How an Air Traffic Controller Transitioned to Sales

After 12 years as an air traffic controller, I was looking at alternative fields

Training That Really Works

Clients and prospective clients sometimes see us as “naysayers” when it come

Q & A

Question: Telephone prospecting

“I do a lot of telephone prospecting and am quite successful in getting meetings, but one of the things I am not clear on is how much actual selling I should do on the phone. I sometimes find that the more I tell the prospect about our solutions, the less likely they are to book a meeting with me. Do others experience this or am I just imagining it?”

You have made a very insightful observation here. The purpose of your telephone prospecting should only be to target a problem or opportunity that you can solve for the customer – and create interest in the mind of the prospect around this. If you can do this successfully you will gain an appointment. Your objective in the meeting should then be to diagnose the problem / issue / opportunity the prospect is facing; and establish the reasons behind it. You should never be selling before you have done the diagnostic work, just like a doctor would never prescribe before diagnosing. Trust what your intuition is telling you and leave the selling til later. You will have a higher rate of conversion to appointments if you simply focus on creating the need properly first.

Question: Identifying decision-makers

“Can you provide me with a way of distinguishing  a decision maker versus someone who is not. I find it frustrating that I meet prospects who tell me they are decision makers but in the end they don’t appear to be able to buy without consulting with others, typically people above them in their company.”

Thanks for your question, distinguishing between what we call a Sponsor and a Power Sponsor is one of the most important skills to have in selling, particularly when selling into large businesses.

The people we call Sponsors will provide you with information and can do some internal selling for you , but they cannot actually buy. What they can also do though, is provide you with access to what we call the Power Sponsor aka Power. “Power” has enough influence (regardless of title) and authority to buy it if they want it, even if unbudgeted. Power can also take you anywhere in the buying organisation you need to go; and can and will negotiate the steps leading to a buying decision.

 Question: Making time for team members

“I manage (I’m losing the term loosely!) a team of 6 Account Managers based in Auckland. I am challenged by the usual time pressures we are all under, including the constant meetings and interruptions that seem to chew so much of my time. Because of this I struggle to catch up with my team members regularly and adequately. I recently asked them all to give me some feedback on how things were going and 5 out of 6 of them told me that I am not available enough and that they need more time with me weekly. Any Ideas appreciated?”

We recognise this as one of the most common challenges for Sales Managers – that is, balancing priorities and getting the time balance right with each of your direct report sales personnel. The most effective and efficient way to manage this is, as a foundation stone, committing to not-negotiable time with your team members either weekly or, at a minimum, fortnightly. With six direct report Account Managers, a one hour “one on one” catch up with them equates to a one day per week commitment. This is not feasible. Choices are therefore 30 minute sessions weekly for all six; or 60 minutes for 3 of them on alternate weeks (fortnightly). You should set a standard agenda for these sessions and it is critical that both parties make a commitment to dedicating this time. I would then have them scheduled for both of you in your Outlook calendar for the next 6 months, as “priority” events. You will recognise over time that various individuals will need more or less time than others and you should tailor things accordingly on that basis.

An additional communication method, particularly where Managers have national / geographically dispersed teams, is to make a commitment to contact each of your team every day by phone. A good practice is t make a quick call to “check in” with them towards the end of every day. For example, a 5 minute call to each Account Manager between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. on the drive home, but not if you have had cause to have a conversation with them otherwise during the course of that day. This is not meant to be a micro-management practice, it is simply a highly effective way to stay in tune and in touch with your team members. This practice typically negates the need for multiple phone calls and “phone tag” throughout the course of any week to quite some extent.

Question – How Many Sales Appointments

How many Sales Appointments should my face-to-face sales personnel be doing per week? What is realistic best practice?
This is a good question and sales is ultimately all about the quantity and quality of activity – and the output that it creates. We are strong believers in Sales Managers having realistic, established benchmarks around Leading Indicators, of which Number of Appointments Per Week is one. Typical benchmarks for face-to-face appointments in Australia and New Zealand are as follows:

  • Transactional / low value products: 5 per day
  • Consultative selling environments: 3 per day
  • Major Accounts / long sales cycle: 2 per day

You should be utilising your CRM to capture this data and to track the correlation between calls made and sales pipeline health. In face-to-face selling environments, the number of (quality) sales appointments made is the best predictor of sales success.

Question – Diary Management

I wonder if you can give me some tips on how to manage my diary better. Whilst I have reached my target for the year, I feel I should and could be doing better but I need to free up more time to prospect and be out there on sales calls.

What might be a good place to start is to develop an “Ideal Week” format which defines how you think you should best spend your time on a weekly basis. Keep it simple by first identifying what the weekly ‘buckets’ of activity you need to do are. For example:

  • General administration
  • Prospecting planning and preparation
  • Phone and email prospecting
  • Sales Meeting(s)
  • Sales Reporting
  • Sales call planning
  • Sales Calls
  • Sales call follow up
  • Proposals and presentations
  • Weekly catch up with Sales Manager
  • General email and telephone calls

I recommend that you simply ‘chunk’ diary time for the key activities, ensuring that you also allow around 20% whitespace (this time remains open = unallocated) to allow for things that come up and need to be addressed on a daily – weekly basis. So for instance, principles and  elements of your ideal week might include:

  • No sales calls on Mondays – Mondays being comprised of Sales Meeting, Admin, Prospecting preparation, emails and calls.
  • Monday afternoon from 2:00 through to 5:00 prospecting
  • Tuesday morning sales call follow up, presentations and reporting.
  • Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday and Thursday 80% of time allocated for sales calls with prospects and customers.
  • Friday afternoon 2:30 – 5:00 whitespace for weekly wrap up, catch up on emails and unreturned phone calls and general week wrap up.

This should give you a good flavour of how an Ideal Week looks and works.

A couple more tips in relation:

  • Working an Ideal Week requires discipline. Scheduling sales calls with prospects and customers, according to your time frame, requires focus and skill.
  • Get ahead of the game with the scheduling of your sales calls. High performing salespeople are like any other professional, they are scheduling their time at least two to three weeks in advance. You should never be scrambling to make appointments for sales calls for next week – this is the territory of beginners and / or poor performers – hard I know – but true.
  • Develop your Ideal Week and see how you go at working with it. It will not be perfect first up; so review and refine fortnightly for the first couple of months until you have something that really does work for you.
  • With critical activities like prospecting, schedule a couple of time blocks in a week unless you are super disciplined. For example, if you build in to your schedule one 3 hour prospecting time block on Monday afternoons and you miss it next Monday because the Sales Manager has taken you out on a new opportunity with him, your prospecting goes missing for a week – best therefore to allow a couple of slots per week for such important activities to provide you some ‘make up’ time.

Question – Product Presentations

My sales team makes numerous product presentations every month, but less than 15 per cent of them actually result in a valid opportunity in our sales pipeline. The presentation content is mostly very good and whilst our presentation skills could do with some sharpening up, they are not that bad. What do you think could be happening here?

It sounds to me like your team could have what I commonly call “premature presentation” syndrome.

This occurs when your sales team have strong belief in the value and competitiveness of your product; and when they are therefore very passionate about telling customers and prospect all about it. Another reason can be the tendency of technically strong sales people to want to demonstrate capability too early in the sales cycle. Most sales processes have around 6-8 steps in them and presentations should not be occurring until at least stage 4 or 5, when needs have been fully identified and a value proposition and buying vision created.

I encourage you to look at your sales process and set some firm guidelines around the things that must have happened before your solution is presented. Presenting too early is simply like putting the cart before the horse. If the customer has not yet recognised and admitted that the problem that your solution solves exists, the presentation is not going to be much more than of general interest to them.

One of the common responses you will get from sales people when you attempt to change thinking on this is ’‘but the customer/prospect requested a presentation!”. Unfortunately customers have all kinds of reasons for requesting presentations and many of them are not related to buying your solution; whilst some of the reasons are definitely about buying someone else’s solution. Presentations are a good way for customers to validate buying visions and decisions they have formulated around one of your competitors solutions; and you may well therefore be being used as “cannon fodder” to prove the value of another solution; and determine price benchmarks to enable more effective negotiations on an alternative solution with a competitor supplier.

Something to watch is where sales opportunities enter the pipeline in stages 4-5, versus 1-2; and a presentation has been very quickly been requested by the customer. This typically means the buyer has worked through stages 1-4 of the sales cycle with someone else and they are now shopping solutions. The best practice here is to take the customer back to the early stages of the sales cycle, if possible; and to re-diagnose needs and then create a differentiated buying vision (i.e. around your solution) as a result. Re-engineering buying visions is possible but difficult, hence these opportunities where presentations have been hurriedly made by your team never converting despite the fact that you are told that “the presentation seemed to go really well”. Actually, it did go well from the customer’s perspective because they received all of the information they required from you, in just one hour, and they now have no need to do anything more with you – it has all been very efficient and informative from their perspective.

Question – Prospect Conflicts

One of my colleagues has a habit of “accidentally” calling on companies who are on my prospect list and who I am actively pursuing. The prospect list is available to all Sales Executives on our intranet site and despite this it has happened three times involving three different prospect accounts. What should I do?

With these kind of things my general opinion is that “once is an accident, twice is a coincidence and three times is almost a habit”.

The first port of call should be to seek guidance from your Sales Manager; and next I think it could be worth canvassing selected members of your peer group. I think it is usually best for you to talk directly with the individual about the issue, with the Sales Manager’s support versus vice versa. Agree an escalation process directly to the Sales Manager if the issue arises again. Be matter of fact and calm in all discussions with the transgressor. Recognise that ultimately, if you are doing your job better than the other salesperson, these calls will amount to little or nothing. Do not stoop to similar tactics in the interests of payback or retribution. These people exist in almost every sales team and recognise that there are more opportunities in your market than you can possibly identify and develop into a sales cycle – so the secret is to get busy, not even.

Question – Expanding Opportunities

What do you do when your primary contact in a large account is friendly and co-operative but you never make any real headway in terms of new or additional opportunities?

This is potentially a pretty complex question, but in the interests of providing you with some immediate assistance, I’ll try to keep the answer as simple as possible and will do this by way of asking you some questions that you may or may  not know the answer(s) to:.

  • Question 1: You need to establish specific needs that resonate (and that you can sell to) with this particular person. If not, why would they sponsor you and what would you expect them to buy? Perhaps you may need to ask better questions.
  • Question 2: What is this person’s area of authority and accountability? What budgets does he/she hold and what is the formal and informal decision making process at various budget ($) levels? What decisions can he / she  actually make? Are you calling ‘high’ enough in the organisation?
  • Question 3: Is the contact realistically a supporter, an opponent or impartial?
  • Question 4: Are there other incumbent suppliers and what is the person’s view of them?
  • Question 5: How does the person view your competitive position versus relevant key competitors of yours?

Next Step 1: On the basis of how you can answer these questions now, plan a future sales call or two with this person to establish the facts pertaining to the five areas of questions above.

Next Step 2: Establish potential alternative key contacts that you could meet with and attempt to engage in a sales cycle.

Next Step 3: If the answers to the five questions above do not help you progress, pursue the best alternative key contacts (approach a number of them, not just one) and attempt to engage in a sales cycle. Importantly, do not seek explicit permission from your current contact to do this. It is not required.

Next Step 4: Remain in contact with your original contact so as not to alienate, and convey information only as you believe relevant, tactically safe and beneficial to your cause.

I hope this helps. Please call the Sales Doctor if you would like to discuss further.

Question – Dealing with my Sales Manager

One of the things causing me real frustration is my Sales Manager monopolising sales calls when we go out on calls together. The intent is supposed to be that these are coaching and mentoring calls; but five minutes into the call my Sales Manager is doing all the talking and I’m lucky if I can get a word in. Not only is this annoying, but I am not confident to raise this as a point of discussion because I have no idea how my Sales Manager will respond. Any ideas will be appreciated?

The example you have described in your question accurately depicts one of the top three current anti-productive sales management issues we see in the field on a day to day basis. This Sales Manager behaviour occurs primarily because the majority of Sales Managers were previously successful sales people; and because when they become Sales Managers, they feel a strong urge to revert to the behaviour that made them successful, as well as another typically ego driven urge to “show you how it should be done!”

There are four primary negative consequences to this behaviour and they are:

  1. The customer / prospect now sees the Sales Manager as being in control of the opportunity / issues and will from that point typically choose to liaise directly with the Sales Manager and cut out the ‘middleman’ (i.e. you) salesperson;
  2. The credibility and capability of you, the salesperson, are severely undermined in the eyes of the customer;
  3. Little or no salesperson coaching and observation is conducted by the Sales Manager; and no development feedback and coaching is therefore provided to the you, the salesperson;
  4. You, the salesperson, become at least bemused and at worst frustrated and annoyed;

This destructive sales management behaviour can be quickly remedied by you both agreeing the roles you will play, prior to each call that you conduct together. You may choose to allocate specific agenda items to each of you on a call by call basis; for your to conduct the majority of the call and your Manager to support, observe and provide specific coaching and developmental feedback immediately after the call; or for the Sales Manager to conduct the call as a modelling call, to demonstrate best practice behaviours consistent with your sales process and methodology for training and development purposes.

I highly recommend that you begin to take charge of the situation and be pro-active in agreeing roles prior to each Sales Manager accompanied call. Only the least perceptive and / or most insensitive Sales Managers will fail to get the message; at which time it is important to be quite explicit on the issue. You should also demand specific and constructive Sales Manager feedback post each accompanied call, because this is probably the best way to gain insights on your own “in the call” performance and to accelerate your own daily sales execution skill development.

Question – Sales Call Time Allocation

I know this might seem a pretty basic question, but I am keen to know how much time I should allow for an effective but efficient sales call?

A basic question yes; but a very good one all the same, so thanks for asking.

Time is your most valuable commodity and potentially your greatest enemy all at once.

As a salesperson, research across the Level Five client base has established the average actual time dedicated per face to face sales calls as 52 minutes. This statistic tells us only part of the story though. Why? Because on average it takes 40 minutes to and from each sales call; and ideally there is preparation time committed prior to each call as well. So this means each sales call can involve a total time commitment of 155 minutes if we allow 13 minutes of pre-call preparation for each call. (These are particularly interesting numbers if you are a Sales Manager.)

Now back to the actual time for the ideal sales call. My view is that a quality business development focused sales call, where there are substantive issues and opportunities to discuss, can be conducted effectively in around 45 minutes. (Day to day account management calls should take around 20 minutes only.) In the 45 minutes, the agenda outlined below should be covered adequately:

  • Recap from previous discussions / action items
  • New and / or account management issues – update and agree next steps
  • New / additional opportunity exploration and identification
  • Agree next steps / actions
  • Set next meeting if / as required

In terms of how you set up meetings in advance, I propose that you set an expectation with the customer that 30 minutes be scheduled for a regular account management call; and that 60 minutes be scheduled for a combination account management and business development call. Where a meeting concludes in a shorter period than scheduled and the agenda thoroughly and professionally covered, a prospect / customer can only be left with a positive impression around your professionalism and the respect that you have for their time.


Question – Value Selling

I work for a company in a very competitive market where price is the most common decision factor. I have been to quite a few sales seminars where the speakers have talked about value selling but I struggle to see how this approach can be used in my role because of customer obsession with price. Can value selling be applied in my situation?

This is a great question. Whilst your market might be focused on price, experience tells me that whilst in certain industry sectors and price ranges a mote transactional approach to selling is required, sales people are often guilty of encouraging and / or enabling the customer to play the “ I just need your best price (only) game”.

First up, let’s establish a base concept of value. Value focus implies that you focus the customer on all facets of value that your product or solution can deliver to the customer’s organisation. Value delivery is all about how your product(s) can be best used to advantage and benefit the customers business, lifestyle and so on. Focusing on price is generally a self defeating sales strategy unless you have a known and understood sustainable cost base advantage. Understand as well, that intelligent and experienced customers will use knowledge and information about your competitors products(s) to get you to sell based on price, even when they do truly recognise the value of your product or solution.

To establish specific value, think about how your products are used by customers and what problems they solve or what opportunities they create. For example, does your solution:

  • Save time?
  • Solve a particular problem – and if so what problem, and how does  having the problem negatively impact the customer?
  • Improve efficiency?
  • Reduce wastage?
  • Save money (be careful with this one )?
  • Deliver improved reliability?
  • Have a longer life?
  • Provide a more user friendly alternative?
  • Link with other products and services to deliver a value “package”  or “bundle”?
  • Deliver unique functions? … if so, functions that do what for the customer?
  • and so on….

Quantifying the value in terms of dollars and cents, time, labour, efficiency gains and so on is then the next step, which enables you to present real and tangible value – with price now becoming just another feature.

Finally, understanding the comparative value delivered by your products and solutions versus those of your competitors, enables you to not only differentiate clearly what and how your products and solutions work, what they differentially do / create for the customer; but also what the quantified value delivery is. More competitive value delivery, typically means you have the capacity to sell at a higher price point compared to your competition.

I encourage you to spend some time exploring for the value you and your solutions can deliver your customers – and then leverage the points of difference and value advantage. Now if after having done that, you have few points of difference and advantage, you have one more lever to pull; and that is how you sell, because in highly commoditised markets, that might be all you have. In this case, the sales approach and methods you use, become absolutely key to success, because either the biggest discounter or the best sales organisation will win.

Question – Managing an Account Base

I have been given a large account base to work within and I looking for some ideas on how to effectively manage it. I have over 200 customers in my portfolio to service and they vary from what we call major accounts which spend more than $250,000 per annum with us, down to customers who send just a few hundred dollars. My challenge is to come up with some kind of plan to ensure I look after all of them and maximize sales but I already know that it is virtually impossible to call on them all, so some are going to be neglected . Can you give me some direction on this?

This is question I get asked quite often, particularly by sales people new to a role in a new company. The first thing to say is that you are in a fortunate position to have been allocated an account portfolio of this dimension, so be grateful for that. Your challenge is now to make the most of it and I like the way you are thinking about it as demonstrated by your question.

My advice is to follow the following steps to get started on developing and implementing what you really need – which is a what is called a Territory Plan.

1. Segment your accounts by what you and your Sales Manager believe to be the most relevant criteria. There are 50 or so criteria you could use to segment your accounts, examples of which include:

  • Annual company revenue
  • Your revenue from the account last 1, 2 or 3 years
  • Future account revenue potential
  • Account market position
  • Growth in employees
  • Your depth/quality of relationship with the account
  • Current installed inventory of your solutions
  • Potential usage of your solutions
  • Strategic value
  • Our experience in the account’s  industry
  • Knowledge of their buying processes
  • Trusted advisor vs. vendor position with the account
  • Likelihood of sponsorship within the account
  • Expected profitability of business with the account
  • Your ability to compete for the account’s business
  • Your solution fit to meet account needs
  • Account likelihood to engage in mergers & acquisitions
  • Geographic footprint (your capacity to service)

You may want to allocate points for key criteria and then rank accounts, for example, bronze, silver or gold according to the points allocation – this provides a list in “value” terms, which is important from a commercial perspective.

2. Estimate how many contact points (roles) you will ideally need to call on in each account (an average per account will do to start with).

3. Develop a sales and service cycle which establishes a sales call cycle per Gold, Silver and Bronze accounts (in some environments telesales may mot effectively handle Bronze accounts or a specific subset of them). This means you will need to establish the hours in any week or month that you will actually be available for and will dedicate to face to face account focused account management and business development activity. A tip here is to ensure you allow 10-20 % of your total sales and service time available  additional unallocated because you will need this time in periods of intensive account management or when handling new and additional sales opportunities in new accounts. This sales and service cycle will enable you to calculate how many accounts you can service in any month, quarter or year.

4. Implement your plan and pro-actively monitor time and activity to enable you to fine -tune and make adjustments ongoing.

My view is that 200 accounts is likely to be significantly more than can realistically be managed by one Account Manager in a face to face style selling role. What this means is that the accounts you select for the most intensive level of service is absolutely critical to you being as a dollar productive as possible; and the business you work in needs to find a way to service those that you can’t as best as is possible. Finally, recognise that there will always be accounts moving in and out of your portfolio as a result of the renewal and win / loss process; and that there will also be a need to move accounts up and down through your Gold, Silver and Bronze service platform on an ongoing basis.

Question – Closing Skills

I have read quite a few books on selling and been to a number of training seminars and the emphasis placed on “closing” skills seems to very significantly based on what I read and who I talk to. How important do you think closing is?

Whilst I’m not a big fan of slick and closing techniques, there is no doubt that it is important for you to be able to gain commitment at the often many stages of the sales cycle as the opportunity progresses.

The way I recommend you think about closing is getting the small and progressive commitments (agreements or yes’s) required to help your customer / prospect progress through their buying cycle. These commitments should appear as a natural progression as the opportunity unfolds and in many ways these incremental step yes’s are the key thing to focus on, because if you execute progressively, the final yes ( and or close) will be more in the form of an invitation for you to proceed by the customer / prospect than anything else.

I recommend that you develop some simple phrases, in your own language and styles, that cover a variety of selling approaches that can be utilised subject to the specific situation and circumstances.

You should develop your own style and phrasing for delivery of the following types or  categories of  close:

  • Assumptive
  • Confirmatory
  • Summary
  • Bargaining
  • Alternate

Once you have utilised these various styles of close in role plays and real life selling situations over a period, they will start to become second nature and you will intuitively select the right one for the right occasion, as well as deliver the words and the phrasing in a natural and relaxed manner – which is a key capability around this skill.

Question – Account Manager Skills

I’m relatively new to sales from a marketing background and am interested to know what sales skill you think might be the most important one for me to work on early in my new role as an Account Manager?

The answer is probably going to be different for most peoples in your situation but without knowing your sales aptitude and current capabilities there is an area we believe is universally key to sales success. The best sales people are very strong diagnosticians. Information is power in all things including sales and asking questions is therefore a critical skill for you to develop and practice, particularly early on in opportunities where the key objective is to identify, develop and shape customer needs.

The ‘eagle’ salespeople we meet and work with engage prospects and customers by asking questions which search for the specific issues, challenges and opportunities that they may be facing and in this way they develop rapport, build credibility and demonstrate capability by honing in on areas that the customer / prospect will see value in engaging on. Interestingly, top flight sales people rarely talk about their products and services early in the sales cycle, because they recognise it is counter-productive to do so before needs are clearly recognised and defined in the mind of the customer / prospect. There are a variety of questioning models and processes that we teach which all address this one fundamental need.