The Five Most Common Mistakes Salespeople Make

Over the decades that I've been involved in sales, I've worked with tens of thousands of salespeople. Certain negative tendencies -- mistakes that salespeople make -- keep surfacing. Here are my top five. See to what degree you (or your sales force) may be guilty of them.

Mistake Number One: Over concern with strategy instead of tactics

Gather a group of salespeople together around a coffee maker and listen to the conversation. After the obligatory complaints about all types of things, the conversation inevitably drifts to questions of strategy. How do I accomplish this in that account? How do I get this account to this?

In my seminars, I often hold a "clinic" where salespeople write down any sales-related question and submit it to the group for discussion. These questions are almost always related to strategic issues. In one form or another, they ask the same question: How do I achieve this effect in this account?

While this thoughtfulness is encouraging, it reveals an erroneous mindset. The belief behind these questions is this: "If I can only determine the right sequence of actions of my part, I'll be able to sell this account, or achieve this goal."

This, unfortunately, is rarely the case. These sales people, based on this erroneous belief, are looking for a solution in the wrong place. Almost always, the answer to the question is not a more clever strategy, but better execution of the basic tactics.

It is like the foot ball team whose players don't tackle well, miss their blocks, throw erratic passes, and fumble frequently. The solution is not a more clever game plan. The solution is better execution of the basic tactics. Learn to do the basics effectively, and the strategy will generally take care of itself.

The real problem with this over concern for strategy is that it seduces the salesperson's energy, substituting the pursuit of a better strategy for the real solution - better execution of the basics.

When I'm asked these "strategy" questions, I find myself asking the salesperson to verify the fundamentals. Have you identified the key decision makers and influencers in the account? Have you created trusting personal relationships with each of them? Have you understood the customer's situation at a deep level? Have your presented your solution in a way that gives them reason to do business with you? Have you effectively matched your proposal to the intricacies of the customer's needs?

This line of inquiry almost always reveals a flaw in tactical execution. It's not the strategy that the problem, it's the tactics. Focus on doing the basics first, and the need for a clever strategy diminishes.

Mistake Number Two: Lack of thoughtfulness

The typical field salesperson has, as a necessary and integral part of his/her personality, an inclination toward action. We like to be busy: driving here and there, talking on our cell phones, putting deals together, solving customer's problems -- all in a continuous flurry of activity. Boy, can we get stuff done!

And this high energy inclination to action is a powerful personality strength, energizing the salesperson who wants to achieve success.

But, like every powerful personality trait, this one has a dark backside. Our inclination to act often overwhelms our wiser approach to think before we act.

In our hunger for action, we neglect to take a few moments to think about that action. Is this the most effective place to go? Have I thoroughly prepared for this sales call? Do I know what I want to achieve in this call? Is this the person I should be seeing, or is there someone else who is more appropriate? Is it really wise to drive 30 miles to see this account, and then back tract 45 miles to see another?

Customers these days are demanding salespeople who are thoroughly prepared, who have well thought-out agendas, and who have done their research before the sales call. All of this works to the detriment of the "ready-shoot-aim" type of salesperson.

On the other hand, those who discipline themselves to a regular routine of dedicated time devoted to planning and preparing will find themselves far more effective then their action-oriented colleagues.

Mistake Number Three: Contentment with the superficial

There are some customers who have been called on for years, and yet the salesperson doesn't know any more about them today then he/she did after the second sales call. These are accounts where the salesperson cannot identify one of the account's customers, explain whether or not they are profitable, or identify one of their strategic goals.

Most salespeople have a wonderful opportunity to learn about their customers in deeper and more detailed ways, and often squander it by having the same conversations with the same customers over and over. They never dig deeper. They mistake familiarity with knowledge.

What a shame. I am convinced that the ultimate sales skill -- the one portion of the sales process that more than anything else determines our success as a salesperson -- is the ability to know the customer deeper and in a more detailed way than our competitors do.

It's our knowledge of the customer that allows us to position ourselves as competent, trustworthy consultants. It's our knowledge of the customer that provides us the information we need to structure programs and proposals that distinguish us from everyone else. It's our knowledge of the customer that allows us to proactively serve that customer, to meet their needs even before they have articulated them.

In an economic environment where the distinctions between companies and products are blurring in the eyes of the customer, the successful companies and individuals will be those who outsell the rest. And outselling the rest depends on understanding the customer better than anyone else.

Mistake Number Four: Poor questioning

This is a variation of the mistake above. I am absolutely astonished at the lack of thoughtfulness that I often see on the part of salespeople. Most use questions like sledgehammers, splintering the relationship and bruising the sensibility of their customers by thoughtless questions.

Others don't use them at all, practically ignoring the most important part of a sales call. They labor under the misconception that the more they talk, the better job of selling they do, when the truth lies in exactly the opposite approach.

And others are content to play about the surface of the issue. "How much of this do you use?" "What do you not like about your current supplier?" Their questions are superficial at best, redundant and irritating at worst.

The result? These salespeople never really uncover the deeper more intense issues that motivate their customers. Instead, they continually react to the common complaint of customers who have been given no reason to think otherwise: "Your price is too high."

Fewer sales, constant complaints about pricing, frustrated salespeople, impatient managers, and unimpressed customers - all of these as a result of the inability to use the salesperson's most powerful tool with skill and sensitivity.

Mistake Number Five: No investment in themselves.

Here's an amazing observation. No more than 5% of active, full time professional salespeople ever invest in their own growth. That means that only one of 20 salespeople have ever spent $20.00 of their own money on a book on sales, or subscribed to a sales magazine, taken a sales course, or attended a sales seminar of their own choosing and on their own nickel.

Don't believe me? Take a poll. Ask your salespeople or your colleagues how many of them have invested more than $20.00 in a book, magazine, tape, etc. in the last 12 months. Ask those who venture a positive answer to substantiate it by naming their investment. Don't be surprised if the answers get vague. You'll quickly find out how many sales people in your organization have invested in themselves.

Sales is the only profession I know of where the overwhelming majority of practitioners are content with their personal status quo.

Why is that? A number of reasons...

Some mistakenly think that their jobs are so unique that they cannot possibly learn anything from anyone else. Still others think they know it all. They have, therefore, no interest in taking time from some seemingly valuable thing they are doing to attend a seminar or read a book.

Some don't care. Their focus is hanging onto their jobs, not necessarily getting better at them. But I think the major reason is that the overwhelming majority of salespeople do not view themselves as professionals and, therefore, do not have professional expectations for themselves. They worked their way up from the customer service desk or they landed in sales by chance, and they view their work as a job to be done, not a profession to grow within.

They are content to let their companies arrange for their training or development. And between you and me, they would prefer that their companies really didn't do anything that would require them to actually change what they do.

These are the five most common negative tendencies that I see. It may be that you and your colleagues are immune to these dampers on success. Good for you. But if you are not immune, and if you spot some of your own tendencies in this list, then you are not reaching your potential for success. You have tremendous potential for success -- for contentment, confidence and competence - that is being hindered by these negative behaviors. Rid yourself of these negative tendencies, and you'll begin to reach your potential.

Copyright 2002 by Dave Kahle

If you would like assistance structuring a sales system or sales development program to suit the specific needs of your company, you can reach Dave Kahle at 800-331-1287 or via email at [email protected].

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