The best sales advice I ever got
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The best sales advice I ever got

On the first day of my first job in sales, I received the most valuable advice I ever got about selling.

I was 30 years old and had accepted a job as an account executive at Lewis, Gilman & Kynett — Philadelphia’s largest public relations agency. I had been working as a writer and editor and didn’t understand how business worked. I assumed that clients would give me tons of projects, and all I had to do was deliver.

In reality, of course, clients wouldn’t go out of their way to find work and keep me busy. It would be up to me to drum up business. In other words, it was a sales job. And the extent of my sales experience at that time consisted of three very short articles I’d sold to the Philadelphia Inquirer at $25 to $50 a pop.

I’d have to sell more than that to keep my new job.

Five magic words

On that first day, I met with my new boss, Brian Tierney. He was almost exactly my age and already a legend. I was a lowly AE; Brian had recently been hired as the youngest CEO ever to run the agency. (He remains a legend today.)

Brian was sitting behind a huge desk, covered in stacks of paper. He welcomed me to the team. We talked about my writing, which he liked.  But I also had to admit that I had no sales experience.

After five minutes, our meeting was ending. As I got up to leave, Brian looked at me and said, “Hmm. Words of advice? I don’t know. Just … don’t be an order taker.”

Don’t be an order taker.

I didn’t really understand what he meant. But after I started meeting with clients, Brian’s advice began to make sense. Few showed up with a list of jobs they wanted us to do. Rather, they expected the agency — to which they were paying a lot of money — to bring top-level thinking to the relationship. Which meant I had to establish my credibility and earn their trust if I expected to get any business from them.

So I couldn’t show up with a notepad and ask them what they wanted me to do. I had to know their business and recommend what they should do.

Research reveals the dangers of order taking

It turns out there’s research that demonstrates why Brian Tierney’s advice was on the mark.

Professor Robert Cialdini from Arizona State University — a renowned expert on the psychology of influence — once went undercover at an expensive restaurant to see why some waiters earned more than others. He soon discovered Vincent — the most successful waiter at the restaurant by far.

Customers saw Vincent as more than a waiter. They saw him as an expert. Often, they’d ask him to propose a wine or an appetizer. They’d order more food, and were often so taken with him that they’d add something extra to his already-substantial tip. And when they returned to the restaurant, they’d often ask for Vincent by name.

So what was Vincent doing that made him so beloved, and so valuable, to his patrons?

Other waitstaff at the restaurant did what nearly every waiter does: After introducing themselves and running down the specials, they took orders. “Would you like something to drink? Would you like an appetizer? What would you like for dinner?”

Vincent’s great insight was to take a radically different approach to his job. Instead of taking orders, he took it upon himself to counsel his patrons. Make recommendations. And even challenge them. For example, if someone ordered a particular dish, Vincent might say, “I’m afraid that dish isn’t as good as usual tonight. May I suggest something else?”

Buyers want to be challenged

Did buyers resent Vincent pushing back and suggesting what to order? On the contrary. Vincent’s approach surprised and delighted his customers. They perceived him to be more valuable — and more credible.

The same principle is true in complex sales. Lots of salespeople believe that they should give customers what they ask for. But order taking actually diminishes your value. You might as well be a kiosk or an app.

Of course you need to ask buyers lots of questions. You need to understand what they’re trying to achieve. But that’s different than asking, “What do you want me to do?”

What makes you valuable is when you (1) ask the customer, “Why do you want that?” and/or (2) confidently offer a recommendation based on your expertise and knowledge of your buyer’s business — even if it contradicts what the customer asks for.

In the beginning of my agency career, I was surprised by how positively clients reacted to the no-order-taking approach. Over my 20+ years in the business, it almost always resulted in more and better assignments — and more client loyalty in what is often a fickle business.

So if you want to learn from the master, I suggest you take Brian Tierney’s five words, enlarge them, print them out and put them in a place where you’ll see them every day:

Don’t be an order taker.

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