Listen First, Sell Later – It’s All About the Relationship
I was writing a chapter for a book the other night when a visual photograph of how I learned the value of relationships in business came flooding into my mind. I couldn’t help but smile at the memory and I thought I’d briefly share it with you here.
I was a brand new Major Account Sales Executive for 3M Company. I had already been with the company a couple of years and had broken all the sales records for people in my position. So, I was promoted and expected to now call on major accounts. However, I was primarily assigned accounts where we had never had any business which meant that I had to go out and find new customers – only in larger companies with more gatekeepers and bureaucracy wholesale pipes.
One of the accounts I was expected to “open” was a steel company headquartered near my home town. It turned out there was one man whose primary job was to manage the copier equipment and supply program for the entire country. His name was Frank. Did you ever meet someone and instantly know there was going to be mutual loathing between the two of you? That was Frank and I. And, it took us both about 10 seconds to make our determination.
To me, Frank was someone who plods though life all wrapped up in habit, routine and insignificant details. And, since I was very driven (probably called Type A at the time); I found everything Frank did to be frustrating. I would ask him a question and I’d wait for the answer. And, I’d wait. Frank would usually pull a pipe out of a holster he carried on his belt and begin the process of filling and lighting it. Since that took at least 5 minutes, I was on to the next question since I assumed he forgot the first one. And, just about the time I was on my fourth or fifth question without an answer, Frank would respond to the first question which led to more frustration and loathing for the man. And, so it went each time I paid a call on Frank. I was getting nowhere and I dreaded having to go see him.
Then one day, I stopped at a drug store near his office. This was back when I smoked and I was going to get a pack of cigarettes. While at the cash register, I saw a display of corn cob pipes. They were inexpensive so I picked one out and then picked out a bag of pipe tobacco that looked familiar to me. I stuck them in my suit pockets and made a resolution that when Frank went to light up, I’d do the same. Maybe if we had pipe smoking in common he’d find me more acceptable.
And, so the meeting began as before. Only, this time I pulled out my pipe and tobacco when Frank went for his. It was the most animation I had seen from the man in months. He said, “I didn’t know you smoked a pipe.” I told him, “I hadn’t been for long.” And, then I asked him about the tobacco I had picked out and if he liked it. He went out to tell me more about tobacco and pipes than anyone, in my mind, would want to ever know – over the next 2 hours! It turned out he blended his own tobacco and he told me mine was junk with perfume added to make it smell good. He had me dump it and gave me some of his private blend. And, so we smoked pipes and we talked and we got to know each other.
Over the next few months we found out we had a lot more in common than we did in differences. It turned out we had both grown up in the same little Ohio town that I had left years before but he had lived there his whole life. When we started comparing notes we found out we knew a lot of the same people and that my younger brother had dated his daughter for a while. (I was worried when I heard that but it turned out fine.) We started meeting for lunch. He always had lunch at his desk so on the days we had a meeting scheduled, he packed a sandwich for me. One day down the road, after a few pipes, sandwiches and meetings, Frank said something like, and “I guess we ought to talk about copiers.” And, so we talked and he bought. I finished the year as one of the Top Ten Ranked Sales Executives in the United States for 3M. Frank and his companies business was one of the major factors.
It’s all about the relationship. I had figured out that if I wanted to communicate with Frank and have any kind of business relationship, which was the whole idea, I was going to have to learn how to communicate with him the way he was comfortable. Talking at a 1,000 words a minute and interrogating him before he liked and trusted me was never going to work with Frank. It isn’t going to work very often with any of your clients either.
The next time you’re having a problem establishing a relationship with someone, think about Frank and pipe smoking. Find some common ground. Focus on them not your services or products. Don’t interrogate people. Learn to match the pace and tone of their speech. If they speak slowly softly and you speak fast and loudly – slow down and lower the volume. Put them at ease and get them talking about themselves and things of commonality. Most people like to talk about what they do in their spare time and their families. People have to “buy you” before they buy anything from you.