Successful Selling: What do the best salespeople identify as their cornerstones of success? - June 2020

By Sandy Smith

Some time ago, the Gallup organization conducted a poll on motivation in the modern workplace, and the findings were surprising. According to the poll, 55% of employees have little or no passion for their work; they are labeled “the disengaged.” And 19% are so negative about their jobs that they poison the work culture, and the organization is actually better off if they call in sick instead of reporting to work. Only 26% of those polled were highly engaged and passionate about their jobs, customers and organization.

Psychologists and human development specialists tend to become obsessed with the “negative-minded” 19%. They conduct research to determine just why that group is so cynical, and they labor to create strategies and training programs to get them to change, which rarely works. After 20 years of working with organizations in seven countries, I tend to focus my time and attention not on the poor performing 19% but rather on the self-motivated 26%. It has been my passion to discover the ways they differentiate themselves in their daily lives and on their jobs.

Several years ago, one of my clients invited me to give a presentation at an international sales awards meeting. My audience would be composed of 25 sales professionals from seven countries who had far exceeded stringent sales goals. They were awarded a five-day trip with their spouses to London, England and two days at Adare Manor castle in Shannon, Ireland, where my presentation would take place on the last day.

I was excited about the opportunity, but I was faced with a dilemma. What was I going to say to a group of high-powered sales professionals who were already extremely successful? What possible insight could I share with such an experienced group that they did not already know? I felt like I would if someone asked me to lecture Tiger Woods on how to play golf.

Audiences for most of my sales presentations are trying to reach the success these people had already achieved. I debated with myself for several days in trying to come up with a challenging topic. Then, during a long morning walk in the hills of my East Tennessee home, I got a novel idea. Instead of me telling them how to become successful in sales, I would have them tell me how they had done it.

As bizarre as it sounded, the international sales manager thought it would be an interesting exercise because many salespeople simply bounce from one successful business deal to the next one without ever reflecting on how they did it. It was my contention that the “consciously competent” professional in any organization not only knows that they are successful, but they know how and why.

During my seminar, I invited this upbeat group of peak performers to do the following:
1. Write down their definition of success.

2. Reflect on the past year and write down in detail any of the specific attitudes or actions that contributed to their success.

3. Break into three groups and discuss the secrets of their success and report back to the larger group.

Admittedly, I had a degree of anxiety thinking these pros would grow bored with such a simple exercise. I could not have been more mistaken. Each group sat on the floor of the large castle room and eagerly shared personal stories of their previous year’s ups and downs. They reminded me of second graders who had just discovered the wonders of their own personal computers.

After an hour, our “peak performers” returned to the large group ready to present their road map for navigating the terrain of selling successfully in the 21st century.

My first surprise was their definition of success. I had assumed that financial gain was the primary motivation for these sales professionals, but I was wrong. They defined success like this: love what you do, be at your best daily and make a difference in the lives of your customers and colleagues. Underneath the sensitivity of this definition, I discovered the conviction that if you do these things, the money will follow.

Below is a brief glimpse of their insights for success.

Possess an attitude of positive expectation. These sales professionals approached each day, each presentation or sales call expecting a positive outcome. Upon first reflection, this may appear arrogant, but more fundamentally it reflects a basic trait: they were very self-confident.

A French sales manager said she always visualized the success in her mind before she created it in reality. She insisted she was delighted but never surprised by her success. This is not at all how many people approach their jobs and their lives: “Keep your expectations low, and you won’t get disappointed.” Imagine Tiger Woods winning the Masters and then standing there in shock thinking, I can’t believe I won. All success is created twice, first in the imagination and then in practice.

Change and chaos are challenges. Modern business is conducted in an environment of constant and often accelerating change, cutthroat competition and empowered customers demanding exceptional service, rapid delivery and exceptional quality in products and services. These realities are daunting to many salespeople, but our “peak performers” thrive and are energized by these very same forces.

One middle-aged salesman from Denver said the thing that attracted him to sales was the challenge of constant change. “No day or customer is the same,” he said. “It brings out the best in me.”

One of his counterparts from Canada said laughingly, “While my competition spends their time stressed out and yearning for the ‘good old days,’ I make sales calls and close deals.” Someone once said, “If you are through changing, you are through.” That seems to be a tenet of this successful group.

Attitude of playfulness and sense of humor. When I asked one of the peak-performing salesman from the U.S. how he was able to maintain such a positive, upbeat attitude day in and day out in such a challenging profession, he responded calmly and directly, “My brother is a pediatric neurosurgeon in New York City. He goes to work every day and sits in a room with his customers-young children with brain tumors. He reads film to anxious parents and discusses how surgery will hopefully remove the tumor, and the healing process will begin. Anytime I get frustrated or disappointed about losing a sale or missing the last flight home, I quickly remind myself this is not brain surgery-it is sales and service. And somehow that thought keeps life in perspective.”

If you take 20 kids out of their kindergarten classroom on a spring morning and show them a playground, they will run to the playground and begin to play. If you listen, you will hear them laughing. If I kneeled down and asked little Sally or Tim, “Who taught you to play and to laugh?” they would be puzzled. Those traits are part of their very nature. However, so many people have lost the spontaneity of humor. They expect the worst and often find it in the fabric of everyday life. However, these top-performing salespeople have maintained their sense of humor and have developed the mindset of “taking what they do seriously and themselves lightly.” The positive, lighthearted, can-do attitude they exhibit seems to resonate well with their customers who give them business and, ultimately, make them successful.

As I flew back to the U.S. the next day, I reflected on the unique opportunity I had to probe the cornerstones of success through the eyes of successful people, real winners. I remembered something I had forgotten: when you spend time with positive people who expect success, thrive on challenge and change, and maintain the ability to play and laugh through it all, the attitude is contagious. The experience energized me. As long as there are such people, selling will remain a valuable and profitable career path.

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