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Five Deadly Sins Businesses Make in Sales
by Jim Lewis, CEO, Princeton Sales Partners


While losing a sale can be attributed to any number of reasons, it could be caused by a common selling mistake. Even the most seasoned executives make blunders in the sales process that are easily correctible. Before you lose any more business, it’s crucial to learn more about the most common selling sins and how to avoid them.

The following scenarios may seem familiar because most of us have experienced them at one time or another.

Sin #1 – Let me tell you about me

Vicky Watson was overjoyed to finally have the opportunity to present to the Acme Corporation’s senior managers.  She had been trying to break into this large account for more than a year and now the time had come.  The email confirming the meeting was still open on her computer as she stared at the screen.  Elation turned to panic as she realized that she would have to finalize the presentation that she had only thought out in her head.  The meeting was next week, which meant that she really had to get moving.  She knew that she could borrow from the other presentations that she gave during the year to other clients and prospects.  However, this one would have to be different.  How was she going to able to convince Acme management to hire her company based on a single presentation?

A common mistake is to assume that once a prospect knows who you are and what your company and its products and services do, they are ready to buy.  This often causes sellers to lead the sales process with these facts. However, buyers want to first conclude that you know more about their needs before they want to know something about you.  The way buyers defend against doing this in the wrong order is to ask about price – which stops most sellers dead in their tracks.  See? It works! 

It’s natural to want to tell the prospect about you, your company and your offerings.  This is called the “triad of self promotion.”  Vicky Watson was thinking about what she was going to say to her top prospect instead of thinking more importantly about what she was going to ask.  The notion is that the client is expecting a presentation, and since that is what they asked for, that is what they will get.  However, quite possibly a differentiator for you is to be genuinely inquisitive about their company, their customers, and their business challenges.  These insights will provide you a far better perspective of how you can help them and is often the first step toward becoming a trusted advisor.

Sin #2 – Proposal black holes

Michael Skillman was trying to wait patiently for the prospect to call him back.  He sent the proposal to the Brown Book Printing Company three weeks ago and had heard nothing since.  His sales manager was pestering him to find out what was going on but the only way Michael knew how to find out was to call the prospect and send email.  The previous Friday afternoon he left a phone message for his key contact with the hopes of getting an update.  The only thing he could think of doing was to call and leave another message.  His instincts told him that this approach was not a very strong selling tactic but he had no other choice.  The longer he waited before he heard from the prospect, the more he felt it was unlikely they would win the business.  He thought there must be a better way to manage the proposal process.

Many sellers believe that proposals sell.  What is worse is that they believe constant follow up to proposals that have been submitted is selling.  Instead, once the buyer has a proposal from a seller they don’t need the seller anymore.  Almost by definition, the proposal should contain all the information they need to know about you, your company and your offering.  That being the case, when does the buyer evaluate your ability to thoroughly understand their needs?  It’s hard to validate, but would you agree that most buyers don’t read the entire proposal?

If that is the case, then the best thing to do is to spend as much time as possible with buyers stepping them through all the aspects of how you are going to help them address their business needs.  In other words, when they receive the written proposal, all the information in the proposal should have already been discussed with the buyer.  The proposal then becomes simply a summary of all the discussion to date.  There shouldn’t be any surprises. Either the buyer has already concluded that you best understand their needs and has articulated your capabilities – or very likely, someone else has.  Don’t expect the proposal to achieve something that was not already accomplished during the prior discussions with the buyer.

Sin #3 – Process?  What process?

Ingram Jones relished the idea of running his own business. What he did not find nearly as enjoyable was managing the sales process.  When the company was just starting up he was the lone sales person; the proverbial chief cook and bottle washer.  At the time, he relied on his instincts and experience to keep track of leads, prospects and new customers.  Now that he has a team of 5 sales people, tracking sales leads is nearly impossible to do efficiently.  Each sales person approached the task of selling differently and the results reflected that fact.  The skills of the people varied widely but that did not translate into performance.  Sometimes the more experienced sales people needed more management than the more junior people.  It really depended upon the circumstance and since everyone was selling differently, he had to review each and every sales situation to decide the right course of action.  How could he get his team to show more consistent results?

Most sellers “wing it” when it comes to selling.  That means that they don’t have a structured approach to finding, nurturing and closing business.  The outcome is inconsistent results –the entrepreneur’s greatest business risk.  A process doesn’t have to be complicated or heavy on the paperwork.  A good process helps sellers understand how buyers buy – which they love to do.  ‘Winging it’ causes sellers to reinforce stereotypical (read “bad”) behavior – which slows down the sales process.  One place in the sales cycle that is the most overlooked and therefore, can provide you the greatest competitive advantage is the step immediately following your conversation with a buyer.  That step is writing a follow up letter.  Writing an effective follow up letter is the first step and most critical part of any good, repeatable sales process.

Imagine that immediately after meeting with you the buyer has to attend an hour-long meeting.  What specifically will the buyer remember from your session with him? Writing an effective follow up letter requires some important discipline.  First, it has to be an accurate representation of what happened and what was said, not what you would have liked to have happened.  Next, since this is early in the relationship, it is important to avoid “selling” in this document.  That means that you cannot position, posture, push or pontificate about how great your company or your products and services are.  This verbiage poisons the letter and will be quickly discounted by the buyer.  As soon as they spot the “selling”, they will probably stop reading. Alternately, if you are able to document the situation and the challenges they face based on an accurate representation of the meeting, your stature as a trusted advisor will increase. This is why the follow up letter can be the most important step in the sales process.

Sin #4 – Automating garbage

Eric Chu stared at the stack of business cards that were piled on his desk.  He recently attended a trade show where his company had a booth and the cards on his desk were from the people he met while he was there.  He wanted to track the effectiveness of his company’s marketing budget, including the money spent on trade shows.  To accomplish that, he asked all sales contact information needed to be input into the company’s online tracking system.  Each of the prospects whose names were entered would begin to receive marketing materials and emails from the company.  In turn, each name would be tracked over the following year to determine how many became customers. Part of Eric’s job was to place a follow up call to his list of leads.  The problem was that Eric knew from past experience that very few of the people on the list would become customers.  Therefore, his lack of enthusiasm for the task was understandable.  He wanted to find a way to find more, better qualified leads but he was not sure this was the right approach.

Do you have a sales tracking system or contact management system such as Act or   If you do, what are you tracking – activity or progress?  Despite the old adage that sales is a numbers game, if you double the number of bad calls you make – they are still bad calls.  Once you know what your prospects want to accomplish and how you will help them, tracking those steps is useful.  Otherwise, it’s just garbage.

So-called sales dashboards that are available in most CRM or sales force automation products give the illusion that the business is under control.  But this illusion is a dangerous one.  Here is a test.  Pick three opportunities that are being tracked in the system you use.  Then ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the stage that describes the opportunity a customer driven event or an internal driven event?  Asked another way, it that status based on the behavior of the customer or the opinion of the sales person?

  2. Are the stages graded the exact same way for all sales people and all opportunities or do you have to spend time to interpret and synthesize where you really are with an opportunity by second guessing the seller?

  3. What are you asking the sales people to track and are they keeping up with the administration?

Asking yourself these questions will help you ensure that you are tracking sales progress not merely sales activity.

Sin #5 – Meat or vegetables

Christine Angelo looked at the results from each of the sales people over the past three months.  She then compared them with the prior quarter.  It just didn’t make sense.  How could the results of each person fluctuate so dramatically from period to period?  One of Christine’s tasks was to manage and grow relationships with existing customers.  The other was to find new customers.  One sales person would argue that since trust is built between buyer and seller during the sales process, it would be better to have the same person manage the relationship on an ongoing basis.  Christine agreed with the logic but not with the result.  As soon as her reps developed enough revenue-generating accounts they would tend to sit back.  That was what she saw in the numbers.  The number of new accounts had dropped off precipitously in the most recent quarter.

Generally speaking, selling can be divided into “Hunting” and “Farming.” Hunting involves finding prey, killing it and eating it right away (before refrigeration.) After the meal is consumed (usually quickly) it’s time to find more prey.  Farming requires advanced planning and patient care and feeding of the crop.  Both are effective ways to be nourished but their suitability for the goal vary widely.  Hunters make bad farmers and vice versa.  One is not better or worse in general – it depends on what you want to eat.

Sales people, strategies and tactics can be classified in the same way.  First, decide what you want to eat, and then apply the technique or approach that is most suitable to the goal and the skill of the person.   Don’t hire hunters to farm or farmers to hunt.  You will be disappointed and probably go hungry.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?  If they do, then you are not alone. Running a business is a lot of work.  It is complicated by the fact that the most difficult and unpredictable aspect of making a business successful is Selling. While there are many challenges in designing and executing a sales process, these five sins seem to have the biggest impact.

By avoiding the 5 deadly sales sins, you will be able to better track sales progress, use the most appropriate sales techniques, and become a trusted advisor to your prospects.


The Author

Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis is the founder and CEO of Princeton Sales Partners LLC, an executive management coaching and consulting firm to CEOs and entrepreneurs on the best practices of selling and sales management. Based in Princeton, NJ, Jim is the Author of Five Deadly Sins CEOs Make in Sales.

Many more articles in Sales & Marketing in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2009 by Jim Lewis. All rights reserved.

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