Early on in my career I was sent on an important sales call alongside two senior sales people. 

Tom was very confident to the point of cockiness. He had deep sales training learned at Xerox. He carried himself with authority. 

Rick was an “aw shucks” kind of guy raised in the hills of Northern Virginia. He had no formal sales training. He slouched when he walked, had a weak handshake, and always seemed to have a silly grin on his face. 

As for me, I had no clue what I was doing, but hoped to pick up a few tips on how to sell our services. 

The prospective client was the VP of Marketing at a big bank. He controlled a budget that would easily make our quota for the entire year, if we could win his business. Tom had spent months trying to get this meeting with him. He was the lead dog and launched into the pitch after exchanging a few pleasantries. 

Tom’s pitch followed a format he had learned at Xerox: SPINS

Situation – have the prospect explain the current state of things at his company.

Problem – identify the major problems and challenges their situation posed.

Implication – play back to the prospect the implications of not solving these problems.

Need – set up the close by reiterating the prospect’s needs.

Solution – propose our solution as the best way to fill the need and solve the problem.

Tom was very good at this sales methodology. He was one of the top sales guys at Xerox, which is why my company had hired him away. But for whatever reason, the bank VP of Marketing seemed unimpressed, if not down right bored. He was ready to end the meeting and dismiss us, when Rick spoke up.

“Mr. Owens, you played football at UVA, no?” 

The banker perked up. “Yes, how did you know that?” 

“Well,” Rick said in his ‘aw shucks’ southern drawl, “I thought I recognized you, plus I saw the football there on the stand in your glass case. I went to Tech and you guys thrashed us in those years.”

The banker smiled broadly. “Yup, those were good years. Not doing so well these days.”

“Yeah, well, you gotta get a new QB. Your coach loves to run the wishbone when…historically, you guys have had more success with the spread offense.”

At this point, Tom and I sat and listened to the two of them dissect the UVA offense and agree on what it was going to take to turn the program around. After about 15 minutes, Rick says, 

“By the way, we just won some business at UVA and you might like to see the program we put together for their direct mail campaign to recruit top high school seniors. Maybe we can find you a new quarterback [chuckle]?”

“You guys are running a direct mail campaign to recruit kids to UVA?” the banker exclaims.

“Yup,” says Rick.

“Well, let me get my team together next week. You guys can come in and pitch your direct mail services to them. We are open to changing vendors.”

The following week we show up for the presentation and Rick presents the VP of Marketing with a fly-fishing lure that is supposedly hard to find. The banker goes gaga. I later asked Rick if he was a fly fisherman and how he knew Mr. Owens was one. 

“Nope,” never been fly fishing, “he says,” but I saw a picture of him fly fishing with some buddies, hanging there on his wall.” 

We got the account. Tom went on to have a successful sales career at the company. Rick went on to become CEO.

This experience taught me to mix and match the two approaches with people. Sales methodologies like SPINS do work, because they provide a framework to understand a prospect’s problems and how your solution can help them solve those problems and make more money or save more money – which is what just about every solution is designed to do. But sales methodologies often overlook the decision-maker…their professional and personal needs and wants…and what they value.

In the intervening years I learned that what people value is more important in their motivations and decision-making then just about everything else. It’s especially true if a solution they need or want is but one of several they can choose from. All things being equal, the decision goes to the provider who understands and plays to what the decision-maker values.

Whether I was raising money from top-tier VC’s, recruiting a key employee to join the team, or pitching a big account, my first imperative was to understand what the decision-maker valued as much as what his or her organization needed. 

So how do you learn what people value? It’s quite easy, actually. During the conversation, or with a Google search, look for these giveaways:

  • Are they foodies? What foods (and drinks) do they like? What are their favorite restaurants?
  • What do they read? What channels/news do they watch?
  • Who do they follow and/or admire?
  • Are they religious? Are they political? What religion? What party?
  • What social, political or economic issues rile them up?
  • Do they talk about sports? Who’s their team?
  • Where have they traveled? Where is their favorite place?
  • What are their causes, or hobbies?
  • Where did they grow up and attend school?
  • Do they volunteer, or sit on non-profit boards?
  • What other jobs have they held in their career?
  • Are they married, or divorced? Dating? Are their kids still at home, or off on their own?

In most cases, simply look around their office or home while visiting. People display what they value. What kind of car do they drive? What kind of clothes do they wear? People make a statement with what they surround themselves with. Those things are what they value.

Learn what they value and make a personal connection to those things by reinforcing their significance, and you will seal the deal!

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