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Why Veteran Salespeople Botch Deals

As my co-authors, Don Brown and Bill Hawkins, and I researched and developed the content for What Got You Here Won’t Get You There in Sales (McGraw-Hill, 2011), we spoke to hundreds of “buyers” within our own customers’ organizations and many within organizations new to us. As we learned more about the habits that hold people back in sales, two distinct categories of sellers regularly emerged: sales veterans and sales rookies. We’ll explore the veterans here. The veteran salesperson displayed several ineffective habits.

Let’s explore what makes someone a sales veteran and then consider trends that affect a veteran’s world every day. We’ll also look at the interpersonal habits that a veteran of sales most likely exhibits.

Across several industries, we saw no set time frame that would make someone a sales veteran. Lots of studies have determined how long it takes a salesperson to become productive but none have established how long it requires to become a veteran. We heard without exception that it takes repeated, consistent high levels of revenue performance. The time needed, we believe, is relative to the industry or even the company, but you can plan on three to seven years of meeting and exceeding real targets, even with more than one employer, to earn you the title of sales veteran.

Unconscious Competence

Whether extolling the numbers that come in or the way he or she moves minds, many of the descriptors used for a sales pro or sales vet revolved around the theme of consciousness and competence. The pro or veteran of sales in most cases is someone who can make sales happen “unconsciously”—without thought or awareness of exactly what he or she was doing at the time. “All I have to do is give them the bullets and they will hunt!” was the way one manager described the dynamic. We agree, with one provision: We’d like to bring consciousness back to selling. We would like to reintroduce acting on purpose.

The idea of unconscious competence can work either for us or against us. The same confident, experienced individual who has seen it all in selling, the same vet who has stepped on and around all the mines in the battle zone, can make miracles without thinking or just as easily unconsciously retire on the job. Without warning, these individuals become too comfortable, lose their drive and enthusiasm, and unknowingly embody the antithesis of the ideal sales professional. This is the paradox of comfort: The very dynamics of time and experience that make a salesperson a veteran may or may not make that person the pro all of us hope to deal with.

What do we find as the most common ineffective behaviors for the seasoned sales veteran? The consensus includes:

• Failure to be present—repeated and annoying displays of behavior that indicate the salesperson would rather be somewhere else or with someone else.

• Selective hearing—the absence of active listening in the presence of the customer.

• Curb qualifying—the tendency to judge a prospect’s means and motive superficially from a distance.

• Using tension as a tool—also known as “sale ends Saturday.”

• One-upping—the constant need to top our conversational partner in an effort to show the world just how smart we are.

• Withholding passion and energy—the tendency to forget that people decide on the basis of emotion and later justify that decision with logic.

Although we feel veterans of the art of selling have no monopoly on these habits, they do come up more often than not in the veteran ranks. The very comfort that extensive experience brings can set you up with effective adaptive responses to customer needs–or it can weigh you down with annoying, counterproductive habits that will result in losing sales, profit, and loyalty.

Editor’s Note: Consultant Don Brown and leadership coach Bill Hawkins contributed to this article.

Marshall Goldsmith is an expert in leadership who was ranked as one of the field's 15 most influential business thinkers in a study involving 35,000 respondents that was published by The Times of London and Forbes. Goldsmith's books have sold more than a million copies and have been translated into 25 languages. His best selling books include What Got You Here Won't Get You There (also a Longman Award Winner for business book of the year) and MOJO: How to Get It, How to Keep It, and How to Get It Back If You Lose It. His newest book, written with Don Brown and Bill Hawkins, is What Got You Here Won't Get You There in Sales (McGraw-Hill, 2011)

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