The Danger of Crocodile Sales

Posted on Feb 3, 2010 | 72 comments


crocodile with mouth openThis is part of my series on Startup Advice.

When I worked in London there were a ton of Aussies.  I love working with Aussies because their outlook on life seems very similar to what I grew up with in California.  Pretty laid back and non-hierarchic.  I also loved learning all of their sayings.

My favorite was when a guy told me to beware of Crocodile Salesmen. What’s that?  ”You know, big mouth and no ears.”

That’s always stuck with me.  Crocodile Salesmen are people who are always talking.  They’re pitching to you.  They don’t take the time to realize what your true motivations are because they’re too busy telling you what they THINK you want to hear.

Trust me – your chances of selling are much lower if you’re talking rather than actively listening.

I’d like to talk about Crocodile Salesmen in 3 scenarios: 1) when YOU are selling (or someone on your team), 2) when you are trying to recruit a sales person and 3) raising VC

1. YOU Selling – My wise old friend & mentor, Ameet Shah, once told me after a meeting we had with clients (when I worked at Accenture), “there are two ways to run a meeting: asking or telling.  You’re a persuasive guy but be careful not to always be telling people the answer.  Nobody likes that.  You learn much more about how other people think when you’re asking.  And you get to better results.”

That stuck with me long before I was ever a CEO (aka chief salesman).  It is my natural style to want to “tell.”  I’m an ENTP.  Many of you are “tellers,” too.  I know because many entrepreneurs I spend time with I can tell are in their own brains when we’re meeting rather than trying to understand what my position is.    You’re in sales mode.  I still do this sometimes, too.  But I’m keenly aware afterward when I’ve done it and kick myself.

This point is also echoed by the author of my favorite business (life) book of all time – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (by Stephen Covey) – in which he says as one of the habits, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  If you follow that mantra I assure you it will lead to more positive results in whatever you’re doing.

But how to apply “listening” in a sales meeting?  Let’s assume you run a Customer Support software company.  Do you simply begin by asking, “I’d love to understand what your objectives are in customer support?  Where are your current pains?”

Never.

You need to first establish two things: credibility and rapport.  I recommend starting the meeting with a VERY brief introduction of your company, your background and why it’s relevant to the job you currently have.  I would then always say, “Obviously we know a little bit about you but if you feel comfortable we’d love to know just a little bit more about you and about your role.”

Too many people are racing through the pitch, pitch, pitch that they don’t realize it’s polite to let the “opposing team” talk and do intro’s also.  They’re into crocodile mode.

After that you need to begin discussing your company.  You need to identify a customer problem and talk about how your solution meets the needs of that problem.

What I personally recommend is that you use “What We Find’s.” Highlighting a few problems that you have seen in some of your existing  customers.  You can mention them generically.  Even better if you have permission to discuss actual names as a “reference client.”

So you would say (in the Customer Support example), “What we find is that many of our clients have existing ‘trouble ticketing’ systems.  But many of these aren’t integrated with the way that their customers want to communicate with them in 2010.  They don’t handle Twitter feedback, emails or IM.  So ‘what we find’ is that many of our customers are using separate tools for managing these but don’t have a holistic view of the customer.”

So you’ve identified a problem.  But DO NOT crocodile into your solution page.  You have hopefully established enough rapport and credibility by this point to enable you to ask a question.  Start very simply and subtly, such as, “do you find similar challenges at your company?”  Hopefully this will elicit a long-enough answer for you to engage in a discussion.

If you get no love after that you might be in for a tough meeting.  You have no choice but to jump into solution mode for a bit to see if your case studies on a successful implementation at other customers opens up the person you’re meeting a bit.

The end goal in your meeting is to get the customer to trust you enough to talk about their existing problems.  You should be actively listening the whole time (actively listening as in listening, writing important things down and asking relevant questions as they talk about their problems).  At the end I normally like to say “I’d love to list out what I  think I heard are your issues to test whether I had properly understood them.”  Normally after I read off my summary they clarify points a lot and I realize that I was only directionally correct.  Always “test your understanding.”

The art of building rapport, establishing a base of credibility and then shifting to a discussion is how the best sales processes work.  The quicker you slip into Crocodile Mode the greater the chance that you’re telling somebody about solutions you have to somebody else’s problems – not your prospect’s problems.  Or you’re not speaking in their company’s vernacular so they’re not making the connection.

Beware of Crocodile Sales.  They are seldom productive.

2. Hiring a Sales Person – So you’re running your own startup and you need to be able to hire a sales leader and ultimately more junior sales people.  You conduct an interview.  How do you know if you have the right person?  The best sales people understand that an interview is a sale and they demonstrate that they understand the process by conducting your interview in the format I outlined above.

If they start the meeting with, “I’d like to know what you’re looking for in your VP Sales person – what’s important to you?” then it’s going to be a long meeting.  They clearly don’t understand that until they’ve established rapport they haven’t earned the right to ask that question.  This happens in about 10-15% of the candidates I interview.

The much more common is – you guessed it – the crocodile sales person.  After some basic banter of getting to know each other I turn to their resume and ask some questions.  A good sales person knows to answer each question briefly and then check back with you, “would you like me to go into more detail in that area?”  A Crocodile Salesperson is off to the races.  Turn on your stop watch – they’ll be talking for the next 12 minutes about all of the great and successful campaigns they’ve led – even before you’ve asked.  Zzzzzzz.

I always politely listen even though I may have already written them off.  I probably will jump in with a few questions about their industry and start a discussion.  I know they’re not going to get the job but I don’t want to be rude and end the meeting in 10 minutes.  But to spare me from 50 minutes of totally wasted time I figure I might as well use it as a chance to learn a bit more as an industry.  Unfortunately this happens in at least 40% of my sales person interviews and confirms my theory that at least 40% of sales people suck.  Probably higher.

The GREAT sales people know how to turn an “interview” into a “discussion.”  This is a rare gift since the interviewer often feels empowered to run the meeting as he / she sees fit and doesn’t intend to cede control.  But I’ve had situations where I’ve intended to interview a candidate and he’s flipped it to a point where I feel like I’m trying to convince him what a great opportunity this is.

It’s subtle and slow.  It starts with the basics: rapport and credibility.  Then it moves to politely answering questions as asked and short bursts.  But after a few of these I’ve noticed some great sales people then throw in a question.  They are not generic questions.  They are specific ones that show that they’ve done their research.  ”I noticed that you’ve had some success with your customer support software on Twitter accounts, but how do people using Salesforce.com typically respond?  Do they want it all in one solution?  I’d love to understand how that part of your sales process goes, if that would be ok.”

BOOM.  Now I’m selling.   And just when I thought I’d answered it he finds a clever way to ask a follow on question that demonstrates both his research / knowledge of my company AND he’s asked a question in a way that he’s demonstrating his sales knowledge so that he’s still scoring points, “when I was at Oracle the problem we ran into competing with Salesforce was A,B,C.  We found some success when we tried D, E, F.  Have you guys faced similar experiences in selling?”

3. Pitching a VC – As I said in a previous post – the best VC meetings are discussions and not sales pitches.  Let’s be honest – raising money IS a sale and you need to treat it as such.  You’re running a sales campaign to raise money.  You have target customers, you have competitors and you have a product to sell.

So all the same rules apply.  Prepare for your meetings by doing research before you go.  Try to find out who in the organization is most likely to buy your product.  It’s always best to “sell high,” which means to get in front of the most senior team if you can.  But also to focus on somebody who is interested in your area – not just the partner you can most easily get intro’d to.

And importantly – when you have your meeting: build rapport, establish credibility (if you haven’t seen why I believe the first slide in your deck should be your bio’s see this post), and find a way to flip it and ask the VC to respond with their point of view on topics.  VC’s have a crocodile aversion as much as the next guy.

  • Shane

    Thanks again Mark for writing such poignant material, this is really great. I wanted to point everyone in the direction of a great website I found when I was doing research about how to cold call effectively (read: was at my wit's end) ;).

    Anyway, it was a great tutorial, and they had tons of additional essays and information about building rapport and how to effectively sell to a new prospect. http://www.businessballs.com/cold_calling.htm

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Authenticity certainly matters. To be truly passionate you need to be authentic. If you're faking it people know. Both A & P matter a lot. And, yes, Aussies are about the friendliest people you meet.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Non verbal communications (body language) is 90% of all communications. At important meetings I would often ask a colleague to watch for body language. It's hard to be the lead at a meeting AND pay attention to that. In Japan they have people trained to go to meetings and shut their eyes and only listen so that they're not influenced at all by the body language. Super interesting.

    And, yes, I often fall back into my “talk” mode when I should be listening. It's hard to break habits but if you remind yourself before key meetings it helps.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Great story – thank you. I agree that VP sales is very difficult to hire for. I often try to help my companies recruit that role just to have one more perspective since it is something a lot of people struggle with.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the book tip. I'll add it to my queue.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: features & functions demos – totally agree.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Always great to be able to take courses like Spin. I never got the chance but I have taken 3 courses in my career and learned at every one of them. I sort of think sales is one of those things that you need a refresher course in every few years.

  • http://www.vumedi.com Roman Giverts

    Really interesting post. I remember when I realized selling was about listening, it was literally a life changing experience. I had never listened in my entire life because i enjoyed talking so much. I was that kid in grade school who was constantly being sent outside for talking while the teacher was talking lol.

    So for those out there who are talkers and need to be salesmen, here's what I've done that's helped (this may be crazy, I really don't know, but it's helped me):
    1. I try to prepare as little as possible for what i'm going to say at sales meetings. I know I'm knowledgable about the topic being discussed, so I wont even think about the meeting until 2-3 minutes before it starts. I always go in with the mindset that I have nothing to prepare because the SOLE purpose of this meeting is for me to listen and learn. At first it seemed backwards since it's a sales meeting…… aren't they the ones who are supposed to learn?… nope, wrong. This forces me to be in listening mode from the outset…. then I can chime in as necessary, that's the easy part.

    2. Listen actively. I put the energy into listening that I used to put into talking. This is similar to “reading actively.” I reallllly focus on what I'm hearing and try to process every thought being conveyed. Many people will stay silent, but very few people will truly listen. If you do, it's incredible. The entire meeting slows down for you. You are able to think about where you want the conversation to go and stay in control of it. And you will have a much more accurate assessment as to whether your prospect is actually interested in your crap.

    Ultimately though, this is one of those great posts because it's not actually about sales. It is a post about life. Everyone likes it when people listen to them because most people don't get listened to enough. The easiest way to make friends, date girls, etc, is to just get them talking and listen :)

  • http://www.blackbeltguide.com/ Marc Winitz

    The link is http://bit.ly/bdX2zy. Would love to connect. I moved up to
    SF area last year and live in Marin County.

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  • Roman Giverts

    Really interesting post. I remember when I realized selling was about listening, it was literally a life changing experience. I had never listened in my entire life because i enjoyed talking so much. I was that kid in grade school who was constantly being sent outside for talking while the teacher was talking lol.

    So for those out there who are talkers and need to be salesmen, here's what I've done that's helped (this may be crazy, I really don't know, but it's helped me learn how to listen):

    1. I try to prepare as little as possible for what i'm going to say at sales meetings. I know I'm knowledgable about the topic being discussed, so I wont even think about the meeting until 2-3 minutes before it starts. I always go in with the mindset that I have nothing to prepare because the SOLE purpose of this meeting is for me to listen and learn. At first it seemed backwards since it's a sales meeting…… aren't they the ones who are supposed to learn?… nope, wrong. This forces me to be in listening mode from the outset…. then I can chime in as necessary, that's the easy part.

    2. Listen actively. I put the energy into listening that I used to put into talking. This is similar to “reading actively.” I reallllly focus on what I'm hearing and try to process every thought being conveyed. Many people will stay silent, but very few people will truly listen. If you do, it's incredible. The entire meeting slows down for you. You are able to think about where you want the conversation to go and stay in control of it. And you will have a much more accurate assessment as to whether your prospect is actually interested in your crap.

    Ultimately though, this is one of those great posts because it's not actually about sales. It is a post about life. Everyone likes it when people listen to them because most people don't get listened to enough. The easiest way to make friends, date girls, etc, is to just get them talking and listen :)

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  • http://www.cogmap.com/ Brent

    SPIN Selling is the greatest sales book of all time and I thought about it the whole time I read this post. Every time I read a business book that is fundamentally data driven, it makes me happy. And know the types of questions that work most effectively in building a trusted relationship and driving the discussion forward is invaluable.

  • Tereza

    Yeah. I'd group Barbara Minto's course with that too. Not sure if she still does it (is she still alive?). But when I took it twice, I saw grown men — supply chain guys — almost cry.

  • http://www.cogmap.com/ Brent

    SPIN Selling is the greatest sales book of all time and I thought about it the whole time I read this post. Every time I read a business book that is fundamentally data driven, it makes me happy. And know the types of questions that work most effectively in building a trusted relationship and driving the discussion forward is invaluable.

  • Tereza

    Another bit of artful management: the sales funnel call. If done well, totally energizing and focusing. If not — herding cats.

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    Yeah. I'd group Barbara Minto's course with that too. Not sure if she still does it (is she still alive?). But when I took it twice, I saw grown men — supply chain guys — almost cry.

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    Another bit of artful management: the sales funnel call. If done well, totally energizing and focusing. If not — herding cats.

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  • http://barbaramintol.com/ Barbara Minto

    Thanks for the very nice comment, Tereza. I am indeed still alive, and still teaching my course!

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/tereza Tereza

    Barbara that is great news. I will shout that from the hilltops, as
    there remains an evergreen need for what you uniquely do!

    Tereza

  • http://barbaramintol.com/ Barbara Minto

    Thanks for the very nice comment, Tereza. I am indeed still alive, and still teaching my course!

  • http://barbaramintol.com/ Barbara Minto

    Thanks for the very nice comment, Tereza. I am indeed still alive, and still teaching my course!

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    Barbara that is great news. I will shout that from the hilltops, as
    there remains an evergreen need for what you uniquely do!

    Tereza

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    Barbara that is great news. I will shout that from the hilltops, as
    there remains an evergreen need for what you uniquely do!

    Tereza