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Sales Lessons from Rome

            Our first overseas family vacation started with a visit to Rome. Lori had toured Europe with her college choir more than 20 years earlier. Otherwise, this was our first time to experience firsthand the many treasures of Italy’s capital.

            To say that this city is rich with tradition and lessons would be a gross understatement. Nonetheless, I found many sales lessons among the ancient and modern, artistic and everyday elements of this splendid city.

            1. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” – This familiar expression comes from one of the letters of Saint Augustine. In it he tells how his mother once asked Saint Ambrose: "At Rome they fast on Saturday, but not at Milan; which practice ought to be observed?"  Saint Ambrose replied: "When I am at Milan, I do as they do at Milan; but when I go to Rome, I do as Rome does!"

            In selling, doing as the Romans do means that you honor the customs and values of your prospect. You don’t have to adopt them as your own nor do you have to change your life forever. You simply appreciate them for what they are and take note of the potential value of a different perspective or approach to a challenge. In other words, allow for more than one right answer.

            Doing as the Romans do also means doing as the top sales professionals do. Through the years, I have benefited greatly when I have deferred to the expertise of a veteran’s approach to sales and business. Speak and author Brian Tracy recommends the 100-call method, contacting 100 prospects in as short a time as possible to propel your business faster and more effectively than you can by doing anything else. By following that single piece of advice many years ago, I made more mistakes sooner and learned more than I ever would have by going about my selling at a slower pace. It made a huge difference in my results and continues to have a positive impact on my business to this day.

            2. Don’t be an “ugly American” – As we prepared for our trip, our travel agent gently but firmly encouraged us to dress and carry ourselves in a way that would not label us as Americans during our visit. She warned us of Americans who travel abroad expecting host countries to cater to their comfortable and familiar way of life, complaining when they encounter even the slightest variation from their perception of the way things should be. We were so successful in following her advice that on several occasions, based on our dress, appearance and demeanor, we were initially mistaken for locals.

            Not being an ugly American in selling means that you handle yourself with poise and grace in each and every situation. Consider the environment you’re about to enter and check your preconceived notions at the door. Regardless of how odd something appears, afford it the same level of respect that you would your most treasured values. Remember that things are seldom as they appear and that in these situations we tend to learn our greatest lessons. Be humble and conscious enough to carry yourself well in such opportunities. Once you become more familiar with a particular issue or approach, having asked questions to understand more fully, only then do you earn the right to offer alternative methods to address certain issues.

            This is why the best leaders and sales managers, as they start a new assignment, take time to study what has been done and how it has been accomplished. As leaders, they allow things to take place as they observe and note the advantages and disadvantages of handling them in a certain way. The manner with which they make improvements while respecting and building on the strengths of the organization goes a long way toward how they are perceived and the loyalty and enthusiasm they engender on their team.

            When you find yourself in a new situation or organization, allow for the possibility that this person or organization knows some of what it’s doing, regardless of how far it varies from the methods and approaches most familiar to you. When you are in selling for any period of time, you’re bound to run across individuals or teams needing your help badly. Take the time and energy to find what they’re doing right and build on that. Even if an overhaul is indicated, go about it with kid gloves. Show that you appreciate the effort that has gotten them to this point.

            3. Take a tour or two– We purchased two guided tours of Rome, one focused on art and another on the ancient. In each case, we walked, listened, observed and learned about the traditions and the accomplishments of those who lived and worked there.

            Taking a tour in selling can be both literal and figurative. In many situations, you can ask your prospect to take you on a tour of the facility, helping you to observe, listen and understand more about the work done there. Figuratively, you can take the tour for greater understanding by getting initial information in advance and asking questions to build on what you’ve already learned. Whether you’re a novice or an expert in your prospect’s business or situation, there’s always more you can learn that will help you create some improvement and add value.

            Taking the tour also means that you consider learning a lifelong activity. Read, study and learn from experts the best practices and principles of your discipline. Become the best student you know and invest in your continuing education, regardless of credit hours or advanced degrees. Those at the top of their game are there, at least in part, because they believe they still have things to learn. Carry that same attitude with you wherever you go and be open to new information that you can use or share.

            4. Learn the basic terms and use them –Brian Tracy also taught me if you know how to say please, thank you and excuse me in the language of whatever country you visit, you can get or do just about anything. We found this to be true in Rome, where people seemed to appreciate our effort to use bits and pieces of their language, though we’re far from fluent in the native tongue.

            Learning the basic terms and using them in selling means that you understand the key terms and measures of an industry and become fluent in how they are used. While you may not know everything before your first meeting, your mention of a critical industry measure or operational term shows that you’ve done some work and learned at least a bit about the prospect’s business and industry. You have the opportunity to allow your prospect to be the expert while you ask pertinent questions that cut to the core of what he or she is trying to accomplish.

            5. Be silent – One sees the Sistine Chapel, home of the famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo, at the end of the Vatican Museum tour. Anticipation builds and visitors enter the Chapel with the request that they remain silent out of respect for this place of worship. The opportunity to stand or sit quietly is rewarded as one is surrounded by the beautiful illustrations of one of the masters.

            Being silent in selling means that you make what your prospect has to say the single most important part of any conversation. This means that you remain silent while the prospect answers your questions, while he or she questions or objects and immediately after you’ve asked for the order. The beauty of this silence is the message you convey, that the prospect, not your product or service, is the most important ingredient of any sales conversation.

            I once accompanied a veteran sales professional as he presented a proposal to a prospect. When the prospect made it clear that there would be no sale on what my friend had offered, the prospect began to describe his situation and his efforts to make improvements. In the course of that conversation, my friend interrupted twice, valuing more what he had to say than what his prospect was saying. While silence in that situation would not have changed the outcome of this particular sales call, it would certainly have added to the relationship and enhanced the possibility of gaining agreement in the near future.

            6. Look up – There’s a very good chance that visitors indoors in Rome can lift their eyes to the ceiling and discover anything from colorfully detailed paintings to ornate sculpture. Decorated ceilings are the norm in Rome’s churches and museums, so much so that we found ourselves a bit dizzy from time to time after long gazes above us.

            Looking up in selling means that you remain conscious of things going on around you. If you’re so busy with your presentation that you fail to notice your prospect’s lack of attention or look of concern, you may have already lost him or her. Once again, this requires a thorough knowledge of what you sell, because you must be able to integrate that understanding into a singular focus on the prospect and how he or she can benefit from your offering. Keep your eyes and ears open, make eye contact with your prospect on a regular basis and be sure to remain aware of circumstances and events happening around you.

            7. Watch where you’re walking – In walking Rome’s streets and paths built centuries earlier, we noticed the uneven surfaces typical of such places. We even joked about how we spent a great deal of our time tripping around the city as we would catch a toe or heel of a shoe on a stone and have to regain our balance before we could continue walking.

            Watching where you’re walking in selling means that you exercise caution in your questions to a prospect or customer. This is a prime principle set forth in SPIN Selling®: don’t ask questions that could lead you to dead ends in your sales effort. All it takes is one errant question to trip you up and stop your progress. Such a mistake forces you to risk losing more than the sale. By asking questions that take you off the track, your credibility suffers and you can damage the very relationship you may be trying to build or enhance. Prepare your questions to build toward a solution you can provide. Make every question count in your favor.

            8. Be visual – Rome is a visually stunning city. The contrast of the ancient and modern, the scale of buildings and other structures and the breathtaking beauty and detail of art in its many forms create a continuous feast for the eyes. It can be so rich that you may feel the need for a visual break now and then from all the stimulation you get.

            Being visual in selling means that you take advantage of your prospect’s eyes by illustrating the benefits of your product or service. If you’re fascinated by the workings of your product, that’s wonderful and it likely adds to your enthusiasm. Make sure your visuals focus less on the workings and more on the benefits. Ask yourself this question: “How can my presentation illustrate the value my prospect will receive by using my product or service?” Make your prospect the star of your visual show, helping each one see himself or herself enjoying the outcomes of buying and using what you offer.

            In today’s world of computerized presentations, you can differentiate yourself by using your own homemade visuals. One of our colleagues carries a sheet of white plastic that sticks to a wall, allowing him to diagram and “chalk talk” the value of what he offers. This sheet remains with the prospect, who now has an “original” rather than a canned slide show.

            9. Slow down – Do you pack your vacation or holiday full of activities and find yourself at times literally running from one attraction or activity to another? We tend to do just that. We learned on this visit that, while Rome is a bustling, 21stcentury city, we were able to enjoy some of its greatest treasures by a slower pace, an occasional lingering and a still moment to absorb its history.

            Slowing down in selling involves taking the time to listen to and digest what your prospect or customer tells you. Whether it’s an explanation of a production problem or an objection about the timing of the buying decision, listen as if it’s the first time you’ve ever heard it and allow a few seconds of silence before you respond. Fast replies can come across as defensive or contrived, while the short period of “dead air” followed by a restating of the problem or objection coupled with a confident response can effectively convey that you’ve received the message in full. A rush to respond may also betray a greater interest in the current transaction than in the long-term relationship.

            9. Enjoy yourself – While this seems redundant as a vacation lesson, I found myself tightening and tensing occasionally as we moved through unfamiliar territory. Once we became a bit more familiar with the lay of the land, it was easier to relax and enjoy.

            Enjoying yourself in selling means that you appreciate the trip that is the sales process and enjoy the view along the way. Value the budding relationship, reflect on the opportunities and soak up the lessons that come with setbacks. Sales is very much a journey and the sooner you realize that your happiness comes en route rather than only at the destination, the more fulfilling you will feel in your profession of selling. Appreciate the privilege of helping others, the ability to be compensated for your chosen level of performance and the freedoms that selling affords you when you do it well.

            10. Put three coins in the fountain – At the Fontana di Trevi, legend says that if you toss a coin into the fountain over your shoulder, you will one day return to the eternal city. Since we had three days to discover only a fraction of what Rome has to offer, we would all enjoy an encore.

             Tossing a coin into the fountain in selling means that you make sure to plant the seeds now for your continued relationship with this prospect or customer. This includes scheduling your next appointment before you leave, suggesting some further improvements that you can discuss once you get the current order or work under way and requesting that your prospect be thinking about others who can benefit from your product or service.

            Visit Rome for all its beauty and many pleasures. If you can’t make it to Rome, do as the Romans do and apply these lessons to improve your sales results.

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