes your questions and comments, and you can visit her Web site at www.verysavvyselling.biz, where her new CD, 72 Ways to Overcome the Price Objection is available. Contact her at Michelle.nichols@verysavvyselling.biz

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