Great salespeople are great listeners, have a natural curiosity, and can organize a sales process like an engineer. It is not about them. We have a metaphor at M3 Learning: it’s Not About the Dog. Long story, but the more you woof and bark about your product or service, the less chance you have at a sale.

As a part of my series about how to be great at closing sales without seeming pushy, obnoxious, or salesy, I had the pleasure of interviewing Skip Miller.

Skip Miller is Founder and President of M3 Learning, a ProActive Sales and Sales Management Training Company based in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Skip is the author of the runaway bestseller, ProActive Sales Management. Ranked #1 by Amazon for five consecutive years, and has also author five other bestselling books including ProActive Selling, now in its second edition, Knock Your Socks Off Prospecting, Ultimate Sales Tool Kit, More ProActive Sales Management and Selling Above and Below the Line. His latest book, Outbounding: Win New Customers with Outbound Sales, has just been released to major acclaim.

Thank you for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this career path?

I was in sales in high school, working for a small sporting goods company in Cleveland, Ohio. We were very small and could not compete with the “big” stores, so I called on junior high schools and small high schools that were not getting the service from the big stores. I was able to carve out a great niche by doing this.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I lost a deal. I had the deal in the bank and lost it. The day before the customer was going to make a decision, the “buyer” and I were walking to his car, and he asked me a question. Instead of asking, “Why do you want to know?” I answered the question. Big mistake.

Salespeople’s jobs are to ask great questions, not just answer questions. I lost the sale because I did not know what the “buyer” was trying to tell me. I invented a tool called “Three Levels of Why” because of this sale.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’ve just published a new book called Outbounding through HarperCollins Leadership. I’m also taking my classroom teaching and adapting it to be virtual on demand and re-organizing our products for virtual delivery.

Covid has changed sales a lot. No more hall walking or seeing people at trade shows, and no more office visits. Salespeople are now having to prospect and outbound more than ever before with limited channels available to them. The problem is they have never been taught how to do it given these restrictions. They are sending emails that are too wordy. Their cadences and sequences are off. They’re putting in subpar efforts and getting subpar results.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

An old manager of mine. He was on the phone with me at least once a week when I started my own business. He didn’t really know a lot of what I was doing but he kept saying over and over that he had faith in me and that I could do it. It was his belief in me that help me overcome early rejections and to press on.

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority on the topic of sales?

10,000 ping pong balls. I sold and was successful. Sold and failed. I was a great sales manager and also a lousy one. I have been the VP of sales and president of a few companies, so I have seen a few things.

I’ve been training for 25 years, seen 1M dollars companies grow to 1B dollars. I truly feel I have learned more from everyone I’ve worked with than they’ve learned from me. I love being a “student of the game.”

If you learn more every day, and are willing to change, you probably become more of an authority than not.

Let’s shift a bit to what is happening today in the broader world. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the COVID-19 pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty and loneliness. From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our families and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

  1. FTC — have the faith, trust and confidence in what they are trying to do. No one, and I mean no one, has the answers for today. But…if we keep trying, and get the faith, trust, and confidence from our friends and loved ones, it will see you through.
  2. Listen — really learn how to become a great listener. The best sales calls are when the buyer feels heard, so really practice active listening skills so people feel they have been heard.
  3. Try — you may strike out more than ever, but if you get 3 hits out of 10 plate appearances, you are elected to the hall of fame. A VC gets rich if 2 out of 10 hit.

Ok. Thanks for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. As you know, nearly any business a person will enter, will involve some form of sales. At the same time, most people have never received any formal education about how to be effective at selling. Why do you think our education system teaches nearly every other arcane subject, but sales, one of the most useful and versatile topics, is totally ignored?

Someone once told me professors get paid to be published, and there are no real good sales publications like there are in marketing, finance, or medicine. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do believe sales is generally undervalued and undertaught.

Sales is probably overlooked because it’s often seen as the “go to market” arm of marketing, so it gets clumped in marketing. However, sales is much more active than marketing in many ways; one plans, the other does the GTM strategy. This GTM strategy requires different skills and knowledge than straight marketing.

Companies are so busy teaching their salespeople about features and benefits, the product and the competition, they are not having them sit in the “buyer’s chair” and think like a buyer. It would be refreshing and helpful if they did.

This discussion, entitled, “How To Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesy”, is making an assumption that seeming salesy or pushy is something to be avoided. Do you agree with this assumption? Whether yes, or no, can you articulate why you feel the way you do?

People think salespeople are gregarious and outgoing. Sometimes buyers need a nudge, because people hate to change.

Great salespeople are great listeners, have a natural curiosity, and can organize a sales process like an engineer. It is not about them. We have a metaphor at M3 Learning: it’s Not About the Dog. Long story, but the more you woof and bark about your product or service, the less chance you have at a sale.

You’ll notice when you’re at a party, the person who talks about themselves the most is usually the one who ends up alone at the end of the night.

The seven stages of a sales cycle are usually broken down to versions of Prospecting, Preparation, Approach, Presentation, Handling objections, Closing, and Follow-up. Which stage do you feel that you are best at? What is your unique approach, your “secret sauce”, to that particular skill? Can you explain or give a story?

This seven stage sales cycle is overly complicated. It can be made simpler:

Stage 0: Prospect

Stage 1: Initial Interest and Discovery

Stage 2: Validation

Stage 3: Decide

Stage 0: Prospecting — sure, needs to get done. I wouldn’t say it’s part of the sales cycle though.

Stage 1. Presentation/Approach — This should be called Interest and Discovery instead. You have to get the buyer’s interest, find out what their goals and gaps are, and what problems they are trying to solve for. You need to be an investigative reporter, and a doctor. Presentation doesn’t work because it’s all about telling. Interest is better — it requires asking questions.

Handling objections is not a step, it’s what you should be doing all the time: qualifying and disqualifying.

Stage 2. Validation. The buyer needs to go from “I get it” to “I GET IT.” They need to take ownership of the solution, try the shoes on, test drive the car, etc. Without this validation, the deal will lose energy.

Stage 3. Decide. Buyers hate to be closed. “I’m going to close you today” comes across a bit pushy. My definition of close is not “get the order” because that’s too one way. My definition of close is getting a decision, yes or no without delay. Why? Yes is great, no is great… a “maybe” will kill you. You give a proposal to a customer and hear, “this is great, we’ll get back to you…” — that’s a maybe. You’re out of control, and now all you can do is to hope (and then follow up).

All the presenting, approaching, objection, handling, and demos happen within this framework.

All of my energy for a deal is in Initial Interest and Discovery. The secret sauce is not: “If I do what the customer tells me to do, and I do it well, I’ll get the order,” that’s way too reactive.

Customers want to be led, but be led down a buy process, not a sales process.

Lead generation, or prospecting, is one of the basic steps of the sales cycle. Obviously, every industry will be different, but can you share some of the fundamental strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

The first strategy is to call high. The trick though is not just calling high, it’s knowing what to say and to ask.

There are two value propositions, one Below the Line (BTL) and one Above the Line (ATL). BTL is features and functions. ATL is ROI on initiatives being addressed.

If a BTL buyer wants something, they have to get “budget.” If an ATL has a 60M dollars goal, and thinks they will only get 80% of it, the ATL buyer has a 12M dollars problem. If what you’re offering costs 3K dollars/month, and makes a dent on the 12M dollars problem, the ATL will find the money.

Two different value propositions. It’s crucial to prospect at the right level and in the right language.

Too often salespeople earn the BTL value proposition really well, so when they get a chance to get to the ATL, they give the executive BTL presentation, the deal loses energy, and here comes the maybe.

In my experience, I think the final stages of Handling Objections, Closing, and Follow-up, are the most difficult parts for many people. Why do you think ‘Handling Objections’ is so hard for people? What would you recommend for one to do, to be better at ‘Handling Objections’?

Handling objections is hard because we have been taught to “counter” the objection. So argumentative.

Agree with the objection.

“This is not a good time right now.”

No — Mary, you’re wrong, it is a great time now.

Yes — Mary you are right. Most of my customers say that at this point. What we have found though is…

Objections are usually misunderstandings, or the buyer does not feel they have been heard or understood. There are many communication skills that are very good objection handling skills, which let the salesperson understand what the real objection is, not just the first feign (back to my “Three Levels of Why” tool).

Closing is of course the proverbial Holy Grail. Can you suggest 5 things one can do to successfully close a sale without being perceived as pushy? If you can, please share a story or example, ideally from your experience, for each.

  1. Ask for a decision, don’t close. (push) — I did this on a sales call for a 500K dollars deal. The owner came by, I asked for a decision, and he said sure. That was a six-week sales cycle.
  2. Present options so the buyer feels like they have choice. Good/Better/Best still works great. I did it when I was selling running shoes in high school, and still do it today.
  3. Tell the buyer what happens right after contract signing so they don’t have a fear of the unknown.
  4. Focus on the problem being solved, not the “value” of your solution.
  5. Get an I-date. What date is the customer going live, and then build a plan backwards from the I-date. No I-date, no deal. Customers don’t care about closing date. They care about go live or I-dates. Do you care when you buy the birthday gift or when the birthday is? Guess which date the salesclerk cares about. It’s different. If you don’t have an I-date by stage 3, you have a guaranteed maybe.

Finally, what are your thoughts about ‘Follow up’? Many businesses get leads who might be interested but things never seem to close. What are some good tips for a business leader to successfully follow up and bring things to a conclusion, without appearing overly pushy or overeager?

BBB — Buyer’s buy backwards, but sellers sell forwards. Use their energy, not yours.

“Mary, you said you go live date is January 10. Well if that’s true, you need to get trained by end of December, which means the team has to be assembled by mid-December, which means you have to make a decision by mid-November to allow for lead times. It’s Nov. 10 right now, so if you want to hit that Jan. 10 date…..”

As you know, there are so many modes of communication today. For example, in-person, phone calls, video calls, emails, and text messages. In your opinion, which of these communication methods should be avoided when attempting to close a sale or follow up? Which are the best ones? Can you explain or give a story?

You need as many as you can. People buy in their style, not necessarily the one you are good at. 70% of the world is a visual learner, so Zoom calls and LinkedIn videos are getting more and more popular.

I was on a Zoom call with a prospect. She asked me about my company and what we could offer. Before I even started, I was asking her about her company, their challenges, goals, outcomes. Fifteen minutes in, the VP of sales pops her head into the Zoom call.

“Skip, we’ve talked to 5 training companies already, and you were the first one who even asked us any questions about what we’re trying to do and what outcomes we are expecting from this investment. I stopped being in the camera on these calls, because if the salesperson starts a ‘show up/throw up’ pitch, I’m not trapped on camera and I can leave the room, just like I did on my last three Zoom calls.”

Bottom line, a picture is worth 1,000 words.

Ok, we are nearly done. Here is our final “meaty” question. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

In sales? Teach ATL skills to salespeople. They will shorten sales cycles, increase ASP, and reduce CAC. Companies spend 20–50% of revenue on sales and get 30+% forecast accuracy. They can do so much better than that.

How can our readers follow you online?

Connect with me on LinkedIn:

Or email me at [email protected]

Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success!