Recent buyer research proves that buyers respond much more to people who engage with them as leaders versus stereotypical sellers. Sales and leadership expert Deb Calvert thinks people should abandon those old stereotypical ways of selling that make them feel icky or pushy because that’s not selling; that’s manipulating and forcing. Manipulation not helpful to guide people to the place they want to go. Deb says effective selling is all about understanding the buyers’ needs and talking to them about it. It’s about helping them to envision it and to see the benefits of it. Learn from Deb Calvert as she shares some insights on how you and your buyer can both benefit from each other.
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Consulting With Your Buyer: A Guide To Effective Selling with Deb Calvert
I’m very excited to have Deb Calvert joining us. Deb, welcome.
Thank you, Michael. I’m honored to be here.
For those who aren’t familiar with your work, take a moment and explain what you do.
I have worked in sales my entire career and I do buyer side research as well as sales coaching and sales training. I also work in the leadership space. I just put out a new book and I co-authored with two leadership experts, James Kouzes and Barry Posner. It’s the first time I’ve ever actually brought both of my worlds together, sales and leadership. That’s all new for me.
How did you get into sales to begin with?
I think I was probably destined to it. I didn’t know that for the longest time, but I’ve always liked asking questions. I’ve always liked helping people and I’ve always liked brainstorming ideas and getting creative. I did some other things first, but sales was always in the background. Even when I was a kid I was selling Camp Fire candy and winning scholarships to Camp Shawnee where I wanted to go every summer and I was good at it. I think very naturally it fit all of my skills that I enjoyed and I was good at it.
The way that you described sales right now is very interesting because I think a lot of people would not describe sales in the way that you did. You’ve talked about problem solving and asking questions where a lot of people have this mindset that sales is like a little bit of a bad word. It’s often an uncomfortable word for people.
What would you say to those people and I’m also interested in where do you think that developed for you? Not everyone is born going to go start selling candy. There’s something like an influence around them or an experience that they had. First of all, how would you respond to people who may be thinking about sales and a little bit of a different light compared to the way that you described it? Then let’s explore where that came from for you.
I’m glad you picked up on that because you’re right. I do define selling very differently and I hope people will abandon those old stereotypical ways of selling that make them feel icky or pushy or like they’re doing something to people because that’s not selling. That’s manipulating and forcing and it’s not helpful. To be able to guide people to the place they want to go, to equip them with solutions you can provide that are helpful to them, you don’t want to do all those things that are typically associated with selling. You can abandon them entirely and instead choose leadership behaviors like the ones I described and others. That’s what our most recent buyer research proved to us is that buyers respond much more to people who engage with them as leaders versus as stereotypical sellers.
That’s that part of it where it came to me I think the original resource and source of sales teaching for me was my mom. She was in the Marine Corps. She was one of the first US Women Marines to be in a role for recruiting more women marines. That was basically a selling role. When I was out there selling Camp Fire candy, she was my sales coach and she would tell me things.
She would say things like, “Debbie, you should ask questions and let people tell you why they might want candy. Don’t you tell them, you ask them instead.” Imagine it like five and six-year-old kid at your doorstep with a box of candy asking you things like, “With the holidays approaching, what other gift items do you need?” She would make me imagine, I put myself in their shoes and empathize with the things might be interesting to them. I did go about it very differently from day one.
What I find interesting is that I think all of us are actually sales people. It’s just that in many cases people don’t know that they’re selling. If we look at whether it’s an interaction with your child or a spouse or at the workplace, let’s say in the corporate world, even on a daily basis, we all are selling to some degree. We all want to achieve an outcome or a goal and typically we’re going to ask some questions or try and position things in a way that will help us to get closer to the outcome that we want. I think you’re right, it is this mindset or this belief around the word sales that makes people feel very uncomfortable and shun away from it. Why did you decide to become a sales consultant?
That was twelve years ago when I went into business for myself. I had been at a Fortune 500. I had moved my family across the country to take that job three years prior. I worked in 31 markets, overseeing sales and sales training. When the company closed, I wasn’t in love with the idea of moving again. We had just gotten settled. I had four job offers. I was getting down to the wire and I needed to pick one of them, but I literally woke up one day with the question in my mind, “I wonder if any of them would take me on as a consultant instead of taking on as an employee.” I called all four that day. Three out of the four said yes within a couple of days and that’s how I went into business.
Talk to me a little bit more about how you actually did that because this is a situation that I hear a lot from consultants they encounter where they receive interest from a perspective client, but that company actually wants to bring them on as employees or contractors and take all of their time. How did you respond to or reach out to those companies and how do you position it and structure it so that essentially they would be consulting clients and not a one-client contract or an employee?
It was all about understanding their needs and talking to them about their needs. I didn’t call them and say, “I don’t want to take the job but I’ll consult for you. It’s inconvenient.” I felt all those things. I was thinking all those things, but instead I replayed in my mind what I learned doing during the interview process. I called and I said things like, “The work that you described for me, some of that seems very temporary. What do you feel like is the long-term need for a person in this position?”
I knew because of the industry that I was in newspapers, that the outlook was a bit bleak. I asked questions like, “What would be the benefits to you of not having an FTE with benefits that you’d have to carry. Things ebb and flow with our industry and as budgets may continue to be slashed, what are the benefits to you of having something a little more temporary, but still exactly what you’re looking for now?” I help them to envision it and to see the benefits of it.
Some people might say, “Isn’t that being a little bit too direct?” How would you respond to that?
I think it’s perfectly okay to be a direct as long as your intent is about helping other people. I did want to help myself in that situation, but I also wanted to help those four companies. I was going to have to pick one. I thought, “Here’s a way where I can potentially help all four of them. I’m down the road all this far to the point of a job offers, so I knew a lot about them and I felt a bit of a connection to them or I would never have gotten to that stage.” What you say, whether you’re challenging someone or floating new ideas with someone or even telling someone, “Maybe there’s a better way,” as long as your intent is to help them and it’s not only self-serving, I think people are fine with it and you should be too. Otherwise you’re going to withhold good stuff that could be useful to others.
We’re all in this business. We do what we do because we want to help. We want to add value for others and if there’s someone that we’ve identified that has a problem and we can help them to solve it, it would be a disservice of us to not offer them, are helping to find ways to support them. What do you think, Deb?
I couldn’t agree more. We’re all put here for a reason, right in this moment in time, whatever it is. To me, I believe there’s a reason and I’ve always liked helping people and making a difference. That’s the intrinsic motivator to me, that buzz or feeling like I made a difference. If I don’t put it out there, I can’t make a difference. If I do put it out there and you reject it, I still get to walk away from that situation feeling like I did my best. I wouldn’t want to compromise my best and take your business in a way that doesn’t help you.
You walked away from that experience picking up three new clients, all first clients for you as a consultant. After that, how did you then get your next client?
I made rules for myself because I had this nice severance package so I had a little bit of a runway. I made rules for myself and they were rules like, “You can’t have all your clients be from the newspaper industry because it’s going down.” That was a bleak picture because of what I came at it from corporate. Of course, that was not entirely true. I told myself not work my network where I knew people, but I had to make sure that I could still go out and sell to people that never heard of me. I needed to make a certain dollar figure, so I had those three rules. I’m happy to say that within the first three months I completed all those check boxes and so I decided I’d keep doing it.
Let’s get a little more tactical then. What did you do at that time and specifically you said that you have to go out, you want to land clients outside of the industry where you had the three other clients, the newspaper business. What did you specifically do to get in front of people who you didn’t know previously?
The first one was an accident because I had given myself a year to do this. I hadn’t started at all on pursuing other clientele yet, but my first non-newspaper opportunity happened because I was at O’Hare Airport in Chicago on my way back from Syracuse, going to San Jose. In the gate area waiting for the airplane, I ran into someone who I used to work with in the early days of that corporate role. We barely worked together, we barely knew each other, but we recognized each other and started talking.
He told me that he was at a brand-new job. He was overseeing human resources and he was about to promote somebody with no training background into a training role. I asked him what concerns they had. This was all conversation. He started telling me about some of the concerns and some of the needs that she might have and I said, “I wonder if there’s some way I can help you. Here’s what I’m doing these days.” That was Driscoll’s, the international berry company, and it led to a lot of network. I’ve worked with over 100 Ag industry clients and growers and shippers and suppliers. It was a very fortuitous accidental meeting.
As you’ve built your business and you can see the ripple effect. Oftentimes it’s about reaching that initial tipping point where things seem to gain more momentum and become easier in terms of generating business. If you look back on everything that you’ve done to grow your business, what have you found to be the most effective way to generate leads for your business?
I’ve tried everything inbound and outbound. I have lots of content marketing strategies. I still believe all those things work. I haven’t done anything that is discarded, you have to tweak it of course. The number one thing still is picking up the phone and calling someone that you’ve been referred to. Asking for referrals, getting to know people and then not being afraid to pick up the phone and say, “So and so suggested that I call you and here’s why. I’d like to talk with you. Can we set some time?”
A lot of people might be hearing that and trembling a little bit with the idea of picking up the phone. Oftentimes, we hide behind technology these days. It’s easier to try something through an email or LinkedIn message and not actually have to pick up the phone. Let’s try and give people here a little bit more specific steps they can take to increase their confidence around this and feel more comfortable. Starting with a referral, what should someone do if they have, let’s say a whole bunch of people that they’re connected to, whether it’s on LinkedIn or through their email database.
What’s the best approach they should take to reach out to those people to ask for a referral? I think a lot of the inertia, a lot of the challenge or the hesitation that people have around asking for referrals is like, “I have to ask someone to do something. It’s not an imposition. Isn’t that me being too direct or too strong and pushy and sales-y?” What would you tell someone who recognizes they probably have a bunch of people in their network or people they’ve connected on LinkedIn that haven’t had a conversation with them for some time. What can they do to actually start getting more referrals?
I think you’ll like my answer because it starts with mindset. I know that you addressed that in your book. The Elite Consulting Mind. Mindset is, “I’ve got the right intent, I’m going to help someone.” Mindset includes, “I have the right to ask because I’m about to ask if I can help someone that this person knows and likes.” Mindset is understanding the law of reciprocity. “I’ve done a lot for you, you want to give something back to me.” Me asking and accepting your help is actually something that benefits both of us. If I’ve done my job well and done a good service for you, you wish that there was some way you could thank me and you’ll be delighted to give me this introduction.
When you go into that process, are you personally expecting a specific result? Do you set that up in your mind, “My goal from this conversation is to get a referral,” or are you going in with the idea and the mindset of, “I’m going to reach out. I’m going to see if I can help see if maybe there’s something that I can do to benefit both parties here.” What is the mindset that you have specifically when you do this?
First of all, I do think of them more as introductions than referrals. I equip the person I’m asking for something more than a vague, “If you know anybody who has needs for sales training would you send them my way?” That doesn’t work that well. That feels like an imposition because then they have to do all the work and thinking. When I say to them, “I noticed on LinkedIn that you are connected to Michael Zipursky, I’d like to meet him. He’s somebody that I think I might be able to help out with some sales training, similar to what I provided for you. Since you know Michael and I haven’t met him yet, would you mind introducing me to him and letting him know that I’m interested in talking to him? I think I can help them.” I’ve given you the script and I’ve told you what it’s all about and I’ve told you who to contact and introduced me to.
Clearly, you’ve done a very good job because here we are. That makes a lot of sense and I appreciate you offering some tactical steps here for people to take. I hope that everyone does start to implement those. What about your marketing? I know that you also write blog posts, you have books, you mentioned there’s one that came out, you can tell us a little more about that, but in terms of your marketing mix and your approach to sales and prospecting and generating a pipeline of business, what does that look like now and how is that different compared to maybe the earlier days before your business was at the point where it’s at. Oftentimes, people wonder about percentages. Are you spending more time on inbound, less on outbound? How would you give an overview of what you’re doing and compare that to what you did earlier on?
In the early days, my company was much smaller. It didn’t have as many trainers. It didn’t have as many opportunities to work with all the customers that I do now. My marketing has evolved as my business has scaled. I think that if I were to go back and do something different earlier, it would be stepping sooner into a more visible role as a blogger and somebody who’s got podcasting and other opportunities like this one. I held back from that at first thinking, “There are people out there who know more than I do. Who do more than I do. I don’t need to be in the public eye.” I didn’t even take speaking engagements at the beginning.
Then I realized that I had a frustration with my business overall that marketing could solve and for me, I went into this business called People First Productivity Solutions. I went into it with a very specific mission which was to help people develop and get better so that they could help their businesses get better. I realized if I could reach more people, I might be able to advance that mission farther. That idea about wanting to reach people, became the engine that drove the marketing because those two things went together and the media that I’ve used to reach more people has also been the marketing for the company.
Would you say that you’re spending more time on content creation and what we call people label as inbound as opposed to outbound direct prospecting, asking for referrals, making calls and so forth? What would you say the percentages are for you?
They were out of whack a few years ago. I was spending way too much time on content creation and being the out in front person for the company. It was taking away time that I wanted to do outbound calling and instructional design of new programs and sales coaching and field and research. It was taking time away from all of that. I hired a digital marketing agency and they now handle most of the inbound strategy.
I’m glad to hear that you did that a little bit later on, not at the beginning of your business. Oftentimes consultants think, “I’m not a marketing person. I just offload my marketing to some agency or someone else too early in the process.” Without developing clarity around who their ideal clients are and getting a good marketing message in place and setting the real foundation for success. What are your thoughts on that?
The other thing that it’s important to do first is to find your voice because it has to be authentic. If I had turned everything over to a marketing agency too early, it would have been them and they would be shaping my business because it would be their voice. Having my own voice and having a body of work that said, “Here’s what I do,” gave them opportunities. I still do my own writing. I do it differently. I record it and I send it to them and they transcribe and edit and make it look nice and put the keywords in to optimize it for search engines and all of that stuff, but they would not be able to appropriately edit and headline and choose strategies for me if I didn’t have a strong point of view and voice that I communicated to them.
Deb, all consultants encountered challenges when building their business. What stands out for you as one big challenge that you can’t forget?
For me it is that I have to adjust over these next ten years or so because I want to have a business I can sell instead of it just being me. I’m still in the position of being too much, the brand. I need to have other ones of my trainers and my content become the brand so it’s more sellable and it’s not just me.
When did you start thinking about that? Did you have an exit in mind years ago, or is this more recently that you started to pay attention to and think about it?
I started thinking about that on my 50th birthday when somebody said, “Are you going to retire in five years or ten?” I had said the words early retirement and I thought about, “What does retirement look like?” I realized that I needed to have something here that I could sell because that would set me up for retirement and then maybe it could be fewer years than going all the way to 65.
You mentioned that you’re too central in the brand and the content and all that, but in terms of specific steps that you are looking at taking or that you know that you need to accomplish for you, what are just a few that stand out?
It’s about the brand. There’s some ego involved. I have to be okay with it not being Deb Calvert, but with it being the DISCOVER Questions Workshop or the Stop Selling and Start Leading Movement or the Workplace Conversations Program. Those have to get the brand and my name doesn’t have to be on them at all. They can be their own brand. The more I can push that from behind the scenes that the better off I am.
Clearly you have a lot going on. You’re building up this business so that you can sell it at some point. Trainers involved. You’re writing books. There’s a lot that you have that is keeping you busy clearly. What are you doing to stay at the top of your game? Do you have a specific routine or any habits that help you to stay sharp and focused and productive?
Two things that come to mind right away. First of all, I deliberately have an incredible network. I help people out as a member of their network and they helped me out and that keeps me at the top of my game because I read the things that I share. I don’t just curate the content and share it randomly. I read everything that I share and I share a lot. I founded something called the Sales Experts Channel, which has about 300 and some odd, maybe ten webinars on it, produced by over 100 sales experts. I listened to just about every single one of those and not when they’re live, but when I’m walking or when I’m doing something else in the background. I want to learn from all of my peers in my network. The second thing that I do is I’m a prolific reader. I’ve always been a big reader. When new books come out about leadership or sales or something related, I am pretty quick to go out and get them. I used to read for three years running, I read a book a day, a business book a day. This year I switched because I was missing fiction. I’m not reading as many business books.
How do you read a book a day?
You speed read a bit. I don’t know. I don’t sleep as much as is a lot of people do. I don’t need to.
How many hours do you typically sleep?
Five or six. I’m good with that.
When you’re doing a book a day, how long would that actually take you? How many hours for you to read it?
I try to set the time limited about 90 minutes and there are some big books that can’t make it in that period of time. Some I finished earlier but I’m scanning and I’m highlighting things that mattered to me and sometimes I’ll take notes because that helps me to remember.
Is there a specific method to speed reading that you have found to be more effective than others?
Start with the table of contents. If there are things that you think you know, look at those first just to verify that you know them and then the things that are new. Always look for what’s new, what’s different, what you haven’t heard, and don’t dismiss the things that are different from the way you look at them. Those are the most important ones to look at.
Are you actually going page by page or once you got to look at the table of contents, you just pick and say, “I don’t need this section at all, it’s just the overview. I’m going to dive into the details of this specific section and maybe I’ll read this earlier.” Maybe essentially reading 50% of the actual contents or you are. Are you reading the whole 100%?
I’m scanning so I don’t dismiss anything because that’s a trap. That’s overconfidence bias, if you think you know something and you don’t at least verify that, you miss out. I want to see if there’s a different way that people are saying things or looking at things. I’ll at least scan. If it’s all pretty much what I know or believed, then I don’t have to read the whole thing. The parts where they differ from what I’m thinking, I’ll read that 100% and that usually ends up being, I would say more than 50% of a book that I read closely and sometimes re-read because I want to absorb it.
I’ve noticed that you’ve written a fair bit on the topic of like open-ended questions and digging deep to understand what the buyer is thinking and feeling and these are critical for sales. Yet I’ve observed that often consultants simply stay at the surface level. They don’t dig deeper, but the real value is in going deep. It’s like peeling back the layers of the onion to understand at the core of what the buyer is thinking and feeling about. What are your thoughts on this? Why do you think that people so often just stay at the surface level with their questioning and don’t go deep?
It’s because we look for the first clue that there’s something we can sell to this person and then we pounce that’s unsatisfying to buyers. It’s very obvious when we’re doing that and unfortunately it works against us. That’s the stereotypical sales behavior we need to set aside. What we should be doing, when we hear that first clue is letting our natural curiosity be your guide. Probe a little bit. Find out some details, find out if that’s something that the buyer even values. Is it important to them? How does it stack up compared to other things that might be more important? When you look at it from those angles, when you take even five or ten extra minutes to ask a few more questions to understand it in depth, you have more insights.
You’ve built up more trust because now you’re different from other salespeople who do pounce and you have a trust that’s being established and the people that we know like and trust are the ones who more likely to want to buy from. Especially those who engage us in a two-way dialogue, which if you aren’t going off a script of questions and not responding with follow-ups, you have a much better chance of having a true two-way dialogue.
Deb, this has been a really enjoyable conversation. I know there’s so much more that everyone can learn from you. What I’d like to do is to direct them to where they can learn more about you, your book and so forth. What’s the best place for people to connect with you, to learn more about your book, your work and so forth?
I’ll meet people wherever they are. If you’re on LinkedIn, find me. I’m Deb Calvert. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, @PeopleFirstPS. The books, the first one was DISCOVER Questions Get You Connected. If you want to know more about questions, that’s the one for you. The second one is Stop Selling and Start Leading. It’s about integrating leadership behaviors in order to be more effective in selling. It’s great for business owners, entrepreneurs, salespeople, as you said, Michael, everybody sells. If you just want to email me, if you want to talk one-to-one, you’ll find that on the website which is PeopleFirstPS.com. PS stands for productivity solutions. I hope that folks will follow up with me. There’s nothing I enjoy more than follow-up conversations.
Deb, thank you so much for coming on. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Thank you, Michael. I appreciate the opportunity.
- Deb Calvert
- James Kouzes
- Barry Posner
- Elite Consulting Mind
- People First Productivity Solutions
- DISCOVER Questions Workshop
- Stop Selling and Start Leading Movement
- Sales Experts Channel
- Deb Calvert – LinkedIn
- People First Productivity Solutions on Twitter
- @PeopleFirstPS – Facebook
- DISCOVER Questions Get You Connected
- Stop Selling and Start Leading