Selling Power Blog

News & Insights for B2B Sales Leaders

February 12, 2010

How David Sandler Created His “Magnificent Obsession,” and the “Killer Instinct” for Selling – Part 2

Yesterday I shared the story how David Sandler got a motivational boost from Earl Nightingale’s recording The Strangest Secret. Earl’s words were strong enough to start the Sandler Training Company, which delivers training in 12 world languages. Here is the second part of the interview of the legendary sales training pioneer. In a time where technology training drives out effective selling skills training, programs like Sandler Training are more important than ever. This interview took place in 1980 during a time when many people thought that Sandler’s approach was over the top.

Q: What have you learned from your failures?

Sandler: I think you have to look at failing as a positive experience. When you go on a sales call, expect nos. If you expect to get yeses, you can’t handle the nos. Every disappointment and failure I’ve ever gone through scared me. While you’re going through those moments, you can’t say, “Oh, this is a blessing.” But you don’t give up; you must go through it and make something happen in the process.

Q: How long did it take you to fine-tune your sales-training system?

Sandler: About five years. But after a few years of training salespeople, I learned that the traditional sales courses didn’t work.

You can’t teach a kid to ride a bike at a seminar.

It takes months of patience and practice. I can’t teach anybody to master selling skills in a two-day seminar. It’s impossible. Training that works takes a long time. We never know when someone is ready to learn. That’s why our President’s Club is like a lifetime health club, except we call it a sales club.

Q: You’re saying that conventional two-day seminars can’t do the job.

Sandler: After a seminar, people remember a couple of one-liners, and then they go off and do something else. They had a good time, but nothing changed.

There is a fundamental difference between knowing and owning.

Q: Are you saying that most people “metabolize” the information, but it doesn’t transform them?

Sandler: Taking ownership is a long-term process. It takes time, reinforcement, and competent help, and people can’t do it without ongoing support.

Q: What prompted you to apply the health-club concept to ongoing sales training?

Sandler: I recall many clients asking me to come back three or four times a year to repeat the training for them. I noticed that every time I went back, these salespeople would get better and better. So one day I came up with the idea of The President’s Club in the Baltimore area. We used to meet every other Thursday night. As many as 250 people showed up. We would discuss their problems and talk about how they could do better. Over a period of time we realized that the more often they came, the greater their rate of success. That’s why we expanded the concept nationwide. Today we have local trainers in over 60 cities. These trainers are responsible for delivering a minimum of 20 hours of training each month to members of The President’s Club.

Q: Is membership limited to the local training center?

Sandler: No. Each member can attend any local meeting in any President’s Club in the nation. When President’s Club members travel out of town, they can attend our other sales meetings at no cost. They get reinforcement training wherever and whenever they need it.

Q: You’ve pioneered many new selling concepts. What kind of approach do you teach your members for opening a sales call?

Sandler: First, you have to establish a bond between you and the prospect.

Q: How?

Sandler: Don’t carry anything on the first call. Don’t take your briefcase. Dress comfortably. Just look like a professional who is financially independent and doesn’t need the business. Be calm, relaxed, and just break the ice a little. Everything you do should be casual, nonthreatening, and businesslike.

Q: So you suggest a low-key approach.

Sandler: Let me give you a one-liner that sums it all up:

A sales call is like a Broadway play performed by a psychiatrist.

What I mean by that is that you’ve got to be an actor who can slip into many different roles, and you’ve got to be a psychiatrist who can see past the intellectual defenses people build around them.

Q: What role does the psychiatrist play during the opening?

Sandler: The psychiatrist begins with very nurturing questions to establish trust. People feel vulnerable and have learned not to be up front with salespeople. In general, prospects won’t tell you about their real problems. Psychiatrists learn very early in their training that what the patient brings is never the real problem.

Patients can only describe symptoms; the psychiatrist must find the causes, not just relieve the symptoms. The same is true with a prospect. That’s why it takes three or four questions about a specific subject before you can go past a prospect’s natural defenses.

Each answer becomes a little more revealing than the previous one.

Q: What’s the next step?

Sandler: Don’t be in a hurry to give a presentation. Give the presentation only if the prospect qualifies. Then you need to set up a contract with the prospect, like we’ve discussed earlier. You want to develop an understanding between you and the prospect as to what it takes to do business. That’s the difference. If you do that, your prospect will sense that there’s something different about this sales call, because you are very up front.

Q. You have pioneered the selling strategy of leading a customer from wellness to sickness and back to wellness. Can you explain the essence of that technique?

Sandler: Certainly. There are five steps to the formula: well, hurt, sick, critical, and well.

As soon as you talk to a prospect, you begin by finding a hurt through “reversing questions.” Then you expand your questions to a group of pains until the prospect is “sick.” If you continue to work on that sickness with more questions, you will have a prospect on the “critical list.” Then your selling job becomes easy, because all you have to do is make the prospect well again.

It’s not easy for people to remember intellectual formulas. To help them remember, I tell them a story like this one: Let’s say you go to see your doctor for your annual physical. A complete checkup will probably cost you about $300. Your doctor will ask you to strip down in the examining room. Then he or she will come in and poke at you, hook you up to an EKG, x-ray your chest, then put you on a stress test that can kill you if you’re not a runner. Your doctor feeds you chalk, punches you, and pokes you everywhere. And you’re saying to yourself, “This isn’t worth $300. I should be out there making calls. What am I doing here spending an hour and a half with this doctor?”

Finally, the doctor says, “Okay, the examination is over; get dressed and come into my office.” In the office is a little light box with your x-ray clipped on it. It’s a picture of you. The doctor looks at this picture while you’re wondering how quickly you can get out of there.

You think, “Let’s give him the $300 and get going.” Then your doctor looks at this thing closer, turns to you, and asks, “Has anybody in your family ever had kidney problems?” You say no. The doctor looks back at that x-ray again. Now, this time he or she talks to the X-ray, saying, “Now, there is nothing real serious here. I don’t think we want to worry too much about this. We can take our time on this. What are you doing tomorrow morning? I want you to go down to the hospital, because I want to check this out. I don’t like what I see.”

You can picture what is going through your mind at that moment. Your mind went from $300 to a blank check. That’s what a good salesperson does.

Price is never an object when the prospect experiences enough pain.

That’s why feature/benefit selling doesn’t work. Prospects will put a price tag on features and benefits, but they don’t put a price tag on wellness when they’re sick. If you get a prospect who is in pain, that prospect will pay anything to get out of it.

Q: You’ve compared the job of a successful salesperson with the job of a Mafia hit man. You said that hit men concern themselves with the job to be done, not with how they feel about the job. You’ve also said that salespeople must learn how to act like trained killers. If you can’t kill, you can’t sell. Isn’t this a bit controversial?

Sandler: Both of those are good lines. I don’t understand the controversy. They are tough lines. Selling is a killer sport. It’s tough. Prospects are tough.

Q: I have never heard of anyone who would consider selling as a killer sport. Can you explain your analogy?

Sandler: Just two days ago I was teaching a seminar. As I went around the room, I found a nice, young salesman, about 24 years old. He was fresh out of school. He wanted to make a contribution to the community, said he loved people and wanted to be a nice guy.

He’s going to get killed, because the prospect won’t be a nice guy and doesn’t want to give a contribution. The prospect is going to try to get out of that salesman whatever he or she can. The prospect will take advantage of his inexperience. If that salesman’s need to be liked is bigger than his need for going to the bank, he’s dead, because he won’t do whatever he has to do to get the order. He really has a conflict. He doesn’t like to lean on people. He doesn’t like to manipulate people. Doesn’t like to pressure people.

I said, “Fine, you don’t have to [pressure anyone].” Then I said, “You look like a football player.” And he said he played football. He was a linebacker.

I said, “Now, the other team’s got the ball, and the guy is coming around the end on your side and there’s no block. You don’t have anybody in front of you, and there’s nobody in front of him. What are you going to do, hit him easy? Take your time with him? Are you going to say, ‘Pardon me, Sir, but I’m going to nail you’?

“You have to get him on the ground as quickly as you can. It doesn’t mean he is a bad guy. But if it’s you or him, it has to be him.”

And if I’m a salesman and you’re a prospect, and if it boils down to feeding my family or not feeding my family, I’m going to feed my family.

I need that same intensity on the sales call that young fellows have in football. I need that winning feeling. That’s the attitude. You’ve got to go in there and know you’re going to come out a winner.

Q: Why use the combative sports analogy at all?

Sandler: Because selling is a sport. It’s a combat sport. It’s confrontation.

Q: Let me take a different tack. In the history of sales training, people have always used two different languages. The first language is combative; it’s the language of war and aggression. Salespeople talk about bringing in the big guns to kill the competition. They talk about conquering new territory, and they think that selling means fighting. The second language is the nurturing language in which people talk about spoon-feeding a prospect, babysitting an account, hand-holding a customer. This language suggests that selling means bonding, nurturing, and creating. Are you saying that the nurturing language is irrelevant?

Sandler: No. What I’m saying is you have all those combative instincts – the desire to win. That doesn’t mean you should go in and push people around. That’s old school. You can’t lean on people. Common sense tells you that you can’t say to another human being, “If I can show you a way to own this tonight, would you buy it?” These are obvious pressure tactics. What I am talking about is internal combativeness.

Q: How do you express internal combativeness?

Sandler: It’s not going to show. When you meet me in a selling situation, you’ll think I’m the nicest guy in town.

I try not to look like a salesman. Why would I want to walk into the prospect’s office [as if I’m] holding up a big sign [that reads], “I am a salesman”?

Q: We’ve got to get back to your one-liner, “If you can’t kill, you can’t sell.” You don’t see that as overly aggressive?

Sandler: The problem you’re having with me is when I say kill, you’re thinking literally cutthroat. I am talking about training an attitude and developing an instinct. When you are sitting in front of a prospect, at some point in the presentation you will hear a little voice inside that says, “This is a lot of pressure; perhaps it’s easier outside.” Or you’ll hear, “Let’s get out of here; this is too much.” Or, “This guy is not worth the hassle.”

At this moment, if you let your killer instincts guide you, you won’t give in, but forge ahead and win. The job needs to be done, that’s why they pay you. Your boss is not buying your need to be liked, your boss is buying your need to go to the bank. At the same time, you need to be honest and ethical. You can’t lie, you can’t mislead a customer, and you can’t break the law to get a sale.

Q: And you have to have a prospect in front of you with a legitimate need.

Sandler: Of course! That’s why I suggest the up-front agreement with the customer long before you begin your presentation.

Q: So you are really talking about developing an internal attitude with which you don’t allow yourself to feel sympathy with your customer’s defenses. If the customer has a legitimate need, you better be persuasive and persistent, otherwise your competition will get the sale.

Sandler: Exactly. Sales success begins with an internal attitude. I want salespeople to generate this attitude in order to succeed. It’s a gut-building technique that works.

Question to all those salespeople who have gone through the Sandler Training: What did you learn? What did you apply? What skills are you still using today?