A Sales Skeptic Interviews a Sales Expert

Blair does his best to reform David's skepticism of sales, discussing what works well and what fails miserably in the sales process.



DAVID C. BAKER: Blair, today... Are you there Blair? Just to make sure.

BLAIR ENNS: I'm here and ready. Ready for whatever you throw at me.

DAVID: You're there mentally as well? 

BLAIR: Yeah. Mentally enough.

DAVID: I'm going to interview you, but I'm not just going to play the part of sales sceptic. I'm actually going to be a sales sceptic because I am a sales sceptic. Do you think you can handle the questions I'm going to ask you?

BLAIR: I'll do my very best.

DAVID: We'll hope your very best is good enough. I'll tell you what...

BLAIR: I have the image of a cast playing with a mouse, but go ahead. 

DAVID: I thought about this topic. Here's the image that came to me. I had worked in San Francisco for two days. I was tired. I had barely made my flight. I happen to have a first class seat this time. It's in the front row of the first class section and I sit down and I'm on the aisle. Right as the door is about to close, I realized there's nobody sitting next to me on the window side and I think, "Oh, this is great." Not only am I in first class, but I have a whole seat next to me. There's nobody that talk to me. I don't have to pretend to be busy. Pretend to be reading a book. 

BLAIR: Let me guess. In walks a salesman. 

DAVID: Exactly.

BLAIR: Right next to you. 

DAVID: Yeah. It's even worse. It's this tall, good looking sales guy and he steps in so quickly. He doesn't even let me get up to let him into his seat. He steps over me with his long legs while he reaches his hand out to me and he says, "Hi, I'm..." Whatever his name was. "I sell for..." Whatever it was. I don't even remember. My heart died at that moment. That's my perspective of a sales guy. That's not you?

BLAIR: First of all, I've been there brother. I have been there.

DAVID: You've been where? You've been the guy sitting on the aisle seat or the window seat? I also remember that over the years, I used to try to get you to change how you describe what you did for people, because you would frequently call it sales training or sales consulting or something like that. I always felt like, "Man, that sales word scares people away." I finally have quit asking you to do that because I've gotten the message not so subtly that this is not going to change. Talk to me about your choice as a word sales first. 

BLAIR: When I launched Win Without Pitching as a consulting practice 15 or so years ago, I was launching a business development consulting practise. There are other business development consultants out there. I thought, "Nobody refers to themselves as a sales consultant. I'm going to own that." I knew why because it's a word growing up in agency business development. 

I avoided that word of sales and I noticed every... Even David Ogilvy and his book, Ogilvy on Advertising, he describes an interchange. I think it's on a plane between an account executive and a stranger. The stranger is asking him, "What do you do?" "I'm an account manager." "Oh, you're in sales?" "No. No. No. No, I'm not in sales."

The entire advertising and all the creative professions and many others as well, they kind of shirk from the S word. I thought, "Well, if everybody is afraid of this word, I'm going to own it." I, as a consultant and we now as a training company, we're a sales training organization. At the same time, we did some analysis not too long ago, sometime last year that if we send an email... The regular thought leadership that we published. If we send an email that has the S word in the subject line, it is far less likely to get opened. The numbers are dramatic. 

It's an interesting, you might call it a paradox, where we could say we do business development consulting. If we talk long enough about what we do, that comes up, because in addition to sales... Business development is really sales and marketing and maybe PR and publicity and perhaps even networking. All of those things bundled up but we choose to own the S word. 

For sure, we go deeper into it than probably anybody else in this space, because I've come to... It's one of the Win Without Pitching tenants is embrace the darkness, lean into discomfort. If the word makes you uncomfortable or a scenario in selling makes you uncomfortable, you should really just lean in into it and discover why it's so uncomfortable. By doing that, you'll make it more comfortable. We still use that word. We just don't use it in the subject line of emails. 

DAVID: Because you're doing a lot more than sales training. The sales training that's effective as I understand it, as you described it as really built on great lead generation, which is built on great positioning. You're reaching back to those two things before you get to the selling. Part of the objection I have as a sales sceptic is just how I've received sales as just a consumer, but it's also the thing that I've never been able to get over is this belief that I've...

I don't know if it's true or not, but it's in my head. It's sort of a zero-sum game. The better you are, the less you need to sell. If I'm in a sales training class, one of your students in a sales training class, and I said something like that, what would you immediately say to me? Like, "No." Then how would you finish that sentence? It isn't necessarily true that the better you are, the less you have to sell. It's not a zero-sum game. How do you talk about that?

BLAIR: I don't know about the zero-sum, but I think that it's absolutely true that the better your product is. Maybe even to a certain extent the better your marketing is, the less selling is required. I don't see myself as a natural sales person. I don't want to keep talking about our program, but I guess it's a pretty good shell right now for what we're talking about, then we can move on. 

When we're teaching people how to sell, we mislead them about at the beginning of the program. People come to us largely wanting to improve their selling skills and we say, "Yeah, yeah, we'll get to that, but first, we're going to take care of a couple of things about the firm that makes selling easier." We go through positioning. We go through building a lead gen plan. We even go into some IP development that produce some tools that make it easier to sell.

Or we can just let people go right into the sales training track of the program. I can tell you that most creative firms... You can train somebody to sell. If you're selling a me-too product, that's a...

DAVID: Like an undifferentiated one, essentially.

BLAIR: Yeah, it's an undifferentiated firm if you're seen as having numerous direct competitors. I don't know that it will make sense to focus on building your selling skills. Our target market is yours and mine, independent creator firms and then some other businesses on the periphery of that. I think if you're running an independent creator firm and you're having trouble selling, you really need to look at what it is that you're selling first. Of course, some resources, time and attention and maybe even money into you're creating a better product.

Then once you have something that's different, that's meaningfully different, then you can use a sales approach that wouldn't horrify you. I think your experience on that plane, and we've all been there. We've all been there numerous times. If we recoil at sales people, at the word sales or selling, it's almost certainly because we have had these horrible experiences. You can look at all of those horrible experiences where you are being sold and the underlying factors are pretty much always the same. 

You've got somebody whose incentives are misaligned to proper goals. His incentives to sell you things are not aligned to your goal of a better future. He is being incentivized to kill something today so his children can eat tomorrow. There's compensation plans. The comp plans, how the incentives are structured are all wrong. Or the other thing that's fairly common is you get really high drive people. Cliché wouldn't be fair, but there's kind of an understanding and it sometimes misunderstood that people with really high competitive drives make really good salespeople.

That's true in really transactional situations where you close, close, close, where the sales cycle is very short and you're closing frequently. If you get a high drive salesperson in what is typically a longer, more consultative sales and then you don't train them or you give them poor training. What I would consider to be classic sales training that pushes for the close quickly. That's another common foundational reason for why being on the buying end of that experience is so horrible.

If you get those two things together, if you get a high drive person who is poorly trained, who's moving way too quickly for the buyer, whose incentives are aligned, so basically, low or no base salary and all commission and no parameters on what constitutes a valid client. Whose incentives are aligned, that is a horrible experience on the buying side.

DAVID: I've been on the end of that. That could be what's coloring some of my thinking. Taking this in a slightly different direction, you are an extrovert. You enjoy people. I'm an introvert. I'm pretty much over them as a whole. First, it's sort of like a two-part question. Are introverts more skeptical of the sales process as we've been talking? The second part of that question is, is the training that might be provided to an introvert different than what might provided to an extrovert?

Part of what really irritates me about sales is that I feel like they're trying to turn the sales training people or the blog I'm reading or whatever it is. They're trying to turn me into an extrovert, which I don't want to be. 

BLAIR: Yeah, isn't that interesting? I went through one sales training program in my career shortly before I launched Win Without Pitching. That's caused me to see the light and to realize that almost nobody in the creative space has received sales training and also there's good sales training and there's bad sales training. I went through the program with a couple of colleagues, and I was talking to one on the phone a week or so later and she said, "I just got off the phone with a prospect, and I launched into my opening script, and he stopped me in the middle of the second sentence." He said, "I'm sorry. Did you just go through a sales training program?" 

DAVID: Not a good sign.

BLAIR: She was one of these introverts who was trained to plaster the fake smile on your face, push hard and essentially mimic being an extrovert. I've never really thought of it that way. Maybe that's not entirely valid, but it's probably close enough. I don't think it matters whether you're an introvert or an extrovert. 

I think in the type of selling that our clients do in the consultative sale, customized services where the sale is a sample of what the client will be buying, I suspect an introvert might actually do a little bit better than an extrovert. I think in a consultative sale, you need to be a good listener. If you're a high drive extrovert...

DAVID: You might lapse into some bad habits without listening carefully enough, as I interrupt you right there. 

BLAIR: Yeah. I'm fond of saying you can present to somebody, or you can be present to them, but you cannot do both. That's a whole other topic we could spend a whole podcast on how we're addicted to the presentation in the creative space. A sales person, a high drive extrovert is more likely to be... If he's not speaking in the moment and the client is speaking, he's probably thinking about what he's going to say next. 

Somebody who's more patient and perhaps... Again, I probably want to get off this introverted, extroverted thing, but perhaps more introverted is more likely to be present to somebody. Slow down, really focused on what the client is saying. Gather information and be thoughtful about what the next steps are and what's going to come out of her mouth next. 

DAVID: Almost like instead of getting the next statement out, it's more about what question is suggested by what this person is saying right now. How could I probe this further and demonstrate genuine interest. Getting away from the introvert, extrovert thing, I've heard you say this phrase frequently in many different settings over the years. We shared a platform or whatever or reading your stuff and that's about how... It's really about helping people. 

For folks that haven't maybe heard that yet, can you contrast the difference between helping somebody and selling to them? I think there's a clue in there. As I rate my own experience as a buyer and I look at how I'm being treated, I so warmly am drawn to folks who are genuinely helping me. I don't see any hook in there at all. I'm actually more drawn to considering them an as expert. Talk about the difference between helping and selling.

BLAIR: The job of the sales person in the beginning of the sale is to uncover the desired future state of the buyer. "What is it that you want David?" Then to determine at some cursory level if you think you're able to help that person get to that desired future state. 

The client should feel you trying to uncover that desired future state and the client should feel your discernment around whether or not this is a right fit. Then you owe the client an honest answer about, "Yeah, I think we might be able to help you. Let's keep going." Or, "You know what? Here are the concerns that I have."

This had been stated a bunch of different ways, but if I take a step forward towards you, you retreat. If I lean forward, you lean back. My approach is once we engage, I'll take a step back and see if you take a step forward. Does that make sense? 

DAVID: Yeah, it does.

BLAIR: Instead of advance, advance, advance, it's engage, retreat and see if you take a step back. It's overly glib, but I'm fond of saying, "Retreat. Retreat. Retreat right back into my cave where I will pounce on you, kill you and eat you." It's never that sinister. Come on, if it isn't fun, what's the point of it? If it isn't fun talking about it, then why are we even doing this?

You need to believe this. You can fain this for a little while, but you really need to believe that you are maybe not put on this earth but you're put in this role to help get people to their desired future state. If there's somebody who's way more qualified to do that than you, then you probably have an obligation to point that out. 

You don't necessarily need to say, "I think you'd be better served by somebody else." One of the Win Without Pitching tenants is say what you're thinking. If I uncover your desired future state and I think, "Oh, it sounds like you need something I've never done before." My job is to put that on the table and say, "You know what? I just want to be upfront here. It sounds like you need X. While we're interested in the topic, I think we could probably do it. You need to know we've never done this before." Then just listen to what I'm doing next.

DAVID: As opposed to what I see so many creative firms doing. They're hanging out like, "Okay, I'm an anesthesiologist." Then somebody comes in to their office by mistake and actually need a heart transplant and they say, "Well, to tell you the truth, I haven't done that before, but that is something I have always wanted to do." As opposed to being honest. That's a part of helping somebody.

DAVID: As we translate what you just said into the typical emails that a creative firm might send out to their prospects, the thing that dismays me about so many of them is that they really aren't providing help insight that draws people to like, "I can't wait till I get the next one." It's either an outright sales approach, and they haven't gotten an email from this firm in the last eight months, or it's more like newsy sort of stuff. It's not the help thing. It seems like if you're helping these people, helping the potential buyer over a long period of time, the sales process is so much easier. That's part of this as well, right?

BLAIR: Yeah, you build that goodwill. We're even guilty of violating that trust from time to time in our business. I say that now because I think we violated recently. I said in an article yesterday and someone who replied back saying, "Sounds a bit like a pitch." Touché, it was.

The math that I use is three deposits and then one withdrawal. Three really good pieces of thought leadership. We're all horrible judges of what among our content constitutes a good piece of though leadership. Three provocative, interesting pieces and then you might have some sort of ask. 

Honestly, that applies more to a business like a mine or even yours than it would be to a creative firm. Win Without Pitching is a product that I service as business. We send emails from time to time saying, "Okay, we'd like you to sign up for the program." You have events that you do from time to time where you might haven't asked. Although you're very, very subtle it. 

In an agency, if you have a list of, say, 3000 leads, prospects and you purchase that list. Our friend, Mark O'Brien at Newfangled would say that's the minimum threshold that any creative firm should have on the list is 3000. If you have a list of 3000 and you start spamming it with sales messages, that's just... I don't want to say inappropriate. I wouldn't do it that way. 

I think you need to build up goodwill at least three deposits, probably more in the beginning. Three pieces of provocative thought leadership space over time. Then you can start to use email to maybe begin to ask questions, make withdrawals, but again, you wouldn't necessarily hit all your lists that way. 

DAVID: Just a moment of pure, I guess, authenticity here, you and I have talked about how this podcast is it's really fun for both of us to do. While it's easy, it's almost a shortcut for us to refer to what you and I both do in our businesses. Our goal, our primary goal is not to sell what we do for a living. We are having fun and we're trying to make this useful to thousands of people who will never hire either one of us. If we'd launch into describing or illustrating something based on our businesses, we're not intended that to be a pitch, but it's easy to do, but we had to be careful about that. You and I have talked about that. 

BLAIR: I think in the 30 or so recordings that we've done so far, I think that some of them ever make it to air. We say some stupid things that will preclude us from ever being hired. 

DAVID: Yeah, there's no risk there. 

BLAIR: Just to see if Marcus publishes those ones.

DAVID: Yeah. You've read a lot about AI. Do you think that AI, artificial intelligence like chat bots and so on will replace the human element, the expert human element that you're trying to build into seller's psyches? Or is that going to actually make this skepticism worse like my sales skepticism? Is it going to make it even worse?

BLAIR: I think on the transactional side, it's going to be really helpful. I think for our client's business where consultative services, customized services firm and a consultative sale, I can't see... I'm going to be proven wrong. It's just a matter of how far out. Maybe it's 100 years from now, maybe it's 3 years from now, but I can't see how AI is going to improve those human interactions. 

I do believe that intersection of human intelligence and artificial intelligence is where we're going to get the most gains rather than just turning things over to bots. I think there's a big problem in the world right now with information and bots and confirmation bias. It's like all of these fledgling AI systems from Facebook and other sources are making guesses that the information that we want to see. They're presenting information in front of us that confirm our biases. 

I can't think of the exact equivalent in sales, but I could see that happening too. I could see a bot determining that I need X when I've really moved on to Y. Again, I think in our world, it's hard for me to see how AI is going to impact sales. 

DAVID: Expert professional services. I've often thought that we're going to have to expand the sales training to UX people and developers/programmers. They're making more and more decisions about the buying process, they never touch that stuff before. It's interesting to see how deep that's going to have to go in order to remove rather than reinforce some of sales skepticism. 

I have one other question for you today. I don't think we've really addressed it yet, but it's one of those statements you made that stuck with me over the years. I don't remember the exact context except that you and I were talking about something just on the phone, something unrelated to this. You said, "Oh, I've got to go." 

You're in the middle like one of these cycles where people were signing up for the classes and so on, and you essentially said... I don't remember the exact wording but, "I have to go sell. There's some people I need to talk with. They've already contacted me. I need to answer some of those questions and so on." 

I was struck by how excited you were at the prospect of doing that. For me, it would have been, "Sorry, I got to go. I've got a motorcycle ride or I've got a photo trip or something like that." You were excited about going to do that, whereas I would never had been excited about that, because I would have viewed that as like, "Oh, here's somebody questioning my expertise or what I've done or whatever." 

What is messed up in your head that you enjoy that sort of thing? Is that an excellent state for a seller to be in regardless? Is that one of the outputs you're looking for, for the people that go through your training is that they're excited about that? 

BLAIR: Yeah, I don't know. That's a really good question. I haven't always been excited about it. Even now, there are times when I'm not excited about it. Once I have a sales conversation, then I'm really excited about it. It's not something I get excited about until I've had one. Then I remember and I often say to my team members, "Oh, I forgot how much I love to sell."

Probably because I like solving problems and I like the blank slate of the new set of problems that a new potential client represents. I also like the game. To me, selling is nothing but a game. I've got a name for it. It goes by the name the polite battle for control. 

If you want to see consultative services, then to be good in the engagement, to have an engagement where you're able to affect the client's business and make a considerable impact, create value and capture some of that value for yourself in the form or remuneration. You need to be positioned to lead in the engagement like a practitioner. Like an expert practitioner. Not a vendor. It's really hard to do good work of this type if you're seen as a vendor.

I would go so far as to say not as a partner. There are a lot of firms out there who say, "We want to partner with our clients." I always say, "You're not aiming high enough. You should be seen as the expert practitioner." 

If you're thinking of hiring me and to guide you through some sort of engagement whether it's consulting or training, some sort of I'm selling you ideas or advice. If you're thinking of hiring me, then for me to deliver the most value I can, you're going to have to let me drive. You're going to have to let me lead in the engagement. You cannot be a good soldier in the sale and then once you win the business convert to being a general. 

DAVID: It starts before the sale closes essentially.

BLAIR: Yeah, back to the idea that the sale is the sample. For it to make sense to both of us, for us to do business together, you need to demonstrate to me in the sale before you hire me that you are willing to let me lead the engagement. The game is the polite battle for control. It's this polite jostling to see if you will let me lead. Do you see me as the expert practitioner now? 

If you don't at the beginning of the engagement, then it's my primary job is to occupy that position. There's the battle that's going to happen and I call it the probative conversation. Ideally, the probative conversation happens without me being present. It happens through my agents, my thought leadership, people who are referring me, who position me as the expert. 

In the first interaction, you already see me as the expert. When I try to politely lead us through the conversation, you seed the higher ground to me. That's what I'm looking for. It's not a power play. I'm not trying to dominate you. I'm just trying to see. Do you see me as the expert and do you trust me enough to let me lead in the sale? Therefore, I need to attempt to lead. If you do, that's a sign that if we do business together, you will let me lead in the engagement. 

If you do not let me lead in the sale at some point and I close you, close the business from the position of a vendor, then I have significantly impaired my ability to do my best work for you and make the most money for me. In fact, at that point, if I accept the business as a vendor, from the vendor position, I believe that's pretty close to prostitution or just self-dilution.

The idea I'm telling myself the lie that, "Okay, I'm seen as the vendor, the good soldier. Once we get going, I'm going to occupy the general or the high ground." It's just not going to happen. It's not going to happen. Power in the relationship is like profit margin. Over time, all it will do is diminish. Your job as the sales person is to enter that engagement with as much power. 

Again, we have to be careful about that word. Where you see me as the expert practitioner and you're willing to let me lead. As the sales person for the firm, my obligation is not just to close the business, it's to close the business with us being seen as the expert practitioner. 

I love that battle. I love the polite battle for control. Because I have high power needs and I have a low competitive drive, the benefit of low competitive drive is patience. I'm very patient. As a result, I don't try to talk people into things. I take the long view on everything. I feel like I'm really present to a perspective client on the phone. I'm really interested in what the desired future state is. I'm really making an assessment of whether or not I think there's a good fit here. 

DAVID: You're not afraid of the truth either. If, at some point, they don't acknowledge... If we quit using the word control or power, maybe say leadership. If they don't acknowledge, comfortably acknowledge and accept the leadership, you're okay with that. It doesn't make you...

BLAIR: It's not going to work anyway.

DAVID: The sooner we find out, the better, the less time either one of us waste. 

BLAIR: I remember a few years ago, I got an email from somebody I didn't know, an agency principal. It was attached with some sort of RFP. It wasn't stated as an RFP, but it was, "Please respond to the questions in the attached document. Thank you." That was the most straightforward. I think this person must have been on the autism spectrum. I looked at it. It was essentially an RFP for consulting services. I go, "What would you do in that?" "Well, I know what you would do. We've had this conversation before."

DAVID: We don't want to hear what I would do.

BLAIR: I assumed in the end quite rightly that he had already decided who he wanted to hire. I assumed it was you. I was correct on both counts. I assume he was just trying to get... He wanted a price from me so he could drive yours or whoever's price down or just get confirmation that the price he was quoted was a good one.

It's not my responsibility to enable somebody else to do that. I have other things to do. My reply was one line. I said, "I think you must have me confused with somebody else." That's it. It's all I said, "I think you must have me confused with somebody else."

DAVID: Did you get a note back from them or is that the end of it?

BLAIR: Yeah, I got a note back and he said, "No, no, I know who you are, but thanks anyway. We'll move on." That was the end of it.

DAVID: Better than you wasting 15 minutes or 2 hours respond to that, right? Or chasing it. 

BLAIR: Yeah. That was the end of it. Then about a week, maybe two weeks later, it was late at night, I was in my kitchen. I probably had a couple of glasses of wine. I was just emptying out my inbox. I went back and I opened this up and I thought, "Maybe that's one of the reasons I drink anymore." I opened it up. You know what? I got pissed off again and I sent him this long multi-paragraph email about how this is a stupid way to hire a consultant. 

It wasn't that rude, but it was fairly direct. Then we ended up getting into this email discussion and it ended being fairly cordial. I was just point out that nobody worth their salt is going to reply to something like this. In the end, he said, "Okay. Yeah, maybe I could have done it better. We agree to disagree."

DAVID: How much of my scale sales skepticism have you removed at this point? I'm going to say... Get a percentage in your mind. I'm going to say 30%. 

BLAIR: Yeah, I was going to say 10%. 

DAVID: No, I'd say 30%. We probably need to do two more podcasts and then I'll be fully reformed, but this helps. Hey, thanks for your thoughts today. I really appreciate it Blair.

BLAIR: My pleasure David, that was fun.

David Baker