Leading on the spot

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We regularly admonish sales leaders to be role models for the members of their sales teams. The principle behind the admonition is that, at the end of the day, people pay more attention to what leaders do than to what they say. "Walking the talk" is an old saw, but remains a true challenge for leaders.

So, what does modeling mean when you are visiting customers with individual salespeopleω Too often, when the "boss" is along, the meeting turns into a conversation between you and the customer as the salesperson listens in. What you should do is take direction from the salesperson and make sure the meeting is firmly positioned as his or her meeting. Your overall objective should be to enhance the image of the salesperson as a business resource professional in the eyes of the customer.

Having said that, however, we also want to stress that your participation in customer meetings is also an opportunity to model desired behaviors. Let’s zero in on one potential opportunity. Most sales leaders talk to their team about being more strategic, but it is not always clear what they mean by that. To us, being more strategic means developing a deep understanding of the customer’s business, of the issues behind the stated product/service needs.

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As we’ve discussed in this column, one way to develop a strategic understanding is to conduct formal knowledge calls. Those calls must be positioned ahead of time as a departure from the typical customer meeting. We use language like "take a step back and go in a different direction," "go into homework mode," "get the lay of the land," and "get a sense of what makes your organization tick."

But knowledge calls can also happen spontaneously. When an opportunity presents itself during a customer meeting, you as the leader can model an "on the spot" knowledge call. Here are three tips to make sure it works.

1. Be alert to the potential opportunity. Our experience tells us that sales meetings are littered with missed opportunities. The salesperson is so intent on making the sale that he or she is deaf to anything else.

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When the customer mentions something apparently off point or starts down a conversational alley about a different topic, you should be alert to the potentially rich (pun intended) opportunity being afforded you. We call this operating in seek mode – demonstrating an intense desire to learn more.

Recently, a client of ours followed a conversational alley about the disruption of construction of an expansion to the building in which they were meeting and ended up at the front end of a multi-million dollar sales opportunity.

Obviously, not all chance comments are worth pursuing. Nor will those that are worth pursuing always lead to revenue, but if you are in seek mode you might be amazed at how many will lead somewhere.

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2. Explicitly position the conversation. When a customer does enter what we are calling a conversational alley and you sense the topic is worth pursuing, you should not just run with it. Like formal, scheduled knowledge calls, impromptu ones must also be positioned. You should say something like, "This is really interesting, do you mind if we explore it furtherω" or, "I was hoping we could learn more about this issue, so I’d like to stay with it for a few minutes."

Why is such positioning importantω A few reasons. If you just let the customer run on, he or she may wonder afterwards why you didn’t stop it. People on tangents appreciate being rescued. In addition, you need to establish a contract that legitimizes the conversation and allows you to drill down. Finally, by calling attention to your broad interest in the customer’s issues, you help position yourself and your company as a true business resource.

3. Follow the rule of three to dig deep enough. Once you have positioned the impromptu knowledge call and gained agreement to explore the topic, don’t blow it. Dig deep enough to learn whether there is a real opportunity and whether it will be good business for your company. We refer to the "rule of three."

You might ask the second question, but too many of us don’t ask the third or fourth question. There is always the temptation to take any indication of an opportunity as real. In addition, be sure to close in on a next step if appropriate. As a business resource, you want to be the one to identify the next step.

"On the spot" modeling is good leadership – in this case, it models what you mean by being more strategic. And it is good business. As we said above, you will be amazed at what opportunities you discover. Even if the impromptu knowledge call does not lead to an immediate revenue opportunity, it will further your relationship and the image the customer has of you and your company.

Jerry Stapleton and Nancy McKeon are with Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. They can be reached at 262-524-8099 or on the Web at www.stapletonresources.com.

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