THE ART AND NUMBERS OF SELLING

This is a chapter from my book, THE AGENCY. You can download three chapters FREE here.

The Mindset

Sell sell sell. When it’s all said and done, you have to sell. No selling, no cash; no cash, no business; no business, no you… Okay, a bit dramatic, maybe, but you get my point. An incredible number of people start a new business and work extremely hard to build something remarkable and kill themselves to get everything right. Then they ruin it all by not selling – not as in they failed to win business, they don’t freaking try. They don’t sell. They say bullshit like: “My customers are different”, and “My company doesn’t do selling the way others do, it’s word of mouth”. You can be sure you’ll see these people change their ‘passion’ a few times before retiring into employment or building something that just scrapes through and keeps them prisoners of the weekly 7am networking events. All because they failed to sell.

It’s not a skill problem, it’s not a time problem, it’s not a resources problem. It’s a mindset problem. The mindset I know most people adopt is that of fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of the ‘No’. Wake up and smell the coffee, my friend. There will always be more ‘no’s than there will be ‘yes’es. This is as true for new starters as it often is for larger businesses and agencies. Irrespective of what you’re selling, there will always be way more people who don’t buy what you sell than those who do. If there are a bunch of people in a room, all of whom could buy from you, the majority won’t. This is the nature of the selling game, most prospects will say no, leaving only a small percentage of your prospects who say yes. It’s the way outbound sales works. It’s a numbers game, and you need to be comfortable hearing ‘no’.

It’s a numbers game

When I first started in sales as a very young man at 19, I was selling an alternative solution to the Yellow Pages. I’d travel throughout the north of Italy meeting potential new customers – we’d make the appointment via telephone and then I would visit them in person. I’d fill the time in between appointments by visiting other organisations nearby, basically door-to-door, literally walking in and asking to speak with the owner. We knew that for every 100 calls made, we’d set five appointments. For every five appointments we’d sell one contract worth 820,000 Italian lira (old currency; LIRA 820K was the equivalent of £820 today). It was absolutely a numbers game: if you followed the script, if you stuck to the activity, over a reasonable period of time, the numbers would always be the same. Five percent call to appointment, 20 percent appointment to a LIRA 820K sale. It was very tempting to think this wasn’t true at times. When you had a bad week you could blame it on the weather, news and whatever else was likely to get you sympathy from others – and from yourself. At times the opposite happened: you’d have a monster week and started to believe you were better than the stats.

I remember once when I agreed to meet a potential customer on a Saturday morning – more like the customer agreed to see me – and I travelled up to Valsassina, a gorgeous part of the region where I used to live, where 80 percent of the companies around were (and still are) cheese producers. I walked in and the owner of the business greeted me and showed me around the whole plant. They were a proud bunch, quite rightly, and showing their business to others was clearly something they did with joy. Being a Saturday, he must have felt more relaxed about time, so the tour was comprehensive. After a brief chat, I walked out with a LIRA 990,000 contract. Above the daily average and 100 percent conversion. Success!

On the way back, I decided to stop at another cheese producer – cold, pure door-to-door, just because it was on the way. What follows wasn’t planned, although I admit that knowing they were super competitive with each other, I didn’t go out of my way to stop the prospective customer from seeing the name of his competitor when the contract I’d just signed a few minutes before fell out of my folder. I walked out with a LIRA 1,250,000 contract, the next level up from the previous customer. 100 percent conversion rate and three days worth of sales in half a non-working day. I was flying – that was the Superman role model in me coming out! I repeated this the whole journey down to my home town and ended up with a further:

  • LIRA 820,000 from stop 1.
  • LIRA 820,000 from stop 2.
  • LIRA 1,900,000 from stop 3, this time with a nuts and bolts producer, probably just because I was super pumped with energy coming out of every pore and, you know, success breeds success.

I closed that half a day with LIRA 5,780,000 in sales – seven days’ worth of contracts in one non-working half day. That was my record day, record week and record month. But fast-forward six months, the total for the six-months period would have more or less normalised back to the usual five percent call to appointment and 20 percent appointment to sale, because had sick days and bad days.

The very first thing that one has to do in order to get the right mindset around selling is to realise that selling is a numbers game.

It’s not about the ‘NO’s, it’s about the activity

The second thing, equally important, is that selling is also a ‘no’ game. The majority of the time you will get a rejection, you will get a ‘no’. It is vital that you understand and always remember this, because this is the number one factor that will either help you sell more or stop selling. Fear of rejection is the biggest reasons for businesses not selling. They are afraid to get a ‘no’; they are afraid to be rejected and perhaps humiliated. This is absolutely crazy, because you will definitely get rejected, you will absolutely get a bunch of ‘no’s, it’s in the numbers. What do you think happened to the 95 percent of the calls I made? What happened to the 80 percent of people who agreed to see me but didn’t buy? They said “no”. Some more politely than others. There will always be more people saying “no” than there will be saying “yes”, and yet many fear the ‘no’s. Fucking insane, it kills me actually.

As I write this down it hits me even more, how silly is this. It’s like setting up a PPC campaign and then panicking when the first 100 clicks don’t make a sale! Or sending out 10,000 leaflets and worrying that you only got 200 sales. You have to go through the ‘no’s to get the ‘yes’es.

The number one selling skill that one has to master is the mindset, and part of that is accepting the ‘no’s. The healthy way to look at this, the only way really, is to take each ‘no’ as a step towards a ‘yes’. Fall in love with ‘no’s; they are great because they take you one step closer to your next ‘yes’. I promise, this is absolutely how it works. It’s about the activity. If you stick with your activity, go through the tasks and actions and correct your approach as you get feedback, you will eventually get to your yes.

What you must dread isn’t the ‘no’s, but the ‘maybe’s. ‘Maybe’s are your worst enemy; if you let them, they will kill you. We will talk about them in the next part, but first take a moment to focus on developing a mindset that allows you to see a ‘no’ as a step towards a ‘yes’. And remember, a ‘no’ is just a ‘no today’. Many of my ‘no today’s turn into ‘yes’es down the line.

‘Maybe’s

Imagine you are spinning a plate on one hand. Then you get another spinning plate on your other hand.. Now stick one on your head and, why not, one on your left foot too. You’re done. There’s no more space for another plate anywhere. Now imagine you see a plate with great, yummy food on it. It’s yours if you want it. But you can’t take it because you’re all taken up with the spinning plates

‘Maybe’s are like spinning plates: they give you work, loads of it, massive amounts to do, but no return, zero, fucking nada. Every ‘maybe’ is another item on your to do list: “follow up”, “do this”, “do that” and so on. Every ‘maybe’ is also mindspace – you think about it, you worry about it, you get excited about. But nothing. They absolutely drain you. And, I can assure you, ‘maybe’s don’t convert. The vast majority of ‘maybe’s will become ‘no’s after a long, painful and time-eroding game of cat and mouse. ‘Maybe’s are spinning plates; drop them all, drop the spinning shit and get on with work that matters.

More on ‘No’s

When you get a ‘no’, say thank you, be grateful to your prospect because they did you the massive favour of sparing you from a painful ‘maybe’. You should feel about people who give you straight ‘no’s the same way a samurai feels about the enemy who kills him with a straight, painless hit to the heart. A straight ‘no’ gives you the opportunity to move on and focus on your next ‘yes’. But ask for feedback, always. The way digital agencies typically get the verdict is by email; if you are lucky, you’ll get a phone call. Either way, ask for feedback, honest and thorough. How? Just ask! Say things like: “Hey, I appreciate you letting us know, and I’m super grateful that you gave us the opportunity. We fully accept your decision but want to get better. It would mean the world to us if you could spare five minutes to give us some feedback.” And then give them the chance to give you specific feedback, brutal feedback. Better verbally, of course, and easier to get at times. If in writing, you can design a Google Form or just send a few questions in an email. You need to work out what these questions might be depending on what you pitched for, to whom, how, and so on. Spend some time designing these questions, come up with stuff that is likely to get answers you can act on, ask open questions: what and how, mainly. A few examples:

  • What are the top three reasons you’ve chosen not to go with us?
  • What did you like the most about our pitch?
  • What did you like the least?
  • How passionate about working with you did we come across on a scale of 1 to 5, and why?
  • How did you feel after our pitch?
  • What questions or thoughts were you left with after our pitch?
  • If you were us, what would you have done differently?

Don’t copy and paste these, come up with your own. You have one shot, one chance to get valuable feedback. Stuff like this can make you a super-agency; feedback can be the reason you pull in your next big deal. But you have one shot, so make it count. And don’t you fucking dare argue, don’t get defensive, that just sounds pathetic and will close the doors with that person, even when she moves to another company. Don’t reply, trying to justify why you did what you did. The temptation will be very hard to resist – I’ve been there, I’ve got it wrong in the past and I’ve done exactly what I just told you not to do (which is how I got the wisdom, so that’s my silver lining – I did it for you!). But you must resist. Be respectful of the time your contact put into giving you this feedback, don’t waste their time by trying to convince them it was a misunderstanding, trying to convince them you are better than they think, or even worse, asking for a second chance. I have done that too – it’s a very, very stupid thing to do.

Years ago, we pitched for what seemed like a massive contract at the time. On decision day, they called us and told us they had given the contract to another agency. “Totally respectful of your decision ‘Bob’, no problem. I appreciate your feedback. Please may I ask what made you decide to go with Agency X?” “Oh yes of course. We really liked you guys, you came across really well but the other agency had just something extra. For us it was the ‘match-type’ that did it. You guys were close but Agency X told us they were going to target exact-match as keyword targeting which for us, given our sector, is important because it will help us get the targeting right”.

For those who don’t know, match-type is a targeting feature in Google Ads (previously known as AdWords) that allows you to target people when they perform a search using specific keywords in the exact the order in which you specify them in the account. This is very basic best practice; we didn’t mention it in our documents because we felt it would have been the equivalent of saying that the new car you are selling to a customer comes with wheels.

What I wanted to shout was: “What the fuck?! Are you fucking kidding me, are you actually insane? You’re telling me that you chose them because they… what the actual fuck?!” What I actually mumbled was something about us not mentioning that because it was so basic that we thought it’d be obvious, which clearly went down as an inelegant and grotesque attempt to change their mind. Two lessons I took with me:

  1. Don’t leave anything out the deck. Our standard deck went from 15 to 94 slides after that event… I am serious. And it works! More on this point later in THE KIS vs THE KIL section ahead.
  2. Don’t argue. Take the feedback and go home to obsess about it – decide what’s applicable and work on it. That’s what we did. Our conversion rate from pitching to confirmed skyrocketed as a result.

Be respectful of their time, learn from the feedback you get and move on. Say “thank you” and go get better.

Your ‘no’s are also very important because if you take them well, they give you the opportunity to establish a great relationship. You must play the long game, though – you must remain patient. If you took the feedback, nothing would be stopping you from sending updates after, say, six months, saying things like: “I thought I’d let you know that as result of your feedback we have changed A, B and C. I just wanted to thank you, your input and help made what we’re doing a lot better”. You could even say, if it’s true: “we recently won X and Y and I can honestly attribute this success to your feedback, at least partly. Thank you”. If you were really classy, you could send this as a handwritten letter with a small gift. Follow up a few months later with an invitation to an exclusive event. Keep in touch with genuinely good pieces of content. Do this with a few contacts, and in time, you will see several ‘no’s convert into ‘yes’es.

It took me six months to win a contract with a global wine subscription brand, 4.5 years to win a high-end children’s furniture and equipment brand and 5.5 years to win a great bedding retailer. Play the long game. The approach is different with each potential client, but the point is to stay in touch, keep adding value for those who gave you a ‘no’, without being intrusive or stalking them, and never lose sight of them. If you are really passionate about their brand, about working with them, this should be easy. Build relationships, even when you get a ‘no’. Follow people as well as brands, send them congratulations when they move on. Did they tell you they like golf? Send them a note when the world championships start. Remember, play the long game.

Activity

Martial arts is 20 percent physical and 80 percent mental. Professional fighters who are unbelievably talented often crumble and perform badly because they can’t deal with the stress and the nerves. Their minds prevent them from being as good as they are, day in and day out at the gym. Those who are not necessarily the most gifted physically but have a solid mental attitude are the ones who win the most.

Selling is 20 percent about skills and 80 percent about activity. The skills are important, although, today more than ever, buyers are savvy – especially in B2B digital marketing selling – and the old sales and marketing techniques that might have worked previously don’t work as well now. Creativity beats talent any day. Truly caring, being able to follow up and build real relationships, and playing the long game are massively important and effective. But the most creative strategy with the most personal touch and warming effect will fail without consistent and continuous activity. Activity beats everything. Activity is king. Bow to activity.

Work out what you need to do first, what activity is likely to produce the best results? Calls? LinkedIn InMails? Handwritten letters? Events? Content on social media? At the beginning you might have to try several approaches and see what works.

Further on, I share some information on techniques and strategies for marketing your agency – I describe the exact strategies I have adopted to grow several businesses, including those we’ve used to grow Genie Goals from zero to working with some of coolest global brands, being rated by Google as one of the top 3 percent in the EMEA, and being invited by Google to speak in the UK, Germany and Italy to other top 3 percent agencies (which, of course, allows me to self-proclaim us as being at least in the top 2 percent :)). Once you’ve read that part, come back here and read this again if you need to. Remember that great strategies and tactics are nothing without continuous, relentless activity. So, once you have formed the strategies you plan to follow, work out what you need to do in terms of numbers.

Knowing the numbers

“To know and not to do is really not to know.” – Stephen Covey
Number of calls, emails, networking events, exhibitions, video posts, blog posts, podcasts episodes… These are your activity KPIs. Your aim should not be to set the biggest number, but to set the biggest number you can keep up for the longest time. Set monthly and weekly activity targets and stick with them, don’t look for excuses and reasons not to achieve the activity targets – there should be none. You might miss your performance and sales targets for reasons outside your control. But there is no reason you should miss your activity targets. You are not in control of the output, not always at least, but you are almost always in control of your input.

Don’t hide behind emails either. There is a place for emails and LinkedIn InMails. There’s even a place for hard copy letters. But don’t use these as a way to avoid real human contact. Calls and face-to-face networking are vital. They are harder to do, which is why they work so damn well: most of your competitors are shit scared of doing them, period. Get on it. The fear of rejection, fear of looking stupid or whatever it is that you’re scared of, will go away the moment you get into calls and networking. The absolute hardest thing to do at networking events is to say “hello”. Once you’ve done that, the conversation will take off by itself. The hardest thing to do with calls is to dial the number. It might take some time for you to get comfortable with it, but eventually you will make these calls and have these meetings a lot more easily and effectively.

There’s nothing stupid about wanting to grow your business, and, if done right, cold calling and networking can make you look like a badass businessperson. If you really hate it, then make it one of your goals to grow fast enough so you can hire someone who does the prospecting for you. And do you know what the best way to grow quickly so you can find someone who does the calls and networking for you is? You fucking guessed it: do loads of calls and networking. Start now! Later on in this chapter, we’ll talk in detail about cold-calling and networking. Use that to get some pointers and then get down to doing loads of activities. Sales and marketing are always about finding creative and effective ways to do an activity and stick with the grind – do, do, do. Activity is king. Bow to activity.

Actions

  • Ensure you or your business development team have a rock solid mindset about selling. If you have done the best pitches you possibly could, ‘no’s are okay – they are only a step toward the ‘yes’. Ensure your team feel comfortable with ‘no’s.
  • No ‘maybe’s.
  • Measure activity and results from the start. It’s a numbers game, always. Start tracking outcomes and KPIs so you can form a clear picture of your metrics.
  • Once you have confidence in your plan, focus on your activity – the outcome is only a product of that. It’s a bit like sport: the outcome, the final result, is the result of the activity. If athletes focus on playing well, the scores take care of themselves.

If you enjoyed this chapter of THE AGENCY, you can now download three chapters FREE here.

THE ART AND NUMBERS OF SELLING

by luca time to read: 8 min
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