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“Why you should be confident.” With Mitch Russo & David Mattson

Sales should be a pull process, not a push process. People love to buy, but they hate to be sold. A professional salesperson should be listening more than talking — following the old adage about us all having two ears and one mouth for a reason, so we could use them proportionately. I had the […]

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Sales should be a pull process, not a push process. People love to buy, but they hate to be sold. A professional salesperson should be listening more than talking — following the old adage about us all having two ears and one mouth for a reason, so we could use them proportionately.


I had the pleasure of interviewing David Mattson, President and CEO of Sandler, one of the largest professional development organizations. David is recognized as a leading expert in sales and leadership. For more information, please visit www.Sandler.com.


Thank you for doing this with us! Before we dig in, I’m sure our readers would like to learn a bit more about you. Can you give us some backstory and tell us what brought you to this career path?

Well, as a kid, I had a paper route; when I was a little older, I got another job picking tobacco. I had a bunch of different jobs in high school. While I was in college, I started my own painting company. Then I decided that painting houses was not what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life, so I sold the company and went into sales. After that, I worked for a company that sold office machines. Because they were Sandler clients, a condition of my employment was that I take part in the Sandler program. Initially, I didn’t want to go to the training. I only went because management made me. I was what we in the industry call a “hostage.” Then, after a couple of hours on the first day, I figured out that this training wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be. It wasn’t a conventional, rah-rah training program where you got a tee-shirt with a catchy slogan on it. This was something entirely different. I realized that Sandler taught a conversational type of selling, one that based everything on psychology, which was something I was interested in. I hadn’t meant to as the day began, but I really began gravitating toward the content, because I realized I didn’t have to change who I was in order to implement it. The Sandler program reinforced that I didn’t need to become someone else in order to be successful. And I liked that. So I put in the time, and I practiced until I became good at it. Eventually, I went to work as a Sandler trainer, which is how I met David Sandler.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that has occurred in your career so far?

I was teaching a two-day negotiation program for a large financial institution that was enrolling employees from different divisions across the company. At the last minute, they called to negotiate us down on the price! They were paying us per person, and they were going to be paying for a lot of people — about 400 people were scheduled to be in the room. They wanted a lower rate per person. Ironically, I was being hired to teach them not to negotiate on pricing.

I explained to them that I would be a fraud if I agreed to negotiate on the price… but then I told them I had a suggestion. I knew that, eventually, they were going to ask us to provide management training, so I offered to stay an extra day for management, which they could then reinforce. We kept the per-person price as it was. They were happy, I was happy — and I didn’t have to negotiate pricing. Not only that, I had a great moment during the program that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I used that very story to land the point with them — and later with countless other clients — never to negotiate price, but to instead negotiate service.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now?

Sandler is continually adding new programs and resources. Our latest is My Sandler, a new mobile app that allows you to obtain content from the Alexa virtual assistant that Amazon offers. We have now moved 100% of our learning assets over to voice, and we’re the first in our industry to do that. We expect this technology to play a much larger role as we all move into the “new normal.”

Sales Management Certification is also on the horizon for us. For a long time now, Sandler has won awards for both our sales and management programs. We currently certify close to 7000 salespeople per year, and because we believe that Sales Management is an under-served group, we are now in the planning stages to offer certification for Sales Managers, as well. Both of those initiatives are pretty exciting.

No one achieves success without some help along the way. Is there someone you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I’ll share an amazing story about my parents. I grew up in a non-sales, non-business family. My parents worked for the local school system: my dad was a school superintendent. We were your basic middle-class family. And even though they didn’t know much about the sales training business, or any business for that matter, my parents knew that I loved what I did, and they knew I was good at it. So without me ever hinting or asking, they sat me down one day to announce that they had mortgaged their home in order to provide the down payment for purchasing my first 25% ownership in Sandler. They knew that because I was young, no banks were going to approve the loan I wanted. I needed a sizable down payment– and my parents made that possible. It was just an incredibly loving gesture. Their home was the largest asset they had, so it was really an extraordinary display of faith in me. I will always be indebted to them for that, and I know I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t done what they did for me.

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

Sandler has a long history of being an industry leader. We train approximately 31,000 people each year, and year after year we’ve won awards for delivering the best sales training and the best management training. Additionally, thirty-plus learning institutions, including the Harvard MBA program, include our programs in their curriculum, and we are adding to that number each year.

As you know, nearly any business a person can enter engages in 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 educational system teaches nearly every other arcane subject, while sales, one of the most useful and versatile topics, is so often ignored?

Historically, education has provided the foundation for the sciences — math, engineering, medicine, and so on. In the US, this emphasis really starts when we are students in high school, and it then becomes the focus of a lot of higher education. This approach is probably based on the assumption that these disciplines should be viewed as the “real” professions. Yet the profession with the single highest number of people in it, and the one that provides among the highest income levels, is sales. Not only that, but sales professionals generate the most revenue. Yet, as you point out, for the longest time virtually no one in the educational system offered a course on selling.

Interestingly, there was perhaps a decade or so where people in higher education spotted this omission and thought they were covering sales, because they taught marketing. But marketing and sales are dramatically different things. The shift toward teaching sales did not occur until colleges began to focus on things like student placement and interaction with the business community. Then making sales part of the curriculum began to make sense.

The bottom line, though, is that if we strip down sales, the basics are communication and listening skills — which are transferrable to any vocation a student chooses. So that’s good for students of selling. And what has happened now is that sales has finally become a part of many curriculums at the college level, and that trend continues to grow. So we are headed in the right direction.

As you know, what we really wanted to talk to you about most was the topic “How to Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesy”… which makes the underlying assumption that seeming salesy or pushy is something to be avoided. Would you agree with this assumption?

I would. Sales should be a pull process, not a push process. People love to buy, but they hate to be sold. A professional salesperson should be listening more than talking — following the old adage about us all having two ears and one mouth for a reason, so we could use them proportionately.

The best salespeople are like good doctors. They start off by asking lots of questions, establishing credibility. They don’t push by showing off their diplomas or boasting about all the different surgeries and procedures they offer, or the drugs they can prescribe. They are more focused on the patient than on themselves and their solutions. Great salespeople follow precisely the same process.

But, having said that, I do think that people often need help in reaching a decision. Most buyers want to be gently guided, often because they inherently have trouble saying no to someone. If you put yourself in the buyer’s position, you can more easily understand how to approach their needs and their timing. So a happy blend is to be inquisitive during the information gathering phase; determine when the buyer needs to purchase from you (or anyone else) to reach their goals; and then help them meet their expectations.

The seven stages of a sales cycle are usually broken down to variation 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?

I would say the approach. All stages are important, but the approach is something I particularly focus on. We have a rule at Sandler — if you want to be treated differently, you need to act differently. For many traditional salespeople, their approach consists of an info dump about themselves and their company — which is a total turnoff. To me, the ideal approach is the result of great preparation: setting the stage in a conversational manner; clearly identifying the goals of each side; and determining the questions they’d like answered. This ensures that the needs of both sides will be met. And it’s important to keep in mind that the goal of the approach isn’t necessarily to move the sale forward, but to learn whether you have a buyer who is both willing and able to move forward. And, by the way, “no” is an okay answer to that question.

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

The most fundamental way to generate good leads is through referrals. Qualified leads from happy customers provide the highest level of success in finding your next client or customer. We believe referrals should come from everyone in your buyer network, not just your main contacts. We also recommend that you make a point of reaching out to those who leave your existing customer to work somewhere else. If you have done your job well, you will have a raving fan at a whole new organization who will happily refer you to people at their new company.

LinkedIn referrals are also key, but you need to do your homework on those. Research your network, identify the common contacts, and then send a request for an introduction. Using shared resources, we have found, will increase your chances of a positive outcome online.

In my experience, I think the final stages of Handling Objections, Closing, and Follow-up, are the most difficult parts of selling for many people. Why do you think Handling Objections is so hard for people? What would you recommend to someone who wanted to get better at that?

The most effective way to handle objections is to eliminate or minimize them. Objections tend to arise because you have not covered some valuable piece of information. A really good way to eliminate objections is to list all of the objections you’ve heard from your customers in past months, and then do two things. First, practice your talk tracks. What is your response to the objection? You made the list, so you already have the advantage of knowing the objections in advance, so if you’re not prepared, then shame on you. Second, use the information you already have about the buying organization to ask good questions or talk about specific topics during your approach and presentation. For instance, if you know you are likely to face an objection regarding your delivery time, bring it up yourself during a call. You could say something like, “Even though we win awards for the quality of our product, our delivery tends to take 10 days longer than others in the industry. Is that going to be a problem?” By dealing with issues up front, you will find that the objections from buyer are far less likely to become major obstacles.

‘Closing’ is of course the proverbial Holy Grail. Can you suggest five things one can do to successfully close a sale without being perceived as pushy?

Sure. Number one: After each explanation, validate how you’re solving your customer’s pain. For example, you need to spotlight just three to five pains during your approach. More than that is overkill. So after you present solution number one, but before presenting solution number two, ask, “Are you 100% satisfied on our plan to resolve that issue?” If the answer is yes — great! Move on to pain number two. But if the answer is no, you’ll need to deal with it right then and there. Follow this process all the way through to the end. If you have successfully solved all their issues, guess what happens? The prospect closes themselves.

Second, ask, “Which pain would you like me to resolve first?” By allowing the prospect to choose the first issue which will also be the most important to them — you have a much higher probability of the prospect moving forward without you ever adopting a “push” close.

Third, tell your customer up front what will happen during the call. Before the call begins, create a mutual agenda, one that includes the decisions you’d like made before the end of the meeting. For example, “Mary, based on our agenda today, we should be in a position to decide whether or not to move forward. Will you be comfortable having that conversation at the end of our meeting?” The general rule is that when people know what’s coming, they don’t resist. They are far more likely to be active participants.

Fourth, simply ask at the end of the presentation, “What would you like me to do now?” Again: People love to buy but hate to be sold. If you’ve done a good job up to that point, the answer should be “Let’s move forward.”

Finally, you can set up a co-created visual timeline. During the approach phase, create a list of events that need to happen on both the buyer’s and seller’s side. Once the problem is identified, you know that selecting a partner and choosing a launch date are likely to be important issues to the buyer. By working backwards, what could be perceived as pressure from you instead becomes a pre-agreed timeline. When you know they need to get started by the beginning of next week, and you are certain that’s their priority, not yours, you can ask something like, “What do you need to know from me to launch by the beginning of next month?”

Many businesses get leads who might be interested but for some reason 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?

How you open the discussion is a major factor. Here are some quick tips for an initial call with the kind of lead you are talking about. One great idea is to offer a third-party story. For instance: “Lots of people I’ve been speaking with are currently experiencing problem #1 or problem #2. Does that sound familiar?” Then begin the conversation.

Another way to go is the either/or approach. Take the top two problems that your buyers are frustrated by and weave them into your opening. “Thanks for calling. Normally what I’m hearing from VPs like yourself, if we haven’t done business together, is that they’re frustrated with either Issue #1 or Issue #2. Is that the case in your situation?” This provides a more conversational approach because it gives them options from which to choose.

The third option I would mention would be to gently push back. If someone was once a lead but now is not responding, simply leave a message or email: “Hey, thanks for calling. I understand if something may have popped up since you contacted us. I’ve left a couple of messages and you haven’t called back, so maybe you’ve decided to go in a different direction. I don’t want to chase you — so should we just close the file on this? Let me know. Thank you.”

As you know, there are many modes of communication for salespeople to choose from 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?

The best option in my experience is face-to-face. If that’s not an option, then I’d go for video. Why? Because I want to see your body language, which provides me with more input. When we’re communicating, we convey 30% of our messaging through tonality and voice, and 55% through body language. So during a face-to-face meeting or a video call, I’m able to get 85% of the message, as opposed to 30%.

Here’s what’s not great — email or text. You’re unable to read tone or nuance; there is no opportunity for follow-up questions or clarifications; and it’s easy for the recipient to simply not respond at all., which forces you into chase mode. If it’s up to me, I would avoid those.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement what would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that movement look like?

Confidence would be the first principle. Instilling confidence in people is huge. I would just remind everyone I possibly could that success resides between your ears, and that a lack of confidence is the leading killer when it comes to professional careers.

How many times have you heard sportscaster refer to a “shift in momentum?” Well, that’s a real thing, and it’s not limited to sports. We can talk ourselves into a great game and a great day … or we can talk ourselves into a bad game and a bad day. If people have confidence and conviction in themselves, then regardless of their age or their industry, they’ll be more successful in whatever they’re trying to achieve. They’ll get further in pursuing whatever is most important to them. They’ll be more fulfilled as people, too. That’s the movement I would like to be part of. And I like to think that, at Sandler, we are already leading that movement.

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