How to make persistence pay off
THERE comes a point in every protracted sale where the salesperson must make a choice. He has done everything in his power to get the customer to commit - meetings, proposals, product demonstrations, follow-up calls - but the customer remains undecided.
Should the salesperson keep plugging away at the customer, risking more of his time and energy on what may be a hopeless cause? Or should he cut his losses and move on to something else? With rare exceptions, I will always choose to keep plugging away - because in the long run people cannot resist someone who tries so hard to please them. It is only human nature. People are mimics. The more you try, the more they have to respond in kind.
I see this sort of mimicking all the time on the tennis court, when one player starts hitting the ball with a lot of pace and the other player instinctively returns the shot with equal pace (even when he knows it is bad for his game).
I also see it constantly in sales situations.
A few years ago we were very interested in representing the literary and broadcast interests of a retired public figure. But we were having a tough time convincing him he needed an agent. No matter how eloquently we outlined all the wonderful things we could do for him around the world, he still resisted us.
This unrequited courtship went on for months until one day he mentioned he was planning a trip to Japan. I quickly put our Tokyo office at his disposal. No longer would we be telling him how good we were. This was a chance to show him.
I hoped as our Tokyo office became involved in booking his flights and hotels, introducing him to Japanese business people, and setting up interviews with local media, he could no longer straddle the fence about working with us. He would be in constant communication with our people. The harder we worked, the less he could resist us. Although we were basically doing him a favour, during his stay in Japan he would be our de facto client.
After that, if we did our job well, signing him up as a real client would be a formality. Which is exactly what happened.
I have always thought one of the biggest mistakes salespeople make, particularly when they are selling a service, is refusing to work with a prospect until they have an agreement or money changes hands. I can understand why people adopt this attitude. Weall want to be paid for our time and talent, and there is a natural suspicion that someone will take advantage of us.
In my experience, you are always better off getting entangled with a potential customer - and worrying about the payoff later.
I realised this quite by accident in my first year in business when we began doing what we called cheque-book reconciliations for our golf clients. It seemed to me a client like Arnold Palmer should have an idea where his money was going. So we created areport listing every incoming and outgoing cheque, and the beginning and closing balance for the month. This sort of reporting is common now, but it was not back in 1961. I should also note we did not get paid for doing this. It was simply the smart thing to do.
But getting involved with someone else's cheque-book forced us to live up to a whole new set of expectations. We had to have answers when the client asked, ''Why did I spend this money?'' or ''Could you track down this bill?'' It gave us the opportunity to demonstrate how good we were at chasing down a bill, which in turn led to more and more services the client required of us. The harder we worked to please the clients, the more they had to include us in their affairs.
The side benefit was not something I could have predicted. The expertise we were forced to develop in financial management, taxes, and insurance not only cemented our relationship with clients but helped the company grow.
THE learning curve of a business person goes through three phases: early, middle, and late.
In the early phase you learn the mechanics of business - the techniques, how deals are done, how to communicate, how to present yourself. You are assembling the parts that make up your package, and learning how to project that package to the world.
In the middle phase, you learn about relationships: how to create them, preserve them, and make them work for you. You learn how to manage people. You become acutely aware of how you stack up against others and look for lessons that will set you apart.
I suspect I am in the later phase of my learning curve, because I am beginning to learn a few things I probably could not appreciate before, especially about anticipation.
The wonderful thing about learning the mechanics of business in your early years and understanding relationships in your middle years is that you can eventually combine them and learn to anticipate.
You begin to see a problem before it occurs and can take steps to divert it, deflect it, cure it, or change it.
You can anticipate when an employee is going to get restless in a job - because you have seen others get restless before him.
You can anticipate when an ageing athlete client will begin to question what you are doing to earn your fee - because he is on the downside of his earning curve and money is suddenly more precious to him.
You also begin to anticipate your employee's sensitivity to changes in corporate regulations.
This is one area where the contrast between my early years and now is most glaring.
In phase one of my learning curve, I did not even know about rules and regulations. I was not managing a company. I was managing myself and the lives of professional golfers.
In phase two, I could see the complexities of our business had gone beyond what I had learned. So I taught myself about budgets and profit centres and all the other organisational disciplines you need to keep a company going. And I put them into effect.
Now in phase three, I can anticipate how a change in corporate policy - from changing someone's title to creating a new division - can upset some people. And I act accordingly.
If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is this: The most successful people tend to have a good idea where they are in their personal learning curve - and they have an instinctive feel for when it is time to move on to another part of the curve.