The Sales Blog Interview: Tom Peters on The Little Big Things (part one)
Yesterday I had the rare privilege of interviewing Tom Peters about his new book, The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence. I asked Tom about Brand You, the little big things in sales, the value of business acumen, the politics of change management, and Twitter. Here is part one.
Anthony: Thanks for taking time to answer a few questions. I want to start with gushing praise. I apologize, but this interview is for me the same probably as it would be for you to interview Nelson, Grant, or the entire Delegation from Delaware.
Tom: (laughing) Thank you.
Anthony: Two of your works had a profound impact on my life and my personal business results. The first was what I believe was an underrated and under-appreciated book, The Circle of Innovation: You Can’ Shrink Your Way To Greatness. That book opened my eyes and allowed me to see business as something you can be passionate about, something cool, and business life as a work of art.
The second was the article The Brand Called You in Fast Company magazine, which gave me the intellectual framework and the permission to start thinking about my life and my career as being my responsibility to develop in the way that I felt best equipped me to create value, regardless of the company.
Tom: Well, that’s very, very cool. I am always irritated on the Brand You thing. People say it’s all about your ego. The whole point of the Brand You thing in the time that we wrote it was to say “Whoa!” We in the labor force are now competing with technology, and we are competing with our brothers and sisters in India and China. We have to stand for something.
It was more of a survival pitch than it was being a Brand You was all about developing your ego. I am sort of insulted by that, though I understand it, obviously.
Anthony: I took away from it more of a rallying cry for us to start taking responsibility and a recognition that the game had changed so dramatically that we needed to start responding accordingly.
Tom: There was some social commentator who blamed the entire 90’s excesses on me and Seinfeld. They said Seinfeld and I were the principal touters of the “Me” generation. (Laughing) I was delighted to be mentioned in the same sentence as Seinfeld, but I wasn’t sure I deserved the entire brunt of the attack.
Anthony: And for wielding so much power as to shape a generation?
Tom: (Laughing) Yeah! Don’t I wish I could look in the mirror and believe that.
Anthony: I remember when you posted number 48 in the book The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence on www.tompeters.com. Number 48 is We Are All In Sales. Period. The readers of The Sales Blog are really career salespeople. What are the little big things in sales for those of us who carry a bag and who live the sales message every day?
Tom: Well I will return the favor to you by giving you an example from your own work and that is the post, I think it’s today’s post at www.thesalesblog.com. Is it today’s post that Call Your Dream Client. Now!?
Anthony: Yes, that is today’s post.
Tom: There are two things that are exactly what you just said to me. I think it all makes sense, but the two that I love are “you forget that other contacts in the same company may want to talk” and “you discount the power of nurturing.” As you know, because you have apparently been kind enough to take a look at the book, a lot of what I say, and a lot of what I STRONGLY believe in sales is that the magic in the client organization happens two, or three or four levels down. You are as good as the breadth as well as the depth of your network.
People who focus on Mr. Big or Ms. Big are absolutely dead flat wrong. I seldom use terms that are quite that extreme, but I really, really, believe it in this case. Change happens when you’ve got the person three levels down in the engineering department who’s really going to do the analysis of your new system or your new software.
That one, to me is just knocking it out of the park. The other one “discounting the power of nurturing” as every salesperson ought to know, and as you say, I see every person as a salesperson. We are all, if we are smart, and it goes back to your Brand You thing, we are all change agents. We all want to make things happen. You’ve got to be damn good at what you do, I am hardly going to discount that for a moment. But you’ve got to focus on the relationship. You’ve got to focus on the friendship. There is on thing I wrote in the book that I feel badly about in a way, because it is a little bit manipulative, but it is true, and that is “ask about people’s kids.” The odds are pretty high that the person you are talking with has got kids. When I say, “Have you got kids?” and you answer “Yes,” we then spend the next fifteen minutes talking about my kids and your kids, and we are all frustrated as the dickens, and there is a real bond there.
The good news is, it’s fun. But I would also have to admit, if I am trying to be honest, that there is a little bit of manipulation in that. Your word nurturing is right, and if I had to pick one off your list, I’d have to pick “you forget other contacts in the same company may want to talk.”
Anthony: It drives me crazy that there is so much focus on having to get a C-Level executive on the telephone in order to succeed, when in fact most of the change does bubble up from the bottom. Having developed those relationships is what actually makes you worth talking to when you get to the C-level. So many salespeople have bought the lie that you have to start at the top and work your way down, when success often comes the other direction.
Tom: Yeah! And what you just said, one of your sentences really pops out. So your dream comes true and the C-level guy answers the phone. What the Hell are you going to say? If you really don’t know his organization, or her organization, and if you haven’t really developed clues on their culture, you may know your product, but you don’t know how you are selling it. I don’t want the guy to answer my phone! I would be terrified if he answered my phone.
Anthony: You’ve spent a lot of time on a number of themes going clear back to 1982’s In Search of Excellence. A lot of what you write you have been writing about for decades now. I’ve wanted to ask you why we spend so much time pursuing the next big fad instead of the little disciplines that have stood the test of time, and the little disciplines that are so much of what is your new book?
Tom: When you and I figure that out we will patent it, and we will soon be able to buy large Greek Islands, or something like that. One answer is that it’s not sexy. I say somewhere in the book, which is of course music to your ears, if I were running an MBA program, I would cancel half the marketing programs and substitute sales courses, because we all sell something . . . But that’s almost a classic case!
When I went to business school, which was in 1970, we at least had a professor who focused on sales. There is no professor who focuses on it now to the best of my knowledge at Stanford. That’s insane! Because in a crowded market, sales is more important than it’s ever been, not less important than it’s ever been. It’s not reducible so much to linear, programmed answers, or sexy algorithms or what have you.
One thing I would say, as you know there is a little bit in this book as well, is that I think on this dimension that there are big gender differences on this. Women tend to pay more attention to the little things associated with relationships than boys like you and me do. Particularly in the selling arena, there is a pretty big message there.
The real answer is I don’t know. If you read history, and you started out talking about the gang from Delaware, you see that . . . I love those examples and I chose them because you can tell me I am writing soft stuff on any number of dimensions, but when I say to you, hey, we wrote this document called the Constitution, and 75% of what’s in it was a function of garden-variety, social to-ing and fro-ing, not the fact that Mr. Madison’s IQ was much bigger than anybody else’s. In fact, if anything, that was a hindrance to the guy.
Anthony: I think that’s right, and I just want to spend one more minute on this. You say it’s not quite as sexy, but I can’t find anything sexier than a handwritten thank you card.
Anthony: In sales today, that’s not done, and in my opinion, it is a little big thing.
Tom: Oh my God! Let me tell you a story. I was in the Navy forty-odd years ago. I went to Vietnam and I had a commanding officer who, between you and me, and since my Father’s been dead a long time he’s not going to know depending on your religious beliefs, who was more important to shaping values than even my Father was. So I am now 67, okay? I wrote a little bit about the guy in the book, and I sent him a copy of the book. He is now 84. He’s a whole bunch of health problems. He sends me a letter, which he types, okay? At the bottom of the letter after his signature and it says: “You don’t know how proud I am of you.” I started weeping!
Forty-five years after the fact, one hand-written line, “You don’t know ho proud I am of you.” That, to me is the greatest demonstration of what you are saying that I can possibly imagine. And the wonderful news, the wonderful news, Anthony, as we both know, is as we get into the social media stuff and so on, the hand written notes are really disappearing, if they were every really prevalent, and they have become ten times more powerful. Even if I can’t read your damned handwriting!
Anthony: And I promise you can’t.
Tom: Well, you can’t read mine either. As we all know, even if your handwriting was bad to start, which mine was, it’s so awful now after significant years of disuse.
Anthony: Do you have time for two more questions?
Part two of this interview will air tomorrow!
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