Fives sales disasters you need to avoid

By Oliver Milman and Michelle Hammond
Tuesday, 24 January 2012

It may be a new year, but the news remains fairly grim for retailers. It appears that consumers are in a seemingly-permanent saving mode, unwilling to splash the cash without good reason.


Sales remained flat in November, according to recent figures, raising fears over the health of consumer spending during the key Christmas period.


But it’s not only consumers who are reticent.


If you sell business-to-business, it’s likely that you’ve had to work extra hard for every sale.


Given this environment, as well as the perennial challenge of convincing clients to hand their money over to a start-up, it’s more important than ever to not stuff up your sales pitch.


However, even the best salespeople have endured disasters. We asked five of Australia’s leading sales gurus to share their tales of woe, and the lessons they learned in the process.



Marcia Griffin



Marcia was CEO of Pola Cosmetics in Australia and New Zealand for 15 years before launching her own business, griffin + row. She's also a motivational speaker and start-up mentor.


Lesson: Don’t forget to listen



A common mistake salespeople make is that they forget they have ears as well as a mouth. After all, “asking” and “listening” come well before “telling” in the dictionary.


I’ve seen many salespeople talk their way into, and then out of, a sale.


It comes down to the questions you ask and how you ask them.


Be curious and interested but not intrusive. Also, be subtle. People hate being sold something but they love to buy.


If you know what your customers' interests and needs are, you can get them to buy the product from you.


There have been times I have been enthusiastic about my products and talked about them in glowing terms, but missed the point with a customer.


They may have been interested in just one of the products I was selling, but not all of them.


That’s when I needed to stop talking. I should have found out what they’re interested in.


Start with a great opening sentence followed by asking them "does that sound interesting to you?"


Once they identify their interests, you need to understand your product's benefits. Identify which one of these benefits is most suited to your customer’s needs.


If you can demonstrate an immediate benefit, do it. Rather than talk about it, show it.


Even give them the phone number of another customer with similar needs – it cuts through a lot of stuff. But you can only say that when you understand what they're interested in.


There are so many ways to reassure people but you can’t reassure them until you know what they're interested in. Ask, listen, then tell.





Sue Barrett




Sue is the founder and managing director of Barrett, one of Australia’s leading sales consultancies. She also regularly writes for SmartCompany.


Lesson: Where are your notes?


A personal horror story of mine occurred way back in my very early says of selling. I learnt a very salient, if not embarrassing, lesson.


When I was in my first consulting role, I turned up to a sales meeting with a prospective client, with no note-taking materials.


Up until that time, I had never been told to take notes by my managers. I hadn’t thought about taking notes myself. I relied on my memory.


However, this time was different. I sat down and proceeded to ask the client questions without taking notes.


The client stopped me in my tracks and asked “why aren’t you taking notes? How can you possibly understand me and my business if you do not take notes?”


“Bloody salespeople never take notes. What do they teach you anyway?”


I didn’t know what to say. I was in shock.


After a long silence, the client handed me a notepad and pen, and we picked up where we left off with me taking notes.


I have taken notes ever since for a good reason – it really works.


It never ceases to amaze me how many salespeople (of all ages) still do not take notes when they are speaking to clients over the phone or face-to-face.


Over the past 10 years, we have been running a true-to-life sales fitness simulation exercise where we have tested thousands of salespeople.


Part of the exercise requires people to listen to a body of text which has vital information in it.


Sadly, the vast majority of people (over 90%) do not take notes, which severely impacts their ability to successfully complete the exercise.


When we debrief afterwards, many confess that they don't take notes in the field either. Point made.


Trent Leyshan



An entrepreneur and sales strategist, Trent wrote The Naked Salesman, a popular tome among small businesses looking to boost their sales.


Lesson: Be careful when charging more than your rivals


A potential sales disaster waiting to happen is born from salespeople who oversell and overcharge.


I had a client that developed software. In an attempt to increase the company’s profitability, the company directors set about implementing a price increase for all new customers.


The percentage increase wasn’t determined by a set of scientific insights or any increase in product value. It was purely a measure to excite and delight shareholders.


It didn’t take long before a potential client presented an enticing opportunity to test out their new positioning.


However, the client’s project scope was considerably beyond the software company’s tested capabilities.


Excited by a big new challenge, the software company pitched for the business. In doing so, the business took its development team into uncharted waters with a 30% increase to their standard fee.


Three months into the development of the project, the client started getting nervous. Constant missed deadlines and miscommunication forced the client’s hand.


They invested in an external third party consultant to review and audit the project. The consultant quickly ascertained what was really happening. They began submitting unrealistic demands and deadlines.


The software company was now being eaten alive by ‘scope creep’. The inexperienced developers soon realised they were in over their heads.


Many frustrating months ensued, ending in nasty litigation. Both parties had many sleepless nights and lost tens of thousands of dollars.


This situation could have been avoided by simply not taking on the project altogether.


Alternatively, they could have undercharged (lowering expectations) and used the project to develop the team’s capabilities.


Overcharging is a dangerous game because more often than not it sets unrealistic expectations in the mind of your client.


Expectations are set that can never be satisfied by the vendor. Buyer’s remorse sets in.


The customer then pushes unrealistic requests to assert a sense of superiority. This creates a lose-lose situation.


If you increase your fee, ask yourself “why?” Make sure you work hard to deliver and exceed expectations.


Charging more than your competitor is fine, just make sure the margin is justified and you can back it up with hard evidence.


Your sales people should be selling with confidence and conviction, but not blatantly taking your customers beyond your company’s true capabilities.


Don’t overcharge or your customers will come back to bite you in more ways than one.





Debra Templar



Debra, who heads The Templar Group, is one of Australia’s premier retail consultants and authors.


Lesson: Don’t make assumptions


I wanted to buy a car, so I took a male staff member with me for support.


The salesperson ignored me even though I said the car was for me.


I knew the car I wanted. I was in the correct dealership. I knew the colour. I had already done my homework.


Basically, I said “I want a black, manual, six-cylinder XYZ car”.


His interpretation? “A blue, automatic four-cylinder car.”


When I asked why he was selling me the wrong car, he said “girls find this one easier to drive”.


Despite my saying “no, that isn’t what I want”, he wouldn’t show me the car I wanted.


Nor did he talk directly to me. Everything he said was directed towards to my male companion.


I walked out, rang another car yard, told them what I wanted, and they organised to bring the car to me for a test drive the same day. Sold!


The first salesperson caused his business to lose a $40,000 sale.


I suspect this salesperson didn’t have the car I wanted in stock, so he decided to try and sell the one he did have: the blue automatic.


He was so focused on what he wanted to sell that he didn’t listen to what his customer wanted to buy.





Simon Harris



Simon is the managing director of the Sydney-based Business Coaching Centre. He has 25 years’ experience in sales and marketing across the world.


Lesson: Do your homework


I’ve seen so many sales mistakes, from the ridiculous to the fundamental. I’ve made also a few myself.


For instance, in the car on the way to a sales appointment, someone cut me off and I flashed my lights at them. That person turned out to be the person I was meeting.


I was on a conference call for a huge deal with Shell. When they thought we had concluded the call and hung up (we hadn’t), we heard their immediate feedback. They thought I was a klutz. We didn’t get the deal.


Then there was the time I was waiting for a client in their office’s reception. I saw that the receptionist was completely inadequate and wasn’t representing the business properly.


I told the client that she was no good and that she needed to go. She turned out to be his daughter.


The lesson I learned is that you need to do your homework. See everyone as a sales opportunity and have your radar on so you don’t make these kind of mistakes.


A big mistake that many salespeople make is that they are too eager to get in there and present their idea. They don’t realise that it is a time-consuming process.


It’s natural to be excited and passionate about your product. But before you step out of the door to sell it to someone, speak to someone not involved in any way. It will be a coffee well spent.


All too often, eagerness overcomes professionalism. Start-ups frequently fail to see things from the buyer’s point of view. They can’t explain how the buyer will be better off with the product.


Before you register your ABN, you need to do your homework. Think about your business from the customer’s point of view. Be professional, learn about your customers' pain points, and what they need.


Spend a few weeks on your sales pitch and have someone critique it. Get feedback from someone you know who will give you their honest opinion.


Listen to their feedback and take it on the chin.


Feedback is the breakfast of champions, after all.

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