How time flies. I remember back in the mid 1970's when professional selling was easy and a whole lot of fun. We were Lone Wolfs back then. We controlled everything, we were professionals, we owned a patch of dirt. All we had to do to maintain ownership was to produce sales. We had our tools, a company car, trunk files, brochures, samples and a calendar/card file. As time passed some of us even got car phones. Sure, we did call reports and had sales meetings, but make no mistake, we were pros. We owned that patch of dirt and most of the customers who were on it. If we chose to leave for greener pastures, most of our customers went with us. We had respect. Everything focused on relationships and I even remember my first sales training seminar, “Needs Satisfaction Selling. " I was a rookie and having the time of my life. In fact, being a rookie was part of my strategy (although back then I didn't know I had a strategy) to develop relationships, especially with new accounts,
"Mr. Customer, I'm kind of new at this. I'm learning a lot. Can you help me understand some things about your business?"
I called myself a rookie well past my fifth anniversary as a salesman. Most purchasing agents felt sorry for me. They wanted to help. They wanted to teach. And, what better way to begin a relationship than to be the recipient of advice and counsel.
Words of Wisdom
Everyone needs a mentor to become really good in sales. Sure, I treated my customers and potential customers as mentors. It made them feel good and it helped me build that relationship that was key to success in the 70's and 80's. But, we all have one or two special individuals in our lives that make a difference in our success as sales representatives: a former boss, colleague, professor, someone who turns the light on in our head and keeps it burning.
Those of us who have been successful in sales could probably write a book on lessons learned from our mentors. But, there are generally a few comments that stick with us for a lifetime. When it comes to relationship selling, two have stuck with me over the past 30 years,
"Establish a relationship with your customer, Rick. Build his trust, gain his respect and he'll tell you how to do business with him. "
That's what relationship selling was all about. It worked. Cocktail lunches, ball games, golf, fishing trips and visits to a hunting lodge were all part of our repertoire. These were tools of the trade, relationship builders.
Getting to know your customer as a person, that's what it was all about. He became your friend. To do that, you couldn't spend most of your time talking about feature and benefits or doing little product demos. No, you asked questions, questions about them, and then you shut up and listened. Another tidbit of advice from my mentor that stuck with me through the years emphasized that very thought:
"If you spend one hour with a customer and you talk for 45 minutes making a presentation about features and benefits, your company and God knows what else, and the customer only talks for 15 minutes, you're a dead man. You'll walk out of there and your customer is going to think you're a putz, no matter how good your pitch was. But, listen to me, son, if you spend an hour with that customer, you ask a few questions and let him talk for 45 minutes about himself, the sale is 75% made. You'll walk away and the customer will think you are the greatest thing since peanut butter. You made a great sales call. How can he not think that when he spent 45 minutes telling you all about himself? I guarantee it. You alone have the control. "
Change is the Only Guarantee in Life
Things have changed in the last 20-30 years. We have gone through an evolutionary process in the world of professional sales. We cannot be Lone Wolfs anymore. We cannot control every piece of data, every contact with our customer or be in command of the total customer relationship. To succeed and grow as a professional in sales today we cannot afford to “own" the account. Buyers are more sophisticated today. Selling is more complex. It isn't good enough to just have product knowledge. We must have industry knowledge, market knowledge and, more importantly, we have to understand our customers’ customers. To excel in sales today we have to educate our customers and help them make money. We must become total solution providers.
If we are going to grow as professionals and make the transition from Lone Wolf to Lead Wolf then we must humble ourselves. We must be willing to give up total control, to share credit and develop teamwork within our selling organization. We can learn from each other.
I learned a lesson in humility a long time ago from my then 17-year-old son. I had started my own steel distributorship and grew it to $25 million in sales in ten years. I had just sold the business, had a big chunk of change in my pocket and was feeling pretty full of myself. I thought I could give my son a “Life Lesson. " So I said to him, “Rhett, your dad is a self made man. " I made this statement boldly as I expected him to question it. I wanted to tell him about the long hours, the hard work, the sacrifice and the dedication that was required to become successful at anything. But, he didn't say a word. He just stared at me with that funny looking blank stare that only teenagers have mastered. I waited and waited for what seemed like an eternity and then finally he said, “You know what Dad? That's what I like about you. You take responsibility for all your mistakes. "
From this, I reminded myself that humility is of primary importance to sales reps - it is a characteristic of leadership and salesmanship that we all need.
Becoming a Lead Wolf
Expectations set by our customers and our employers today are huge. We thought we were pros back in the good old days, and we were, according to standards of old. But, today the bar has been raised. We have huge shoes to fill. We'll never live up to expectations if we can't shed the “Lone Wolf" mindset and utilize all the assets available to us. We must replace the old control concept with the team-selling concept and become Lead Wolfs. In this role, we direct the efforts of the entire company's assets in order to meet sales objectives and the expectations that our customers have of us today as sales professionals.
The concept of pioneering a territory and then servicing the customers as a life annuity has died. Customers are no longer willing to pay for it. The “Lead Wolf" who understands the evolutionary process of today builds business-to-business relationships for other team members to service. He becomes the quarterback who calls the plays. He manages the relationship and not the transaction activity. His primary goal remains the same, first call, last look, but his methodology has changed. Instead of managing transactions, time is invested in developing both new customers and increased penetration of existing customers.
Aside from humility, another important characteristic we need as professional sales reps to make the transition from Lone Wolf to Lead Wolf is commitment. We have to be committed to our customers, our industry, our customers’ industry and to being a problem solver and profit generator for our customers. Sometimes we may have to teach our customers how to make money. Certainly, we all have to educate them on the difference between price vs. cost. We need to commit ourselves to this evolutionary change process and become Lead Wolves.
Commitment is also something I learned from one of my kids. My daughter really put it in perspective for me when she was a teenager. It was a day I was watching an especially engrossing NFL football game. The Cleveland Browns were playing the Cincinnati Bengals. It was the “Battle of Ohio". The score was tied with four minutes to play. My eyes were glued to the TV when my then 15-year-old daughter ran into the room shouting,
"Dad, Dad, I need you to loan me $100 and take me to the mall. NOW!"
I was shocked out of my trance, but my eyes never left the TV. “Go away, " I cried motioning with my hand, “I'm watching football. "
"But, Dad, " she whined, " I need to go to the mall to buy a ring. "
"You're 15 years old, " I replied in disgust. “You don't need a hundred dollar ring. I want to see the end of this game!"
"But Dad, it's called a purity ring. I want to give it to my husband on the day we get married to show him how committed I was to saving myself just for him. "
I jumped from the couch, knocked my soda off the table and hollered, “Grab my car keys, we're going to the mall. "
That made the concept of commitment very clear in my mind, and commitment is absolutely essential to evolve through the Lead Wolf process.
People Still Do Business With People
Do not think for a minute that I'm suggesting that personal relationships with your customers are no longer important; that's not the case at all. We still must commit ourselves to building relationships. Golf is still okay, going to ball games, fishing and hunting are all still okay! In fact, relationships with our customers are even more important today because we need multiple relationships within our customers’ business that are developed with multiple layers of people within our business. What's the difference today? The relationship is just the ante to play in the world of professional sales. Once we've established those relationships we must function as the Lead Wolf and manage those relationships to provide maximum value to our customers.
Perceived value drives expectations. Performance value drives satisfaction.
The higher we raise our customers perceived value by managing these relationships, the higher we raise his expectations. If we raise the bar high enough by being a total solution provider we can create competitive advantage.
Be careful not to raise his perceived value so high that our performance values cannot support those expectations. That's called shooting yourself in the foot.
The questions I pose to the professional sales representatives today are simple.
"It ‘s not the strongest of species that survive; nor is it the smartest. It's not the strongest or the smartest; It's the ones that are the most responsive to change that survive. " - Darwin
Although it's critically important, making the transition from Lone Wolf to Lead Wolf is not easy. In addition to changing your own mindset, your entire sales organization, as well as quite a few people in other areas of your company, must adapt to the new realities.
Dr. Rick Johnson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of CEO Strategist LLC. an experienced based firm specializing in leadership. CEO Strategist LLC. works in an advisory capacity with company executives in board representation, executive coaching, team coaching and education and training to make the changes necessary to create or maintain competitive advantage. You can contact them by calling 352-750-0868, or visit http://www.ceostrategist.com for more information.
Rick received an MBA from Keller Graduate School in Chicago, Illinois and a Bachelor's degree in Operations Management from Capital University, Columbus Ohio. Rick recently completed his dissertation on Strategic Leadership and received his Ph. D. He’s also a published book author with four titles to his credit: “The Toolkit for Improved Business Performance in Wholesale Distribution, ” the NWFA & NAFCD “Roadmap”, Lone Wolf-Lead Wolf—The Evolution of Sales” and a fiction novel called “Shattered Innocence. ” Rick’s next book due to be published in November is titled; Lone Wolf – Lead Wolf, The Evolution of Leadership