In the last few years we have seen radical changes in the sales landscape. Instead of the traditional contact-qualify-pitch-sell-close pattern, today it’s all about establishing relationships, discovering client pain points, and creating value. Insight selling is the phrase of the modern sales era.
But if you dig in and talk to champion sales innovators and veterans, you make an interesting discovery: they’ve been practicing insight selling for their entire career. For them, insight sales isn’t some new and incredible discovery — it’s just how to sell. Throughout the years, that’s been the real difference between sales innovators and the average salesperson.
Case in point: Mr. Wallace Stokes. While Wallace has never written a book or given a seminar, over his 40+-year career he’s made many millions selling vacuums, high-end automobiles, high-ticket software packages, management consulting packages costing tens of thousands, and many other goods and services in between. He’s trained dozens of salespeople and his sales training has resulted in increases of 200-300% in sales. And boy, does he have some great stories to tell.
Wallace has been in sales his entire life–quite literally. His mother jokes that Wallace was born with a pen in his hand and immediately tried to close the doctor on malpractice insurance. He actually did begin his sales career during childhood— learning and practicing every one of the principles we now know as insight selling.
What was your first selling experience?
When I was 9 years old, I was knocking on doors selling the Grit newspaper. Back in the 50s Grit was a weekly newspaper that people in rural areas—such as Texas, where I lived—could read to find out what was going on around the country. Probably the first thing I realized about selling was that I was independent; making money was entirely dependent upon me and nobody else. At 9 years old I had things that my classmates and my brothers didn’t have because I was willing to go out and do what very few people were willing to do.
What are the basics to successful selling?
The first key to effective selling is establishing a relationship with your prospect. It was one of the things that I always liked about [famous author, salesman and motivational speaker] Zig Ziglar—one of his basic philosophies was, “If you’re not helping your prospect you’re not doing the right thing.” So the help issue was always a really big one, regardless of what I was selling.
It’s true whether you’re selling a guy a vacuum cleaner, or a Porsche, or a $35,000 consulting package—you have to dig in and see who this person is and see what you have that can help them to meet their goals, whatever they are. Whether it’s the newly promoted captain at the Air Force base who wants a Porsche 911 because it will attract more women, or the housewife who’s frazzled because her Hoover keeps breaking; you sell her a $1,200 Kirby because you’re solving a problem. But you don’t know what the problem is unless you can really establish a relationship with the prospect.
In all the sales training I’ve done, that’s nearly always the person’s biggest weakness in selling: establishing that relationship. Their biggest failing is that they’re just charging in and going for the pitch.
I have a great story about the establishing of relationships that someone actually did with me. At one time there was a Jaguar dealership next to the place I always bought my coffee in downtown San Jose, California, where I live. One day I walk over to see the new Jag. The salesman walks up and says, “How’re you doing? I’m Joe. What’s your name? Welcome to the dealership. Would you like a cup of tea?” And I said, “Sure, why not?
Then he asks me, “Which one were you looking at?” Note that he didn’t ask which model I was interested in—he asked which one I was looking at. I told him, but then I said, “I’m going to be really honest with you. I used to own a Jag, I would never own a Jag again, and I just came in here to admire the aesthetics of it.” He said, “I totally understand. Would you like another cup of tea?”
Then he says, “So tell me about your previous Jaguar experience.” So I told him it was a beautiful car; I loved it and it drove like a dream, but it spent much of its life in the shop being repaired. He said, “Yeah, I’ve heard that about those older Jags. I can guarantee that if you ever bought a Jag I would make sure that never happened.”
I didn’t end up buying, but I was really impressed with his salesmanship. But the real capper was a year later I was at a car show in San Jose Convention Center. I’m walking down the aisle and I hear this voice: “Wally! Hey, Wally! Come here!” I turn around and it’s Joe from that Jaguar dealership—he remembered my name! He said, “Hey, come over and look at this new model!” He didn’t actually try to sell me—he just showed me the car. I was salivating. I still didn’t buy, but I tell you what: If I do ever decide to buy the new Jaguar F model, I know where I’m going to buy it and who I’m buying it from. And it’s because of that bond, that relationship.
I imagine you also focus on finding out about a prospect’s problems and issues — and whether there is, indeed, a need your product can fulfill.
Absolutely. You have to cater to the individual who’s in front of you, and who they are and what they need and want. And then, do you have something like that in your inventory, or in your repertoire of services that is going to satisfy that need?
I was selling Mazdas during the gas crunch in the 70s. The rotary-engine Mazdas had a bad reputation for mileage, but nobody knew that we also had the little Mazda four cylinder engine that got like 27 miles to the gallon. Again, I establish a relationship, establish a rapport: “What is it that you’re looking for? What is important to you?” I didn’t sell very many Rotarys, but I sold a whole lot of four-banger family cars. That mileage was what people wanted.
I practiced this even when I was young, selling dry-cleaning coupons door-to-door. I would knock on the door. “Hi ma’am, do you use dry cleaning services?” “Well yes we do as a matter of fact.” “Good, where do you go?”
I wasn’t selling anything, I was finding out about this person. “Where do you go, how often do you go, how much do you typically spend in a given week on your husband’s suits? Okay, what if I could show you how to save money?” I’ve established that there’s a need and I’ve established that there’s a situation. You have to establish a need and then you have to establish whether or not your service or product can fulfil that need.
I sold furniture once for a short time, and during that time I was getting as much per day in closing as guys who had been at it for months. The manager asked me, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I just find out what they need and want, and what their budget is.” He goes, “God, none of the other guys do that!” And they didn’t. They were your typical slicked-back hair, spaghetti-stained-tie salesmen.
Establishing that need was always the most difficult problem I ever had in training people. I used to do consulting for doctor’s offices, and doctors are the worst to train. They believe the patient is there because of the doctor’s expertise. That might be true, but how many other choices do they have? A ton! And if you don’t establish that relationship, you can lose them.
My most recent medical client heads up a cosmetic practice in Morro Bay, California. The population of Morro Bay is 2,000 people. When I wrapped up with her last year, we were at $2,000,000 a year. We had people coming from San Diego, San Francisco, New York, and Las Vegas. There are hundreds of cosmetically oriented practices between San Diego and Morro Bay. Why did they come to her? Because I trained her entire staff on that relationship and catering to the person’s needs and wants. “What is it that you want? What issue are you trying to handle here? Good, that’s exactly what we’re going to deliver to you.”
How do you take it to the next level?
The next stage is benefits and consequences. The prospect has explained to you their problems and their issues. “Now if I could show you something that could handle that, what might be the benefit?” In other words much of the time I didn’t tell the clients what the benefits were—I’d get them to tell me. “What would be the benefits of having a extra twenty thousand a year?” or “What would be the benefit of having that 911 Porsche?” “If I could show you how to save $50 a month on your dry cleaning, how would that help you?” I’d get them to give me the benefits.
Then you can turn it around and ask them for consequences if they don’t buy. For example when I was selling consulting services to doctors’ offices: “How will this affect your family if you don’t handle this income issue, Doctor?”
In selling cars, the “consequences” depended on the model they were interested in. With Audis it was very easy because Audis at the time were regarded as being super safe and one of the first front-wheel drives. “So what do you think will happen if you just continue to drive Fords that fall apart, or that you can’t steer in the rain?” They say, “Oh God, yeah, that’s why I’m here. I’ve heard good things about it.”
That’s also how I trained my doctors. When they diagnosed an issue, I trained them to do the same thing. “What do you think is going to happen if you don’t fix that?” I sometimes got my doctors’ closing percentages up from 50% to 80% by teaching them benefits and consequences.
In consulting I would also use benefits and consequences to judge how near I was to the close. I’d get to a certain point and ask, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how serious are you about handling this?” If they gave me anything below an 8, I knew they weren’t there. So we’d go back to the consequences: “What do you think will happen if you don’t resolve this issue in the next 1 to 3 years? Do you think it will fix itself? Do you really want to resolve it? It doesn’t sound like you do.” I ended up with an 80% closing average in the nine years I was selling consulting.
How important is qualifying prospects?
I learned to qualify fast. When I was selling cars, we had a lot of what we call tire-kickers. For example when I sold Porsche/Audis in West Texas, I’d be working the floor on a Saturday. There would be people waiting for the movie to start next door and they’d say [Texas accent], “Oh let’s go look at them fancy German cars!”
Or a guy drives up in a Ford station wagon with kiddie seats and baby rattles in the back. You have to kind of go, “This is Porsche/Audi dealership. What were you really looking for?” “Well I’ve heard good things about the Audis.” “Got it. Well do you know how much an Audi costs compared to a Chevy?” “No I don’t.” And you just lay it on the line. “Well I’ve got to be honest with you: an Audi is x amount of money. Is that what you were thinking?”
I also had another fast and rather humorous way of qualifying someone looking at a Porsche 911–but who had never driven a high-performance car. It was my test drive. Back in the 70s there was an interstate that ran through El Paso, and there was never anybody on it. So I would take the fastest 911 we had at the dealership, and I put the buyer in the passenger seat. I’d run up the onramp and hit about 100 by the time we got to the top of it. I’d run about 6 miles outside of town, get it up to about 140, and then slam on the brakes and take my hands off the wheel. One of two things would happen: they’d either buy or they’d ask if we could stop at the local clothing store so we could buy a new pair of underwear.
Have you ever been surprised in the process of qualifying a potential buyer?
You can be fooled. I had two guys pull up in a beat-up Ford F150 truck once with mud and cow dung all over it. It turned out that they had just sold their bumper crop of cows “and we want one of them there Porsches!” I sold two of them.
Probably the wildest story I have along this line also happened when I was selling at that dealership. It was the 70s. and I was one of five guys in El Paso, Texas that had hair below my ears. My sales partner, Bill, was a genuine West Texas redneck: still had his military crew-cut and closed the bar every night. Well, one day a guy comes walking up the steps to the dealership. He’s got hair to his shoulders, a t-shirt, the leather vest, blue jeans with the knees ripped out and flip-flop sandals. Bill looks at me and says, “Oh, this is one of your hippy types. You go ahead.” The kid walks in. I said, “Hi my name is Wally. What were you looking for?” And he points to the most expensive 911 on the floor and says, “I think I want one of those.” I had learned a long time ago that sometimes you just shut up, so I did. He asks, “How much is it?” and I told him. He asked, “Do you have one in red?” I said, “Yes sir, we do.” He said, “So give me your card. I’ll see you tomorrow at 10:30.” Turned out the reason it was 10:30 was he had to go to the bank and get cash. He comes in the next day with his knapsack, and dumps the cash on my desk. Bill turned about 25 shades of red and purple.
There are times when understanding a prospect’s need, and deciding whether or not the product will suit them, requires a deeper understanding. This is especially true if you are selling a complex software product that you don’t have the technical know-how to fully understand. Have you ever found yourself in this position?
I used to sell a $30,000 accounting package to large companies. It was a highly technical product and I knew I would need technical help selling it. So what I did was go amongst the programmers and find out which one was actually from Planet Earth and could talk to other human beings. I found one who was actually a programmer and an accountant. We would get very involved with the client, and finding out exactly their needs were. We worked great together, because he could be very honest with the prospect and with me. Is our package going to work for them, or can we modify to work for them in a relatively short period of time? If we couldn’t we were very honest with the prospect—we’d say, “Honestly, your company is too big for what we do. You probably need to go over here.”
When I went and did shows in Europe, I would tell the bosses “We need to bring this guy,” because he could actually sit down and talk to people. So if you yourself don’t technically understand the product, you need to have someone behind you, or at the least success stories—something to give you the confidence that this product is going to do what you say it will do.
I had this tech guy trained well, too. One time I was making a sale to a manufacturer in Israel. The man I was selling to was actually a fairly small manufacturer, and when he told me the issues he was having, my tech guy spoke up and said, “Oh, yes, we can deal with that. We had a client with the same problem—a client in Germany, Sieman’s I think it was.” The prospect’s eyes suddenly got big—Siemen’s was a leading German manufacturer with whom I had indeed made a million-dollar deal. That closed the deal with the Israeli manufacturer; if it was good enough for Sieman’s, it was certainly good enough for him.
How do you know when to stop talking and acknowledge that you’ve closed the deal?
You really have to know when you’ve actually closed the sale. When I was selling Porches the guy would ask, “Do you have it in red?” I would say, “Yes sir, we do. Would you like it this afternoon or tomorrow morning?” You don’t hesitate.
When I was consulting doctors I would set someone up to be a “secret shopper” and call into the practice. I would then rate each of the people who handled the call as to their sales skills. The top score is a 10, and most of the time their employees would score an average of 3 or 3.5. At that point the doctor could clearly see they really had a problem. They would basically say, “How do I get the money to you for your first payment?” I knew the sale was closed. I would get the contract signed and get going.
Today we teach salespeople that part of establishing and maintaining that relationship is the service the buyer gets after the sale is completed. It is also key to word of mouth. How did you establish yourself as someone concerned with a relationship after the sale?
When I was selling cars, I needed that car prepped and ready for that buyer before he could even think about it. I had a deal with the Service Manager. “If I sell a car, it’s a 6-pack of beer for you if you get that car prepped and ready to go, ASAP!” I actually drove to Houston once to pick up a car for a guy because we didn’t have it in red—I had to go and get it off the boat. I told the buyer, “They’re taking one off the boat in Houston right now and I’m going to go get it for you.” That guy probably referred me another 12 sales, because who else was willing to do that?
It’s the same thing with the consulting. Once I got the doctor’s contract signed and I’d gotten my payment, either I or the consultant were in his office the next day. I once had a guy sign up with me strictly because he called 4 different consulting companies, and I returned his call within two hours. Nobody else had called him back—the next nearest was 5 days. He had two questions: “How much is your service?” and, “Is all of your service that fast?” I said, “It’s $35,000 cash, check or money order and yes, I will have the consultant in your practice the next day.” Boom, done.
What if you don’t totally believe in your product?
I can’t sell anything that I don’t 100% believe in, period, I’m sorry. When I left the Porsche dealership I was offered jobs by other dealers. I couldn’t sell an Alfa Romeo; they’re gorgeous to look at and I love to drive them—when they’re running. I personally couldn’t do it, and that is part of the problem that I find in sales: people will sell things that they themselves would never use or haven’t tried.
When I’ve trained people to sell, I’d really emphasize this. In consulting orthodontists, I would tell them that somebody in their office had better be wearing braces even if they don’t need them. Or there was the optometrist I consulted in San Francisco. It was in a very yuppie neighborhood and they had all the coolest frames—I think the cheapest frame in there was $450. And I walked in there and nobody was wearing glasses! I told the optometrist, “I don’t care if your lenses are clear, somebody better be wearing the hippest frames available.”