“They’d make you laugh if they hadn’t made you cry”

I ran the sales operation for a management consultancy.  One of my roles was to develop the sales skills of Managing Consultants.  Managing Consultants, if you know the breed, think they are good salesmen. Their position is epitomised by the statement “I am a very good salesman though I am not very good at setting meetings”.  Martin was the Managing Consultant this time round.

This day Martin and I were visiting a successful paper company in the Birmingham, West Midlands.  We were meeting the CEO.  Good start. At least we began with the chance of a decision.  The CEO was a Sikh, urbane, charming, very English, clearly with a very good grip on his company.  You get Sikhs like this in the UK. His name was a Sikh name, he wore a turban – he was clearly a Sikh and Sikhs originally emanate from India, and India is a land where the Hindhus pay homage to the cow.

I introduced the meeting – who we are, the issues we tackled and and why we thought a meeting could well be valuable.  Over to you,  Martin.  It was Martin’s turn.  I had suggested to Martin on the way to the meeting he should rely on questions to draw out the information needed to position his sale. Preferably open questions, preferably questions beginning HOW, WHY, WHAT, WHEN and WHO. And to move the questions from the general to the specific.  So he started.  Questions about the customer’s market, his competitors, his turnover, what  the CEO felt were the issues he would have to face (good).  All a bit awkward and without a sense of direction.  But the CEO was smiling and as urbanely English as ever.

Well Martin, having covered the first part of the sale for better or for worse, began to dry up.  He didn’t understand clearly that a sale has a framework; and he didn’t understand how to move the customer into the negotiation.  Silence fell.  I struggled not to interject, to save the day.  Martin had to find his own way.

He sat there pondering his next step.  The customer sat expectantly.  Suddenly the tumblers fell into place in Martin’s head.  All the impacts of the meeting came together.  The words poured out:

“Are there any sacred cows in your company?”

We sat there in amazement as the implications dawned. We knew what he meant. Were there issues in the company that would make change difficult?  But he didn’t say that.  He chose the cows and with the cows, without redeeming humour, he chose certain death. The meeting wandered on but the moment had passed.  We bid our fond farewells and left.  Fortunately, on the way home, Martin did not say how well felt the meeting had gone or that we would be doing business together sooner rather than later.

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