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“Have all the facts.” With Mitch Russo & Wendy O’Donovan Phillips

Sales is generally thought of as a job function, yet it’s really a human function. At its core, the art of sales is about connecting with people. The book Sales EQ reminds us that sales is the simple act of transferring emotion from one person to the other. The education system may still miss the mark on […]

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Sales is generally thought of as a job function, yet it’s really a human function. At its core, the art of sales is about connecting with people. The book Sales EQ reminds us that sales is the simple act of transferring emotion from one person to the other. The education system may still miss the mark on formally teaching sales, yet more and more we are seeing schools teach children about emotional intelligence. My tween daughter can effectively point out when she has been overtired and mishandled an interaction with a schoolmate, whereas at her age I couldn’t possibly see my part in a playground quibble — kids were just mean, I reasoned. We’re making steps in the right direction.


As a part of my series about how to be great at closing sales without seeming pushy, obnoxious, or salesy, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy O’Donovan Phillips.

Wendy O’Donovan Phillips is CEO of Big Buzz, an agency delivering strategy and consultation to drive focused communications efforts for executives and teams nationwide. Wendy is the author of two books, and she has been published in many healthcare journals. She is a member of the Women’s President Organization, having reached $1 million in revenues the last two years, and she lives in Denver with her husband, daughter and 24-year-old cat.


Thank you for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this career path?

In2000, I started a freelance writing business, writing for marketing agencies and news outlets including The Hollywood Reporter. In 2003, I took a full-time job with a marketing agency for which I had been freelancing. While there, I learned about marketing strategy — the art of supporting teams in gathering research and thinking about marketing before doing marketing. The firm was fraught with organizational issues. My basic thought was, I think I can do this better. My vision was a focused healthcare marketing firm that was good to its team and thereby good to its clients. Everyone thrives. In 2007, I started that company with a single client and my cat in my guest bedroom. In 2018, we hit $1 million in revenues. In 2019, we did it again. The cat recently turned 24 years old.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I once spent $17,000 that I didn’t have at the time on a consultant who flew in for a day, told me 5 ideas that helped me transform my business into a profitable one and scared me straight into running the agency I’d always imagined. (Think Miles Finch from Elf, except taller and with much better ideas.) After that experience, I learned to learn from me. I learned to listen to my intuition and trust my gut.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am working on survival plans for my business and those we serve. Our leadership team, after considering the data before us, made the very difficult decision to lay off half our staff. It was absolutely heartbreaking. As an adjusted team, we turned our attention to how we can be of highest and best service to those small businesses similarly affected. We re-evaluated our vision statement to renew our sense of purpose and to make clear to our audience we can help them through this. We remade our SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis with a particular focus on opportunities. Our clients have different needs now than they did even a month ago, and we are fully focused on uncovering those new needs with programmatic surveys, then identifying from that data the opportunities we have for meeting those needs. This approach will help us more readily hit our adjusted revenue and profit projections and will also help our clients do the same. So far, we have delivered webinars to about 3,000 attendees in our industry nationwide. We can sleep at night knowing we were of true service and help to other small businesses that needed support in how to communicate to their team and clients during this crisis. As the Stockdale Paradox reminds us all, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” We will get through this!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Nell Merlino, creator of Take Our Daughters to Work Day. She also founded and ran Count Me In, a leading not-for-profit provider of inspiration and resources for women to grow their businesses. She was determined to change the fact that over 70% of all women-owned businesses make less than $50K a year in gross revenue. I, among hundreds of other women nationwide, have pitched my business in their flagship “Make Mine a Million” program, and I am one of many female business owners under her guidance who shattered the glass ceiling of growing their business revenues past $1 million, which only 1.7% of women do. She inspired me to think far beyond running a solopreneur business, and has lead me and many other women to create jobs and be strong economic contributors. That’s mentorship at its best.

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority on the topic of sales?

For 12 years, my firm has offered strategy and consultation to drive focused sales and marketing efforts for executives and their teams. We offer a custom 8-concept sales training built upon the principles of Fortune 500 companies. In short, we support sales and marketing experts in thinking more critically and strategically to improve results.

Let’s shift a bit to what is happening today in the broader world. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the COVID-19 pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty and loneliness. From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our families and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

There’s really only one idea that matters. Pick up the phone and ask one simple question: “How are you doing in this moment right now?” Our ability to listen and to sit with others’ emotions in this time is what will best support them. Resist the temptation to interrupt by continuing to ask open-ended questions: “What else is going on?” “How are others in your home doing with this?” “What have you tried in the past that worked well?” Forgo advice-giving, as that stimulates the fear part of the brain, by sharing your experiences instead. For example, “You should try yoga” becomes “I make yoga and meditation daily rituals to calm my brain.” We are in the midst of the world’s grandest social experience. Call three people each day and become part of it.

Ok. Thanks for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. As you know, nearly any business a person will enter, will involve some form of sales. At the same time, most people have never received any formal education about how to be effective at selling. Why do you think our education system teaches nearly every other arcane subject, but sales, one of the most useful and versatile topics, is totally ignored?

Sales is generally thought of as a job function, yet it’s really a human function. At its core, the art of sales is about connecting with people. The book Sales EQ reminds us that sales is the simple act of transferring emotion from one person to the other. The education system may still miss the mark on formally teaching sales, yet more and more we are seeing schools teach children about emotional intelligence. My tween daughter can effectively point out when she has been overtired and mishandled an interaction with a schoolmate, whereas at her age I couldn’t possibly see my part in a playground quibble — kids were just mean, I reasoned. We’re making steps in the right direction.

This discussion, entitled, “How To Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesey”, is making an assumption that seeming salesy or pushy is something to be avoided. Do you agree with this assumption? Whether yes, or no, can you articulate why you feel the way you do?

The challenge of being too “salesy” or “pushy” is rooted in self-awareness. This is not a time for hard closes or even pitches. It’s a time for humility and empathy. As a business owner who serves business owners, I am acutely aware of my own grief and fear during this period. While I did not lose my business, I suddenly lost it as it was. That is something to grieve, and yet I find wonder in what the breakthroughs will be from this breakdown. While I do not know what the future holds financially, I am finding purpose in my work and faith that everything will be okay. When I am in conversation with prospective clients these days, I am bringing that self-awareness to the table. This helps me meet them where they are, whether they are in grief, wonder, fear or faith. I am in the lifeboat with them. I can accept they may not have money to spend with my firm right now, and I can know they will remember how I showed up for them in these troubled times. As I continue to build the relationship and as time heals our hearts and businesses, I will be first on their minds when they need services like ours.

The seven stages of a sales cycle are usually broken down to versions of Prospecting, Preparation, Approach, Presentation, Handling objections, Closing, and Follow-up. Which stage do you feel that you are best at? What is your unique approach, your “secret sauce”, to that particular skill? Can you explain or give a story?

I’m best at closing. I once had a prospect right off the bat tell me my price was too high and he didn’t have time to start marketing now. I took a deep breath and got in touch with my own emotions. I felt mad and impatient, yet I took a couple of deep breaths and kept calm rather than giving into my own emotions. Having taken that pause, I asked him, “When this goes extremely well, what does it look like for you?” This activated his self-disclosure loop. His whole emotional state changed because he was mirroring my emotional state. He talked passionately: “Patients who have continued their care are having a great experience. They know what it is to be truly known as a human being and cared for. I want to attract more patients like that.” I agreed with him. I told him that’s what we do best and why we do it best. I planted the ask right here, right in the middle of the conversation instead of surprising him at the end. I said: “The next step, the formality really, is you return the signed contract. More importantly, once we get that we hold your kickoff call. That’s where we explore your ideal patient profile — we help define exactly what those patients have in common, those patients who have continued their care that are having a great experience, the ones that know what it is to be truly known as a human being and cared for.” He asked a few questions about the kickoff, and hardly acted like he heard the part about the contract. I wasn’t worried though, because I knew I had made a clear ask. Then I asked him to tell me about his experience with his last marketing company. He prattled on about how awful they were and how he got burned. I groaned and told him how truly terrible that was. I empathized. I then took the time to personally commit to him that we would never do those things to him, we briefly talked through the cancellation policy and I quickly moved the conversation back to his desire for just the right patients. We spent the next 20 minutes prepping for his kickoff call together because he wants those patients. We brainstormed types of people to survey, we had fun talking about the questions we’d ask, we joked about being business owners and dealing with bad technology and such. We laughed. The entire time I addressed him as an active client, as though we were already doing business together. Because we were! Finally, he came back around (on his own) to the contract. He asked me a couple of questions about the financial agreement, but at this point we were no longer having a conversation about price. We were in relationship! In the end, he didn’t choose Option 1 or Option 2. He chose to do BOTH. He trusted me enough to take a giant leap of faith, only because my emotions matched his emotions. Man, I love the close.

Lead generation, or prospecting, is one of the basic steps of the sales cycle. Obviously every industry will be different, but can you share some of the fundamental strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

One of our policies is, “Big Buzz team members shall be educational and never promotional.” In this spirit, we generate truly educational content that speaks directly to the current fears, obstacles and challenges faced by our readership. When we approach our audience in this spirit of service, they come to trust and rely upon us before we even get on the phone with them. Many times, I have been in a first conversation with a prospect who is explaining to me why our approach is going to work better than others they tried in the past, rather than the other way around. Prospects nurtured in the spirit of service sign on faster and stay longer than those simply “sold.”

In my experience, I think the final stages of Handling Objections, Closing, and Follow-up, are the most difficult parts for many people. Why do you think ‘Handling Objections’ is so hard for people? What would you recommend for one to do, to be better at ‘Handling Objections’?

The very concept of “handling objections” insinuates that the salesperson has the power to force a solution. If either party — the salesperson or the prospect — wields power over the other then the relationship is broken. Instead of training people to handle objections, we encourage salespeople to watch for yellow flags. These are queues to slow down in the conversation and explore what’s really happening. Do we both agree on the diagnosis of the problem? Do we both understand what it is costing? Do we both agree on mutual value in the solution? Does it make sense to continue the conversation? If the answers to questions like these are “no,” it’s a red flag, or time to stop the conversation and move to the next prospect. Red flags are not failures; rather, it’s better to hit a red flag early than later. For every red flag, there are myriad green flags down the road. When the salesperson takes this high-integrity tact of protecting the relationship over making the sale, even the prospect who walks away after a red flag may very well come back after exploring the alternatives. I’ve seen it!

‘Closing’ is of course the proverbial Holy Grail. Can you suggest 5 things one can do to successfully close a sale without being perceived as pushy? If you can, please share a story or example, ideally from your experience, for each.

  1. Have all the facts. Get the entire agreement in front of both parties and talk through the price and any terms of sales. The salesperson’s transparency will invite the prospect’s transparency and solidify the relationship.
  2. Manage your emotions. Show, don’t tell, all the ways you are excited about the solution they are buying, and they will match your emotions.
  3. Acknowledge their emotions. Even this late in the sales process, the prospect may be holding onto some fears and challenges. Directly ask, “What are you really thinking about this, what might be holding you back?” Let the question land, give them time to think. Once they reply, practice active listening. Acknowledge the emotion and experience: “That sounds hard. I’d be frustrated, too.” This is a great time to make a commitment: “What I want you to know is how differently our company would handle that.” Refocus the conversation to the solution and to the positive emotion you and your company feel about delivering it. In most cases, the prospect’s emotion rises, too.
  4. Plant the ask. People have to be told what to do, right down to the nitty gritty. When the prospect is feeling great about the solution, specifically tell them the last steps to end the sales cycle and begin the client journey: “Find the DocuSign in your inbox, open it, sign on pages 3 and 6 then hit ‘Submit.’ We will then schedule your kickoff call.” It’s crystal clear and hits them right when they’re feeling great about taking the next right action to solving their problem.
  5. Walk away. When a great salesperson has followed a solid sales process, any prospect that needs more convincing at this stage is simply not a good fit for the solution. Cut ties and move to the next person who needs what you have.

Finally, what are your thoughts about ‘Follow up’? Many businesses get leads who might be interested but things never seem to close. What are some good tips for a business leader to successfully follow up and bring things to a conclusion, without appearing overly pushy or overeager?

As a rule, we don’t follow up. Never have I ever opened an email with the subject line “Following Up” and been delighted with the contents. Instead, we stay in relationship, sharing meaningful articles, podcasts or webinars with that individual, sending memes and cartoons that person would find funny and passing along free tools from our brand that benefit them in their situation. We are not selling to companies, we are building relationships with people.

As you know there are so many modes of communication today. For example, In-person, phone calls, video calls, emails, and text messages. In your opinion, which of these communication methods should be avoided when attempting to close a sale or follow up? Which are the best ones? Can you explain or give a story?

Especially in this day and age, we recommend the one-on-one phone call or video call. No one needs more email with COVID-19 in the subject line. Let’s reserve our texts for monitoring the support and safety of friends and family. During this whole crisis, I have had two professional organizations call me just to see how I’m faring in all of this. I will never forget those people, and I have an elevated idea of the brands for which they work. The phone may feel like a 100-lb. weight, but a friendly call goes a long way in giving salespeople a sense of purpose and prospects a sense of trust in you and your brand. You won’t want to make these calls. Do it anyway.

Ok, we are nearly done. Here is our final “meaty” question. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

How can our readers follow you online?

WEB: https://www.bigbuzzinc.com/

SOCIAL: https://twitter.com/bigbuzzinc

https://www.linkedin.com/in/bigbuzzbrands/

www.instagram.com/bigbuzzinc/

Thanks!

Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success

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