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Our ability to change is limited only by our willingness to do so and by our discomfort with not doing so.

Unconscious Competence

Have you ever taught someone how to drive? Was it someone close to you? How easy was it? It is often difficult and frustrating. The primary reason it is difficult is that as an experienced driver, you do so many things automatically when you drive that you expect the person you are teaching to do the same. Of course, when you give control of the steering, braking, and acceleration to the other person, you feel more uncomfortable.

One day I was in the car with one of my daughters, who was practicing after she got her learner's permit. As she made a U-turn too quickly for my comfort, I reacted instinctively, moving my hand up as I motioned to her to make sure she was going to stop. Of course, she knew enough to stop and felt as if I didn't trust her. What was second nature to me was a challenge for her. For new drivers, there is so much to concentrate on that it is hard for them to keep track of everything that experienced drivers take for granted.

When we perform and execute without thinking about it, we're operating on a level called unconscious competence. Most times that doesn't present a problem. When things such as technology change, we may try doing things the way we've always done them and find it doesn't work. If we want to learn, we need to drop into conscious competence, a state in which we think about what we're doing. In that state of competence, we are alert and less prone to making mistakes. Just like the new driver who is careful to come to a complete stop at a stop sign (instead of a rolling stop), we sometimes need to get back to the fine points that made us successful in the first place.

All of us have blind spots, things we are unaware of about ourselves that other people are aware of. Typically, blind spots refer to problem areas, but they may also refer to strengths.

A client asked me to work with him on project management. I've worked on many projects and thought that project management was not that hard. Then I realized I was quite competent about project management given the experience I've logged. The process now came naturally and it was easy to forget what was really involved. I had to step back into a conscious competence pattern and think about what makes a successful project.

Intellectual Depreciation

I was stopped one day at a stoplight and happened to look over at the outside of a restaurant. The paint was peeling and the building was in need of general maintenance. Buildings deteriorate. As a matter of fact, the tax codes allow businesses to deduct an expense called depreciation. It recognizes that buildings and other capital goods lose value.

It occurred to me that knowledge operates by the same principle. All knowledge has a limited "shelf life." Knowledge deteriorates. It must be maintained.

Intellectual capital describes what is in the mind of a person. The most valuable assets an organization or an individual can have are knowledge and the will to succeed. Protecting intellectual capital means continually striving to learn and update knowledge.

There is tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is what resides in our minds. Explicit knowledge is what has been written down or formalized in some way so that others have convenient access to it. Find the tacit knowledge by talking with others. Develop a process for passing along knowledge that you or your sales colleagues develop. Take advantage of what people learn to let it benefit others.

To be an exceptional sales leader, you'll want to constantly scan available sources of information for new ideas, trends, problems, and opportunities. Continually look for ways to update your knowledge and skills to be current with the latest technology. Success hinges on your ability to access information and put it to productive use. It also depends on your ability to stay ahead of your competition when it comes to taking advantage of new knowledge, technology, or customer needs. Don't get caught in the trap of thinking that you have all the answers. The smarter you are, the more questions you have and the more you know you need to learn.

La Trobe University has a French motto, Qui cherche trouve, which means, "Whoever seeks shall find." When we're confronted with evidence that there are things we could or should do differently, our natural defensive reaction is to believe that we don't need to change. Yet, if we look for ways to improve, we'll find them. The exceptional leader is open to change. Sometimes my own defensive reaction when presented with something different is to say, "I know that." Then I remember that I don't know everything. No one does.

One time I was in a taxi coming home from the airport. Many times I need to give drivers more information than just the address for them to find my home. On this trip, the driver took a route that was different from the one that most drivers take. When he got to a certain point, I suggested he turn on 162nd Street, thinking that he wasn't familiar with the area. He said he was going to turn on 158th Street. He asked me if I knew that this street had only one light, while 162nd Street had several. It was quicker, he said. As soon as he said he was turning on 158th, I thought, "I've lived here for many years and I know this area." But I realized that even though I had lived in the area for many years, there was still something I could learn about it. I didn't know every street. He traveled these streets every day, all day. More than what I learned about a particular street that day, I understood better than before that no one can know everything.

In workshops one of our objectives is to have participants learn from each other because everyone has lived unique experiences. So the next time you find yourself reactively thinking, "I don't need to know that," ask yourself if it's really true.

We have found that sales leaders are receptive to learning. You would think it would be just the opposite. You would think that it would be the new salespeople who would soak up information. But sales leaders are sales leaders because they never cease to look for ways to do things better. They have a large experience base and know what works and what doesn't. It's refreshing to work with individuals who approach learning in this way.

Learn Something New with Every Sale

No matter what happens with every sale you are involved with, take the opportunity to learn something new. Gain some new industry knowledge, ask a new question, or discover a new way of presenting the high-value benefits your services and products deliver to customers. Learn why the customer didn't buy. Improve your questioning skills, your presentation skills, or your understanding of the customer's buying style. On a larger sale, it could be how the bid was developed or how it was presented. There is always something to learn when it comes to skills.

Let's return for a moment to attitude. If you can live through a difficult situation, you can almost always learn from it. This is true even if what you had to live through was embarrassing, degrading, or life threatening, and it is true regardless of whether what happened was caused by someone else or by you. The fact that you endured is a tribute to your courage. If you can step away from what happened and find the lessons that it presents to you, that is also a tribute to your courage. It takes courage to survive. It's easier to grab on to bitterness, resentment, or fear—after all, doing this gives us someone or something else to blame. But the decision to hold on to that resentment is yours, and so is the decision to let it go. Your freedom to make that decision is one of the greatest freedoms you possess. Never let someone take it from you. Never surrender it.

Habits Are Hard to Change

Have you ever moved a piece of furniture to a different location, only to continue going to the old spot, expecting it to be there? Even though you know consciously that the furniture is in the new location, your habit of going to the old location is still operational. Habits save us time. We don't need to think about things that don't have much consequence. From that viewpoint, habits are helpful. On the other hand, unproductive habits keep us stuck. Once habits are formed, they are hard to break.

When you want to change a habit, you must first make a conscious decision to do so. Then you need to follow through on that decision. The following three suggestions come from well-known psychologist William James, who stated that following through on a decision required self-discipline and believed that three steps were essential to making the change endure once you decide to do it.

  • Act at the first opportunity.

  • Start out strong.

  • Don't let an exception occur.

Act at the first opportunity once you have made a decision to do something—that is when your motivation is the greatest it is ever going to be. The more you delay, the less likely it is that you are going to do what you planned.

In our self-devised half-life theory of motivation: A day after you have made a decision to do something, your motivation will be half of what it was when you made the decision. The next day it will be half again. So in a matter of a couple of days, if you haven't done what you decided to do, you won't do it. That's why you'll want to act at the first opportunity once you've made a decision.

Starting out strong means overcompensating. You need to aim to do more than you would like to so that if you don't quite get to the level you were working for, you will still make your goal.

Don't let an exception occur, because if you do it is easy to fall back into the old habit. If an exception does occur, it doesn't mean you should abandon your original goal. Instead, recognize the progress you have made and recommit to your goal.

" To thrive on change, you must understand how to give in to it, flow with it, and derive strength from it."

—Michael Dell, CEO, Dell Computer

When we have positive habits, we sometimes drift away from them. For example, you may have attended seminars or conferences periodically to keep up to date in your field, but may now find yourself attending fewer events like these. Many people resolutely start an exercise program or diet, only to find their determination diminishing slowly over time.

When you find your resolve flagging, recommit to your original goals. Recall the positive benefits you originally felt and the resolve you once had. It is natural to require reinforcement to maintain your motivation.

What Works at Work Won't Necessarily Work at Home

A majority of salespeople are to the point, fast paced, and results oriented. Those qualities tend to serve them well in the work environment. However, at home it may be a different story. Imagine that one spouse is trying to describe to the other some events that took place that day. The results-oriented spouse says, "Is there a point to this?" Of course, the spouse who was relating the events wasn't exactly looking for that type of response.

I find the issues that I face at work are easier to manage than the issues I face at home, even considering the complicated dynamics that take place in the typical work organization. The challenge at home would seem to arise from the intensity of feelings we have with people we live with and our expectations of them.

A big part of the challenge we face is that when we are at work we have to be "on" all the time. That takes energy. So when we get home, we want to unwind and relax. While we may be constrained in how we handle ourselves at work, we may feel we have more freedom at home to say what's on our mind or do what we really feel like doing. We expect others to understand.

Of course, the people you live with deserve to be treated as tactfully as the people you work with. The reality is that they are more important to you than your work colleagues, even though they willingly accept the sacrifices you make at work. Unfortunately, you can't behave exactly the same way at work and at home. The expectations aren't the same, and neither are the expected outcomes.

So what is the answer? If we can't simply use the same behaviors at work that make us successful there and can't just unwind and be ourselves at home, what should we do? The answer lies in understanding human behavior. To be successful, stop focusing solely on what you want and how you feel and instead factor in a response to the other person. In other words, give that person what he or she needs or wants in the way he or she prefers it. If this sounds familiar, it is. It is exactly what the most successful salespeople do for their customers.

The most successful salespeople reach out to customers and extend themselves to make sure customers get what they want in the way they want it. The salesperson who discounts what customers value, doesn't listen, or even argues with customers isn't going to get the sale or keep the relationship for long. Even if the salesperson is right, it won't matter.

So why should the situation be any different at home? Why shouldn't you treat the people who mean the most to you at least as respectfully as you treat your customers? Why not consider your family to be another group of customers, just under a different set of circumstances? Do you think that might change the dynamics in the relationship? This might involve going outside of your preferred mode of behaviors, but it will likely result in your preferred outcomes.

Why is it easier to see the mistakes that other people make and the problems that other people have than it is to see our own? The answer is not simple. Being too close to a problem emotionally, or too afraid to admit a mistake, may make it impossible to see your situation in the same way that others do. Once I was listening to some people talk about problems they were facing, and it seemed so obvious to me what they should do to resolve the problems. I thought, "Why don't they just do it?" But when I happened to describe a problem I was having, even though it was almost the same as the ones that I had heard other people describe, the answer didn't seem so obvious.

A good friend with a lot of wisdom about people, gave me an idea about how to handle these personal situations one time when I was perplexed about what I should do. He said, "If one of your clients approached you with the same problem, what would you tell them to do? Do whatever you would have told them to do."

Warren Bennis, a professor and author, told a story at a conference about how he had difficulty deciding whether to accept an offer to teach at another university. He went to a colleague and explained the situation. The colleague said, "Warren, you're the expert on decision making. Why don't you follow your own model?" Warren said he told him, "This is too important. This is about me!"

Always Go Forward

It is often tempting to return to the familiar and the comfortable. We reminisce about how good something was or how we would like to find that special time again. In business, we sometimes would like things to be the way they were in earlier times, when they were less complicated. Sometimes we like to revisit a past problem we already solved. (It's like seeing a movie for a second time. You know the outcome.) This may be gratifying, but if we have moved beyond the level where we were, we may regress to a level we no longer want to be at. Instead, look for new challenges that will stretch you beyond your present level of performance.

Career Advice

A veteran salesperson once told me that when he started his career, his sales manager gave him advice that he has lived by:

  • Work for a leader.

  • Tell the truth.

  • Get them to like you.

These are simple truths that make sense. No matter what stage you are at in your career, whether you are just beginning or are a veteran, it pays to think about your career direction and goals. If you don't do it, who will? If you don't do it, how will you know what you want and get it?

In an interview on "Inside the Actors Studio," Stockard Channing said that on five occasions she had accepted movies solely for the money, and they turned out to be bad movies. She quoted someone who said there are three reasons to take a job: to make money, to advance your career, or to learn something. "Go for at least two" was the advice she said was worth following.

Joan Sumners is vice president of sales at a hotel property management company located in Los Angeles. She has five strategies for success that she shared:

  • Develop relationships. Joan advises her salespeople to really get to know people: "Close your laptop, stand up, and go meet people." She believes that establishing a relationship with a potential client gives a salesperson a big advantage over someone who wants to sell the client something without first establishing that relationship. Besides, she notes, "It's a lot harder to say no to someone face to face!"

  • Personalize the relationship. Joan also believes that "the more people apply technology, the more important it is to personalize the customer relationship, whether it's through a handshake or a handwritten note." Joan doesn't send form letters; she doesn't think people like receiving them or that they keep them. If someone is a past customer, she sees it as a no-brainer to send a note.

  • Stay in touch with customers. Joan's group writes a little note to those people who are not booked at the beginning of the year: "We noticed that you haven't rebooked. The dates are still available, so give us a call when you're ready." She says they'll save the note, though they won't save a form letter. "I'm not talking about cold calling. What I'm referring to is contacting people who've either been referred to us or who've done business with us."

  • Look for opportunities, even in adversity. When businesspeople cut back travel, Joan had a focused effort to contact meeting planners to let them know about her nearby property. As a result, her property generated an extra $250,000 in bookings at a time when business was down for most. Her group tries many different tactics and then zooms in on what works. If an industry segment is picking up, they ask existing customers, "Whom should we be calling on?"

  • Put your time to good use. Joan believes that her salespeople shouldn't waste time going after "little fish" when they could be using that time to go after the big ones. She also believes that if the customer doesn't respond after repeated attempts, it's time to move on. "Some people have a hard time letting go. There's a value on your time. The time a salesperson invests should be at least equal to the return he or she can expect." See people face to face.

Salespeople can't afford to be busy but not productive. Joan notes, "It's easy to get caught up in the wrong things." Many salespeople say that theirs is a relationship business. The earlier you develop those relationships and the more you nurture them, the stronger the relationships will be, and the more they will result in business. Positive relationships can lead to impressive results.

Become an Expert

Become an expert in your field of business. Take it beyond being an expert about your industry. Become an expert about a certain type of problem. Talk to people who have experience in the area. Read everything you can on the subject. Develop a theory about the problem: When is it most likely to happen? What causes it? What can be done about it? Become an expert in the subtle differences between it and similar problems. Become an expert on trends in your industry and profession. Learn about technology that is changing business processes.

We are not suggesting that you become an expert in every facet of the sales process. Make the customer the focus. Start by looking at what you do almost effortlessly, well enough to take it for granted. You are probably unconsciously competent about it. Maybe it is how to influence others. Step back and look at what you do that allows you to be so effective. Ask others for their opinions about it. Build on that skill.

When you become an expert, write articles that can be published in industry publications. You can provide examples of what you have done (keep the company names anonymous unless you get the company's written permission). The article should provide helpful advice and shouldn't come across as a sales promotion.

Write about the symptoms of a common sales problem, how people can assess whether they have this problem, and the consequences of not fixing it. Describe in general terms what it takes to fix the problem.

In most cases, you should check with your manager to be sure your company supports the article. At the very least, try to get the article published in your company's in-house publication or on it's internal web site. Be sure that you don't reveal confidential or proprietary information. Check with your legal department if you have a concern in that area.

Being published in this way allows you to be recognized as a leader in your field.

Do you have aspirations to move up into management? If so, what are your motives for doing so? Recognize that the responsibilities of a sales manager require a different set of skills than those of a salesperson. Moving into management means that you will work primarily through your salespeople and that your success depends on their success. Typically, your responsibilities for direct selling will be limited. Communication, coaching, and leadership are some of the skills you will need to rely on as a sales manager. You will build on some of the skills you used as a salesperson, such as your ability to plan and organize, but those play a secondary role.

If you aspire to become a manager, first examine whether it is something you will enjoy doing. Second, determine the extent to which you have demonstrated the skills needed to succeed as a manager. Third, when you are promoted into management, develop a plan for improving the skills you need to be successful at that level. Finally, be cautious of gravitating into those areas in which you are most familiar and most comfortable: selling. If you go on a sales call with a salesperson, be there to coach, not to sell.

It is much better to move into a higher-level position aware of what the requirements are than to discover them when you get there. Do what you enjoy and learn to do it well.

"Don't Take This Personally"

What do you do when someone says "Don't take this personally" to you? Most likely, you take it personally. Apply this quick test to tell whether the statement is actually personal: ask yourself, Would this be happening to just about anyone else in this situation? If the answer is yes, it isn't personal. For example, if a customer is screaming at you about a product that isn't working properly, that isn't personal. He or she would more than likely scream at any company representative. On the other hand, if the product wasn't the right one for the job and you sold it, it more than likely is personal.

What difference does it make whether it is personal? If you know the customer's displeasure isn't with you, it allows you to be more objective. You can handle the problem without being a part of the problem. As a result, you can usually help the customer better.

What do you do if it is personal, if there is some criticism of you in the customer's or colleague's complaint? Listen, understand, and consider whether you need to do something differently in the future. The information you are receiving may be valuable if you can act on it.

Sales leaders don't take rejection personally. They may not accept it, but they are resilient enough to use it to their advantage and learn from it.

" You've got to make your own life. You can't be swayed by people telling you no."

—Danny DeVito, actor


Your technical skills and product knowledge may play a crucial role in your ability to be successful as a salesperson. Really good communication skills are essential for every salesperson. Communication is the lifeline of success.

Communication involves both giving information and listening. It is both speaking and writing. It is both a skill and an attitude. It affects both business and personal success. Everyone can improve communication skills, even people who are already skilled communicators. Everyone can find ways to listen better. Everyone can find ways to present information better. Everyone can find ways to use words that convey meaning more effectively, words that awaken senses or evoke emotions. Everyone can find ways to inspire others through their words. Everyone can find ways to improve tone of voice and diction. (Think of actors whose trademark voices make them immediately recognizable.) Everyone can improve written communications by making them more succinct, less confusing, or more motivational.

Communication is a skill that we rarely learn in formal education to the extent we need it. Most of us will learn the most about writing, followed by speaking, with listening a distant third. I've asked thousands of people whether they have ever taken a listening course, and I would say less than a dozen people have ever answered affirmatively. Yet that is probably the most critical of the three. So the one we need to rely on the most and the one that is critical to our success is often the one we are the least prepared for.

Take the Lead

Continually look for ways to improve the way you communicate. Ask for feedback from people you work with every day and from those you come into contact with occasionally or even once. Ask someone whose judgment and honesty you can trust to help you gain an objective view of your strengths and where you need to improve. Have this person listen to one of your presentations. Ask him or her for feedback in specific areas. Don't react defensively if he or she tells you something you weren't prepared to hear. Evaluate whether it is valid and then act on any valid points.

On a personal level, relationships succeed when people can communicate. Being able to do that when faced with all of the emotions and history inherent in relationships is an enormous challenge. It's important to always practice tact, honesty, and sincerity.

Resolve to Become a Better Listener

The most effective salespeople listen really well. In the selling process, listening helps you gather information, build trust, and confirm the customer's expectations. If you restate, summarize, and empathize with what the customer has told you, you will move toward closure. It becomes a part of the decision-making process.

Do you know something you could be doing to be more effective? Why would you say you aren't doing it? Probably habits are to blame. Listening is a skill that can always be improved, and it is critically important for sales leaders.

The Most Successful Salespeople

The most successful salespeople get in step with the customer. If the customer wants to move at a quicker pace (which is the pace that most salespeople would prefer), they move at a quicker pace. If the customer wants to move at a more deliberate pace, the salesperson also moves at a more deliberate pace, even if this is not what the salesperson would prefer to do. If the customer wants to get right down to business, the salesperson does too, instead of commenting on what's in the person's office, for example. If the customer wants to chat for a bit, the salesperson chats for a bit (but not indefinitely).

Go with the flow. If you try to rush customers who want to analyze the data, they'll go even slower because they will feel compelled to tell you why they need more time to analyze the information or make a decision. If you continue to press them for a decision, they will avoid making any decision or will simply tell you no. The more impatient you get, the longer the sale will take or the less likely it is that you will even get it. Unless customers are willing to adapt, they won't go at your pace. You need to adapt to theirs. If you want to get along with the variety of customers you meet, be open to working in the way they prefer to work. You will find that they will be more receptive to your recommendations.

Don't Jump to a Conclusion

It is easy to judge people by misinterpreting their behavior. When a customer doesn't return a call, you might think that it is for a variety of plausible reasons: he or she is busy, preoccupied, working on a new project, or out of the office unexpectedly. You might wonder whether he or she is reluctant to talk with you, doesn't want to be bothered, or didn't like what you had to say before. Any of those explanations may be right, or they may be wrong. You don't know for sure unless the customer tells you. They only thing you know for sure is that the customer didn't return the call.

When you misinterpret someone's behavior, you can unwittingly set the stage for an unfortunate sequence of events. You can think negatively and undermine your ability to be successful. Or you can communicate something that is wrong to the customer because of your misinterpretation.

Understanding the difference between behavior and how we judge that behavior is one of the most enlightening things that one can learn. Why? Because failing to discern the difference is the root of so much ill will. It's common for people to observe someone's behavior and assume the person's motivation for the behavior. The motivation however may be entirely different from what an observer would assume. If the observer were to communicate with that person based on his or her assumptions, the person might well react negatively to the presumption, which then leads to further negative reactions from both parties.

It is so easy to misinterpret people's behavior. One day, I had just pulled out of a service station after getting gas. I was waiting at the light and noticed the man in the car behind me when I looked in my rear-view mirror. When the light turned green, he pulled out quickly from behind me to the right side and I thought he was accelerating to cut in front of me, so I accelerated. He accelerated more and so did I, until we got to the light at the next intersection, whereupon he rolled down his window and told me that the gas cap was on the car. "Thank you," I replied.

The reason that people misjudge others' behaviors is those behaviors trigger emotions based on our experiences in similar situations. If you had a negative experience in a past similar situation, you might expect to have a negative experience in this circumstance as well and react accordingly. Of course, while the behavior may be similar, the reason behind it can be very different.

Behavior is what someone says or does. We observe behavior through our eyes or ears, but we judge behavior in our minds. That is where we decide whether we like it or don't like it. That is where we decide whether we need to be careful. That is where we react emotionally—and if that reaction is negative, it can cloud our thinking and our response. No one wins in this situation.

During a listening exercise in a self development program, one of the participants was supposed to just listen to his partner tell him about a little problem he was having at work. The person who was listening asked the speaker whether what he did was his responsibility. The speaker reacted negatively to the question. I believe he reacted negatively because he may have interpreted the question as a challenge. It was a simple question, but the fact that it was asked, or perhaps how it was asked, led to a negative interaction between these two people.

What would have been better? Perhaps the listener should not have asked the question, or explained that he simply wanted to understand this person's responsibilities better. Perhaps the speaker could simply have answered the question, or, if he didn't want to get sidetracked in the discussion, asked the person to hold the question.

It isn't that we should not have reactions to what people say or do. We merely need to be clear about the difference between what we see and hear and our interpretations of what we see and hear. If we communicate with people more about their behavior, they will have a less defensive response. As a result, our communication will lead to the results we want more often.

Aaron Coffey is a twenty-five-year veteran who's handled a variety of complex sales in international situations. Based on his experience, he has evolved five principles for creating winning sales.

  • Understand your strategic advantages. Ask, "What resources do we have that the competition doesn't?" Use those resources to your advantage.

  • Extend the "buying circle" by working with other suppliers and alliance partners. If the customer has tested or implemented a product or service from a noncompetitive supplier, partner with them and demonstrate that you complement decisions the customer has already made. Blend in and add value to their process.

  • Talk to the person whose career depends on making the right decision and who will be emotionally involved in using the product.

  • Be responsive to the cultural customs of your customers. Understand where the other person is coming from and be ready to do what makes them comfortable.

  • Don't get burned by giving away the solution, only to have the customer shop the lowest price.

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