Fable Friday Part I: The New York Times crossword and other stories

The New York Times had a fun clue a few weeks ago, four letter answer:  Be a very fast learner?  The answer was “cram.”

Gregory Solo Medtronic 2010The clue got me thinking about the times I’ve had to cram for a test.  Now I make my living teaching people how to sell things, and although it’s an important skill, you wouldn’t think of it as urgent, something you have to cram for.  But over the years I’ve done a few projects where it was critical that people learned skills very quickly, and I thought you would enjoy two of them, one today and another next Friday.

Long before many of the big banks merged, there was a great commercial bank in Chicago that had about the best suite of treasury services in the country.  Their call center was enormous and fielded thousands of product-specific help calls throughout the day.  The manager of the call center was concerned that he had hundreds of subject matter experts on specific products, but no one who knew them all.  This caused routing and queuing problems and wasted time.

It’s easy to see why.  A customer might wire money and the bank would process the wire through the Fed. Later the customer would call back just to get the Fed wire number to confirm the funds had been remitted. Simple enough, but only the wire people could help. So while wire customers were queued up and waiting for help, other consultants might be idle.  It reminded me of the book “Fahrenheit 451”, where, if you wanted to read “Moby Dick” you had to go to the guy who had memorized it, since all books were banned.

Here’s what the manager wanted us to do.  Direct each of the telephone reps to track their top ten most frequent customer inquiries.  Then during slow periods, teach our company’s consultants how to answer the inquiry.  (“Go into Hogan, click on ‘Wires’, locate customer ID number…”)

We took our lists of inquiries and solution steps back to Dallas and wrote them up in direction step language, accompanied by icons (“Stop”  “Go To” etc.), then brought them back to the subject matter experts to verify they were correct.  “Walk through this inquiry following only our directions and tell us if we left anything out, or if there is an error.” We fixed or enhanced all the directions from their feedback.

Then we took them to a few tele-consultants who had no familiarity with the process and asked them to respond to the inquiry following the completed steps.  When this worked, we taught groups of people how to answer each of these questions in short, two-hour sessions in the late afternoons, using our directions as guides.  The newly trained tele-consultants then took the guides to their work stations and began accepting customer calls for the specific inquiries they had just been trained to handle.

In six months we had trained the entire call center to handle the top ten inquiries for every treasury service, which sped up customer handle time and reduced abandon rates significantly. And as the newly trained tele-consultants got more familiar with the products, inquiries and systems, they learned on their own how to answer additional questions.

It was a huge money-saver for the bank, and I always thought that manager was a genius. He knew how to get his people to cram for the biggest test of all, how to…

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Next Friday we’ll look at how those catalog companies know how to sell you a tie to go along with that shirt you bought over the phone.





Fingernails on a blackboard:  The worst question you can ask

It often happens that I sit in a training program, sales meeting or similar gathering and the leader sums up the content with this standard question, which I’m sure you’ve used many times yourself:  “Does anybody have any questions?”

Every time I hear this question I jump right out of my skin, and today we’ll talk about why it’s a poor choice and what you must do differently.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedBut first let’s look at this problem from two points of view, first from the facilitator or manager, and then from the meeting participant. Say you’re the facilitator, and there’s a reason for that word, one who makes the learning easier for the group.  What you want to have in your sessions is learner engagement, dialog, discussion and the certainty that the learners understand, or have skill in the content delivered.

Accordingly, you LOVE questions!  The more the better. When the learners ask questions, they’re telling you they don’t fully understand, lack clarity or need additional information.  All skilled facilitators know this and encourage learners to speak out.

Now suppose you’re the sales manager wrapping up a meeting with an action plan for back-on-the-job performance. Do you want your team to leave the meeting with any uncertainty or misunderstanding about what to do? Of course not.  You’d love for them to ask questions, so you can be sure the whole team is on board and clear about the mission.

So now let’s turn to the meeting participant.  Think of when this has happened to you.  You’ve heard everything, paid careful attention and have the best intentions to perform, but you have just one little uncertainty.  You might ask a question to get some help, but you’re worried about being the first dope to speak up.  You don’t want your colleagues or the leader to think less of you.  I can tell you from experience that no one in a group meeting wants to “look dumb” or be embarrassed. So you half-heartedly put your hand up, then pull it back down.  No questions.

Get the idea?  So promise right now to strike from your canned presentation this horrible closing:  “Does anybody have any questions?”  And instead substitute the more welcoming, “What questions do you have about what’s been covered?

Do you see the difference?  The ineffective question assumes “You ought to understand this and there shouldn’t be any questions.”  The better approach is “I assume there will be questions and I would like to help you with them.”

Remember that skilled, polished communicators are intentional about the way they form sentences and position what they say.  Often their professional approaches are simply small changes in the words chosen, in order to bring about the desired effect.

You want questions?  Then say, “What questions do you have?”  You want the meeting to end and everybody in a fog?  Then say, “Does anybody have any questions?” Get it?

Good.  What questions do you have about what I just covered?

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Fable Friday: Sight gags and another trainer’s tip

Inspector Clouseau, played by Peter Sellers in the classic film “The Pink Panther” is frustrated by his inability to catch “The Phantom” played by David Niven, and his female accomplice, played by Capucine, who is also Clouseau’s own wife.

We see him fuming in his office as he absent-mindedly spins a huge globe.  He says, “We must find that woman!” And with that he puts his hand out to lean against the spinning globe, which causes him to fall to the floor.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedThis type of humor is known as a sight gag.  The joke is in what you see rather than in what you hear. The Pink Panther films, Marx Brothers films, Three Stooges and others were filled with sight gags, and they present a unique and hilarious form of humor. I love them!

So here’s one you can use as a trainer which I employ when I teach negotiation or sales skills. Walk across the training room and deliberately trip or stumble. Make it realistic. Now look behind you to see what it was on the floor to make you stumble like that.

Say to the learners, “What did you see me do just then?  I tripped, then looked behind me to see what I had tripped on.  Why do you think I did that?  There is clearly nothing on the floor that could have caused me to trip.”

After some discussion of this, someone will point out that this is a very common occurrence. When people stumble, they will often look back to see what they tripped on. Perhaps you have done this yourself.

The point here is that we do this to save face. We want those who saw us trip, not to think we are clumsy or awkward. Looking back at the floor or sidewalk is our way of saying to the world, “I don’t usually stumble.  There must have been some bump or something that caused me to trip.”  It’s our way of saving face.

So what does this tell us about conducting a negotiation or a delicate sales conversation?  You cannot succeed if you cause your client to lose face.  Be careful not to use language that backs people in a corner, or makes them feel helpless, uninformed or unintelligent.  Language that includes an “or else” in it and other displays of your power position are very poor technique. Try always to help others save face.

You can create your own sight gags to make a learning point or at least keep your group relaxed, engaged and having fun in your sessions.  Use your imagination.

I saw a fun one the other day while watching my son practice piano. He was playing “The Minute Waltz” and he knew I was watching him.  At one point during the piece he played with only his right hand, and lifted his left wrist to look at his watch, as if to see if the “minute” was up yet, all with a straight face and without missing a note. Victor Borge would have been proud. I know I was.

Here’s to you, my readers, in the hope that you have a wonderful, relaxing holiday with your own family and friends. I’ll be back after the New Year.  Meanwhile…

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Pay no attention to that sales trainer!

I worked this week with a terrific group of learners at a training session in Charlotte, NC, and a topic came up for discussion that I have heard before.  I’ll share it with you here and you can add your own opinions and help all of us learn.

A commercial banker is calling on a top prospect, and since he expects to learn a great deal during the call about the company’s strategy, progress, obstacles, future plans and current financial situation, he naturally intends to take notes.  What is best to do among the following three choices?

A)      Simply take out your notepad and begin to take notes.

B)      Say to the customer, “Because the information you are about to provide me will be important and useful, I’m going to make notes on the key issues.”

C)      Ask the customer if he minds if you take notes

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedYou might think that the prospect assumes you will take notes in an important meeting like this, so that choice A is fine.  Or you might think that while choice A is fine, it is polite to let him know what you are doing. Or, you might argue that no prospect would say no anyway, so why not make a polite request.

When this came up during the session, I stated my own preference for choice B, but when others suggested their reasons for choices A or C, I didn’t argue, as they are perfectly reasonable and I think more a matter of style than anything else.

Here’s another one for you.  I participated in an on-line sales forum in which ideas and best practices are kicked around.  Someone posted that he learned from a sales trainer that when you show up at an on-site call, you should never thank the prospect for taking the time to see you, the reason being that your time is valuable too, and that you expect to add value during this call.

Now is this a good idea or a bad idea?  What’s your style? Should you change your behavior because the sales trainer tells you to?

Here’s my take on discussions like this.  When people attend my programs I would like them to consider whether or not my ideas and suggestions to improve their performance will actually fit with their own personal and professional style, and I accept that not all people come to training to be “sheep dipped” in my methodology.  Generally speaking, people take from a sales training program those ideas they believe will help them, and you cannot force them to act differently.

Where I draw the line is a situation in which the CEO or head of the line of business has stated that he or she wants certain processes done in a certain way, such as call preparation and reporting. Those are non-negotiable and part of the client’s sales process.

So the next time the sales trainer tries to tell you “this is the best way to do it” and you don’t think so, stick your hand in the air and say, “let’s talk about that.”  If the sales trainer is any good, your objection should be very welcome.  But if you hear or sense any defensiveness, you have the wrong person running the program.

By the way, what are your own thoughts on the note taking question, and on thanking your prospect for his or her time?  I’d like to hear, as it will help you to…


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Fable Friday: Coaching rookies for success

Almost 23 years ago I took a job as a consultant for a first-class sales training company, ActionSystems in Dallas, TX. I worked with some very talented people, which made my inexperience even more noticeable by contrast, and I was eager to become better at my job just to avoid the embarrassment of being an awkward rookie around these awesome people.

My immediate boss was Dawn Foster, who ran the entire consulting group, and Dawn’s routine was to sit in the back of the room when one of her consultants was running a training program, and make notes. After the session, she would hand you about six pages of notes from her yellow pad, and this became your reading on the plane going home.

Because I wasn’t any good at my work back then, reading the notes was a painful but helpful exercise. How else would I learn what to do and not do? The consultant in the office next to mine in Dallas, Fran Willis-White, once said to me, “When Dawn gives you those notes, hold on to them. They’re solid gold to you in getting better at the job. She notices everything.”

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedYou’re wondering what was painful about the notes I imagine. Part of it was that Dawn is a kind person, and didn’t like to directly criticize someone’s performance in a harsh way. So she would point out your shortcomings in a way that didn’t sting as much: “Gregory, after scribing the participants’ contributions on the flip chart, you might consider stepping off to the side so they can see the ideas you posted, and move back to the easel only when you have something else to write.”

Of course I wouldn’t have written it that way. Had I been observing and taking notes, I would have simply said, “How the hell is anybody going to see what’s on the flip chart if you stand right in front of it like a goober?”

What does this story have to do with anything? This week I’m with a client in St. Louis, and I’m watching their trainers conduct a sales management training program. And yes, now I’m the one sitting in the back observing and taking notes that I can give them for constructive feedback when they finish.

And I find myself using the same great euphemisms that Dawn did, because I too want them to develop while not hurting their feelings. “Have you considered the benefits to letting participants work in pairs to solve a problem and then contribute? It often gets you more thoughtful answers than an open group discussion would.”

One of the disadvantages that new employees have is the absence of an experienced observer, who writes down everything that happens and makes recommendations on improved performance. So when I do this I know I’m giving people these “solid gold” notes, like Dawn did. I want them to be thorough, behaviorally-specific (“this is what you said,” rather than “you asked some good questions”) and above all fair and kindly.

As a manager, do you ever have occasion to do this for one of your team members? Maybe you could have others run a sales meeting, or just observe behavior on a joint sales call, and make some great notes for feedback. Your people will tell each other, “Save those notes; they’re solid gold.”

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How to teach objection handling? Use the fishbowl to get it right.

The customer says to you, “I don’t know.  I think that price is a bit too high.”  What do you say to that?

Of all the communication skills I teach, I have the most fun with handling objections, not only because I know the responses to all the common ones, such as price, but also because the skill is a challenge to teach. It requires lots of practice for the learner to get it right.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedYou’ve heard the saying, “Practice makes perfect,” but the better approach is “Perfect practice makes perfect.”  You have to help the learner practice the skill perfectly.  Most trainers including me, use role play over and over in order to help the learner master the skill.

But the problem with role play is that unless you arrange it so you can hear the learner practice, there’s a risk that the learner will practice it imperfectly, and then not learn from the experience.  Last week I gave a group some instruction on the steps for dealing with objections, the first of which is to make a statement of empathy or understanding.  For a price objection, this statement might be something like, “I understand.  It’s reasonable to consider what a fair price might be for any purchase.”

So I went around the room and asked each learner to role play for me his initial statement, that of understanding the customer’s objection.  One learner read the statement he had scripted: “I can see how at first you might think that the price is too high…”  Uh oh!  So we stopped to discuss what understanding and empathy mean.  They do NOT mean arguing with the customer or sounding defensive, as he did.  He as much as said, “Well you’re wrong about this and I’m going to show you why.”

So after doing the role play fishbowl style, hearing each learner in sequence, we were able to coach those who needed to rethink their approach and modify their language, and the exercise went smoothly from there.

But the lesson about facilitation techniques is helpful for all trainers. Role play and other simulations are still effective training methods, but they work best when the facilitator can observe all the practice.  Unfortunately, due to budget cuts or poor design, many training programs don’t leave enough time for fishbowl practice or one-on-one coaching.  Or the classroom might have too many learners for the facilitator to observe individual performance.  I like to work with 12-15 people in a workshop, but I confess I’ve agreed with clients to allow far more.  They have a budget to manage and I try to work with them.

So if you have the time flexibility, make sure you listen to some of the learners individually, before you allow anyone to work with a partner.  You’ll nip a lot of problems that way, and send them into the pairs exercise with the best approach.

By the way, my newsletter goes out on Tuesday, and in it you’ll find the best response to the price objection, taught by none other than Seinfeld’s George Costanza.  You can sign up for it on the link on this page.  See you then.

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The final two big reasons why summaries help you sell!

The interim summary is a huge driver in a sales conversation, and so far we’ve covered three of the five most important reasons why.  Today I’ll review four and five, saving the best for last.

Here’s an experiment you can do in a workshop if you’re a trainer.  I’ve used it many times and it works.  At the beginning of your module on the power of summaries, ask each person in the class to give you any three-digit number.  Let’s say that someone says “384.”  Don’t give them any reason for this; just go around and get a number from them.  Now proceed with the module on summaries.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedWhen you get to reason number four, ask each participant to tell you the number he gave you earlier. Everyone will get it right.  Why?  Because it’s easier to remember things you say out loud.

In our sales conversation, let’s say that you have told me all the things that are going wrong in this period’s manufacturing cycle. Now I’m going to restate or paraphrase to show I’m listening. But then when it’s time for me to close for some action, I’ll remember all the key points from our conversation, the ones I’ve previously summarized.

This experiment helps your learners see that they will remember better anything they’ve said out loud.  If you’re still skeptical, here’s another experiment you can do at home. Next time you’re reading a book and it’s time to close it, instead of inserting a bookmark, look at the page number and say it out loud:  “227.”  Now close the book.  I guarantee you’ll open the book to the right page when you resume reading.

Now that you see our fourth key reason is that summaries help you remember the key subjects from your meeting, let’s examine the fifth and final reason. It’s a killer.

Interim summaries serve as trial closes, also known as “progress test questions” and they are very powerful in helping you gain early commitment during the sales conversation. Let’s look at an example.

You have just shared with me your accounts receivable collection process and I can see many weaknesses in the way mail is received, desk float and other inefficiencies.  So I summarize this for you with,

“It sounds to me that with the uncertainty of mail, infrequent trips to the bank and desk float, you’re losing anywhere from 6 to 8 days in the collection process.  I imagine if you could subtract that same week’s loss from your disbursement process, you’d pick up some added trade discounts wouldn’t you?”

Now you hope that your prospect says something like, “Yes, it probably would.”

Bang!  You did it.  Now when it’s time to wrap up your meeting and agree on next logical steps, you say,

“Bill, we agreed earlier that the revenue collection process has some inefficiencies that are costing you money. Let me make a recommendation to you on how we can fix that…”

It’s difficult for your customer to disagree with something he’s already said, so you have a much better opportunity to advance your sale.

In this and my preceding two posts we’ve examined some powerful reasons why listening and summarizing will make you not only a more effective salesperson, but also someone who other people enjoy speaking with.  Give it a try, and remember to…

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What’s the second-most powerful communication skill?

Get a group of competent salespeople together and ask them to share their most powerful communication skill.  What makes a good salesperson great?

Odds are they’ll all say the same thing, that they ask great questions. Consider what a carefully-framed question does in the interview:

  • It gets the prospect talking, and when the prospect is talking, he’s buying. You are silent.
  • It helps the prospect through his own self-discovery process. He learns what he needs by articulating it himself.
  • It provides information on needs, of course.
  • It tells the prospect that you are respectful and interested in him and his goals.  I like it when you ask me about me!

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedAnd there are dozens of great questions you can ask. I’ve written about many of them on this site for two years now.  Here are just a few useful ones that ought to be in your own memory bank of killer questions:

  • What are you trying to achieve?  What’s most important to do?
  • What obstacles or challenges are you facing right now?  (Never ask “What’s keeping you up at night?” or “Where are you feeling the pain?”  These are trite and poorly worded. Your prospect has heard them from other salespeople and will think you’re a cookie-cutter.)
  • Why did you accept this meeting with me today?
  • What happens if you do nothing at all?
  • What process did you go through to select your present provider?
  • What question should I have asked you today that I didn’t?

Pick up any book on effective selling techniques and you’ll find lots more examples.  And while the great questions should easily come to mind when called for, you should plan every call with a few questions that attend to affective, or attitudinal issues (what the prospect feels, likes, worries about or fears), that are specific to each prospect.

So if we agree that effective probing is the most powerful skill, then what is the second-most powerful?  What should you be doing that you are probably not doing so well now?

My own observation after observing many sales interviews, is that the interim summary is too often overlooked or under-used.

The interim summary differs from the wrap-up or global summary, so let’s look at an example. At the end of a call you make a general summary of all you learned before you advance the sale. It might be,

“Thank you for the time and information you provided today. Let me summarize all we’ve discussed and some logical next steps.  First, you shared concerns that turnaround time delays are affecting your cash flow, and that the information you need to make useful decisions is not always robust.  You also mentioned that…”

But the interim summary differs greatly.  It is a quick, short paraphrase of a key point during the conversation, such as,

“So it sounds as if that process has caused you some frustration, hasn’t it?”  Or, “It seems to me that you’re relying on the older equipment, despite maintenance costs?”

I can think of at least FIVE benefits to incorporating interim summaries into your sales conversations, but I’m out of room for today’s post. So here’s a challenge for you.  Jot down the five benefits you think you gain from using the interim summary, or have your team do it next week in your meeting.  Or simply comment with any of them here on the blog.

Next week I’ll give you all the answers, and more.  Meanwhile,

Think Like Your Customer

8 Presentation Tips to speak like Coleridge wrote!

If you got my newsletter earlier this week, you know I promised today to give you some presentation tips and techniques to help you speak the way Coleridge wrote. You have so many opportunities to get it right, that with some concentration you can make every presentation compelling and helpful, and enhance your reputation in your company and your field.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedHow many times have you heard, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”  This is pretty much true, but the devil is in the details, so here are eight tips to make you a star.

1)      You know that almost all plane crashes happen at takeoff and landing and it’s the same with making a presentation. Don’t tap the mike, ask “is this thing on?” or “can everyone hear me back there?” Make the assumption that whoever set up the sound has taken care of all this for you. Walk up to the mike and begin speaking.  If it’s not working you’ll know it immediately and you can pause while the sound guy turns on the volume.

2)      If you’re wearing a lavalier or lapel mike, then agree with the sound guy what your cue will be.  Usually there is a brief pause just before you speak. Look at him and nod. He will know to light up your mike.)

3)      If you’re sick that day, had a horrible trip in from the airport, or are otherwise distracted, don’t say anything about it.  Your audience doesn’t care and it’s a silly diversion.  How many times have you heard a speaker begin with, “If my voice sounds a bit scratchy it’s because I’m just getting over a cold.”  Who cares?

4)      If you’re using Power Point, do NOT read any slide to the audience.  Your slides should have quick, short phrases or concepts that complement your presentation.  The audience is there to hear you speak. When you put up a lot of text, they’ll read it, and won’t listen to you. So keep your slides snappy and short.

5)      Never tell an audience member who asks a question that you’ll get to it later. Be thrilled you got a question. Answer it right away and show you want to engage your audience. You were given a gift with a question, so thank the donor!  And while I’m on that, always repeat the question for the rest of the audience, before you answer it.  It’s a courtesy and promotes understanding for all.

6)      If you are ever asked to kick off a training program, perhaps as the executive in charge of those being trained, your presentation should always contain these two elements, and nothing more:

A             How the content of the training ties to the strategy of the company or the group.

B             What you expect the group to do differently as a result of the training.

All too often I’ve been the victim of poor training kickoff speeches, in which the exec uses the time to talk about how the training will be fun, asks the group to pay attention, and other housekeeping issues that do not befit the role.

7)      Never begin by telling your audience you are going to be brief.  It’s irrelevant, and it suggests you won’t be brief at all.  Most people take twice as long as they think they are going to need. Why set yourself up to disappoint if your promised ten minutes turns into twenty?

8)      Use notes. Professionals speak from notes, so why shouldn’t you? When you speak from prepared notes, your audience believes you have planned seriously for this talk, which is desirable. There are few extemporaneous speakers who present in an orderly manner. I’m not one; I use notes.

Remember that in a way your audience are like customers as you are trying to sell them on your ideas, so

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Fable Friday: The safe-cracker has a great management training tip for you!

If you patiently followed the story of the bank safe-cracker in my last two posts, I’ll tie it together with a useful management training workshop tip for you today.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedRemember that my story ended in glorious fame, achieving a reputation as one who could open any safe or vault.  But if you were my manager, it would have been dangerous for you to assume that I was competent. Aren’t we often fooled by the impressions people make?

Next time you train sales managers, pose this question to them: “You are told on Friday night that on Monday morning you have to cut your sales staff by one person. Someone has to go. You have the weekend to think it over. What criteria will you use to determine who you will keep?”

I let them work in small groups to make a list of criteria, and as each group reports back, I scribe the criteria on a flip chart, which looks like this at the end of the exercise:

“Sales Results

Team Player

Liked by customers



Hard worker

Charismatic personality”

And so on.  You get the idea.  Perhaps your list would look the same.

Now I make a new flip chart and I make three column headings on it, as follows:

“Impressions                     Skills                      Results”

And I tell the group, “Each of the criteria you listed falls into one of these three categories.  Help me put each one where it belongs.”  So we do this and you can see that “Sales Results” goes in the “Results” column, and all the others go into the “Impressions” column.  They rarely have any criteria in the “Skills” column, which you now tell them is called “The Missing Middle.”

Now make this point with the group:  “If as a sales manager, you are not in the field making calls and coaching your team, then you have no idea how skilled they are, and no opportunity to help them develop or succeed even more.  If all you look at is results and your impressions of your team, then you are not doing a thorough job as a sales manager, and in response to the hypothetical question I asked you, you might make a dreadful mistake.”

This exercise works every single time, and helps you get the group into a rich discussion of the best practice behaviors for a sales manager, which includes skill development at sales meetings, direct observation of sales performance, and specific, one-on-one coaching, which are currently the weak spots in many sales organizations.

Now when you introduce the modules for these activities, you’ll have the group’s buy-in, and your training will be well-received. Help your participants develop skilled salespeople, rather than a bunch of safe-crackers.

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