Thirty years of being a sales trainer and conducting seminars have brought me to the point at which I can answer the most frequently asked question about sales: “Can anybody sell?”
You could rephrase this question anyway you’d like. Alternate versions might include, “Is a good salesperson born with that ability?” or “Is selling a natural skill?” The questions still remains the same, however: “Can anybody sell?” If I had a nickel for every time that question was put to me, well, let’s just say I’d have an enormous quantity of nickels!
I’m not certain I had the answer to that question myself until I had the incredible fortune of meeting the greatest salesman who ever lived. No, it wasn’t any of the big shot speakers and authors, a fraternity to which I myself belong. No–it was a fellow named Ben Feldman.
Although you probably haven’t heard of him, you should have. Back in 1979, when I was with the New York Life Insurance Company, it was Ben who led the industry in sales. That was not just for my company, but all insurance companies. It’s even a little unfair to say Ben led the industry, for the truth is he dominated it. While the top 9 agents were all fairly close together, Ben Feldman tripled his next closest competitor.
While I had never seen a picture of Ben, I imagined his appearance: tall, outgoing, aggressive, with a big booming voice. Actually I think he was, in my imagination, a combination of every stereotypical quality I had been convinced was necessary for an effective salesperson. Then one day I had the rare pleasure of meeting him, and in a way my life was changed forever. Ben Feldman was about 5’ 3”, was somewhat overweight, had hair that resembled that of Larry from the Three Stooges, and spoke with a definite lisp. But it was only within seconds that I was drawn to his unique style. While he had none of the more conventional strengths that are normally associated with his level of success, he remained totally true to his style and took the qualities he did have and made them his strengths. And, as I said, he dominated his field.
It was then and there I learned the most valuable lesson I would ever receive in my life regarding our own personal style: I could not be Ben Feldman; I could, however, focus on his technique or process and continue to ask myself, “How can I do that so it sounds like Rob Jolles?” What is my personal style? Rob’s strengths aren’t Ben’s strengths, but then again, Ben’s aren’t Rob’s either.
Go for a golf lesson and you’ll understand what I mean, because you will see two different kinds of teachers. One will show you the way he or she hits it, put a bucket of balls in front of you, and work to get you to hit it the same way. The other will put a bucket of balls in front of you, ask you to hit for a while, and then step in to help. In case you want to know, that second teacher is studying your natural style.
Some golfers have longer arms, so are more flexible, and some have stronger left arms. I want the lesson from the second teacher, because what he’s doing is trying to blend his sound concept of technique, into my natural style.
Sadly, often sales managers, and mentors who are meaning to help, preach more of their style then their technique. This is because many are what we call “unconscious competents” and truly cannot separate one from the other. They frequently try to coach by saying things like, “This is not a complicated business, just work hard and good things will happen.” That bit of help would be the equivalent of a golf teacher saying, “Grip it and rip it!” This leaves many mistakenly trying to emulate the wrong things, be someone they are not, and leaving the field of selling disillusioned and discouraged.
“Can anybody sell?” Absolutely! The key is, to separate style from technique because each of us possesses our own style. For this lesson, and so many others, Ben Feldman should be an inspiration to us all. He possessed no obvious style attributes we associate with classic salespeople, yet he sold 1.6 billion dollars of insurance in his lifetime! The key to being a good salesperson is not only learning what your natural style is, but also committing to it and utilizing it as effectively as possible.
In the summer of 1994 Ben Feldman passed away but not without leaving us a few final gifts. He left many process behaviors that are repeatable and effective when working with clients. However, in my mind, his greatest gift may have been one he never articulated. He taught us all that if you commit to your own personal style you can become as great as you want to be.
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