Kevin Micalizzi: Welcome to the Quotable podcast. I’m Kevin Micalizzi. Today, we’re speaking with Deb Calvert. Deb’s the President of People First Productivity Solutions, and she’s the author of the new book, Stop Selling and Start Leading.
And today, we’re going to talk about how selling has changed, and how you can take a leadership approach as a salesperson to really drive better sales and have better relationships with your customers. Let’s jump in to it. So Deb, thank you so much for joining me for the podcast today.
Deb Calvert: I am delighted to be here, Kevin. Thank you for having me.
Micalizzi: For our listeners would you share a little bit about yourself?
Calvert: Sure, my company is People First Productivity Solutions. We build organizational strength by putting people first, and that’s in two areas primarily. It’s in sales. We’ve got to put our buyers first, and it’s in leadership.
We need to put the people who look to us as leaders whoever they might be, we need to consider their needs and be sure that we’re putting them first if we want to be effective in anything that we do. So my company helps with that.
Micalizzi: Excellent. So now, when we were talking we started out talking about how the new customer experience has changed. Would you share your view on how things have changed over time?
Calvert: Sure, I think selling has changed, and I think buying has changed. We could get in to a great debate about which one changed first, but I don’t think it matters. Let’s just start where we are today.
In selling, two things have changed. [First,] the enablement of salespeople. They have all these great tools, and techniques, and access to information, and tracking, and AI, and there’s so much that’s available that will enable you to make sales.
At the same time, what’s changed with buyers and for sellers because of it is that just humans, everybody, no matter what job title we’re wearing at the moment, we want to be experiencing ennoblement. So we have enablement, but we also have to think about ennoblement and what that means. The word is — it’s a real word, but it’s unfamiliar to a lot of folks.
It means making a person feel worthy, important, and dignified in what they’re doing. So by enabling sales sometimes we forget about ennobling salespeople, and outside the organization sometimes we forget about ennobling our buyers, and both of those matter greatly.
Micalizzi: Now, I know we’ve seen a lot especially, with B2B buying about how the entire dynamic has changed, and customers or your prospects, your buyers have more information available.
They come to you later in the process. I think a lot of organizations haven’t quite caught on to the fact that they absolutely have to structure their selling process around their buyer’s process. Their CRM tells them there are seven steps to closing this sale.
They think in those terms as opposed to thinking in terms of what the buyer wants. What the buyer needs. So really, tapping in to the ennoblement that you’re talking about.
What advice are you giving to your clients and folks you’re speaking with around that?
Calvert: Well, this is based on buyer research. We wrote a book, Stop Selling and Start Leading, founded in research with B2B buyers. Before that, my first book was 20 years of research with buyers, but anybody’s research. We could look to a lot of different sources. Sometimes, it’s not too strong a word, buyers are offended by the things we’re doing that are so process-driven that it’s as if people are not a part of it.
Have you ever been qualified, Kevin? You can just tell when it’s happening. A seller is qualifying you. It’s really insulting. The questions they ask. The way they treat you, and what if you don’t qualify? The dismissal.
There’s not a person talking to a person. That conversation. That’s a process plugging in to some sort of script or checklist, and we’re missing opportunities. It’s insulting and it is something that causes us to only look too narrowly at the opportunities.
Micalizzi: Yeah, this topic comes up. This concept comes up pretty frequently in conversations I have for the podcast and other work we’re doing for Quotable. I think that there’s a challenge now that people have to humanize selling again. Selling used to be you and I, one on one. I would try and pitch you on or educate you on whatever it is I’m selling. And then we’d work through, but we would do that together.
I think that’s gotten lost along the way, and there seems to be a movement to reawaken the concept that you’ve got to be human in your selling.
Calvert: You do.
Micalizzi: And I think it all ties back to your concept of ennoblement.
Calvert: It does, and I’m sorry to say that our profession, and the stereotypes about our profession, and the way that our profession thinks that sales managers are supposed to interact with salespeople, all kinds of things work against this idea of humanizing selling.
We’re supposed to crush it. We’re supposed to bucket people in to little lists like, “They’re prospects or they’re suspects,” or whatever their position is in our lead funnel.
We just group people together by these arbitrary labels that we put on them. We dehumanize because of all the process stuff that’s going on. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that that stuff is not important. It is. It’s important. It just shouldn’t be replacing other things that are important. They have to work side by side with each other.
Micalizzi: Are you finding that this is due to technology or the volume that we’re trying to do? What’s causing this dehumanization?
Calvert: I think it is not the technology that causes it. It’s the misunderstanding and the misapplication of the technology that causes this to happen. If I think that my CRM which is a powerhouse tool that can do so much for me, but if I think that’s going to do the work of creating a relationship with somebody, if I think that putting somebody’s name in there is equivalent to a true connection with somebody I’ve missed the mark.
I’ve given away all of my power to the tool instead of utilizing the tool to make me more powerful.
Micalizzi: I’m following you. So we need to really, bring back more of that human connection in what we’re doing. Technology obviously, is there to supplement, aid us, support us, but it can’t be the focal point.
It makes me think about how so many people try and implement their CRM taking whatever process or lack thereof they had and just plugging it in and assuming everything’s going to work. As opposed to looking at the process and figuring out, “Okay, what are the most important actions we can be doing? What are the most important steps, and relationships, and pieces to this sale?” And then making our process reflect that.
Calvert: You bet, and like you said at the very beginning based on what the buyer is doing. So keeping the buyer at the heart. I’m not going to say at the center because then we’ll talk about customer centricity and that sound all process-y again, but I mean the heart. The buyer is at the heart of everything that we do because you know what buyers want more than anything else? They told us in our research what they want is a connecting experience.
They want to be engaged. They want to be involved. They want to be dignified. Ennobled. They want to be humanized themselves, and that means we’ve got to put some emotion in to this and some risk because emotions are risky. We have to step in to a role as not just sellers, and not just sales organizations, but as leaders because leadership is a relationship, and seller-ship should be, too.
Micalizzi: I’m trying to sequence this in my mind here so originally, when you were a salesperson you had all the information. People had to come to you. And then as the information became a bit more distributed we started moving more to consultative selling. So you’re really trying to consult with your buyer and sort what the best solution is.
We’ve evolved, I think, even beyond that. A lot of conversations I have are really around the fact that as a salesperson you have to add value with absolutely every touch you ever make with your prospect. There are a lot of things, I think, that just you now have to do to be successful at selling.
When you and I were talking in prep for this you were talking about how you have to lead as a salesperson. That, to me, almost sounds like a next evolution of what need to happen.
Calvert: I think so. In fact, I think that we can no longer just add value. Adding value only levels the playing field. Just like technology only really levels the playing field because everyone has access to it. What are we going to do to differentiate and to take it to the next level?
It used to be transactional selling and then it was service-based selling. And then it was value-added selling. Frankly, now, it’s experience selling. Experiences are what people want. Awesome connecting experiences especially.
And that’s about created value. And that is about someone has to step in to create the value and the experience. They go hand in hand. Who is going to do that? The buyer is not going to do that. They’re waiting around for someone. The organization would like to, but they can’t because they’re not there in the moment on the phone or live and in person with the buyer and the seller.
So yes, the salesperson has to be able to step in as a leader, and I don’t mean as a manager. I don’t mean as an authority figure. A leader. The root word of that, the initial origin of that word means to guide so I have to be the guide. A guide is the person you need when you haven’t been some place before.
Imagine if you’re a guide, Kevin, you’ve got your machete, and you’re chopping down the vines as you walk through the —
Micalizzi: The jungle.
Calvert: The jungle, exactly. You’re taking people to an exciting place where there are possibilities up there in front of them, but they don’t know what they are because they’ve never been there before. And they’re counting on you to make the way for them.
Micalizzi: I want to dig in on experiences a little bit because I want to make sure nobody is walking away from this conversation thinking that by experience you mean, “I took my prospects to a ball game.”
Or, “I gave them that kind of an experience,” because I think for years that that’s been one of the tools in the arsenal. You take them to dinner. You take them to a show. Something to try and deepen a connection with a prospect, but that’s not what you’re talking about here, is it?
Calvert: No, not at all. Certainly, those are forums where some of these things can happen, but they can happen in an instant. I create experiences for my prospects every day because in a phone conversation I’ll ask a question that really makes them think. Purposeful question, and that question, that little conversation we have next, the one where they go, “Oh, that’s a good question,” that’s an experience.
And it’s a bonding experience because I just created value for them by making them think. By differentiating myself. Doing something that other salespeople didn’t take the time to maybe put a little research into.
Didn’t use their tools correctly to have that springboard into a great question and conversation. Experiences that come from leaders are experiences that do ennoble people because they get people to participate.
They get people feeling a little challenged. They get people looking at the vision and feeling inspired because they share in it. They see themselves in it. Experiences resonate because they touch people at a much deeper level. There are those emotions involved and people feel good. They walk away feeling like they want more of that, whatever that was. Even a question that made them think.
Micalizzi: When we talk about asking questions of prospects a lot of people default to sadly, the approach where they know what they want to get out of it so they’re really asking leading questions. What’s your guidance for how to really use those questions to build this experience?
Calvert: If you’re asking questions, and you already know the answer or you’re trying to back people into a corner, those are not good questions. Those are self-serving questions. Don’t even do it. People read this like yesterday’s news.
They’re sick of it. They’re tired of it. They want you to just tell them. If you’re going to tell them, tell them. If you don’t know, and if you want to know, and if you want to make people think, and if you want to broaden the conversation that’s when you ask questions.
And the thing that buyers are telling us is they do want. That they are not being asked questions that are like a checklist or a survey so that they get qualified, for example. Questions should open up a rich, two-way dialogue where they have an equal opportunity to be a part of the conversation.
The experience is the conversation. It’s not that you’re backing them in to a corner where you think they’re going to say, “Yes,” because your questions were so slick and tricky.
Micalizzi: Well, when we’re talking about especially, using questions for experience is it similar to the approach I would take if I was coaching someone? Where I’m really trying to ask them questions to get them to maybe think about something further than they have or take a different perspective on it. But I’m really not trying to define the outcome. I’m just trying to help them along in their process.
Calvert: Yes. The similarities are numerous. A couple of them. For one, the root word of coach means to extract. So if you were asking questions to promote self-discovery you are helping people to realize something or to put some pieces together that were there all along. You don’t necessarily know what they are. You’re just the person who is able to facilitate that process as a coach.
You’re helping them to get those discoveries, and what’s really powerful about coaching and what you’re describing there, Kevin, is that they own it. They believe it because it came from inside of them. Not from you.
And so, different from steering them where you want them to go you’re still steering because you’re asking the questions. But you have a navigator who you are very attuned to and paying attention to as you go through that kind of conversation.
Micalizzi: Now, do you find that the fact that we can’t sit down face to face creates more challenges in building these experiences?
Calvert: Only if you let it. I know that it’s hard not to have eye contact and read body language, but if you’re having a very engaging conversation with purposeful questions, and with a little bit of research, and relevance, and if you yourself as the seller are fully present and in the moment the buyer will be, too.
That’s the law of reciprocity. If it’s interesting, and if you’ve been interested before you try to be interesting people will respond. And phone or no phone it will be just like you’re right there together.
Micalizzi: When we were preparing for this interview you had shared with me an infographic that you had created around the book. It’s something I would love to include in the show notes for everyone. But you talk about five practices of exemplary leadership.
Number one is model the way. Two is inspire a shared vision. Three is challenge the process. Four, enable others to act and five, encourage the heart. Would you talk a little bit about these?
Calvert: The five practices of exemplary leadership, it’s great stuff. That comes from Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. They’re my co-authors on Stop Selling and Start Leading. These five practices are based on over 30 years of research worldwide with leaders and with their followers.
So what the five practice give us are exactly what it takes to be the kind of leader, the effective kind of leader that other people willingly choose to follow. And it’s those same five practices that we took to buyers.
And we asked B2B buyers, “If your seller did these things would you be more likely to meet with them? Would you be more likely to buy from them? And by the way, how often do the current sellers who call on you do these things, and what would be the ideal frequency?”
So our research started with that whole premise around these five practices, and each one of them is really important. Shall I describe what they mean?
Micalizzi: That would be great. I think we’ve covered a little bit of especially, shared vision in what we’ve talked about with the creating experiences, but I’d to create the whole picture here.
Calvert: Okay, so to model the way what that means is it means that you know your own values. What you stand for, and you know it so well that you consistently align your actions as an expression of your values. There’s not a mismatch, and you’re highly credible because what you say is also, what you do.
The credibility piece is so important in selling because this is why buyers resist sellers that they’ve seen something different. Sad to say. The second practice is inspire a shared vision. I won’t spend any time here except to say that the word inspire means to breathe life into. And over and over again you’re breathing life into this vision, but it’s not yours alone for the buyer. It’s a shared vision with the buyer.
Probably even started with where they wanted to go so that shared word is super important. To challenge the process means that you are willing to look outside what you already know. You’re trying to use outsight to get information. Not just insight, and you’re searching for opportunities to innovate based on these new discoveries.
You’re always asking as a leader, “What’s new and what’s next?” And you’d even go so far as to be willing to experiment and take risks in service of finding what’s new and what’s next.
Micalizzi: And this is going beyond just the sales process, right?
Calvert: Absolutely. This is everything that you do with your buyers, for your buyers inside your own organization. You can even use this in your personal life. If you have sales managers who are listening this is also, how you lead a sales organization or any group of people. These five practices.
The fourth is enable others to act. Here’s the surprising thing. These second two that I’m about to go to — sellers, when I speak to groups of people, they seldom recognize just how important these are going to be to buyers. But buyers really want us to do these next two things.
They want us to enable them to act. To foster collaboration by giving them space to participate in creating what they want. They want to be a part of co-creating the solutions. They want to be a part of generating the ideas and doing some brainstorming.
And they want us to help dignify the contributions that they are making so we can’t just do the needs now assist, and go away, and come back with a solution. That’s totally unsatisfying. Buyers want to have a voice. They want to give their imprint to it.
Last, but not least is to encourage the heart, and here’s the visual on this one: The word encourage means to pour courage into, and the place we’re going to pour this courage into is the heart. So here’s that emotional piece I talked about earlier.
We all say thank you. We know how important it is to say thank you when we close the deal. Contract is signed, “Thank you very much,” and let me take it to the game. The one that you were talking about earlier, Kevin.
Calvert: But if you think about, “When do people need courage? When should we be pouring courage into them?” It’s a lot sooner. We make the presentation and then we leave the buyer pretty much to their own devices to navigate through their complex organization with all the influencers and decision makers to champion our cause. To say no to somebody else or something else because they’re going to reallocate budget to what we’re proposing.
We want them to take the heat. We want them to stick their neck out there on the chopping block because what if they’re about to make a big mistake? And all the way through the challenges that they’re getting. The pushback and the resistance. They’re going to need us to encourage them so that they can run that whole gauntlet and make things happen inside the organization.
So we have to celebrate the shared values and any of the little victories along the way. We have to recognize their contributions and celebrate any of the small wins that they get so that they continually feel encouraged.
Micalizzi: So you’re really building an entire framework here for a sales rep. it’s similar to what Brent Adamson at CEB says about, “You have to help the buyers in how to buy. Not just to buy from you. So you need to really help them through that entire process. Some of the things you just talked about.
Everyone especially, in a B2B sale, it’s never, “I decide I’m going to buy a product, and I just do it.” There’s always multiple people involved. Multiple levels. Different groups organizationally so I like this. You’re really encouraging sales reps to help lead the buyer through that wild, crazy ride that they have to go through in the buying experience.
Calvert: You bet. That’s why we call this the behavioral blueprint for sellers because it says exactly what you should do. And those [exactlys] are based on input from B2B buyers. So that was all a qualtrics panel study done through Santa Clara University. Highly credible, but we know what buyers are saying they want sellers to do. We also did a second part of the research. We talked to salespeople. We solicited stories.
We got over 500 of them, and we mined through those. The only question we asked sellers was, “Tell us about your own personal best in selling.” So we didn’t give them any of these behaviors. We didn’t talk to them about the practices of leadership. We didn’t mention the buyer study. We just asked them to tell us their personal best story.
And then we mined through those to see if, in fact, these behaviors that buyers wanted did show up when sellers were at their best. And sure enough, when sellers are at their personal best, when they are making extraordinary sales, they are demonstrating leadership behaviors.
Micalizzi: That’s excellent.
Calvert: Yeah, and what’s the best of all is that these are things that anybody can do. You don’t need permission. You don’t need your sales organization to do it first. You don’t need to do all that much. You can read a book, and you can choose to start behaving in these simple ways.
Micalizzi: Let me ask you, our audience is pretty evenly divided between the reps who are out there selling, and the sales managers and leaders. If we look to the sales managers and leaders right now what can they be doing to cultivate this approach in their reps?
Calvert: Well, first of all, just start talking about it. To be a leader, when I talk to groups of people, salespeople, and I just talk about the notion of, “You already are a leader, and you need to step in to your full potential as a leader.”
Kevin, it’s the funniest thing. There’s a wave across a room where everybody begins to sit back, and it’s almost as if I have marionette strings. People begin to smile all at the same time as they are visualizing themselves and feeling ennobled as leaders because people who are selling are feeling beat down. The profession has some stigmatization around it, and it doesn’t necessarily feel good. That’s why everybody’s card says some word besides sales on it.
But to be a leader and to be dignified, and to have others know and acknowledge that you are a leader, and that you have potential to lead — all by itself ,that’s almost like magic. And then what sales managers can do is they can start by themselves modeling the way. What does it look like to be a leader? Which of these leadership behaviors could they be leveraging because they already have natural things that they might do?
Which ones can they be learning and working on so that they’re more frequently showing up as leaders themselves? And if they really want to get good with it they can call me up and all read the book together. I’ll come talk about it, and we can do whatever they want to.
Micalizzi: Deb’s book club. I like this.
Calvert: Yes, yes. Whatever it takes, but the good news I really want to reiterate, it’s not difficult. These are behavioral choices. They’re accessible to everybody.
Micalizzi: With organizations you’ve worked with are you finding that they are modifying their sales processes to really reflect this approach or is this something that people can really use regardless of what the sales process looks like?
Calvert: Yeah, this is platform and process neutral. It’s about what you do in the moment when you’re interacting with your buyer. And somewhat you do behind the scenes on behalf of your buyer, of course, but it’s about how you think of your buyer. It’s about how you are communicating with your buyer.
It’s about making space for your buyer. Your process doesn’t have to change. It just has to be nuanced in the way that you’re executing it. Let me put it one other way: A sales process in the hands of two different salespeople, sometimes it works really well, and with some sellers it doesn’t work at all.
That doesn’t mean the process is wrong. It means that someone who is utilizing the process with some level of proficiency doing some things with the process gets more out of it than the other person. Same thing here. It comes down to the human individual. Whose hands is it in, and what are they doing?
Micalizzi: Before I pivot and ask you the lightning round question are there any questions that I should have asked you that I have not?
Calvert: Oh, this was a great conversation. I enjoyed it very much. I think that I would, if people were wondering where to start I would want them to know that it is just about thinking of yourself as a leader. Like it or not, know it or not, you really are already a leader. People are watching to see what you will do. They are following your lead.
And if you’re not going anywhere forward with your buyers it’s because you’re not leading them in to those next steps. So you just have to know how to make the most of your own leadership. It’s there.
Micalizzi: Right, and you need to start down that path. I’m thinking it’s one of those approaches where once you start modeling that behavior and really start shifting your mindset on it you’ll see the results pretty quickly.
Calvert: Yes, you will immediately, in fact. I had a coaching conversation with someone last Friday, and she called me at the end of the day on Monday to report how incredible her best day ever that she had. And she didn’t do anything, but read a book over the weekend.
Micalizzi: I love it. If only we could solve every problem in life that way.
Calvert: I just think that there are some we can solve that way. Maybe not all of them, but this one is an easy one.
Micalizzi: So Deb, let me ask you the lightning-round question. If you could take all the knowledge and experience you have now, go back to the beginning or your career and give yourself one piece of advice what would you tell yourself?
Calvert: To chill out. Stop taking everything quite so seriously. I wanted to know the right way before I would blank when I was first in sales. And I wasn’t paralyzed by perfection as some people are, but boy, did I deliberate over things way too long. When I loosened up a little bit and started trying things then I found out, “Okay, A doesn’t work. So what? Let’s go on to B, C, D. Oh, I found it.” You have to give yourself a little bit of grace.
Micalizzi: Yeah, otherwise, you pretty much paralyze yourself.
Calvert: It doesn’t have to be that hard.
Micalizzi: That’s great advice. So Deb, thank you so much for joining me today.
Calvert: Thank you, Kevin. I really enjoyed our conversation.