Kevin Micalizzi: Welcome to the Quotable podcast. Today we're going to be speaking with Shari Levitin, founder of the Levitin Group and author of Heart and Sell: 10 Universal Truths Every Salesperson Needs to Know. We're going to dig into not only how you sell, but who you are and why you do what you do. Let's get into it.
Shari, thank you for joining me today on the podcast.
Shari Levitin: My pleasure, Kevin. I've been looking forward to this.
Micalizzi: Sheri, I've been following you. I know you were in the “Story of Sales” documentary. But for the listeners who aren't familiar with you, would you give us a really quick picture of who you are and what you're doing?
Levitin: Gosh. Sure. I've been in sales since I was 22 years old. I had no idea I wanted to get into sales, as I think it was with a lot of people. I joke that I went to the University of Colorado and majored in partying and skiing. Took a year off and ended up getting in sales, and I loved it. I thought, "This is amazing that I can get paid to talk to people, to be with people, to build relationships." It was financially very rewarding.
I started in the hospitality industry. After meeting my mentor, I became number one in sales and then went up the ranks. I joke that I did so well that I got a promotion to make less money and work longer hours. I became a [unintelligible] managing a large team. But my dream, I found what I loved doing more than anything was not only selling, but then teaching these interpersonal skills. The company I was with, they started to send me to all of the other sites. And I found I loved training and transformation.
I always saw sales training as not just training how to sell, but training these life skills. I knew I did my job when I was helping people not only to sell more product and to connect with more customers but to connect better at home, to connect better in their communities. That's when I realized that really teaching sales and being in sales is just becoming masterful at human communication.
I remember once we were sitting around talking about what we'd do if we won the then $30 million lottery. Everyone else was talking about these homes they'd buy or these companies they'd start and on the outdoors and hiking. I said, "I'd start a sales training company," and everybody laughed at me. And then I realized I didn't need to win the lottery to do it.
I founded Levitin Group in 1997. Within a few years we went global: 40 countries, 5 continents. The whole idea was not just teaching salespeople what to say or how to say it, but to tell them the why behind the what. I've always believed very strongly in understanding what's going on in the mind of the consumer. We broke down the complex into the simple, created a very large training company, and then helped companies create custom training curriculum starting with video, and then we went to online, then we went to virtual.
My life changed completely. Recently in 2013 I had about 25 people in my company. We're running technology, running trainers, and I had something very personal happen. I had just been married for three months when I got a call from my husband when I was performing a keynote speech, and he told me that his ex-wife, the mother of his son, had been killed.
Levitin: Yeah. So here I am, 50 years old, and that day I realized I had become a mother to his then 8-year-old boy. And so I thought, "I've had a great life, I've had an amazing career, and I need to be home for this little boy when he gets home from school."
Actually I shut down my office of 25 people. We moved out to the Bay Area where my now son, who I've adopted, is from. I thought, "Okay, I'm going to focus primarily on being a mother." I did something really risky. We had all these customers who were using our content. We had primarily a live training model. We put all of the Levitin Group content online.
I contracted with a virtual company. I thought, "If it works, great. If not, oh well." And it actually worked splendidly. We were able to work with customers all over the world virtually through an online learning platform. So we actually had less volume but better relationships, I should say, with our customers. They weren't so [transactional]. And then we learned all about virtual learning and why it was so important for ongoing learning. So it really changed my life.
Then I was able to write a book, and I was very, very influenced by becoming a mother on why I needed to write this book. I actually haven't divulged that story to anybody, Kevin.
Micalizzi: I really appreciate you sharing it.
Levitin: I just divulged it to you.
Micalizzi: But I think it's an amazing reminder of how the challenges in life often bring opportunities. You are reaching audiences you probably never considered being able to reach by making that shift to accommodate your life change.
Levitin: That's so interesting you say that. Absolutely. People wanted to hire us. It's this large training rate whether it was me or somebody else. And so now, sure, we can touch that salesperson that really needs the coaching that's in literally India or Mexico or wherever.
I also think it changed the quality of our relationships because it wasn't so transactional. Now we're part of their worlds. I think that's really important for salespeople today that even if you're selling a large software solution, we want the renewal, we want the adoption, we want to be there on a day-to-day and then become friends and understand their inner world so that we can help them with their outer worlds. Right?
Micalizzi: Definitely. I want to talk a little bit about your approach, because I think many of the people that I talk to for the podcast and the programs that I've seen, they focus on the skills, the what you need to do. What I find fascinating is you really focus on the who you need to be. What led you to take that approach?
Levitin: What led me to it, and then I followed an intuition with a lot of research. What led me to it is when I became a mother, I realized very quickly I had a little boy who was grieving. Of course we had therapy. Everybody had therapy: He did, we did. The dogs, we put the dogs through therapy to help our poor grieving boy.
They talked about building trust. I thought right away, "I know how to build trust. I'm going to use the seven rules for building trust that I talk about in training. I have to show empathy. I know there's four methods to building empathy," like I'm going to just take out my training book now, and it didn't work.
I had this epiphany that what we do matters, the skills matter. We need to know what questions to ask in discovery. We need to know how to isolate objections. Sure, we need to know different rules of LinkedIn or prospecting and all of these that we learn in sales. But at the end of the day, what you do matters, but who you are matters more.
Real empathy is different than asking empathetic questions. Real listening, listening with your heart, is very different than going through script. I find so many salespeople think that they can automate the process as though they're a bot. David Brooks has a terrific book called Building Character. In it he makes a distinction that I love. He says there's two types of virtues that people have. There's resume virtues, and there's eulogy virtues.
Resume virtues are those things, of course, we'd put on our resumes. That is, "I sold $5.8 million, and I was able to convert this many leads, and I have had this much experience, and I know how to use these technologies, and here's my references." Those are all great.
It's not that one is better than the other, but you need both. Because the eulogy virtues are the virtues that people talk about at our funeral. Eulogy virtues are virtues like empathy, kindness, resilience, optimism.
Micalizzi: What kind of person you were.
Levitin: Or what kind of person you were. Nobody talks about how many software — that you crushed quota. "George was a great guy. He really crushed quota." That's not what we speak of. I think in today's environment, what we know is in my mind there's been two major shifts.
Number one, Gallup just came out with a report, whether we like it or not, that trust is at an all-time low. We know that. Come on, we're living in an era where people are talking about fake news. Nobody knows who to trust. They call it the Age of Distrust, the post [crosstalk] era. Gallup said that trust is so low — and this is the killer — guess who is the least of all trusted professions? And I'll give you a hint: It's not salespeople.
Levitin: Yes. Yes, our politicians are the least trusted in our society. Unfortunately, second on that list are salespeople. We have a customer that defaults to distrust, wants to do as much as they can online. Couple that with the fact that you have high overwhelm. So we've got with this customer low trust and then this high overwhelm. Look, we're all overloaded. Today it's not a matter of accessing information; it's a matter of filtering it. We don't know what's important. We don't know how to prioritize.
There was an interesting statistic by Google that we have created five times as much information in the last few years than all of humankind. So now you got a customer, low trust, high overwhelm. What do they need more than anything? They need a salesperson that they can trust. Because people don't necessarily have to understand a product in order to buy a product, but they do need to know that you understand them and that you're a trusted advisor.
And so I think, as sales organizations, how much emphasis are we putting into training and building some of these skills, these virtue skills like empathy, like optimism, like resilience. From what I've seen, the focus on that is making all the difference.
Micalizzi: In the years you've been doing this, obviously technology has changed significantly for the seller. Has it made it more difficult for the seller to build that empathy, express that optimism, and really develop those relationships?
Levitin: I would say it's a yes and it's a no. It depends on the person, and it's like anything else. Technology can be wonderful, and AI has produced some incredible results. It's a matter of managing it.
My son is now 13 years old. Right? I've adopted him and he is a wonderful, brilliant kid. I think any parent that's listening to this knows technology is amazing. They can look up anything on their iPads. And reliance on technology is proven to lower their empathy level by 40%.
We also know that overuse of technology in millennials and in young children, they have less of an ability to deal with conflict. Right? Look, if a kid doesn't like something today, or anybody, you and me. We get agitated. What do we do? We send an emoji with a sad face or an angry face. We don't deal. What's one of the primary skills of a salesperson? Empathy and overcoming objection, so in that way it can be bad.
Now if you look at artificial intelligence, what we know. Harvard Business Review came out with a study. Sure, AI technologies increase lead generation by 50%, it's reducing cost, so it's definitely making us more efficient. We're talking to more of the right people. We get to spend more time, if you've got the right technologies, on sales-related activaties. So that's all incredibly positive.
But as salespeople, we have to be very careful to not default to distraction and to not default to using technology where it doesn't suit us, to spend too much time on social media that's not used for prospecting. All of a sudden we're on Facebook. Look, we're hardwired to be distracted. It hits the reward recognition center of our brain. "George thinks I'm significant. Woohoo! I got 46 likes." We got to be careful.
Micalizzi: I personally have talked to Jill Konrath about this a number of times. Just the sheer number of distractions that impact salespeople, and the fact that your brain is pretty much not on your side when it comes to those online distractions, it's fascinating to me. But let me ask you, I know — go ahead.
Levitin: It's so funny. Jill [Konrath] is on her way to my house right now.
Micalizzi: That's phenomenal.
Levitin: Yeah, Jill has become a dear friend and a mentor. We're right in the middle of Sundance. And so we've made it sort of a — This is our third year where she comes out and we do Sundance together. We go to films and we learn and we write about it. I've got all her books out and that I'm rereading again. She does, she has a great new book on —
Micalizzi: More Sales, Less Time?
Levitin: More Sales, Less Time. It's terrific.
Micalizzi: Yep, love that book. Please tell her I say hi.
Levitin: I will.
Micalizzi: I want to ask you. When it comes to artificial intelligence, I think there's a mix of FOMO — fear of missing out — and there's a certain amount of FUD — fear, uncertainty, and doubt — happening. How do you see AI impacting sales?
Levitin: Again, I think we all have to adapt to AI, and there should be a fair amount of FOMO. If we're not using artificial intelligence to help make salespeople more efficient, then we're going to be left behind. The problem is when we rely on artificial intelligence and we think that that's all there is to building relationships.
I thought of an analogy just the other day. I was out to dinner during Sundance with a friend. One of my favorite restaurants here is called Firewood, so I'm giving them a nice little plug. When Sundance hits, there's anywhere between 40,000 and 60,000 additional people in our small little town in Park City, so the town is mobbed.
And so I talked to the maitre d' at Firewood. I said, "Oh my god, how are you dealing with this increase in population?" They're doing five seatings a night. "I know you've got people just lined up out the door." I thought what she said was very interesting. She says, "We've hired eight additional sous chefs." I thought of this analogy with artificial intelligence. That’s okay, so what the sous chefs are doing is they're cutting the carrots, they're laying out the food, but that doesn't replace the executive chef, who is marvelous.
I sort of look at artificial intelligence like a sous chef. It's going to help us do our jobs better. It's going to automate certain processes. It's going to automate customer service. It's going to automate who are the best leads to talk to now. It's going to automate all different types of things as we go into the future. But it doesn't replace Alberto the chef, who puts the love in the food, who makes sure that we're doing well, who asks about my parents, how they're doing. I think we have to remember that it's the salesperson who is the master chef, and the AI is the sous chef.
Micalizzi: I love that analogy.
Levitin: Good, I'm glad. I've never used it. I'm glad it worked.
Micalizzi: It's a beautiful analogy, actually. Just because I think there's this fear that the technology is somehow going to do it for you, meaning you're no longer relevant to the process. Even with B2B, you're still selling to people. And if you're selling to people, a bot is not going to do that for you. It may for commoditized selling.
Levitin: I was going to say. For [a retail] product, sure. I can go into a hair salon, "Hello, Shari. How are you? You need some more Oribe shampoo." Okay, fine. It's 28 bucks; I'll by it.
Micalizzi: Right, right. But definitely not for more complex sales.
Levitin: Right. Not for that million-dollar piece of Adobe software or Salesforce software. Right? We need a little bit more than that. And we need to make sure that adoption happens, and you've got different personalities, different issues. We've got to be able to build a relationship.
Micalizzi: I want to go back to talking about the psychology around the selling. For our listeners, it's beginning of the year. They're looking at, "Okay, how do I get the most out of this year?" I think a lot of them are focused on skills, and "I need to get better at making those calls or doing more research or blocking my time." How should they approach adapting what they do to focus more on the psychology?
Levitin: Again, I've always taught not just what to say. When people have gone through my training, the biggest aha that I hear from them is, "You've finally taught me the why behind the what." What's going on in the mind of the consumer, and why does this strategy work. I think once a salesperson starts understanding how the human brain works and gets inside the mind of the buyer, then they can use that information in any situation — again, not just sales — and that's what makes it so powerful.
I call them universal truths. In my book I talk about the 10 universal truths to sales, and that why is what's critical. I'm going to give you probably the most important whys that I could give a salesperson to understand, and then you can practice your empathy skills, you can practice your optimism skills. Sales leaders, there's ways to train empathy that I think are really important.
But here's the statistic that I love, and I would just throw this out there. I usually throw it out there before people know what I'm speaking about. But the question is, what's more important to you in a leader? If you're a salesperson and you're listening to this, think would you rather have a leader with empathy or competency? I would challenge a sales leader to think about your leadership style and ask yourself what's more important, empathy or competency? How do you think most people would respond to that?
Micalizzi: I would say empathy.
Levitin: You would say that. What's interesting is I have done this all over the world, and I actually have people move to sides of the room. I'll say if you're on the competency side — and I'll do this at the very beginning of the seminar — if you're on the competency side, go the right. If you're on the empathy side, go to the left. Everybody wants to look competent. They want to look smart. And if you look at what they do, you start looking at their LinkedIn profiles, and you start listening in on their calls, they may say empathy is more important, but they lead with competency.
Levitin: Right? I'll give you an example. How many times have you connected with somebody on LinkedIn, and before they build a relation said, "Kevin, you're in Portland. Wow, it looks like we both lived in New — ." How often do they try to pitch you on their product and tell you how great it is?
Micalizzi: Pretty quickly.
Levitin: Right, like [crosstalk]. So they're leading with this competency. Right? How often do salespeople, even selling a B2B product. I've listened to hundreds of calls. They get on a call, empathy is a box to check, and they lead with this elaborate product demo because they're so excited about their product.
Or even at a social event, how often do we talk about what we do, where we went to school? What we're really doing, it's these social cues of, "I'm smart. I'm this, that, and the other," when in reality what we know about human psychology is this. The two most important traits — this was in a plug for Harvard Business Review. It's called Connect, Then Lead. It's an older issue, a couple three years old, but it's still pertinent today.
It says that the two most important attributes for influence are empathy and strength, strength being competency, confidence, and mostly competence. Both are equally important. If you look at the anatomy of trust, they're both hugely important. But empathy gets you in the door; competency keeps you there. The order matters.
Micalizzi: I would argue it is a balance. Even once you're in the door that empathy is important. There's a difference between listening with genuine curiosity and genuine empathy and asking questions and listening while you're constantly trying to figure out, okay, how do I plug my product in here. So you're not really helping the customer drill down to what they need. You're just taking what they say and trying to fit it into what you have to offer.
Levitin: Yeah, you're balancing the two. That's exactly right. That's the dance. Right? I call it heart and sell. Right? How do you balance heart and authenticity on the one hand and listening and thinking, "Okay, now how am I going to use that information and link it to my product or service?" I guess I would just advise to remember you can't listen too hard.
Now you'll know when it's time to move on to the product because they'll give you those emotional cues. But I would say most salespeople — where they lose it — is it's this lack of empathy, it's this lack of when they give you an answer to dig deeper, what does that mean to you? How does that impact your business? How does that impact your life? And then I have a saying — and then really listen so hard that it hurts. And repeating it back to them, [those] active listening skills.
These are the skills that need to be taught in training, these real listening skills and repeating back and what questions to ask. Think about an analogy. When a doctor has a stethoscope and is listening to your heartbeat, he or she isn't thinking about what am I going to do with this information. He or she is totally focused on your heartbeat. Salespeople don't have stethoscopes, but we have to get inside the hearts of our customers. Right?
Micalizzi: If it's not part of the culture you're working in, and I've worked in a number of organizations where I would argue the competency far outweighed your empathy. If you're in that kind of an environment and let's say you're leading teams, what could you be doing to encourage that shift in perspective?
Levitin: That's a great question. I'm a leader, and I realize I need to teach more of the soft skills. I need to teach empathy because there's — I call it the one-and-done product knowledge dump. You go to two weeks of training or look at these online modules and it's like, "Okay, I'm done. They're trained." It's like, "I went to the gym. I'm in shape."
Micalizzi: Far too common an attitude.
Levitin: Right. I love the John Maxwell quote. He says training is a process, not an event. I think it's like training anything, any skill, whether it's a eulogy virtue or a resume virtue. I talk about the four pillars to an effective training and coaching program.
Let me first say before we go into the four pillars of an effective training and coaching program, we've got to hire the right people to begin with. I think that goes without saying. That could be a whole other podcast, and there's people probably more qualified than me that are using great profiling tools, that'll tell you how do I get the people with the empathy. But you have to be looking for those traits in the first place.
Levitin: Like if I say that my culture, my values, are empathy, education — I want somebody with a growth mindset —- I better figure out what my values are. And then my entire hiring process must match those values that I'm trying to have in my culture, because it's much easier to put the right people in place first.
But getting back to those four pillars. If I want to teach empathy, create a culture of empathy, the four pillars to an effective training program, number one is education. Again, I want to talk about what is empathy, why it's important, how the brain works. I might teach somebody the education of listening skills. We teach something called wholehearted listening, and what is that. We talk about three levels of listening. We're going to listen to the said, we're going to listen to the unsaid, we're going to listen to the unsayable. What does that look like.
The education is just understanding why it's important, why people need it, why the brain needs it in order to make decision. How that changes the emotional state of the customer. So that's going to be that education pillar.
The next pillar when I want to teach a soft skill like empathy, I call it the entertainment pillar. It's really entertainment and emotional connection. One of the things that we know is millennials are going to make up 50% of our workforce by 2020. I can't train them anything unless they're entertained. Our attention spans are so low. And so if I want to teach a skill, please don't put me in an eight-hour training session anymore. That's kind of yesterday. They're going to tune out.
Levitin: We always recommend, is your training entertaining? Is it fun? Would I rather be in your training session or watching your online modules? Are they funny? Do they grab my attention? Everybody is talking about we have a lower attention span. I say it's a matter of interest span. Are we creating enough interest and curiosity? What's going to make learning empathy fun? Are you going to connect with me in the process?
It's not just about entertainment; it's about emotional connection. Are you connecting with me? Do you care about my life? Are you asking me the same questions that you want me to ask my customer about my own life? That's the entertainment and emotional connection pillar.
And then the next one, and this is big, and this is where most companies fail, is the facilitation pillar. I was just working with a big company, and they're training 70,000 phone reps. Their idea of a great training program is — they feel like they're super modern because they've got this great learning management software — watch these 40 modules and you're trained.
Levitin: The problem is this. What we know about learning is that learning isn't a passive activity. I learn through doing, not through watching. Adult learning theory tells us we retain 10% of what we hear, 50% of what we see, and near 90% of what we say and do. Look at social media. People don't want to listen to the conversation. They want to be part of the conversation. So if you're training your reps by saying, "Watch this. Do this," I'm not retaining it.
Levitin: I learn empathy by practicing empathy. I learn optimism by practicing optimism. I learn resilience by practicing resilience. Are you putting me in a simulated training situation where I can practice it, and that necessitates some really good curriculum design. Are my training programs designed to be interactive, and that's critical. So I think I see that missing more than anything.
And then the fourth pillar is, do you have an ongoing coaching program? Do you have somebody that's working with your reps? Is that manager leader working with them, sitting in on sales calls, whether they're on a phone or whether they're one-on-one in-person meeting sales calls, and watching what happens and looking at the nuances and providing feedback and providing constructive feedback using the rules of providing constructive feedback.
Micalizzi: Yeah, and really giving them the opportunity to continue that growth long term.
Levitin: Absolutely. And then the rep gets better and better over time. But I find, again, if you're missing any one of those pillars: If I've got great content, it's entertaining and it's funny but it's not facilitative, it fails.
Even if I have the facilitation, I still need somebody to work with me one-on-one to tell me how my tone of voice could be different, to say, "Wait three seconds before you respond. Did you ask about who the other stakeholders are?" It's got to be very specific to me and where I am in my sales process.
Micalizzi: I want to pivot and ask you our lightning round question, and that is if you could take all the knowledge and experience you have now, go back to the beginning of your career, and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Levitin: Oh my goodness, Kevin. That is a really tough question. I think of two things, and I know you're making me narrow it down to one. I think if you can lose the deal but don't lose the lesson, really learning from my mistakes. But I would say — I was a product of 20–25 years ago, I was a top salesperson in my company. We had Gallup, and they came in. They do some great work.
But I remember listening to Marcus Buckingham talk and say, "Go with your strengths. Don't worry about your weaknesses. Go with your strengths," and, "Gosh Sheri, you're a great salesperson, but you're not good with the details. You're really good at vision, and you could be a great leader, but you don't need to learn the technology or whatever." I would say I took that advice for many, many years.
Particularly when I started my company in 1997, and the company grew and grew and grew. There was a period where I was building my own software. I had a team of developers, and I thought, "I don't understand it. I'll just let them do it. I don't understand what these guys are doing over here." But that doesn't work anymore.
I think that the most important trait of a salesperson today, an entrepreneur or a leader, is what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. That means not only having a lot of knowledge about one thing, but having a breadth of knowledge. I think today more than ever, you look at how much change there is in technology, how much change there is in products.
What we know now about the brain is that the more we learn — and the more diverse. I'm talking not just information about sales. We need to know about art, about history. The more we know. There's a theory of plasticity. Our brains actually grow and give us the ability to make connections, and connect with people, and connect ideas and innovate.
I think for a long time my younger self really liked to think, "I just need to learn sales and marketing." Since I've really gotten more curious, I've watched my career blossom. My relationships and just my quality of life became much better.
Micalizzi: I think that's great advice. I'm not going to make you narrow it down. I liked both.
Levitin: Yeah, yeah.
Micalizzi: Thank you so much for joining me, Sheri.
Levitin: Thank you, Kevin. It's a pleasure.