Quality is Relative, Excellence is Less So

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”

–  Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), Greek philosopher

Not until Ricky Bobby had anyone captured the essence of excellence as Aristotle did.  (Candidly, the quote seems a little loosey-goosey for a Greek translation, but it’s consistent with some other things attributed to Aristotle, but I digress.)

Whether we’re a big, hairy, American winning machine, a waiter in a small-town diner, or a white-collar, client-facing business type — excellence is not just a habit, it’s an attitude — and perhaps most of all, it’s a decision.

There’s a video of Russel Wilson, an NFL quarterback with a broken finger (and therefore he can’t play — turns out fingers matter when throwing a football among 300-pound dudes trying to harm you) going through his entire pregame routine, knowing full-well that he wasn’t even going to be in uniform for Sunday’s game.  Wilson decided long ago that he was going to be excellent, and he maintains a ruthless, almost maniacal commitment to the habit of excellence.

Today, we’ll all be faced with a dozen or more decisions.  We’ll have to decide to be “just ok” at something, or really excellent at something more important.

The good news is, the choice is not an either / or, it’s an “ok, and” call.  Just ok, or average, or meeting the basic requirements of some element of our work is just fine.  Unless the decision takes place in the intersection between being excellent or average in the larger scheme.  An excellent quarterback might throw the ball away if his choices are 45% get sacked, 45% throw and interception, or 10% make an amazing play and look like he did it on purpose.  An excellent quarterback, in other words, might choose to intentionally be bad at a play, in order to be excellent in his role.

Think of yourself under pressure, under the gun.  The time is running out, the deadline is upon you.  The deal hangs in the balance.  Have we practiced this moment?  Have we role-played it in our mind, with our teammates, and in front of the mirror so many times that we know what we’ll decide and we know what we’ll do and we know what we’ll say and how we’ll say it?  Or will we “wing it,” and try to throw the miracle pass to a place where three defenders are hoping we’ll try to throw the miracle pass?

Today, someone may ask you to compromise on a value or a principle.  Excellence is knowing that you won’t and how you’ll make that decision an asset instead of a liability.  Someone might ask you to cut a corner, skip a dry-run before a big Client engagement meeting or “just wing it,” because “you’re the best presenter in the team!”

Decisions will be made in those moments, among them, the decision to be excellent — consciously, purposefully excellent — and we ought to cling desperately to the foundations upon which our success is built.

Repeatedly be excellent.  Make it a habit.  Decide to make it a habit and a reality.

Coming Out of The Tunnel in Pittsburgh…

“The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an illusion.  The tunnel is.”

–  Unatributted

I still remember my first business trip to Pittsburgh, PA.  It was about 2001 and on day one, we drove out of the tunnel from the airport to downtown in brilliant sunlight.  To say the view was breathtaking is an understatement.  A couple days later we came through the same tunnel on a pitch-black but starry night — only to see that the view had been upgraded by the stadium lights and the decorative light on bridges offset by the peace of the Three Rivers converging there.

On every trip I’ve ever made to Pittsburgh, a colleague, a fellow-traveler or a passer-by has disparaged the city, even though they’d never traveled there.

I could understand if he didn’t like the tunnel — until he emerged from it.

In selling for a living we’re tempted to sprint toward the light — to escape the tunnel and “break out.”

In reality, it might not even be something we need to emerge from, it might not even be the “tunnel” we perceive, so the smart money builds a process that gets us all the way through, instead of choosing to stay underground, in the dark.



Find A Way To Say…

“Choose the life that is most useful and habit will make it the most agreeable.”

–  Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), former (as in WAY former) Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England

In professional selling, we ought to…

Find a way to say “yes.”  Remember, it’s rarely what we can or can’t do, it’s often what we will or won’t do.

Find a way to say “thank you.”  For answering a question honestly, for asking a hard question, for declining our offer openly and directly so that we can spend our time chasing a deal that might actually happen, for telling us specifically why they said yes or no…

Find a way to say “what if?”  What if we tried…  What if we stopped…  What if we asked…  What if we took a completely different approach to…

Find a way to say “no.”  No, I won’t give that away.  No, I won’t compromise our delivery principles.  No, I won’t talk about my competition…

Find a way to say “it’s ok.”  This one might be one we need to find a way to say to ourselves.  It’s ok that I didn’t…  It’s ok that I made that mistake…  It’s ok that I missed that sign…

When we find a way to say these things, we’ll most likely find a way to grow.  Our sales.  Our reputation.  Our self-image.  Our usefulness.  Ourselves.

The Objection

“We can’t control the wind, but we sure can direct the sail.”

–  Unattributed

In professional selling, the objection is the point.

I mean, seriously, if there were no objections, we’d be completely obsolete.  “Why, yes, Pat, I would like to buy 100 of those widgets at full price!  Heavens, let me pay a premium, instead!” Ever heard that one?  Of course not!

In these lines, I’ve often stated that sales, by definition, is an argument, of sorts, and I believe that’s true.  It’s true inasmuch as a professional selling engagement is typically between two parties that have a different view of what the preferred outcome would be, if they could draw it up on the whiteboard, wave a magic wand, and have it happen.

It’s not, however, an argument that follows the ol’ “does not / does too!” structure.

The objection is the point — and the way we get to it matters.  Especially since the buyer doesn’t always know what their real objection might be.

The health club rep that identifies why we don’t go to the gym and addresses it in some way typically sells a membership that lasts longer to a buyer who uses and appreciates it more.

The professional services sales pro who learns why the problem exists, how the Client has tried to solve it before and what impact the problem has on the business day-to-day is in a better position to propose a solution that excites the buyer and unites the two parties in a shared vision of a clear outcome.

The objections might come from the east, west, north, or south.  In order to sail our boat to its destination, we’d better be able to tack — to direct the sail so it catches the wind that the market provides.

More on that tomorrow.


Making Sense Of…

“Jed, that don’t make no sense!”

     – Granny, to Jed, in The Beverly Hillbillies, in (what seemed like) dang near every episode

Seriously, the list of things that do make sense seems pretty short compared to the list of things that don’t.

Friends of She and me recently suffered their second unimaginable loss in less than six months.   That crap will drive you crazy if you try to make sense of it.  An amazing family.  An amazingly close family.  A family of exceptionally good people.  It makes no sense on any level.  (See “one” below…)

A deal I’ve been negotiating for two weeks took about three squirrely turns in five hours, including two turns that looked like the Figure 8 Demolition Derby at the county fair.  “Why would they demand that?”  “Why would they concede on that?”  “Why would we expect…”  It was sort of like a parallel universe mashup with a Glengarry Glenross remake…

It makes me stop and wonder, why do we try to make sense of things that don’t make sense?

One, in times that don’t make sense — Faith comes in pretty handy.  (Technically, Faith comes in pretty handy no matter what’s going on, but I digress…)

Two, maybe we have a distorted impression of what “makes sense.”

Three, what if our filter on “making sense” isn’t functioning correctly?

Four, what if our expectations are off?  Way off?  And, if we wanted to go to “4b” — why do we lean so heavily on expectations in general?

Making sense of things tends to be based on either our experiences (which influence our expectations) or our belief of what should happen next.  “Should” is one of the most dangerous words in the English language.

Maybe our energy would be better invested in focusing on what just happened and what is happening now.  And maybe, we ought to drop the veil of secrecy and ask:  “Hey, just out of curiosity, why are you asking for __________.”  Our firm’s contract calls for payment terms of “x” days.  Our Clients’ “standard” verbiage requires “x-plus-75-days.”  Neither position makes sense to the other party.

So, I went all goofy.

“Hey,” I asked, “you think our “x” days is dopey, and we think your “x-plus-75-days” is dopey.” Where’s a good place to settle that can get us both something to feel good about?”

We agreed to terms in less than five minutes.  It was over e-mail, so it might have been less than five seconds…

“What makes sense…” involves assumptions on one or both parties.

“What if we…” is a great place to move from “what makes sense” to “what might work.”  Possibility thinking is a powerful thing.

And it beats the heck out of trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense.


Lose The Deck!

“A picture is worth a thousand words…”

–  A figure of speech popularized in the 1920’s

Originally intended to guide people in creating print ads in early newspapers, no truer words have ever been spoken about public speaking / sales presentations a hundred years later.

Almost 30 years ago, IBM executives were preparing to meet their new CEO.  Staff spent hours and hours compiling Power Point® decks for the business line executives to impress their new boss.  Decks were built; pages upon pages, words upon words, charts upon charts with indices and appendices.  The first executive began his presentation, and about four minutes in, it went sideways.

“Lose the ______ deck,” Lou Gerstner is reported to have said.  “I don’t want to see your deck, I want you to tell me about your business!”

And at that moment, I became a Lou Gerstner fan for life.

No one wants to see our decks.  No one wants to read our decks, that’s for dang sure. Lose the deck.  Craft a better story, aimed at precisely what the prospect or Client needs to know to take the next step.

Yes, craft and tell compelling stories.  Use pictures to accentuate the points in your stories. Deliver ideas, because ideas are the currency of Difference Makers and stories are the means by which those ideas are conveyed.





The Most Important Question

“What is it you’d like to have at the end of our time together today that you don’t have now?”

–  Me, in repeating the best question I ever learned to ask

…and I don’t even remember where I learned it.  I’m just thankful that I did!

Once, at the beginning of a meeting with 19 employees of a bank, I asked this question of each of them.  I thought the CEO was gonna throat-punch me because it took about 15 minutes!  At the end of the meeting, I asked all 19 whether they got _________ (their item).  One by one, they answered.  (We were about 15 for 19, by the way…)

When his turn came, he said, “I gotta tell you, Steve, I wanted to punch you for taking that time at the start, but (he looked at his team) here at the bank, we’re going to start doing this in every customer meeting we have!”

Buyers, Clients, customers — whatever we call them — are more distracted than ever before.  They’re running from one meeting to the next, just like we might be, and in none of those meetings are they likely to be the focus of the other party.  They’ve been trained to expect bad sales presentations, bad preparation, and marginal engagement on our side of the table.  So, they bring expectations to our time together.

They’re expecting us to have a slide deck.  (More on that tomorrow.)

They’re expecting us to rattle on about features and benefits, pricing, and packaging.

They’re expecting us to “pitch them.”

So, when we focus the entire conversation on the one thing(s) they want to get out of it, it’s disarming in the best possible way.

Think hard.  When is the last time you were in a conversation where the only thing that mattered to the other party was what you wanted to get out of the conversation?  (I’m taking the “under” at “never.)

When we deliver the one thing, we build relationship equity.  If we don’t deliver the one thing, and work to either fix that or acknowledge that we ain’t got what they want, we build relationship equity.  And relationship equity is where a difference gets made.


“Some rules are simply old habits that people are afraid to change.”

–  Therese Anne Fowler (b. 1967), contemporary American author

I’ve never been a big fan of rules.

There are good ones, like “never make the first or last out of an inning at third base…” but I digress.

In business, I had four rules forever, until a good friend convinced me to add Rule #5 in about 2008.

  1. Be reliable.
  2. Be positive.
  3. Treat the company’s resources as if they are your own.
  4. Be honest.  Completely, transparently honest.
  5. Let’s don’t do stupid stuff.

Turns out some people are offended by rule #5 — because we’ve become so hypersensitive to words that it’s easy to believe that my intention is to label people, not actions.  That is not my intention.

Smart people sometimes do stupid stuff.  The key is to know when the stuff we’re doing that might be dopey is because of a “rule” or simply a habit.

Habits are, ultimately decisions.  And doing the things we have to do to be successful — ultimately, that comes down to deciding, too.

As sales pros, the rule might be “make 20 calls per day.”  The better practice might be “have 8 meaningful conversations today.”  As sales leaders, the rule might be “make quota every month or go on a plan.”  The better practice might be to understand, well in advance, how your team is doing — toward their goals, toward their progression as a pro, toward the life they seek — and help them synch up daily activity to align.

A couple of rules just for today, for sales pros, as we begin a week, a quarter a sprint to the finish of a weird year.

Write down the two or three — not more, not less — things that are most important today.  Do them first.  Do them before doing anything else.



Selling: Life or Death?

“It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die.  That is true.  It’s called life.”

–  Sir Terence “Terry” Pratchett (1948 – 2015), English author, humorist and satirist

Subscribers will receive this post on a Saturday morning, which is uncommon.  Having spent five of the last nine days attending or officiating at funerals though, I’ve been a) irregular in posting and b) deep in thinking.

This deal is not life or death.  The next deal is not life or death.

Only life and death are life and death.

That does NOT mean that this deal isn’t important, to you and the Client or prospect.  That doesn’t mean that winning this deal, and the next few might impact your income or employability.

What it means is that none of the five people we’ve sent off in the past two weeks left this world wishing they had worked more.  Thankfully, these five don’t even wish they had lived more — they didn’t get cheated on time or Blessings.  Sadder are the funerals where work was all that mattered, at the expense of the life lived.  Which goes by in a flash…

For these five, there is meaning in the way they lived that matters to all whom they knew and — by extension — for those of us that sell for a living.

  1. Sell as if it matters to the quality of your life, not the size of your paycheck.
  2. Ask questions because you genuinely want to know the answers and leverage what you learn for the betterment of everyone involved.
  3. Admit early on if you’re not the right fit for the prospect and move on to someone for whom you might be able to make a difference.
  4. Care about the outcome behind the transaction as much as we do about the transaction itself.

And, as “Eulogy Boy” for too many friends and family over the years — just remember that we’re not going to stand up at your funeral and talk about the deals you did.  We’re going to talk about the Difference you made.

From Where I Sit…

“With all thy getting, get understanding.”

– Steve Forbes, in every issue of Forbes Magazine, a take on Proverbs 3:5


As business leaders, too often we think we get paid primarily to “know.”

We’d be worth more if we focused first on understanding.

As people (relatives, friends, parents, spouses…) too often we think we’re supposed to tell.  We think based on what we “know” that it’s on us to take a position, make a stand, draw a line.

We’d be better relatives, friends, parents, spouses if we’d ask.  Listen.  Want to know.  If we started from a place of abject curiosity.

Funerals are interesting gatherings of people.  Some come with a sense of celebration, others with a sense of foreboding or sorrow.  Some remember the deceased at their best, others remember every flaw, every episode.  Stories are told.  Some are true.  Some are partly true.  Some are total BS.  From where I sit…

Some are generations-old samplings of a series of he-said, she-said, he-might-have-said, she-might-have-done, no-one-was-there-so-no-one-has-any-idea — you get the point.  Imagine those stories from the perspective of where every participant — teller, listener, over-hearer, insider, outsider — imagine the static involved in trying to tune in that signal.

The only perspective we have is the one from where we sit. The more open-minded we are, the broader and deeper our perspective may become.  The more curious we are, the more complete our perspective will become.

In life, it helps us remember not to judge, not to be the first to toss the stone from within our glass house and it helps us to be a comfort, a value, a bridge and source of hope and love for someone else who needs one of those things.

In business, it helps us become trusted advisors.  It helps us get and keep the focus on the person we’re trying to serve, which is the best way of serving the person who pays us.  It helps us become “remarkable,” which Seth Godin defines as “something worthy of being remarked upon.”

From where we sit, the best we can do is to try to see the situation, the story — this moment — from the perspective of where someone else sits.