On Sales, Trails, and Surviving This Market

Next week, I leave on a much-anticipated vacation to South Africa, which reminds me of another unique vacation I took to the Rocky Mountains of southwest Montana and the lessons it unexpectedly held about selling. Given today’s particularly tough market for online sales reps, I thought the lessons I learned from my hiking trip would be equally relevant, practical, and helpful for you.

I emerged from a beautiful, shaded pine-forest path onto a sunny, exposed corner ledge about three feet wide. I gasped as the ground suddenly fell away in front of me to reveal a sheer 600-foot drop. (That’s also when I discovered I had a propensity for vertigo.)

To my surprise, so much of what we did on my six-day hiking adventure reminded me of selling that I never really forgot about work. Read for yourself.

Watch Those Trails!

The trails we hiked became metaphors for everyday selling, managing, and even living. No two were the same. Some were strewn with loose rocks. Others had root outcroppings on which you could catch your toe or twist an ankle. Still others featured piles of horse and cow dung — a decidedly unappealing ground cover. Add in nature’s obstacles of topography, temperature, and light — or lack thereof — and you can understand the need to be constantly alert.

Sales “Trails”

Now, think selling. In selling, you hike different figurative trails every day. First, you need to know your trail and its destination (the goal for the account). Second, you need markers (account reviews) to keep you on the right path. And, finally, tour guides (vigilant managers) to ensure you don’t wander too far.

But sales “trails” change constantly (this is an understatement when we’re talking about the last 12 months). Consequently, we all have to be twice as prepared for what might cross our path. That means staying on top of the trade press, revisiting accounts to cement business and personal relationships, and anticipating and addressing problems before they trip you up.

On the Montana trails, no matter how advanced our hiking skills, we all got tripped up from time to time. There were no shortcuts. We put one foot in front of the other again and again until we reached our destination (read: goal, quota, bottom line). Likewise, there are no silver bullets in a troubled economy except discipline and working smarter.

Set Specific Goals

Be more organized and more focused than ever before. How many business calls with existing clients will you make per week? How many will be to senior people on those accounts? How many new-business calls will you make? How many proposals do you want in the pipeline?

Back on the trail, you had to focus on the terrain slightly ahead of you to anticipate upcoming obstacles. Similarly, salespeople must also focus ahead. If they focus only on what they are doing today — like the hiker taking only one step at a time — they will inevitably fall and fail. Translated into selling, think of opportunities to leverage recent changes in the business. What should you be doing differently as a result of the latest trends? For example, the growing realization that online should be positioned not as a marketing panacea, but as an integral part of an overall marketing campaign.

Ice-hockey fans will forgive me for not knowing his name, but I remember a famous player explaining his success this way, “I never look at where the puck is. I look at where it is going to be.” That said, be where your accounts are going to be.

How to See Beyond “Just a Lot of Trees and Mountains”

At dinner the second evening, a bored hiker remarked, “What the heck! It’s all just trees and mountains. Do we really need four more days to see just this?”

While I kind of agreed with him, I thought about a course I teach on creative thinking and the hallmarks of creative people. One of the distinguishing traits of creative people is their ability to “see” things that others overlook, which broadens their perspective. So, instead of being faced with four more days of “just trees and mountains,” I decided to practice what I teach. I began to really look and see, for the first time, what was around me.

And guess what?

Do you know how many different flowers blanket a meadow? Or how many different birdsongs and other sounds you can hear in nature when you truly listen? Or how loud forest silence can be?

By opening my eyes and ears, I allowed myself to become part of those trees and mountains and become an expert on my environment.

When salespeople just see clients as their job titles — that is, as “just” a media planner, or “just” a vice president, or “just” an online ad director — they risk overlooking critical details as they are gathering information, presenting, handling objections, or dealing with difficult buyers. By putting blinders on to body language, nuance, and pressure, they miss out on innovative solutions.

Now, ask yourself what opportunities you’re missing by not opening your eyes to doing business differently.

Making It to the Top

If truth be told, I hated a lot of the actual climbing we did. However, when we reached the peaks of the several mountains we climbed, I forgot all about my aching legs and how hot and sweaty I felt most of the time. I looked out at breathtaking views and savored the elation that always comes from successfully meeting a new challenge.

These are difficult times for the stock market and for salespeople. For many, this is your first down-market experience. But take it from my personal experience, markets and business — like the hiking trails on my vacation — will always twist and turn and drop and rise. So, hang in there. The top of the mountain is always there. (Just be mindful of the trails.)

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