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Titans of Sales: A Two-Part Interview with Jim Keenan
Blog / All About CRM / Jul 15, 2014 / Posted by Bruce Boyers / 1877 

Titans of Sales: A Two-Part Interview with Jim Keenan

Editor’s Note: Our Titans of Sales interview series begins with this 2-part interview (today and tomorrow) with Jim Keenan about his path to becoming a leading sales expert, how he feels about social selling, and the fine points of B2B selling.  Pipeliner team writer Bruce Boyers is the interviewer.

Part 1: Early Interest in Sales and How to Recognize Talent in Others

Keenan in colorPer Jim Keenan’s bio, he has “been selling something to someone his entire life.” Understatement notwithstanding, he has been named one of the top social sellers in the world, one of the Top 50 Most Influential Sales and Marketing People by Top Sales World Magazine, and cited by The Harvard Business Journal and Huffington Post for social selling expertise. Keenan is a top sales consultant  and sales recruiter whose firm, A Sales Guy, Inc., is  a  goto site for those seeking to hire the best in sales talent.

How did you come to embrace sales as a profession?

Very early in life I realized that I was a salesperson, although I didn’t give it that moniker. I learned that because I got in trouble all the time. My daughter is kind of like this and it’s making me nervous, because being a brilliant salesperson is like the force—you either use it for good or you use it for evil.

Really good salespeople have this keen awareness of the need or want of their audience and they try to give it to them. In sales terms, con men are the dark side of the force. They can see when somebody is vulnerable, they can see when somebody wants something, they know what somebody will respond to and they use that for their own selfish gain. On the other hand a really good salesperson uses their insight to help people, to solve a problem or whatever (except when they’re dating, but we’ll skip that for now.)

A perfect example from my younger days: When I was 12 years old my mom was this super, super-liberal lady who really believed in the personal growth of children and giving them choices—this was the seventies. I was able to convince her to let me put Playboy posters on the wall in my bedroom. I knew that if I played the idea that “this is about choice” and “this is about me growing up” and “this is about me expressing myself,” II would be playing right into what was important to her. And there I was, a 12-year old kid, and I had centerfolds pinned to my friggin’ wall.

In another example, I was in my second year of college. I was paying my own way; I had to work as a bartender and a waiter to make ends meet. I was at a party with my buddies one night and we got back to the campus at two in the morning. The campus was composed of a lot of wide-open grassy spaces. I had a jeep so I said, “Hey, guys, we don’t need to take the street!” I just drove right across campus—and totally got caught.

The dean said to me, “Son, you cannot live on campus anymore. You showed no regard for the rules so you’re out of here.” Well, especially where this particular school was, where everybody lived on campus, that meant I was pretty much being thrown out of school. There was no way I could rent a place in Boston by myself, let alone get up every morning and cross town and so forth.

I knew that the dean didn’t want to actually kick me out of school, because if she had she would have just expelled me. So I said, “Listen, I’m open to my punishment — I screwed up. But you kick me off campus permanently, you might as well kick me out of school because I will not be able to continue to go to school.” And she backed me up, saying, “The plan wasn’t to throw you out of school.” She gave me the punishment of being off-campus for two weeks.

It was about then that I really knew I could sell.

From a sales recruiting standpoint, what do you look for in a great salesperson?

At A Sales Guy Recruiting, before we look at any job requirements we look for three traits. We argue that a salesperson cannot be a good salesperson if they don’t rank high in creativity, critical analysis skills, and determination and grit. I don’t care what you’ve sold, I don’t care how long you’ve been doing something; if you don’t have the creativity to approach things differently, to attack them in a different way or a unique way, to step outside of the box; your chances of being successful are substantially diminished. If you don’t have the critical thinking skills to uncover a problem, to unravel a complex ball of yarn and get to the core; if you’re unable to quickly process on your feet and differentiate between a problem and a symptom, you’re not going to be able to sell very well. And finally if you just don’t have the determination and grit to hang in there and plow through it and keep going and keep going, it’s a waste.

So no matter what our clients ask for us and tell us to go find, we’ve actually created a separate scale that we deliver to them in our submission that evaluates all of our candidates across those three things.

Your definition of a closer is someone who has the ability to get a customer to ask to buy the product rather than the salesperson asking for the sale. Can you elaborate on that?

If you have to ask the customer for the close, then you’re premature. If you do a good job at demonstrating to them how you can solve their problems and they can envision the change that they’re looking for through your sales engagement, they’re going to ask you for the sale. “Okay, this is good, I see it, it’s going to happen. How do I get started? When do we get started, how do I get started, how do we do this?” We’ve closed it. In a call I just had, I never once asked for the sale; I had no intention of asking for the sale. He left, he said, “Okay, it sounds good to me. There are a couple of questions I want to answer, and I want to talk to my team. I’ll be back to you and let you know.” I’m not going to ask for it—he’s got to give it to me.

In your sales consulting and recruiting experience, what are the most common weaknesses salespeople have, and how do you fix them?

 It baffles me and I’m blown away with some of the most seasoned salespeople, how they just don’t know what they’re selling. And when I say that, I don’t mean that they don’t know the product because a lot of them know the product really well. But the fact is you’re actually never, ever, ever, ever, ever selling a product—ever.

What you are selling is the change that product will generate inside your prospect’s world. That’s what you’re selling, and that is different for every single prospect. And they don’t know it. I recently blogged that that is the first thing you should put in CRM before anything else: the problem the customer is facing and why they want to change it. If you don’t know that, then you’re not selling a damn thing. You’re just pitching. The customer ends up selling themselves and therefore you have no control over the sales process.

As an example, let’s go back to my story about the dean when I was in college. Most people when they’re caught sit there and they say, “Please don’t, please don’t! I don’t want to get into trouble with my parents! I don’t want this, I don’t want that.” They’re just throwing stuff against the wall; they’re selling their product. I recognized I had to sell the dean the fact that she didn’t want to lose a student, because that was the change that she did not want to happen. I understood what I was selling.

How does one learn to be a great seller?

It starts with focusing on your audience. If all of a sudden a university called me and said, “We’re going to start a program to teach people how to sell,” the first thing I would say is, “Hey guys, we need to teach people how to be aware and empathetic of the emotions, motives, needs of the people around them. And then they have to learn how to uncover them.”

Everybody talks about discovery calls. Discovery calls are critical but when people talk about it I don’t think they understand just how critical they are. Discovery is how I get to understand what’s motivating them, why are we having this conversation, what problem are we trying to solve, why do you think it’s a problem in the first place? I don’t ever assume I know anything. “Okay, I get that, I think that would be a problem—but why do you care? Why is it a problem to you?” Then once I start to learn all that, that’s what I sell to. The rest is just the tools.

We pick up the interview tomorrow with Jim talking about social selling and persuasive techniques.

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About Author

Bruce is a freelance writer and a 20+-year marketing veteran. During his career he has worked very closely with salespeople, achieved an understanding of how they can best be assisted by marketing, and gained a keen insight into the innate and singular abilities they demonstrate day in and day out.

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