The Three Basic Rules of Selling

Reflecting on a recent, well-planned, 12-day trip to visit national historic sites and family while leaving some time for unexpected off-the-map ventures, I recall that some of my early business sales trips were not as well organized and, consequently, not as enjoyable or productive. Why? Because the Three Basic Rules of Selling were missing...as was a basic element for all three - time management.

In one such instance, I was given a list of customers and a call/travel schedule without either a plan or an expected outcome in mind. Guess what? Those journeys were not very efficient or effective but became an essential learning experience for me on how to plan my time, set my goals and determine what information and resources would be needed to accomplish the mission. What follows are a couple of true stories about those early sales years and the lessons learned.

Three Basic Rules –“Know your product, your customer and yourself”
I need to come clean up front: Selling didn’t come naturally for me. Although I liked meeting people and being with them, I didn’t have a clue about selling. In one of my pervious articles entitled “Building Success in the Construction Industry with 6 Management Actions, I tell about my first sales job as a Sales Engineer for a company that manufactured HVAC products. I was responsible for selling to manufacturers and distributors of on-highway trucks, buses, motor homes, off-highway agricultural, construction and mining equipment, etc. My sales territory was from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. That’s right, a small patch that covered nearly half of the continental United States! It was baptism by fire, with little training, no do’s and don’ts about selling, no sales manual – just a title and a sales territory as I embarked on the journey.

Know your product
Although I had basic knowledge of HVAC systems for use in on-highway truck applications, I knew little about how the individual components of the system worked and how they were designed to work together to obtain the desired performance.  Needless to say, I knew even less about how to sell them, especially when I had a wide variety of customers and applications. I didn’t have a clue and was feeling overwhelmed. I needed help! 

What happened next was a stroke of good luck. This came in the form of a man named Stu B. He was one of the other Sales Engineers with 30 + years of experience. He had learned the business from the ground up; shop floor, maintenance, prototype shop, field service technician, service training and sales. You name it and Stu had done it! He had a wealth of knowledge, a gift for teaching, and when he spoke everyone listened. For whatever reason, Stu took a liking to me and became a self-appointed mentor, taking me under his wing and imparting pearls of wisdom that I have retained to this day.  He taught me just about every thing I needed to know about the products, applications, uses, installation, repair, and myself, which I’ll talk about later.  I not only became product savvy, I learned about all the down-to-earth things that customers needed to know to meet their requirements and make decisions about what to buy. I knew my product!

Know your customer
I earlier mentioned that I had a large sales territory and an equally long list of customers, some of whom were current customers and others who were potential customers. Oh yes, I knew the company name and generally their business and line of products. What I didn’t know were the people, the decision makers and those that influenced decisions. I was given an annual sales goal and some general guidelines including a list of priority customers, locations, contact names, historical sales volume, etc. However, I really didn’t know what it meant to know your customer… 

Again, Stu came to my rescue. He taught me the importance of learning everything about the customer’s business (sales revenue, products, applications, customers, locations, people, etc.). I learned the importance of this when making my first sales calls on major agricultural manufacturers (IH, Case, John Deere, Gleaner, etc.) who were all undertaking projects to integrate HVAC systems for cabs in agricultural tractors and combines. They all had one thing in common: They knew little about how to design and test HVAC systems for all the various agricultural applications. With Stu’s help, encouragement and positive reinforcement we sold our company on the idea of designing, building and field-testing prototype systems for three of the major agricultural companies. Our next challenge was to sell the idea to those companies. To do that, we needed to know a lot more about their business and who were the decision makers and those who had influence… So we did! I would sometimes leave home on Sunday afternoon (saying good-by to my wife and 4 children), meet Stu en-route to the customer and spend the week camping on their door steps until we could get appointments with people in engineering, purchasing, manufacturing, etc. I would return home on Saturday morning and start all over again on Sunday…It all paid off! We sold the idea and the next thing I knew I was in Enid, OK, installing HVAC systems into tractor and combine cabs and making ready to spend the rest of the summer traveling with the harvesting crews field testing systems in various applications (wheat, corn, etc.). Now, I wasn’t quite ready to sell “ice to the eskimos”, but I learned the importance of knowing your customer!

Know yourself… 
One of the things I struggled most with was finding the right balance on how to spend my time (family, work, church and leisure activities). At the time, I didn’t recognize that it was all about priorities and how to allocate ones’ time. I would find myself getting stressed-out about the amount of time I was spending on the road (sometimes Sunday evening to 
Saturday morning), reading and answering correspondence, paperwork, and returning phone calls before shutting down for the day. Finally, finding time to prepare for the days and weeks ahead. 

With the help and understanding of my wife and partner-for-life, we worked out the priorities and sharing of responsibilities. This resulted in a better understanding of who I was and what I was capable of doing and more importantly, incapable of doing. Time became my friend. 

One of my early time management tests came when I was calling on a truck manufacturer who specialized in designing and producing “step vans” (light delivery trucks - UPS, bread/pastry, special tools, etc.) of the type I mentioned in my article entitled “The O-ring”

They were located in a small town on the Indiana/Ohio boarder, some 300 miles from my company’s HQ. This is also where I got my first lesson on the don’t do’s of account management. Yes, my friend and mentor Stu was again in the picture to guide me and help me make the right time management decision.  While working with the account, I was asked by their engineer to design a heating and defrosting system for a new model that over the next twelve months was schedule for testing and production. I accepted the challenge and opportunity to become the supplier. 

Over the next few months I spent my time calling only on the engineer to design and build prototype parts to fit the truck and pass the government-regulated heating and defrosting tests. During this period I was driving back and forth several times delivering prototype parts and assemblies. I was feverishly focused on pleasing the engineer and passing the tests. The tests were successfully completed and heating and defrosting systems were approved. During the project, Stu kept asking me if I had made contact with the purchasing and production managers.  No, I hadn’t! I had made a big mistake; I had not taken the time to make contact with those other decision making people.   It’s not rocket science to figure out that by neglecting the others, I had opened the door for competitors to build credibility and ultimately quote a similar heating and defrosting system.  Stu told me that I still had time to catch-up but that I needed now to work extra hours to meet and understand the needs of the other decision makers. I did and ultimately won the contract that lasted 5+ years…  This was a situation where I knew was capable, however, I had exercised poor time management.      

The Don’t Do’s of Selling
It was some years later that I read an article about sales account management that has served me well. It addresses the time management matter by getting us to think about whom we spend our time with. It boils down to these four principle actions:

  1. Don’t over invest in the wrong people
  2. Don’t under invest in the right people
  3. Don’t forget to invest in some of the people
  4. Don’t spend time fighting within your organization

I have kept these actions on my office wall or on my desk for the past 30+ years as it serves to be a good reminder of how to spend my time!

Lessons Learned
It’s all about time management. We live and function daily by knowing what time it is. From the time we awake in the morning to the time we go to bed at night we are checking the clock. In the business world, time is a precious commodity. Every successful sales and other business leader has figured this out and learned to find the right balance of how to spend their time between internal and external activities. I learned to know my products, my customer and myself and practice the don’t do’s of selling! Have you? The old adage is true: “Nothing happens until you make a sale”.