As a long-time sales professional, I have spent the bulk of my career selling a broad range of financial products, including bank credit products; investments; annuities; life, health, property and casualty insurance; employee benefits and retirement products. One of the most influential ideas that I received early in my life insurance sales career was that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. This motivated me to open my mind to as many sales ideas and concepts as possible, especially given that life insurance is a particularly “tough sell.” Being dedicated to my craft, I’ve probably read hundreds of sales books from the so-called “legends” in the art of selling.
Books on the art of sales and selling are not hard to find, and I encourage anyone in the sales profession to avail themselves of as many of these books as possible. But while I recommend taking advantage of all this information, I also include this caveat: Read these books with a massive grain of salt.
One size does not fit all
It’s not that the advice is necessarily bad. My primary complaint is that these books tend to overpromise, guaranteeing to work if you just commit yourself to applying their techniques religiously. They can also be formulaic, with a one-size-fits-all philosophy in a sales world that is anything but.
For instance, because I’ve read so many of these books, I can pretty quickly recognize when someone’s technique is showing. The results can be painful. For example, one common technique relates to closing the deal. It advocates asking for the business and then shutting up, because “whoever speaks first loses.” I was once in a meeting with a colleague who employed this technique in the hopes that it would result in a swift close. He made his pitch and then waited. And waited. And waited. Things were becoming quite uncomfortable, especially when the prospective buyer started to check email on his phone and then answered a phone call.
Our “seller,” committed to this technique, continued to wait without uttering a word. I think he would have remained there totally inert until the following summer if I hadn’t intervened to recommend a follow-up meeting at a more convenient time. (At which point, we actually did close the sale.)
Look, I understand the intent of the sales strategy suggested. But life — and human relationships — are far more complicated and require subtlety and nuance in the application of selling strategies.
Expand your definition of “sales books”
While I continue to read these types of books, they’re not the only source of constructive and inspiring career advice. In the “subtlety and nuance” category, I learn a lot more from reading biographies and history books that focus on how individuals behaved in challenging circumstances in order to persuade and influence those around them.
From that perspective, some of the best salespeople I have read about and look up to include Alexander Hamilton, who convinced his fellow Founding Fathers to let him establish a central bank and served as the first Secretary of the Treasury (“Alexander Hamilton,” by Ron Chernow); Lyndon Johnson, who worked exhaustively to understand what his Senate colleagues wanted so he could deliver for them in exchange for the crucial votes he needed as Senate majority leader (“Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” by Robert A. Caro); and Abraham Lincoln, who built trust and credibility by reaching out to recruit both allies and detractors in selecting his Cabinet (“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin).
I’m also a fan of the husband-and-wife artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In 1995, they convinced the members of the German Parliament (even going door to door to speak to each of them individually)1 that it would be a fantastic idea to wrap the entire Reichstag, the seat of government, in fabric. They pulled off a similar feat in 2005, when they convinced then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg into allowing them to install over 7,500 orange-colored gates throughout Central Park. Now that’s selling!
Given my background and life experience, what strikes me about all these people is that they were masters at the art of selling, influence, persuasion, handling objections and negotiations. And they all did it in ways that were unique to their situation, circumstances, personality, collaboration, communication and negotiation styles.
Reading sales books can be helpful. But be open to learning and observing how other people, not necessarily identified as being great salespeople, actually were quite amazing at it.
1 Christo and Oliver Wainwright. “Interview: How we made the Wrapped Reichstag.” The Guardian. 7 February 2017.
As always, I would love to hear from you. Email me your comments and suggestions.
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