Buying Lessons from a Master Salesman

I spent some time in South Florida this weekend with Sam, a retired former rep for a national clothing manufacturer—that is, he wholesaled clothing lines to retail stores and chains. His territory was New York.  Here’s what he taught me about buying.

How Buyers Say They Buy–from Expertise

A few years ago, he got a terrible pain in his left knee.  Three doctors in a row said he needed either a knee replacement or arthroscopic surgery.  A fourth doctor said he suspected it was actually a hip problem which caused a pinched nerve, which resulted in knee pain.

“I’m not a hip guy,” said doc four, “but my new young colleague is.  I’d like you to have a chat with him.  “Fine,” said Sam, “anything to get rid of this debilitating pain so I can get back to tennis and golf.”

“The doctor was young,” Sam said.  “That was no problem.  But he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He told me it was a hip problem all right, and all those other fancy doctors had it wrong.  None of them had even taken an x-ray of my hip, but he did.”

“Problem was, I couldn’t get over him not looking me in the eye.  If a buyer or a seller won’t look the other in the eye, I just don’t trust him.  Kiss of death and all that.  So I says to him, ‘hey, I’m over here—who you talking to?’  He just said he was a distracted kind of guy, nothing to worry about.”

“But that’s exactly what I worry about.  So I went back to his boss, Doc 4, and I said no offense at all, I just think I’ll look for someone with a little more experience.”

I asked, “Sam, you told me you didn’t trust the guy; why didn’t you tell his boss?”

“Well,” Sam said, “I don’t want to be ruining some kid’s medical career, so I just made a plausible excuse.”

And there you have it.  Sam—a highly experienced and successful salesman, basically says people buy on trust, including him.  And yet, when asked by the seller (Doctor #4) why he didn’t buy, he lied—he said it was lack of experience.  He didn’t tell the truth–which is that he didn’t trust the young doctor.

How Buyers Really Buy–From Trust

So it always is.  Sellers think buyers buy on expertise; they don’t.  They buy on trust.  And when they ask buyers why they didn’t buy, the buyers claim it was on expertise.  And since that’s the answer sellers want to hear, they believe it. 

The truth is otherwise.  As Jeffrey Gitomer puts it, people buy with the heart, and rationalize it with their brain.  We overrate the importance of processes–and underrate the importance of connection. 

The irony is that young doc was right.  Sam underwent arthroscopic knee surgery with a high-reputation doctor in South Florida, and the result was nothing but more pain. 

A year later, Sam visited a hip specialist in NY who diagnosed hip troubles just by watching Sam walk.  He got a hip replacement two months later, and shot a 47 on the front nine a few weeks ago–pain free.

The young doc was right.  Unfortunately–So What.  He treated the patient like a case study, not a human being.

Sam would be the first to tell you: being right is vastly overrated.  Earning the right to have people believe you’re right—that’s where the trust comes in. 

That’s trust.  That’s how people buy.  That’s good selling.  

Buy With the Heart, Justify With the Brain

People buy with the heart, and justify their decision with the brain.

I’m not the only one to make that claim (for another, try Jeffrey Gitomer).

People in “sophisticated” businesses—information technology, Wall Street, law, accounting, consulting—tend not to believe it.  They think business people make business buying decisions in a rational, deductive, linear, data-based, cost-benefits kind of a process.

These people are sellers and buyers of sophisticated sales management and sales training systems.  Their models are variations on “consult with a customer to find a need, get the customer to articulate it, package a solution, and show the customer how the solution fills the need.”

Fine, except it assumes:

a. The buyer can articulate the need
b. The buyer is willing to articulate the need.

Frequently, neither is true.  I recall (can someone help me out on this?) a study of relocations of corporate headquarters, identifying how many moved the HQ closer to the chairman’s home, vs. how many moved it further away.  Care to guess the outcome?

Educated people in powerful businesses (oil, investment banking, capital equipment) will generally tell you they make decisions based on the rational model described above.

Here is a delightful counter-example from a few years ago about an oil industry executive, making an important personal purchase decision—how to select a high-end, bespoke English tailor, courtesy of Thomas Mahon’s blog English Cut:

It’s funny how things from the past can do two things- (A) come back and haunt you, or (B) come back and help you.

Last week I measured up a new customer, who has a senior position with one of the largest and most successful oil companies in the world. He was a very charming fellow who only knew about me through reading English Cut.

He chose me not just because he felt I could give him true bespoke (which I certainly hope I can), but the deciding factor was that he is originally a Cumberland native, like myself. So that put his mind at rest. People go with who they know.

As we were discussing the final cloth choices on his two suits, we stood by the window looking out onto sunlit Savile Row and Anderson & Sheppard’s old premises. When my customer told me which line of business he was in, I remarked that when I as working at A&S I used to cut for the chairman of his company, in other words, his boss.

He than stood back in astonishment. I didn’t know if this meant he thought his boss was the best dressed man on the planet, or the worst, so I was fairly nervous there for a moment.

But then he told me the story. When he first started working with the chairman several years ago, he was in a business meeting on a private jet somewhere over the Atlantic. When my customer had finished discussing some business details, the chairman leaned over the table, took off his glasses and said, referring to his accent, “You sound just like my tailor.”

So be nice to everybody. You never know who may be talking about you.

The customer’s original “deciding factor” was the geographic origin of the tailor—a connection with his own.

The punch line, from which we conclude the tailor had a customer for life, was that the customer’s boss had also hired the tailor.

You come from my part of the world, and my boss uses you.  Sold.

Lesson 1. You won’t find that one in a standard sales process model.

Lesson 2. You can’t build that one into a standard sales process model.

Lesson 3. What you can do is what Aristotle pointed out: character is a habit.  Be nice, competent and of service to everyone—as a habit.  Then when the uncontrollable comes around, you’ve got a reference.