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Sales Lessons From a Fly Fishing Master I received some of my most valuable sales seminars from my father--while wearing hip waders. His mantra: Be yourself. Even if you smell like fish.

By Mark Stevens

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When I was an adolescent, I went fly fishing with my father, a master of the sport. We were wading in a stream in upstate New York, the elegance of a wonderful autumn day enveloping us, when he advised me that we'd be seeing his most important client once we left the stream.

He said he wanted me to sit in on a business meeting to see what it was all about. Although a bit queasy at the idea, I found the prospect exciting. Looking through the peephole into the world of commerce always fascinated me. Now walking through the door would be, I was sure, an eye opener.

And then it hit me that I hadn't brought business clothes along. Had dad told me about the plans to visit his client, and did I forget to pack a change of clothes? I screwed up the courage to ask my father--not the kind to take an oversight easily--if I had indeed messed up and did we need to find a country clothing shop before we visited the client. His answer came as a great relief and a shocking surprise.

"We don't need to change what we're wearing to see them," dad said. "They trust me as an adviser. They view me as a friend. They don't care what I'm wearing."

I couldn't imagine how we could visit the CEO of a company in fishy clothes, but I had no choice but to trust my father. And sure enough, when we arrived at the client, a Patrician organization with early American antiques and grandfather clocks ticking away, I thought for sure the man in charge would be appalled by our attire.

Instead, he wrapped his arms around my dad and hugged him, shook my hand vigorously and invited us into his office as if we were royalty.

My father was a superb fly fisherman, but an even better salesman. That day was simply a metaphor for what he taught me about selling and which my own experiences have greatly reinforced:

  1. If there are two versions of you, the salesperson and the civilian, people will see you as disingenuous. There must be only one you.
  2. Relate to people exactly as you are. Imperfections are not seen as reasons not to do business with you. Just the opposite, your willingness to be transparent is seen as vindication that you are the genuine article--a trustworthy individual one can reliably do business with.
  3. Tell your clients and prospects what they don't want to hear when you believe that the painful medicine will be in their best interests. They may be upset with the messenger in the moment of truth, but you will stand out from the yes-men when the dust clears.
  4. Always carry yourself with great pride, knowing that a salesperson is a "prince of the company." Others can work the books and make the factory hum, but as IBM founder Tom Watson said, "Nothing happens unless a sale is made." And you're the one who makes that happen.
  5. Prospects are not doing you a favor by making time to see you. I always view it as their good fortune to see me. I have ideas. I bring solutions, experience and knowledge. I'm not there for favors. I'm there to help grow their business. I'm confident my company can accomplish that. I don't act or mean to be cavalier. I just know that the smart people I'm privileged to work with can deliver, and that confidence is always contagious.
  6. Sell yourself before you enter an initial meeting. Send the prospect a copy of an award, a media clip, a paper you wrote--anything that distinguishes you as a person of importance and authority. By establishing your credentials in advance, you change the entire dynamic of the meeting. You're not simply another salesperson. You are a force to be reckoned with.
  7. Remind yourself that prospects need you even more than you need them. They are the ones with the needs. You are the one with the solutions.

Fly fishing is an art and a science. You excel at it or you don't by understanding that it's a complex skill that requires confidence and mastery. Yes, a healthy sense of bravado that you can make the sale is important, but only if it's fused with the knowledge of how to do so.

Mark Stevens is the CEO of MSCO, a management and marketing firm based in New York, and the author of Your Marketing Sucks and God Is a Salesman. He's a regular media commentator on business matters including marketing, management and sales. He's also the author of the marketing blog, Unconventional Thinking.

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