Ron Burgundy was blending two delicious ingredients in the comic main course defining the characters Will Ferrell portrays in many of his films – arrogance and ignorance. This works very well for entertainment value in movies like Anchorman, Blades of Glory, and Talladega Nights. But arrogance and ignorance don’t play well for sellers or politicians (as Donald Trump seems to prove every time he speaks…).We can avoid falling into this trap since we’re not running for office or starring in a comedy; or at least we don’t want to inadvertently do so in front of a customer. Through preparation (research, discovery, due diligence, asking great questions) and planning (huddling your account team before the call to review your call plan – we’ll review a framework for this later in the book) you can avoid the ignorance trap.
As for the arrogance that lies at the root of many failed sales cycles, you can steer clear of this trap through self-awareness, honesty, sincerity, and deference to other subject matter experts. Sellers who take themselves too seriously can come across as arrogant, when – in fact – it’s often insecurity at the heart of the behavior. By lightening-up and acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers, you can become more effective. Customers open up more to sellers they like, respect, and trust. It’s about more than having a hearty handshake and a forced smile. Sincerity comes from a genuine place that demonstrates true curiosity about, and empathy for, your customers business, challenges, fears and aspirations.
In the late ‘80’s, I was a 1st year sales rep at Oracle in Chicago, my home town. So eager was I to distinguish myself among the many talented young players in our organization, I made the common rookie mistake of trying to take myself too seriously. I thought that my engineering / computer science degree from the University of Illinois and my masters in management from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School would arm me with the requisite skills to impress and succeed. It was perhaps apparent to everyone but me at the time. But my still-evolving and meager knowledge of the industry, our solutions, and the problems our customers were solving meant that I didn’t have the most relevant voice at the table, especially in C-level executive sales calls.
Such was the case on a visit to Wisconsin to call on a mid-sized, family-owned industrial manufacturer. My Area Vice President joined me for this sales call on the Founder/CEO and President of the company (father and son). It was my maiden voyage calling on senior executives and the first call with my AVP (who ran a $25M business in the central US with over 50 employees – a big deal at Oracle at the time). When we arrived at the customer’s headquarters and made our way to their executive offices, we exchanged greetings with the CEO, President, and a handful of their top line executives.
David, the president, was smart and confident with a soft-spoken leadership style that his team seemed to respect and follow. David was clearly the key operational exec driving their business as we learned further into the discussion.
Norm, his father and the company’s founder, appeared to be a CEO in title only. He abdicated the daily running of the business to his son and focused mostly on strategic planning, fishing and playing golf. A quick-witted, cantankerous, 72 year old, decorated WWII veteran, Norm reveled in being moderately active in the family business he had built while enjoying his golden years and seeing his son blossom as a leader. Norm has recently just gotten out of the hospital after surgery on a broken ankle and was getting around with the help of a walker – which he told us he despised as it symbolized for him the tools he’d need in his later years as a senior citizen.
We all sat in their boardroom and got down to business, starting with a review of the agenda. Having prepared, game planned and rehearsed this meeting with my team, including my AVP, I felt confident stepping in as the catalyst for the discussion. However, David politely suggested a deviation from the agenda. He recommended we briefly summarize the findings from our due diligence and present our proposal, then we’d all go out to lunch. His style was collaborative and congenial, but he evidently wasn’t interested in the reams of material on “why Oracle is the best” that I was prepared to present.
“No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” – General Dwight D. Eisenhower
His father, however, was more interested in describing – in hilarious, profanity-laced detail – how he broke his ankle at his golf club. He told the story of how he and his golf buddies were playing a drunken round of golf and he laughed so hard after his friend (opponent in that day’s match) hit a ball badly out of bounds and lost a bet, that he fell out of a moving golf cart, badly fracturing his ankle. That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the meeting.
So here I had David fast-forwarding my comprehensive meeting plan to get to the essence of our proposal while Norm was taking us down blind alleys with stories of his recent golf vacations and his youth growing up on a rural Wisconsin dairy farm.
As I thought it was necessary to take control of the meeting to steer us back on course to my original agenda, I looked for an opening during Norm’s monologue.
“OK. Now – getting back to our agenda,” I said.
“Son, how old are you?” asked Norm.
“Me? I’m 24, sir.” I stumbled.
“Shit, I got underwear with skid stains older than you, my boy!” declared Norm.
“Dad,” said David. “Let’s just hear what these guys are recommending.”
“Hell, alright,” declared Norm. “The kid really wants to close a deal. Let’s see if he’s got what it takes!”
After an awkward pause, all eyes turned back to me as if to say, “Be careful what you wish for, asshole. Now you have everyone’s rapt attention. This had better be great…” I looked to my AVP for a lifeline. But all he gave me was an allegedly reassuring nod to encourage me to proceed.
What followed for the next 5 minutes or so seems to me like an eternity. I don’t remember taking a 2nd breath during that dissertation. It felt like an out-of-body experience in which I floated in the room near the ceiling observing myself and the audience. In retrospect, I’m sure that I spoke for too long and should have pulled my AVP, Dave, and even Norm back into the discussion to make it interactive, solicit feedback and ensure relevant engagement. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a complete disaster. After reviewing the terms of our proposal and the business benefits we expected to deliver, we adjourned to lunch.
As we had more guests than one car could accommodate, Dave suggested, “I’ll take my car. You folks can ride with me. Dad, you grab a ride with your new buddy, Dan!” He actually managed to barely hide his sarcastic grin as he probably imagined the ensuing conversation between Norm and me on the way to the restaurant.
“OK, the whiz kid is my chauffer for lunch today!” Norm exclaimed. “Let me get my shit together. I’ll meet you at the door.”
When we gathered near the door to go to the parking lot and my car, I noticed Norm holding his walker with one hand and his pants belt with the other. This appeared to make it even harder for him to navigate with a boot cast. I asked if I could give him a hand. His reaction told me immediately I shouldn’t have offered.
“Damn it, Son! I’m just injured, not old. Let’s see you shoot in the 80’s, catch a record-setting bass, and drink much younger men under the table when you’re in your ‘70’s.”
Not knowing whether he really sought a response to that, I simply offered, “OK. I look forward to trying.”
“That’s the spirit, Son!” shouted Norm, leading me to feel we were starting to bond a bit. As he offered this seemingly supportive observation, he reached to slap me on the back with his right hand while his left hand remained on his walker.
“Oh, shit!” Norm yelled as he quickly returned his right hand back to his belt buckle before his pants fell down. “I lost a shit-load o’ weight in the hospital since that food sucks. Now my pants are all too big. No matter. Let’s get to lunch so I can get back to my fighting weight and stop hitching up my trousers.”
After a slow walk through the parking lot to my car, I offered to open the passenger door for Norm and fold up his walker. He would have none of that.
“What’d I tell you, Son?” Norm cried. “I can do this myself. You just focus on driving since you probably haven’t had a license for very long.”
My shoulders slumped and I shook my head while I walked back to my driver’s side door. Just as I was getting into the driver’s seat, I heard Norm yell even louder than before.
“Awww shit! Son of a bitch! You gotta get over here and help me. I’m stuck. Can’t reach…”
I couldn’t tell what exactly was wrong with Norm. But given his fierce sense of independence, it seemed that it must be bad since he was urgently asking for help. My mind was racing. “I know CPR from my summer lifeguard job. How many chest thrusts was that again…?”
After I rushed around the car to see what was Norm’s predicament, I was relieved to see I wouldn’t be administering CPR. But I was horrified that the assistance he needed from me would be even more up close and personal. Norm’s pants had fallen all the way to the ground. He couldn’t bend over to pick them up without losing his grip on his walker and, therefore, his balance, thus risking a head injury from a fall. The last thing we needed was my customer’s CEO lying on the blacktop, bleeding from the skull with head trauma and his pants around his ankles. That would have been fun to try to explain.
So I approached Norm cautiously while mumbling incoherently to him, myself, or nobody in particular. I even considered what would be less awkward and creepy as I knelt to assist him – approach from the front or the rear. Both options gave me pause. So I compromised and came in from the side while telling him, “Just remain calm and still. I’ve got this.”
The ridiculousness of my comment occurred to me even before Norm jumped all over it. “No. Really? Are you sure I should remain still? I though maybe I’d sprint a few laps around the parking lot like this with my fucking pants down over my shoes just for some exercise.”
Trying to ignore Norm’s sarcasm, I grabbed his belt firmly with one hand on each side of his body. Just as I was about to pull up his pants for him, the car driven by Dave and holding my AVP and two other customer execs pulled up right in front of us. Dave’s window slowly opened revealing his eyes wide open and his mouth agasp. Before Dave or any of the others could process what they were witnessing and ask a question, Norm provided the color commentary.
“See? I told you the kid really wants to close a deal!”
As Norm, Dave and all the others laughed their asses off, I dutifully pulled up Norm’s pants, helped him into the car, and put his walker in the back seat.
During lunch and the rest of the afternoon meeting, a question continued scrolling across my subconscious mind: “How would this experience affect me and my own self awareness?” What I decided is that this event taught me not to take myself – or anything in my professional life – too seriously. It was also too amusing and useful of a lesson not to share as a true story among the many we experience in a life in sales. *
A perceptive, experienced, capable, high-integrity business partner who can also laugh at himself is someone with whom most people want to do business.
So take your mission seriously – understanding your customers, their businesses and their needs as well, if not better, than they know themselves.
Take your responsibility seriously – being a reliable, consistent provider of wealth and prosperity for your family and your company.
But don’t take yourself too seriously.
*By the way, we closed the deal.
(This is a blog post by a great SalesHood friend and sales leader, Dan Dal Degan. @Triple_Deee)