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Hard-Won Sales Wisdom: Start with Humility

This lesson is a part of an audio course Hard-Won Sales Wisdom by Paul Andrew Smith

My father spent his entire 41-ear career in purchasing. So, I got to hear lots of stories about the salespeople who called on him. But one of my favorite was about when he first got promoted to purchasing manager. He found out that his predecessor had been buying steel almost exclusively from one supplier. And when he met the salesperson, he understood why. He was exactly the kind of person buyers love to deal with. He was honest, fair, and wasn't afraid to go to bat for his customers back at headquarters when they really needed something special. But Dad believed having a single source of supply for a key material was too risky. So he started buying from other suppliers, too, but still kept buying most of it from the same supplier.

Well, after a while, that salesperson got promoted. Unfortunately, his replacement was nothing like him. He had no sales experience. In fact, he had been a scientist in the metallurgy department before that. Dad described him as "cordial" but not very interesting to talk to. Anyway, on his first sales call with Dad, he made quite a show of the fact that he represented one of the biggest steel producers in the country and was my Dad's biggest supplier. So, he skipped all the normal pleasantries, or efforts to get to know Dad personally or professionally. He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a thick report. And he said, "I see here that during the last quarter, you only bought 450 tons of steel from us. What's the problem?"

Dad said, "Excuse me?"

The guy says, "It looks like you were buying significantly more in the past. What happened?" And so, Dad explained his philosophy about the dangers of having only a single supplier. But the new guy just dismissed that answer. And he concluded the meeting by saying, "I certainly hope the next time I call on you, we'll have seen a change in these numbers."

Now, as the buyer, Dad wasn't used to that kind of passive-aggressive language from salespeople. And he tried not to let it show, but it really ticked him off! So, he just smiled and said, "I'll bet you will."

And true to his word, over the next three months, Dad did make a change in the orders. By the time that salesman came to see him next, his orders had dropped in half! He came into Dad's office with an entirely different air about him. His first words were, "I guess you can tell I'm new at this." And this time, he wasn't throwing his company's name around like it meant something special. And he certainly didn't presume to tell Dad he needed to change his orders again.

Now, Dad was never really sure why the salesman's first call was so caustic and arrogant. Was it just inexperience? Or was it some new "power sales" technique that resembled a Jedi mind trick? Either way, the salesman learned that it didn't work. He took the time on this second sales call to get to know his customer a little better. More importantly, he took the time to learn about his customer's needs. Orders picked up over the next quarter and continued to grow as the salesman got better at his job.

Now, the obvious lesson for salespeople is to show up with some humility when you're just meeting a buyer. Get to know their needs and their company's needs.

But the not-so-obvious lesson is this: Spend some time with the purchasing people where you work. They've probably got lots of great stories of successful, and unsuccessful, salespeople you can learn from. Take them out to lunch and listen to their stories.

Alright, in the next lesson, you'll hear about a Procter & Gamble sales team in Canada and how they turned around a declining business.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith