The best salesman I’ve ever met wasn’t a salesman

I don’t think I’ve met anyone who owns their own business who is truly satisfied with how much they’re selling. For Tenon, sales means new features, so when I’m looking at a backlog of awesome ideas I’m also calculating the time & money it would take to develop those ideas. More sales means more money which means more features. Figuring out the right sales and marketing approach is something I wish came easier. Thinking about this recently I was reminded of the best salesman I’ve ever met.

I worked for Bill Killam from 2004 – 2007. Bill runs a small usability consulting firm called User-Centered Design. Bill had worked for UserWorks for a while and had chosen to go solo. Our paths crossed when I was E-Commerce Manager for NASA Federal Credit Union. I was shopping around for some usability help on our website. I had been extolling the virtues of usability for a while but nobody would listen. Suddenly the CEO of the Credit Union came across an article on usability and now wanted to make the website more usable. Bill Killam was one of many usability consultants I contacted off the UPA directory to get a quote.

I must’ve sat through a half-dozen calls discussing what I wanted to do with the website and hearing pitches from sales people. Each sales person followed up with a big fancy presentation brief and a detailed quote. After talking with Bill, he sent over a plain text email. His email contained a paragraph of about 100 words describing what he thought I should do and a price for what that work would cost. No fancy sales pitch, no presentation, no fat project brief. All steak, no sizzle. Sales people might read the above and cringe. Bill himself might read the above and cringe. But to me it was pure genius, because he was the only person I talked to in that process who actually demonstrated to me that he listened to my problem and in that single plaintext email he related to me how his deliverables would address my problem.

Ultimately, I didn’t end up using Bill for the work on the Credit Union website. Instead, I went to work for him. A few months after I started that search for a Usability consultant to help on the Credit Union’s site, Bill hired me to do development work and in that time I got to see multiple examples of his incredible sales skills.

The thing was, Bill actually never really thought of himself as a salesman, which is why he was actually so good. Instead, he was a problem solver. He never tried (at least not that I could tell) to persuade anyone to do anything. He never “pitched” people. Instead, he went into sales meetings almost like it was a project kickoff meeting. He didn’t just “assume the sale”, he actually went into the meetings with the perspective that he already had the gig, he just needed to scope it out properly to give them the right price. He never went into long-winded dialogs filled with superlatives. He never droned on about features and benefits. He listened to the customer, learned what their problems were, and proposed ways to solve those problems.

Sales people are too quick to treat a sales call as an event where they must head off any objections. They think they need to convince the customer to buy. They interrupt customers as soon as they see an opportunity to talk more about their product or service. The problem is that the more time you spend talking the less time you’re spending listening. Listening is how you learn about the customer’s problem. Listening gives you the opportunity to understand the customer’s pain points. The sales person thinks that their job is to make a sale. It isn’t. The sales person’s job is to determine what the customer’s problems are and present appropriate solutions to those problems. Bill understood that and, as a consequence, never had a problem selling his services.