I spend most of my time with extremely experienced sales executives and professionals. Largely, they have been selling for years, most have been very successful They bear the scars one gets from experience. They’ve “been there, done that.”
In many cases, though, these grizzled veterans struggle to improve performance, but they are stuck in a rut. They are both prisoners of their own experience, and somewhat jaded by their experience. They know they have to change, but fear change. As an advisor to these companies and individuals, it’s often a struggle to overcome the resistance. The resistance is understandable, but getting them to move is often a challenge.
With others, it’s worse, it’s complacency, laziness, pure cynicism. “This is the way I’ve always done things. It’s not working as well as before, but that’s life, we have to accept it.” I don’t waste too much time on these people.
Then every once in a while, I encounter a different group of people. Yesterday, I had the privilege of spending a day with an energetic sales team. For many of them, this was their very first sales job. They’d worked in other jobs before (related to the products they sold), but most had no prior sales experience. I had the opportunity to sit with them, individually, to learn how they did their jobs and was absolutely blown away.
I sat with one sales person, I noticed taped on the side of her computer display was a “sales process,” with key questions to ask in each phase. It was something she had cut from some article and taped to her display. I asked her what it was and how she used it — she didn’t know it was a sales process. She replied, “This is a fantastic tool! It helps keep me on track as I talk to prospects. I always use it to help move to the next step.” Because of her inexperience, she didn’t know it was a sales process and didn’t know that “sales people are supposed to rebel and push back on sales processes.” Or that sales processes are “too constraining.” She had just found a tool that helped her to be more effective, so she was using it. She had also passed it around to her colleagues and I noticed many had the same list taped to their screens. Clearly, she was unaware that sales people are supposed to hoard their stuff and never share their secrets with their peers.
I sat with another sales person. We looked at a brand new deals he was prospecting. I asked him to describe what he was doing on a specific deal. He said, “I don’t know much about this customer, we’ve never done business with them.” He went on to tell me how he prepared for the call–he went to the company website to understand what the company did. He tried finding the prospect in LinkedIn, unfortunately, this prospect didn’t have a LinkedIn profile, so he googled the prospect. I asked him, “Why are you doing this?” He replied, “I’m trying to find a way to connect with the customer and talk to them about what they are doing and what this individual is interested in. I’m trying to find a way to get him engaged and talking to me.”
He then pulled out a notepad. He had just a few handwritten notes on a sheet of paper. He walked through them, “Here’s what I want to accomplish in this call, here are a few questions that I have.” I asked him why he had done that. He said, “I want o make sure I stay on track with the customer. I’ve noticed, every once in a while the conversation really gets off track, so I want to make sure I accomplish what I need to accomplish on this call.”
We discussed the preparation he did, I could see in his notepad, the notes he had from other calls and how he was preparing for each one. I asked him why he did all of this. He responded, “Well, as I started making calls, I was struggling with what to talk to people about, so I started researching to find out what they want to talk about. Then I was accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish on calls so I started writing down reminders to myself.” No one had told him to do this, he had just figured it out. But of course, because of his short sales experience, he didn’t know that sales people are supposed to show up and throw up. All we are supposed to do is blindly pick up the phone, make dozens of calls and pitch our products. And we’re supposed to keep smiling and dialing until we find someone interested.
Later in the day I had a round table with the sales people. One of the hottest topics of conversation was the new CRM system that was coming. All of them couldn’t wait to get their hands on it—a few had secretly downloaded demo versions to start playing with it and learning how to use it. They were excited because the system would help stream line their workflow, it would help them keep track of things, it would reduce some of the record keeping, the PostIt notes, and administrivia of their jobs. It would free them up to sell and improve their effectiveness. Clearly, in their naiveté, they didn’t realize sales people are supposed to resist CRM. “We don’t need management looking over our shoulders,” “it takes too much time to enter all that data, it slows me down.” All they could see was how it helped them improve their ability to do their jobs.
It’s refreshing to be around “new sales people,” regardless of their age. They aren’t encumbered with years of bad habits, outdated practice. They don’t know any of the mythology about what selling is supposed to be about. They don’t know the things, sales people are “supposed” to do, so they don’t make those mistakes. They have no experience–so they aren’t limited by the bias of past experience.
For them, it’s all new, fresh, opportunity to learn and experiment. They aren’t jaded or cynical about their years of past experience–largely because haven’t had the opportunity to become jaded. All they want to do is sell and figure out what works. Clearly, there are a lot of things they need to learn. There are things they should be doing that they aren’t. There are things they can do more effectively. But they know it, they are open and eager. They are anxious to learn and do the things they need to do to be successful.
Our years of experience sometimes restricts and blinds us. We become comfortable, sometimes complacent. Unfortunately, sometimes we become cynical and jaded. It’s natural human behavior. But it’s something for which we have to be constantly attentive. We have to continually learn, we have to find ways of being fresh, open to new ideas–leveraging our experience not to hinder us but to help us thoughtfully improve and grow.
Experience is fantastic, it helps us perform at the top levels until we let it limit us. Lack of experience sometimes enables us to be creative, open, adaptive and to be fresh. We need to leverage both.