A truth-is-stranger-than-fiction look at classic sales blunders . . .and how the pros recover from the errors of their ways.
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When did you make your most recent sales blunder? Did it happen when you were closing in on a key sale and the product you were demonstrating suddenly exploded all over you? You forgot the name of your product? You forgot the name of your customer?

We all make gaffes, and when we do, we wish we could disappear into a hole in the floor. But the best salespeople find a way to recover. They know how to turn a blown sale around, and they invariably walk away having learned a lesson that will help them close many more sales.

Skeptical? Read on for true stories of sales blunders committed by Tom Hopkins, Nido Qubein, Barbara Geraghty and other top achievers. You'll probably laugh as you read some of their stories. But the lesson is that everybody makes horrible mistakes--it's the winners who still manage to close the deal.

The Name Game

Tom Hopkins reigns as one of the nation's premier sales trainers. His book, How to Master the Art of Selling (Warner Books), has sold more than 1.2 million copies, and he's an in-demand speaker with a hectic schedule. But part of Hopkins' success is that he also knows how it feels to fall flat (in one six-month span at the beginning of his career, he earned only slightly more than $250) and recover. So when he's asked to describe a blunder, Hopkins doesn't hesitate to share.

"I was only 19 when I first entered real estate sales," he says. "I used to get so nervous when meeting new people that I often forgot their names. In one instance, I spent [the better part of] a three-day weekend with a couple, showing them properties. We were getting along great, and they were thrilled when we found just the right property for their needs. When it was time to fill out the paperwork, I turned to the husband and said, `Shall we put your name down as Bob or Robert?' His quick reply was, `Well, Tom, I think Jim makes a lot more sense.' I had been calling him Bob all weekend, and they hadn't corrected me. Did I ever have egg on my face!"

Hopkins was lucky--his recovery was due in large part to his customer's easygoing attitude. But he learned a big lesson. "At that moment, I decided I would do my best to never let that happen again," he says. "I use a simple technique of repeating [people's] names to myself four times in rapid succession as soon as I hear them. Beyond that, I find it helps to use [people's] names as they've given them as soon as possible for reinforcement, like this: `Joanne, it certainly is a pleasure to meet you.' If the last name is unusual, I ask them to spell it and make a quick note of it on the back of one of my business cards. These strategies have helped me appear more professional and, most important, avoid embarrassing situations like the one with Jim."

Try, Try Again

When Nido Qubein arrived in America in 1966 at age 17, he had less than $50 in his pocket--and even fewer English words in his vocabulary. The Lebanese immigrant learned quickly, however--both how to speak English and how to succeed in the United States. In 1972, he started a small publishing company that sold leadership materials by direct mail, and by 1975, he was giving 200 speeches annually, mainly on basic business principles. Since then, his success has only multiplied. He is the founder and CEO of Creative Services Inc., a High Point, North Carolina, consulting firm that provides training materials and services to American Airlines, RadioShack, Aetna and many other highly successful companies. Yet there have been plenty of times when Qubein goofed. Here he shares one of these experiences:

"The female CEO of a large corporation and I were sitting in the United Airlines Red Carpet Club in Chicago," Qubein recalls. "I was presenting our proposal for a major assignment to her, and I thought I did a terrific job. She was supposed to get back to me within a few days with her approval. Nothing happened. After a week, I called, and she didn't return my call. I called again. Finally, she sent me a note in which she said she had been insulted because in response to one of her questions, I had answered, `Don't worry about it. We'll take care of you.' She told me that was the way her father used to speak to her and she thought I was being condescending."

Many salespeople would have learned the lesson but shrugged off the lost sale. Not Qubein: "I called her right away and honestly explained that [condescending to her] was not my intention at all, that my intention dealt exclusively with our desire to give her our full commitment," Qubein says. "We kept talking, and we worked it out. Afterwards, we had a terrific relationship that resulted in significant profits for our firm."

The lesson learned: "We almost lost a huge contract," says Qubein. "From that day on, I learned to watch every word."

Say Cheese!

A basic principle of selling is to give customers a close-up demonstration of the product whenever possible. From automobile test drives to free 30-day spins on Internet Service Providers, the principle works. Let customers see, taste, smell and try the product, and they are much more likely to buy.

Twenty years ago, professional sales trainer and speaker Jane Sanders was working as a representative for a multinational food manufacturer. She thought it made perfect sense when, in a product demonstration for four food service executives, she opened a large can of cheese sauce to show them how rich, thick and creamy it was.

What a mistake. When Sanders got the can open, the cheese sauce "glopped out onto my feet with a big splat," she recalls. "My shoes were buried!"

End of the sales pitch? Most of us would have run for the door, but Sanders didn't quit. In fact, before she left the room, she had an order in hand--for a dry cheese mix. She recalls with a smile, "I promised them if they let me demonstrate it, I wouldn't soak my feet in it."

Just how did Sanders do it? "I knew tears or panic would only make matters worse, so I kept my sense of humor about the situation, and I think that helped a lot in closing the sale," she says.

The lessons Sanders took away from the experience include always testing and rehearsing everything. "And test it yourself," says Sanders, whose Marina Del Rey, California, company, Empowerment Enterprises, now boasts clients such as Anheuser Busch and Xerox. A second lesson she learned was to trust her sense of humor. When it's genuine and good-natured, humor always helps bring people together--even after a messy blunder.

Her final lesson, says Sanders, was "not to leave a can of cheese sauce in a car trunk for hours on a hot day."

What Am I Selling?

David Yoho, founder and president of Professional Educators Inc., a Louisville, Kentucky, marketing consulting firm, boasts a glittering client list: Investor's Business Daily, the American Red Cross, Allstate Insurance and dozens more have gone to Yoho for words of wisdom. But that expertise doesn't make him immune to blunders.

A big part of his business is helping clients craft sales presentations for their products. As one pitch neared its final draft, Yoho headed out to the field with the client's sales manager for final testing on live prospects, meaning that Yoho would actually be selling the products . . . or at least trying to.

"I was demonstrating a large boiler, and three times during the presentation, I praised this `gas-fired' boiler. The problem? My client was the area's largest oil dealer, and it was an oil-fired boiler," says Yoho.

Did he blow the sale to the prospect--and also to his client? You might think so, but in fact the prospect bought. "I had won his trust," Yoho says, "And like most people, he wasn't listening to the details. He was fixed on getting what he didn't have--what I was selling--and he knew what I meant. He probably didn't even notice the mistake."

One lesson to take from this, therefore, is even when you catch yourself making a flub, don't assume the client also did. And even if the customer notices, he or she will likely dismiss it as beside the point anyway.

But did Yoho hold onto his contract with the oil dealer? "When I got outside after making the sale, my client's sales manager was laughing so hard, he was crying," says Yoho. "So, yes, I kept the client, too."

Lost In The Translation

Christopher Hegarty has served as president of a nationwide investment firm and CEO of the International Center for Life Improvement, a foundation devoted to making advancements in health. The Novato, California, author and executive trainer readily remembers his all-time biggest sales blunder:

"I was selling the original underwriting of a new mutual fund, and I made a presentation to executives at one of France's largest banks. I met the executive vice president, and we arranged for him to act as my translator at the meeting. We agreed that I'd speak for about 30 seconds, pause, and then he'd translate.

"At the presentation, 30 bank officers were sitting around a table. As the executive vice president was translating what I said, I closely watched the people around the table. What I saw concerned me. Their facial expressions were unquestionably negative. What had I done wrong?

"I made a quick decision. I decided I wasn't doing anything wrong. I didn't know why or how, but I thought my translator was the problem. So I upped what I said to 60 seconds or longer at a clip, and I maintained eye contact with everyone at the table. I, in effect, talked directly to them, and soon I noticed that many of the people around the table were responding positively to what I was saying.

"Did I manage to correct my blunder? I did. I made a multimillion-dollar sale to the bank.

"What had gone wrong? I found out later that the executive vice president--my translator--had been only recently hired and had alienated many people. Thankfully, I was alert to nonverbal communication, and as soon as I realized I was heading toward trouble, I changed gears . . . and made the sale."

In the process, Hegarty learned a lesson we all need to remember in today's global marketplace. "I learned that before I use any intermediary or translator, I have to do my homework," he says. "I have to make sure this person will make a positive impact on my audience. Fail to do that, and you may lose a sale due to your choice of intermediary--not because your product or service isn't right."

Jumping To Conclusions

We've all heard the adage "You can't judge a book by its cover." It's a lesson worth remembering, as James Ray, a La Jolla, California, sales trainer whose clients include IBM, Boeing and AT&T, as well as numerous small firms and MLM companies, reminds us:

"In the mid-'80s, I was managing a retail phone center where we sold car phones," Ray says. "Back then, the phones were still very expensive--more than $1,000 apiece. One day, a man came into the store wearing dirty jeans and a ragged
T-shirt; he was eating a Big Mac. He walked over to the display and started handling the phones--he was getting grease everywhere.

"We all stood in the back of the store watching. My salespeople were arguing about who had to help him, because surely he wasn't buying.

"While the others were trying to convince somebody else to help this customer, my top salesperson came out from the back of the store, took in what was going on, and approached the man with the same respect he showed every prospect. Within a few minutes, he'd sold the man a top-of-the-line phone, which we installed in the man's Jaguar. He was obviously a well-qualified customer, despite our judgments about him. He just hadn't seen any reason to get cleaned up to buy a phone."

Isn't this basic sales stuff? You bet. "But when we're not careful, we'll prejudge prospects based on limited data: appearance, their answers to a few short questions, and so forth. We can go very wrong," says Ray.

How do we stop ourselves from prejudging? "When you find yourself [jumping to] a conclusion, stop and ask yourself this: Do I have enough information to draw this conclusion?" says Ray. If you don't, ask more questions--and keep asking until you've gathered all the information you need. "This is simply self-control--something every salesperson needs to succeed," he says. "When we use self-control, we know we've allowed ourselves enough time to draw an educated conclusion."

Musical Chairs

From her office in Newport Beach, California, Barbara Geraghty runs keynote speaking and sales training firm Idea Quest; she is also author of Visionary Selling (Simon & Schuster), a guidebook to winning appointments with top executives and making the sale once you get in the door. But Geraghty also knows the flip side--the way to blow a sale.

"On my first sales appointment with an executive, I walked into his office and sat in his chair. I guess I was nervous, and his desktop was totally cleaned off except for a phone. The phone was a high-tech device, and it was hard to tell which way it was pointing."

Imagine the look on Geraghty's face when she realized she'd stolen her prospect's seat. "I was very embarrassed, and I hate to be embarrassed," she says. "I felt dumb and out of control."

Even so, she went on to make the sale. How? "What saved me was that the client was so gracious," she says. "He laughed and said, `You sure know how to take control.' It broke the ice and established a relationship immediately, and he became an incredible ally and center of influence for me. He also introduced me to many other executives who became customers.

"The lesson here is that while we expect executives to be demanding--to have no tolerance for even small mistakes--that wasn't so in this case and, in fact, has rarely been so in my experience. The higher up the executive is on the corporate ladder, the more gracious he or she is about [accepting mistakes.] They know that they make mistakes, and they will accept your mistakes, too."

Back to Basics

"A few weeks ago, I made a major sales blunder," says Tim Richardson, a Jacksonville, Florida, professional speaker who specializes in motivational speeches and customized training seminars. "I had an excellent prospect, but I didn't think about the sale from the customer's perspective. What they always want to know is `What's in it for me?' I forgot that and focused on myself instead. My sales presentation to this particular client was me-centered. I totally forgot about my client's needs.

"That's what most of us forget in sales--and in life, too. The basics matter. Michael Jordan doesn't do anything different on the basketball court than many other players, but he's mastered the basics. The reason he's taken his game to a level nobody else can rival is his focus on the basics. The same is true in sales. We will always do better if we go back to the key question: `What's in it for the customer?'

"It's so simple. All we have to say is `Tell me what your needs are. What are your challenges?' When I do that, most of the time I have a much higher sales rate."

Did Richardson blow this sale with his me-centered approach? He could have, but he recovered. "A week later, I called the contact back and asked, `What are your main criteria for selecting a speaker for your next event?' " he explains. "When I found that out, I tailored what I said to that client's needs and made the sale.

"Probably all of us are me-
centered. To succeed in selling, we have to fight that. We always have to work to hear what the prospect really needs and wants. Do that, and you'll sell more." It's that basic.

Lessons Learned

This is real life, and as always in real life, not all endings are happy--some blown sales can't be recovered. Danny Cox knows that. Today the Tustin, California, author of There Are No Limits (Career Press) is a successful speaker who regularly makes keynotes addressees to Fortune 500 companies and conventions, but a few decades ago, he had just ended his U.S. Air Force career and gone into sales. Money was tight in the Cox household, and he had a shot at a big sale that would put a sizable commission in his pocket. He was primed to hit a bull's-eye with this one--but he blew it.

When he returned to his office that day, he was dragging his feet. Cox tells the story: "A tough old salesman who had taken me under his wing saw me and asked what was wrong. When I told him, he asked how much commission I'd lost. This was at a point when I really needed the money, so I said, `I don't even want to think about that.' He wouldn't let it go at that. He sat me down and made me figure out to the penny how much I'd lost. It came to about $2,000. The salesman said, `Okay, you just paid $2,000 for this class. Let's figure out where you made your mistake and how you can make sure you won't do it again.'

"I've never stopped making blunders. We all make them. But the people who succeed don't make the same mistake twice. That salesman taught me the most important lesson you can learn in sales. When you blow a sale, figure out why--and never do it again."

So here's your next step: Sit down and analyze the last two sales you blew. How did you do it? What could you have done differently? As Cox learned, losing the sale means paying a painful price--so make sure you learn the lessons.

The Wrong Way

By Danielle Kennedy

Strong-arming your customers into buying from you is no way to establish good relationships--or a successful business. The following fictional example of a Web service company cold-calling a business owner shows less-than-honorable tactics, but it's not far from how some people do business today. It's called arm-twisting and Web-snatching--and it won't help you reach your sales goals.

Web service rep: "Hello, Ms. Cooper. As a business owner, do you realize you are losing thousands of dollars daily because you don't have a Web site?"

Business owner: "Who is this?"

Web service rep: "I'm Don Domain with Better Tech Services. We create the Web sites for all the top companies in your area, including your competitors. And they're gaining a large portion of what could be your market share because you're not currently advertising on the Internet."

Business owner: "Which of my competitors are you referring to?"

Web service rep: "I'm not at liberty to give out that information over the phone. But if I could come out to your office and talk to you about setting up a Web site for your company, I could discuss your competition in more detail."

Business owner: "I'm not interested in discussing my competition or having you create us a Web site."

Web service rep: "But you are interested in learning how to regain your market share?"

Business owner: "We're not losing any of our market share."

Web service rep: "I wouldn't be so sure of that. We have sources that keep track of what you and your competitors are doing."

Business owner: "But that's confidential information. Who's giving you such information?"

Web service rep: "I'm not at liberty to discuss that over the phone. Look, I care about your business. If you won't let me come out to your office to discuss how we can make you more money by being on the Internet, I'll be forced to register your company's name on the Internet."

Business owner: "Excuse me?"

Web service rep: "It's important it's registered so no one else will steal it. Someday you're going to realize how stupid it was of you to delay creating a Web site. By then, someone else will have registered your company name and you won't be able to create your Web site until you get your company name transferred back to you. If I do it for you now, then you can just call us when you're ready and we'll create your Web site."

Business owner: "I'm not interested in having you create us a Web site, and please do not register our name on the Web."

Web service rep: "I don't need your permission to do it. Believe me, someday you're going to thank me for registering you. I'll send you some information about our company, too. Goodbye."

The Right Way

By Danielle Kennedy

In the following sales situation, there is no mediator or past customer. The business owner has determined what market she wishes to approach and has purchased the appropriate list. Her sales script is to the point and truthful. There is no need to prolong sales calls by reciting long scripts when you can succinctly communicate a strong sense of purpose.

Business owner: "Hello, my name is Dedi Smith, and I own XYZ Technology, creators of some of the most results-oriented Web sites on the planet. Are you planning to build a Web site soon?"

Prospect: "We still do business the old-fashioned way around here. We go and see the customer in person."

Business owner: "I believe in the old-fashioned personal touch, too. But before you can get your foot in the door, you need to let customers know you're out there. Nowadays more and more cutting-edge companies are buying off the Internet. An impressive Web site is your best source of advertising in today's market."

Prospect: "It's a bit over my head. I'm not a high-tech person."

Business owner: "Does your company own and operate a computer?"

Prospect: "Well, sure. We aren't that far in the Dark Ages."

Business owner: "Are you sitting near your computer right now?"

Prospect: "Yeah."

Business owner: "If you're game, I'll direct you over the phone to some of the Web sites we've created. It will only take a few minutes."

Prospect: "To be honest, I could use a little schooling on how to find stuff on the Internet."

Business owner: "Everybody feels unsure of themselves at first. Once I walk you through the process, you won't want to do business any other way."

Without making the prospect feel stupid, this salesperson was able to showcase XYZ's work to the customer, who desired education on how to access Web sites on the Internet. The best way to prospect in any field is to use your knowledge to better educate those you serve. Create a sales script based on that knowledge, and you'll succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

Contact Sources

Advanced Resources Management, (415) 892-2858, leaders@cutting-edge.com

Danny Cox, c/o Acceleration Unlimited, 17381 Bonner Dr., Tustin, CA 92780, (714) 838-3030

Creative Services Inc., P.O. Box 6008, High Point, NC 27262, (336) 889-3010

Empowerment Enterprises, (310) 306-4546, janespeaks@aol.com

Idea Quest, (800) 590-4332, http://www.visionaryselling.com

James Ray International, (619) 459-6909, http://www.jamesray.com

Professional Educators Inc., (800) 220-0440, http://www.davidyoho.com

Tim Richardson, c/o Total Development Resources, (904) 249-0919, http://www.timrichardson.com

Tom Hopkins International, (800) 528-0446, http://www.tomhopkins.com

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