I am not a researcher. What I know about sales comes from my experience selling. At age 13, I delivered newspapers and got my start knocking on doors and asking people for money. I was 15 when I took my first job making cold calls. Then, I joined my family's business when I was 18 years old and sold B2B.
I am certain I have made every sales mistake one might make. But the "L" only stands for Loss if you don’t believe it stands for Lesson. In the immortal words of the great Keith Richards, "I never blew a second chance." Failure is an important part of learning and improving your results, but not every lesson needs to be learned firsthand. Here are eight mistakes you can avoid making yourself by learning from my experience.
- The Cold Call Sales Mistake: I read the cold call script exactly as it was written on the index card. When I finished, my client said, "You're reading a script. Call me back when you don't need the script." I asked my manager what I was supposed to do when someone hangs up on me. I was told to call the prospect back and tell him I didn't need the script. He told me to come see him that Thursday. Cold calling success has a lot to do with your confidence. You make a sales mistake when you don't memorize and rehearse your talk tracks.
- My Second Cold Call Sales Mistake: I was making calls out of the business section of the Columbus, Ohio, phonebook. That was not the mistake, as that was the only place you could find phone numbers at the time. I would call one company, win or lose, then call another company. I used index cards to document any company I called that used what I sold. At some point, I decided there was more value in calling the known users on the index cards than continuing to make my way through the phonebook and calling more random companies. Before trying to identify more users from the business section, I started calling every company on the index cards again. As soon I called weekly, I booked more than enough first meetings—and realized that I had wasted six months looking for new contacts before following up with those I already knew.
- A Major Sales Mistake in a First Meeting: My manager joined me on a first meeting. My company had provided me with an 84-page binder that served as a presentation. Somewhere near my reading of the seventh or eighth page, I noticed my manager was unimpressed. I plowed forward through many more pages. When we stepped into the elevator, my manager asked how I thought I had done. I said I thought it went well. He told me I should be brought up on charges and that my client was left in a coma. I joined him on calls, and he showed me how to avoid needing a crutch like a binder or a slide deck. Salespeople still make the mistake of trying to create credibility by talking about their company and products or services.
- The Sales Mistake of Buying the Client's Business: After being given an expense account, I asked one of my dream clients to join me for lunch. At lunch, the client ordered two appetizers, one for now, and one for later. This person then ordered two meals, one for now, and one for later. Finally, two deserts, one for now, and one for later. There was almost no conversation. This person taught me I couldn't buy their business.
- The Sales Mistake of Not Recognizing a Nightmare Client: The contact sitting across from me was unhappy with their current provider. They were confessing their supplier's sins in detail. There was no way I would not win their business. What I didn't know at the time was that this client had never found a company that could take care of their needs. Eventually, I realized the client company made it impossible for anyone to help them. They would need to change how they did business, but they weren’t willing, so I fired them. The mistake was not doing the discovery that would have had me walk away after the first meeting.
- The Missing Stakeholders Sales Mistake: The contact told me they would be the only person I would need to meet with and that they would make the decision. Their title appeared to suggest this was true. After several conversations, the contact called me to tell me that the company’s task force went in another direction. It took several experiences for me to realize that the stakeholder vetting you is sometimes doing so to tell the rest of the stakeholders you didn't make the cut and were eliminated. If you are prevented from communicating with a task force or committee that is involved in the decision, you make a mistake by not demanding access.
- The Sales Mistake of the Right Title, Wrong Stakeholder: Those of you who call on human resources may have noticed that they can sometimes be difficult to get information from. After recognizing that human resources departments weren’t very helpful, I stopped calling on them and started walking in the back doors of warehouses and manufacturing companies and finding the person I needed to talk to. The people who needed my help were interested in a conversation, even if human resources wasn’t. In Eat Their Lunch, I describe someone as the “CEO of the problem.” That is the person who will have the greatest interest in a conversation about how to improve their results. My approach didn't win many friends in HR, but it generated a lot of revenue.
- The Too-Clever-by-Half Sales Mistake: After seven years of pursuing a multimillion-dollar client, I finally secured a meeting. This company was a giant, publicly traded company, and they gave me access to their annual reports before our first meeting. To prepare for this meeting, I studied the last three year's reports. When I sat down with the distribution manager, I shared with him my take on the three major initiatives the organization was prioritizing. When I explained how we could help, he asked, "Who told you that?" I told him it was in the chairman's letter in the annual reports. He laughed, and said, "No one here cares about those things. I need to move these boxes from this side of the warehouse to the other side so we can ship them. Can you help us with that?" Different stakeholders need different conversations and outcomes.
Some of the most powerful lessons you learn in sales come from your mistakes. Every mistake and every lost deal shapes how you sell. Another mistake? Not writing down what you got wrong and what you will do instead.