I thought I was a great salesman. I was a young partner in good standing in my global consulting firm, selling enough business to senior executives in large corporations to be among the top ten producers in the firm. I thought I was a sales thought leader, and I was going to teach everybody about insight selling and next generation techniques. But when I met SAM the Magnificent, an old-school strategic account manager at my firm, I discovered he was way ahead of me. Here are five things I leaned from watching him.
1. Create a chain of empathy
I did not like SAM at first. He was an older guy, known for being the top salesman of the firm year after year. A strange twist of fate had made us partners charged with developing a large global chemical company account headquartered on the East Coast of the United States. He was as emotional as I was rational. He laughed loud, wanted to know everything about everybody, and always remembered something personal about his customers. I viewed this as an old-fashioned salesman’s trick and thought it was manipulative. “How about those Bruins?” he would always ask me, knowing my interest for Boston hockey, which irritated me no end. Over time, I realized he did not work at remembering those things: he just was that way. He loved people and told stories. He had lots of them, and some of them were, shall we say, mildly revisionist. One of his favorite sayings was: “the best stories are made up,” which to this day makes me cringe. “People buy things from people they like” was his other mantra. “And I’m quite lovable”, he often added.
He was astonishingly intuitive about people. He was naturally curious about them, and would instinctively focus on their hot buttons, or their “red issues”, as we called them at the time. He immediately knew what people cared about, quickly figuring out something deeply personal and emotional to them. He knew they cared about rational business stuff as well, but did not particularly focus on that because to him, this was a given. I of course thought business was the only thing that mattered. He had the empathy of your average Saint Bernard and wanted to help people solve problems or advance their careers. Perhaps because he was approaching retirement himself, he loved “legacy clients”, i.e., senior people reasonably close to the end of their career who wanted to do a transformational project as their last hurrah. He would unavoidably sell large projects to those legacy clients. Like a good Frenchman, I could see his stuff worked in practice, but wanted to know if it worked in theory.
He talked a lot about himself, which I found distasteful. I thought of sales as an altruistic pursuit where we work on the other person’s problem, not our own. He spoke unabashedly about his life, previous projects, other sales he had made, personal family habits his wife would probably not have wanted him to spread around. He could connect any issue to something he had personally been involved with. He even boasted to clients that the project he was about to sell them would propel him to the top of the sales charts in his firm, and how much he was going to enjoy the all-expenses-paid week-end in New York awarded to top producers in the firm. I was hiding red-faced under the table during those exchanges. Not until much later did I understand the method behind his madness. Clients wanted him to win because he was focused on making them win. He believed the buyer’s and the seller’s experiences were inextricably linked. It was more than a win-win, more like a sense of shared destiny.
None of this emotional stuff was intuitive to me. Watching SAM the Magnificent, I learned to think of the customer experience as a small collection of highly emotional issues that made the customer’s life either painful (and therefore needed to be removed or alleviated), or aspirational (and therefore needed to be nurtured or created). SAM was amused by my attempts at conceptualizing in the form of an “experience curve” what he did so intuitively, but later joined me in innumerable training programs, using the experience curve as a foundation to teach what he knew to younger sales people. Much to his surprise, he discovered that even highly rational people can get better at experience once they learn to conceptualize it (although intuitive people will always be better at it).
2. Organize Problem-Solving Communities Who Sell for You
SAM the Magnificent used some strange tools. One of them was an oversized piece of paper he carried with him at all times. It was a full-sized flip chart page folded sixteen times over that listed in tiny hand-drawn letters the names of all the people he and his team thought were needed to make the sale on a given account. There must have been several hundred names on that list, from the CEO on down to maintenance managers in far-away plants. It took him a good two minutes to unfold the chart every time, carefully moving the beer mugs aside in the bar when we celebrated a successful sales call, or taping the giant chart to the car windshield when no bar was available. He lived and died by that chart. Next to each name was a smiley, neutral or sad face capturing the customer’s attitude toward the project we were trying to sell.
When people had a smiley next to their name, he made sure they stayed that way by having someone call on them regularly. When someone had a neutral or negative face, he started looking for people who could influence the reluctant individual. Before becoming an account manager for a large consulting firm, SAM the Magnificent had sold large turbines for US utilities and loved electrical metaphors. He viewed influence networks as electrical circuits that needed to be closed. He thought of non-cooperating customers as “resistors on the line.” He brought on new firm resources “to introduce more amps into the sales grid.” He referred to the moment where negative customers flipped positive toward our projects as “turning on like a 1000 watt bulb”. With SAM, I learned to electrify the sales process by designing high-voltage circuitry.
SAM thought of selling as problem-solving, and he believed each sales problem called for a cross-company group to work on it. “Customers will sell themselves if you organize them properly,” he loved to say. SAM the Magnificent used his giant influence chart to mobilize the people required to solve the various aspects of the selling and buying conundrum. And it worked like magic.
Over time, we learned that the mini-communities we had learned to set up for sales and project design purposes often wished to continue working together on their problems during the delivery phase of the project. This produced an intimacy of relationship that generated follow-on projects and new forms of long-term relationship between our consulting firm and our clients, eventually leading to new business models such as gain-sharing arrangements on operational consulting projects, or joint marketing of services to third parties. Our sales skyrocketed.
Today, when I find myself teaching sales groups about the possibilities offered by the new social enterprise tools available to sales people, I always think of SAM the Magnificent’s giant influence chart and how he would have loved to electrify it. Had he been born twenty years later, he would have been prodding his team to look up customer people on LinkedIn and would have encouraged the use of social selling tools to increase sales. Somewhere out there, he must be smiling.
3. Tell stories from data
SAM the Magnificent was far from an analytical type, but my relationship with him improved noticeably when he discovered I could do numbers. He himself hated numbers. All he could ever remember at any time were his team sales, his team sales quota and how much of a lead his team had over the next best sales team. But he loved being given the analytical fodder for a great sales pitch. He had a way of taking a complex issue and making everybody understand what was at stake.
He once stormed into the team room in the back office of the chemical plant trailer where we all worked and asked how we were doing in the development of the business case for the project. He needed something for a fifteen minute meeting we both had with the divisional head in a few hours. I told him we had some partial elements, including an analysis of which orders on the plant were profitable and which were not. We spent close to an hour going over the hundred pages of analysis my team and I had developed with the help of the plant controller, and showed SAM the company was taking several orders that were highly unprofitable once you allocated all the hidden costs to it.
“What’s the worst order they’ve ever taken?” he asked me. The “worst I’ve ever seen” line was a standard part of SAM’s sales approach. I showed him the ugliest order I could find, a marginal sale that that had required creating a complex production run on a high-volume machine, thereby destroying the productivity of the plant for three days because of the special material and quality control it required. “Let’s tell the story of this order”, he asked. This order became the stuff of legend. Although anecdotal, this piece of data did more to sell the project than any exhaustive analysis of financial opportunities in the plant. SAM had me develop a giant colored chart (for some reason, these charts were called “horse blankets”) and we took our horse blanket to the firm’s plants on five continents. I can still remember waiting anxiously at the Kuala Lumpur airport for our horse blanket to appear on the oversized item carrousel.
SAM did not ever develop data himself, but he knew the power of interpreted data. He had two data principles. He wanted the data to tell a story, and he wanted the data to be the client’s data as much as the consultant’s data. “Better have the data be a little wrong and the client strongly committed, than have the data be 100% accurate and the client uncommitted.” We all learned to fear the “is it your data or the client’s data?” question from SAM. Another more cynical quote from SAM: “if the client believes the data, it is data”. I learned to “co-create” data with the client.
Today, powerful analytic platforms allow the generation in real time of data that used to require large teams of consultants working in batch mode. Even with the advent of such sophisticated tools, the best sales people I work with remain in the SAM the Magnificent mold: they rarely do the analytical work themselves, but they know how to manufacture great stories from the insights supplied to them by the experts on their teams. Somehow, it is still about telling stories from data. I also learned that there are many more good data people than there are good story tellers. I still miss SAM the Magnificent.
4. Invent new ways to interact
Way back in time, long before the sales process had become global, SAM the Magnificent had pioneered the development of a new live communication medium. He hated PowerPoint so much that he had talked the company into hiring people whose sole job was to devise large hand-drawn, PowerPoint-like charts that would fit in an oversized suitcase. We would solemnly open the case for each presentation, thereby bringing a unique artistry to each meeting. This generated a Cirque du Soleil-like buzz, even in the firms with the most deeply-engrained engineering cultures. SAM would sit in the back of the group, gently prodding senior clients to react, while members of the team would expose the findings through those large drawings. We were often asked to sign our presentations. Client members would ask to borrow the charts to make the same presentation to other people in the firm. Client members wanted to jump in the ring and become artists themselves. They wanted to do the show. SAM had invented viral networking.
These hand-drawn interactive presentations were part of a larger SWAT team approach to clients’ problems called Analysis, which SAM had also been a pioneer of. Analysis was, to put it mildly, a euphemism. “The purpose of Analysis”, SAM told me when I first met him, “is to sell large global projects” (just in case I thought analysis was about analyzing). During an Analysis, SAM was the battle field general and the Analysis team was the Marines. A typical Analysis project would last six to eight weeks for complex multi-location transformation programs, and the team would literally move into the client’s location from Monday noon till Friday noon (we did go home for the week-end). The war room where the team worked and where early results were displayed became the hub of all transformational activities at each location, with the Analysis team inviting clients to come and engage in continuous fashion with the consultants. “If there isn’t at least one crisis a day”, SAM told me, “the Analysis team is not doing its job.”
Most clients had never seen anything resembling this level of engagement, and the sheer novelty of the approach became part of the franchise. Other plants in the client’s network would ask “to be analyzed”, generating new leads for SAM the Magnificent. The process was highly collaborative, but we controlled the mode of engagement. Analysis team would set up a joint team with the relevant functional people at the client, and before we knew it, the size of the sales team would double or triple through the addition of client people eager to sell their management on the project. By today’s standards, the tools of engagement we used were crude, relying mostly on 1950s group facilitation and team-building techniques. But the power of engagement was so strong that we were unstoppable. Our conversion rate ran consistently around 95% for years, with the average size of projects roughly doubling every year, producing 40% growth for our firm for a good twelve years in a row.
From SAM, I learned to think of each meeting as an opportunity to engage on the basis of some facts or data. “The question you will ask them from the chart is as important as the facts on the chart” he once told me. “Hardly any sales folks ever think of asking questions. That’s what I do.” He had a little note book where he wrote down quotes for later use. I directed him to one of Picasso’s famous quotes: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Many years later, he kept quoting Picasso to me, as if I had never heard it before.
5. Let new sources of value emerge from the engagement process
When I first met SAM, I believed in determinism and Cartesian logic. I thought I knew what problems our clients were facing, and having seen them many times before, I knew what solutions they called for. For example, inventories were nearly always too high and I knew how to organize a fire sale for obsolete inventory, reduce the number of storage locations, and teach the inventory management folks how to use the reordering algorithm we developed for them. I wanted to sell inventory reduction services as a packaged solution. SAM thought this was the worst idea he’d ever heard. He hated “solutions”.
The Magnificent approached every problem as if he’d never seen it before. He thought the very framing of the problem should come from the customer, not from us. I first thought this was a gimmick (after all, inventories were often too high indeed), but discovered over time that his seat-of-the-pants, make-stuff-up-as-you-go salesman’s demeanor was hiding a true brilliance. “If you keep selling the same thing over and over, you’ll keep doing the same thing and never find new sources of business value.” He thought of the sales function as the rudder of the corporate ship. Later on, when I became charged with the innovation function at my firm, he gave me the best advice I ever received. “You are what you sell” he told me. At first, I did not understand what he meant. A few years later, I realized he was right. What you decide your source of value to your customers ought to be is theory. What you sales people make up on the fly with their account teams and the firm’s resources is reality: the sum of the projects they sell is what defines your company’s offering, your business value and your business model. We are indeed what we sell. This is why sales forces are one of the best sources of innovation and organic growth for companies.
The world has changed much since the days when I worked with SAM the Magnificent. I have tried to track him down without success. The world of sales has changed dramatically with the globalization of strategic account management, the advent of new CRM and social selling technologies and the rise of Big Data. More and more sales forces accept that account management is no longer a staged process, more like a global dance that requires live engagement with customers and the use of analytics. The five basic lessons learned from SAM outlined in this article have become the foundation for the approach now known as co-creation and we have developed frameworks and tools that companies can tap into the power of these innovative sales capabilities. Behind all the conceptual razzle-dazzle though, I know all I have been doing is channeling SAM the Magnificent.