Vague – I hope so!

I’m writing this sitting in a busy Italian Café – “Origini” in Castlemaine, Victoria. It’s Monday morning and the place is packed. My salesman’s ear can’t help but drop in on the various conversations that erupt around me – snatches of sentences here and there – none heard as a contiguous detailed story, but each with snippets that give me some vague notion of what went on in their world last weekend.

I’m telling you this because, of late, I’ve been thinking about becoming more vague  – as a conscious decision to appear less decisive (and opinionated). You see, I have, until now, always striven to be clear, comprehensive and correct.

In my early career, armed with a strong understanding of technology, I was always sought as a source of answers. I was the geek who could explain stuff, could design solutions to solve problems and could then sell that solution – and even install it if necessary. Naturally, in order to do this I had to ask questions; to define the problem and to garner the customers expectations of the solution. My line in questioning – back then – was famously peripatetic; it would wander around seemingly (actually) without structure, certainly without ‘closing’ or even ‘trial closing’ questions. This was because I was usually selling ‘one offs’ – unusually complex and bespoke solutions based on emerging technologies about which I myself was still learning – and about which the customer wasn’t 100% certain either. Whilst I was striving to appear all-knowing in order to instil confidence, my rambling demeanour may have suggested something else.

Despite this apparent lack of focus however, my sales results were excellent. This frustrated my managers over the years, almost all of whom tried to change me, convinced I could be even better with a  little ‘discipline’. I was continuously pressured, and indeed trained, to follow the ‘conventional wisdom’ i.e. become more focused, more structured in my sales approach. I guess they eventually wore me down, and by the late 90’s and into the 00’s I too became more procedural in my questioning – driving toward the closure of the sale of  very specific solutions based on a structured analysis of the clients problem. My sales success didn’t increase as a result, but my market had evolved so it was hard to gauge the efficacy of my changed approach.

Back to Castlemaine. The many conversations around me – all incomplete – allow me to imagine what each of those stories might be. The very absence of all the details encourages me to ‘fill in’ the missing bits and make my own interpretation of their stories. Now, this may sound bizarre, but if you think about it for just a minute, this is ‘flexibility’ that I can exploit to suit my needs (personal amusement in this case) . Similar to the flexibility available to a customer when both they and you are a bit vague. When things are left a bit vague, the fit is a bit looser – a bit more comfortable and adaptable. Clients seldom know exactly what they need – and even more rarely know how to contract to get that need met.

Vagueness not only creates flexibility (and hence opportunity) but it also enables outcomes to be interpreted to suit immediate requirements. We need only look to politicians and the public service to see how such vagueness has been elevated to an art form – where policies and project outcomes can be easily ‘reframed’ to turn failure into success (and occasionally, as political expedience dictates, the other way around).

Of course, the real value of vagueness (particularly to me) is that by being a little vague, I can put the customer at some ease. Customers may be vague themselves – either because they don’t know something when perhaps they should, or more likely, because they don’t want to expose or confirm something that is less than flattering, of them or the company they represent.

Also, when I’m a bit vague I risk looking like I don’t know everything – which, by the way, is certainly the case. When I’m a bit vague therefore, it is less likely that I’ll appear arrogant – hubris is a near impossibility for the vague.

If the client sees me as vague and doesn’t want me to be that way, they will let me know through their questions – and through the information they impart to me in their attempt to make me less so. If, on the other hand, the client is happy that I appear as vague as they feel, then we have the basis of a relationship of equals – an excellent basis for a win-win sale.

So, consider the power of the vague! I will. Perhaps. Possibly. Maybe. I think.

This time it’s personal!

A few days ago, my coach (yes, even coaches need coaches) suggested to me that my website was, possibly, confusing its audience – given that it often referred to “we” when it should clearly refer to “I” when I myself, Malcolm Duffield, propose to do something, be something, or have an opinion on something. Of course, I do work with associates when it makes sense – when I can combine their passion and experience with mine to get a more powerful outcome – so ‘we’ is occasionally grammatically correct. But mostly I work alone, so he may have a point.

Now, you have to understand that my coach, Andre Burki, is Swiss (as is my wife by strange coincidence) and they can at times be pedantic; they tend not to take the more ‘freeform’ approach to the English language that many native speakers adopt. But his pedantry (which I suspect he deliberately targeted to drive my thinking) initiated this thought-train: “why do I seek the safety of the herd (collective ‘we’) when I actually believe passionately and personally (and occasionally, seemingly uniquely) in what I offer, in what I have observed and in what I write?”. (Yes, I use ‘Jazz’ punctuation, too – my English teacher, Fred Plater, may be saddened by it – but he wouldn’t be surprised.)

However, that train of thought has rattled around my head for over a week now, with occasional pause to refuel and add mass it has become effectively unstoppable. Hence I have come to the conclusion that whilst it may well be easier to follow the ‘conventional wisdom’ proposed by the majority of sales training and coaching practitioners – I just flat out don’t agree with it and should have the courage of my convictions to say so!

This conclusion has a number of consequences of course: abandoning the comfort of even the notion of my own tiny herd (my ‘associates’) puts me out there singularly and wholly accountable (actually something I usually seek); it allows me to truly declare a “Blue Ocean” of opportunity (read the book “Blue Ocean Strategy” by Kim and Mauborgne to appreciate just how important this is); it means that my freshly minted web-site will need some further subtle editing, and; it removes a whole chunk of potential prospects (i.e. those who follow ‘conventional wisdom’) which may well represent over 90% of the market. This last point is particularly pertinent – as removing such a large but essentially specious list of ‘suspects’ allows me to put more accurately targeted sales effort into the remaining enlightened 10% (I accept that these estimates may be wildly generous – it could well be more like 1%).

Still, pure sales hunters know that ‘big game’ isn’t caught with a net!

So, from now on it’s all about me; what I do, and what I can do for you.


Salesmen in Art

Somewhat belatedly, I finally watched the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross” – whilst enjoying/enduring an enforced ‘film festival’ on the long-haul from Zurich to Melbourne (I never could sleep on a ‘plane). The film, released some 20 years ago, was based on David Mammet’s play of the same title from 1983. With a truly stellar cast (Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin, Jonathon Pryce and Kevin Spacey) and great screenplay, it was a critical success – ‘though not a commercial one, which may be a commentary on the public’s opinion of ‘the salesman’ as subject.

I was effected by the film as powerfully as I was when I saw Warren Mitchell play Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at the National Theatre, London in 1979. Back then I was just starting out in my sales career in Commercial TV. “Death of a Salesman” had been written 30 years earlier in 1949 and it has been produced many times over the years, by some of the best theatres in the world, such is its reputation.

Both plays resonate with the period they were written in – yet both contain messages relevant to today. Neither paints a particularly rosy portrayal of the sales profession, but then neither is attempting to recruit. They use the personal pressures and stresses that, as we all know, are heightened in sales, to explore the breakdown behaviour of the individual.

Whilst both plays end in the abject collapse of their subjects – they both touch on some of what makes selling a challenging, exciting and, when you get it right, rewarding career. To my mind however, they both also fail to even hint at the true ‘value of selling’ as perceived by customer and supplier alike. They are one-eyed, typecast reinforcement of the widespread notion that “salesmen always try to sell you something you don’t need” (or insert similar pejorative statement of your choice).

Before I expand on what I see as the root cause of this persistent notion, I invite you to research the two films/plays – and any other ‘sales’ related art-pieces – to contextualise your understanding of yourself and how your profession is being portrayed in the media.