In their book Success Secrets of Sales Superstars, sales experts Barry Farber and Robert L. Shook interview 34 industry leaders to discovers the sales moves that took them to the top. In this edited excerpt, the authors offer a first-person account of sales smarts from Philip R. Styrlund, CEO of The Summit Group, a consulting and sales training firm, which proves that when salespeople and customers are on the same team, finding solutions to a mutual problem can be easy.
Back in 1985, I was working for U.S. West, one of the Baby Bells spun off after the AT&T breakup. The company had a handful of strategic accounts in the Twin Cities that included Control Data, Honeywell, General Mills, Northwest Airlines, Medtronic, and 3M.
Ron James, the local CEO for U.S. West in Minnesota, asked me to come to his office for a conference. "Phil, we're having some major problems with Control Data and are on the verge of losing the account," James said. "It's one of our biggest customers, and we want to retain their business."
I had a technical role at the time and didn't understand why he was telling this to me, so I just listened. Then James dropped a bombshell. "I'm putting you in charge of the account, Phil. You'll be our strategic account manager handling Control Data."
"I'll do what?" I asked in surprise. "Ron, that's a senior sales position, and I've never been in sales before."
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I know you'll do just fine."
James explained that my job would be to salvage our business with Control Data, a relationship that had deteriorated over the years. He stressed that in terms of revenue, Control Data was probably one of our top three accounts, so a lot was riding on keeping the company as a customer. He said he had full confidence that I could save the account. While James might have had confidence in me, I certainly did not! How could I? I'd never sold anything in my life. I was in my late 20s and had no clue what I should do.
At the time, we had a Control Data office located in the U.S. West offices, so the first thing I did was to move my office to its premises. Not only did I put my office inside Control Data, I also made sure it was on the same floor, just a few doors down from the customer, its Telecommunications Group and IT organization. I spent my first two days there just listening to all the problems, issues, and challenges we had with this account. It seemed overwhelming, and I kept thinking, "What did I get myself into?"
On the third day, I went to a local office supply store and bought the biggest whiteboard in stock. I put it up on my office wall and invited the two key players on the customer's side to come in. These gentlemen were Bill Miller, director of IT and Telecommunications, and Harry Hurley, manager of Telecommunications. They were the key decision makers. They were the customer. Period.
I asked them to tell me everything they considered to be problems. I listened intently, and then I said, "I'm brand-new. I've never been in sales. Guys, tell me what to do. How should we go about mending this relationship? What needs to happen?"
At first, they didn't know what to make of me. "The more you can share with me," I stressed, "the more I can help you. I can't fix things I don't know about."
They talked, and I listened. After they were finished, I said, "I've got this big whiteboard here, so let's make it simple. Take this pen, draw out what needs to happen, and list the things that we need to get done. As each gets taken care of, we'll wipe it off, and when that whiteboard is clean, our relationship will be clean."
They consented, and for the next few hours, we filled the whiteboard with everything we needed to do to mend the relationship and help them serve their internal customers. When we were finished, we agreed that the three of us would meet at least once a week, and during these meetings, we would sit in front of that whiteboard and wipe off items that had been resolved, if we all agreed they were complete.
We wrote action items and issues on the whiteboard, and it became my to-do list. Each time we met, we'd check off a couple of things that were no longer problems. The entire tenor of the previous relationship had changed. It was no longer an adversarial relationship that pitted us against them. Now it was us vs. the challenges. We worked together in a true partnership. Finally at the end of two months, we checked off the final item. The whiteboard was clean, and the relationship had been cleaned up. The three of us celebrated and went out to have a beer. I've been good friends with Bill and Harry ever since.
As a consultant now, my advice to my clients is: "Outsource your customer. Let the customer solve problems for you." It's so much easier. I truly believe that a salesperson's job is to create a vehicle that lets the customer solve his own problems. That's really the bottom line. Let them self-solve.
Robert and Barry's Comments:
Some of the most effective selling doesn't seem like selling at all. That is, not in the traditional sense, in which you try to convince a customer to buy your product or service and the more resistance you get, the harder you sell. In this story, Styrlund wisely avoided the stereotypical "us vs. them" relationship, one that puts the salesperson and the customer at opposite sides of the spectrum. Instead, he advocates a teamwork philosophy that encourages both parties to work together to solve a mutual problem. We believe that when a customer becomes involved in finding a solution to his problem, he takes ownership, which is the foundation of a solid salesperson-customer relationship.