By Gary Walker, Co-founder of CustomerCentric Selling®

My very first sales position was selling human resource information systems (HRIS) for a company named Comshare. At the time that I was hired, I had minimal knowledge of computers and software, no formal sales training and no previous sales experience. I had spent the previous ten years working in human resources for a major airline, handling compensation, benefits, recruitment, EEOC, labor relations, etc.

So, how did I end up in sales? What did I possess that what was attractive to Comshare? I had situational knowledge. I had the capability to speak with human resource executives who had the ability and the authority to purchase my offering, and had the skill to discuss their business goals, problems and issues. My first sales manager and the gentleman that hired me was Phil Dupree. Phil was an experienced technology sales executive, having spent a number of years at MSA.

I had been onboard a very short period of time when I secured my first sales call; it was with the Director of Human Resources for a local bank. Since this was my ‘first’ sales call and because I had no prior experience, I asked Phil if he wanted to accompany me on the call. However, he felt I was capable of going out on my own and suggested we talk about the results of my call when I returned to the office. He was going to allow me to go it alone.

So how did the call go? It went great. My prospect told me that he was planning on purchasing a PC-based HRIS and wanted to know all about Comshare. I was excited at the prospect of closing my first sale and proceeded to tell him everything I had learned in my short tenure. It wasn’t that much, but he seemed pleased and accepting of my answers. I ended up spending a little over an hour with my prospect. I couldn’t wait to return to the office to tell Phil about my call.

“Tell me, how did that sales call go?” Phil asked. “It went great!” I replied.
“That’s good to hear. What are they hoping to accomplish?”
“They’re going to purchase a PC-based HRIS.”
“That’s good, because that’s what you sell. But, why are they going to buy a PC -based HRIS? What are they hoping to accomplish?”

These were seemingly routine debriefing questions that I was unable to answer. I was so happy when I heard the phrase, “we are going to buy,” that I never even thought to ask the question. I was embarrassed, which made me pleased when the conversation ended. I went back to my office happy that conversation was behind me.

Not too long after that conversation I was fortunate to schedule another call – by myself. When I got back to the office, I chose not to seek out Phil, in the event that he might want to have a similar, uncomfortable conversation. However, it wasn’t long before Phil found his way to my office.

“Tell me, how did that sales call go?” Phil asked. Here we go again, I thought to myself. “It went great!” I replied.
“That’s good to hear. What are they hoping to accomplish?”
“They’re going to purchase a PC-based HRIS to replace their existing mainframe application.” I thought I had been clever with that response since it was what they told me. However, I wasn’t clever enough. Phil wanted more.
“That’s good. What are they hoping to accomplish? What is a PC-based HRIS going to allow them to do, that they can’t do now or would like to do better?”

Once again, I was unable able to answer Phil’s routine debriefing questions and once again, I was embarrassed.

I might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but after having been unable to answer his questions and embarrassed twice, it dawned on me that…

  1. Phil was going ask me these debriefing questions every time I went out on a sales call and I needed to be able to answer them.
  2. The questions that he was asking me and the answers he wanted me to provide were more important to me, than to him! Why would a prospect spend their money for my product and services? What is it that they can’t do now, that they would like to do better? What is preventing them from achieving their goals? What bad thing happens to them if they continue to operate the way they’re currently operating?
  3. Pre-call planning was more than just getting driving directions to my prospect’s office. It meant planning the conversation, developing the questions that I needed to ask in order to obtain the information that I needed, to do the best possible job for my prospect and for Comshare.

They say that people are best convinced by reasons they themselves discover. Phil never threatened me, never told me what I needed to find out, never told or showed me how to do it. What he did, by asking his debriefing questions, was allow me to discover what I needed to do to become a successful salesperson. He modified my sales behavior. Thanks for the lesson, Phil.