Sales: How to get the fish in the boat the right way

May 10, 2010

By John Graham

Trying to get fish into the boat before catching them sounds crazy, something that wouldn’t make sense to experienced fishermen. Even so, it’s the most common error made by salespeople, and more than anything else accounts for lost orders and prospects that never become customers. That’s what happens when salespeople try to get the order before they have a customer.

What salespeople are doing makes perfect sense to them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t compute so well with prospects and customers. The salespeople are so focused on making a sale that they don’t think about what’s going on in the customer’s mind. They like to brag about “wrestling the big one,” even though “the big one” often gets away.

Here’s the point: getting the fish in the boat is the wrong analogy to use in sales, even though it sounds macho and even a bit romantic.

The sales task is totally different. The job is to create an environment so that customers decide to do business with you. If this is accurate, then pushing for a meeting, getting a proposal out the door, or anything else that attempts to cut short the process often ends in disaster –– a lost sale.

For selling to work well today, the prospect must say, “This is the person and company I want to do business with.” Making sure this occurs is the salesperson’s primary task. This is the difference between the traditional salesperson and one who understands today’s selling environment.

Here are some thoughts on how to improve your selling record by being a magnet for prospects and customers:

1. The wrong talk can spring a trap. Incredible as it may seem, salespeople fall in the trap of talking about what they think is important, and it can be fatal. Here’s an example. A media rep called and said, “I think our station is a really good fit for your client. Perhaps we could get together and talk about it.” I responded by suggesting that before we do that, it would be helpful for her to e-mail her analysis of why she thought her station was a good fit.

Shortly, an e-mail with her answer arrived, which, even though she didn’t realize it, triggered the trap. She was so intent on getting the sale that she failed to ask about our client’s target customer. None of her comments were even remotely a close fit. When I pointed that out, she said, “I still think it’s a good fit.” The sale was dead on arrival.

2. “Let’s be sure we get our name out there.”
This may have been all it took some years ago, but not today, whether it’s an individual, product, or company. If just getting your name out there could do the job, then Toyota would be selling more vehicles than ever, and Tiger Woods would be the world’s most prominent celebrity, bar none.

Being known isn’t what’s important. What adds to your panache and builds credibility is what you want to be known for. What’s important isn’t the Nordstrom’s name; it’s the link to extraordinary customer service that makes the store unique.

In a radio ad, a financial advisor says he was named “the number one advisor in the country” by a highly regarded financial magazine. That phrase is a differentiator that separates him from the pack.

The critical question is what you want customers to think about when they see your name.

3. Subterfuges make customers angry. Some marketers may think it’s cool to trick people, but it isn’t. For example, when some companies offer “a free white paper,” they mean it. Once you call or click here, it comes your way and that’s it. You received what was promised. But that doesn’t always happen.

You might request an article or a report, but before the article arrives and certainly before you have a chance to read it, you may find yourself sliding down a sales track at full speed. Such tricks only serve one purpose — to undermine the credibility and integrity of the company making the offer. Yes, the tactic may help grab a few sales, but it will alienate far more prospects.

4. Watch out for the early adopters. It’s been thought that getting the early adopters on board has enormous value and sets the pace for success. Whether it’s opening a restaurant, launching a product, or initiating a service, the steeper the better. It actually seems to make sense, doesn’t it?

Well, before jumping on that bandwagon, it might be a good idea to consider another view. Researchers Jonah Berger of The Wharton School, and Gaël Le Mens of Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeau Fabra, have shown that the “velocity of the adoption may affect the abandonment.” In other words, early can result in something becoming a flash in the pan, which can depress the interest of others and help something die out faster.

The early adopter concept has interesting implications when prospecting for customers. Trying to move the process along too quickly may undermine your chances of getting or keeping an order. Pushing too fast or hard may damage relationships, whereas calculated or sustained persistence may produce more solid and longer-term results.

5. Don’t let a lack of vision kill your business.
It’s easy to get clobbered by what we don’t know. Before Apple launched the iPod a decade ago, there were dire predictions of its failure because no one would actually buy songs. It was the same story before the iPhone arrived, specifically, that it would be barred from the Enterprise. It was, until employees revolted and demanded that it be available to them.

Now we’re hearing it all again with the launch of Apple’s iPad. Predictions of failure are everywhere. As one owner of a small company selling management software systems said, “Even if there were no other issue with it, the most important reason I can’t justify it for my employees, or my clients’ employees, is that there’s no ROI.” This was written eight weeks before the iPad arrived in stores! Again, history will repeat itself.

Apple hits the target better than any other company because it’s immersed in helping people do more of what they want with their lives. It’s a good lesson for anyone in marketing or sales. It isn’t the gadget that’s important, it’s what it allows people to do that creates satisfaction and passion.

6. If you want the sale, lay the groundwork. Leadership in sales is not a matter of push; it’s a process of pulling the prospect in closer. Even though selling is clearly a strategic activity, most salespeople seem to treat it as opportunistic. In other words, they fail to lay the groundwork that increases the probability of getting the order.
Whether its B2C or B2B, the “gotta have it” mentality is gone. No one wants to be taken for a sucker. No one wants to make a mistake. Even so, salespeople want to clear the way to get the order — now.

Here’s an example. A marketing executive contacted the regional rep of a well-known national direct mail company regarding a campaign for a client and provided the requested initial information. A couple of days later, a proposal came back, much to the executive’s surprise. It was like going from zero to 60 mph in three seconds. After a week or so of silence, the prospect e-mailed the rep, “We’ll pass.” The sales rep lacked a plan to turn the lead into a sale, as well as the enthusiasm to do so. There was no effort to engage the prospect. What could have been a significant order for the rep was lost.

The point is simply that getting the fish into the boat is the easy part. Creating actual customers who want to do business with you takes far more insight and skill.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He writes for a variety of business publications and speaks on business, marketing, and sales issues. Contact him at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170, 617-328-0069, or [email protected]. Read his blog at, or visit his Web site at