Start fast, finish strong

In her new book, “Agile Selling: Get Up to Speed Quickly in Today’s Ever-Changing Sales World,” sales strategist Jill Konrath emphasizes the importance of strong starts with new prospects. Konrath knows a thing or two about starting strong. Her first book, “Selling to Big Companies,” was named one of Fortune magazine’s “Must Reads” for salespeople, and is on a number of all-time top 10 lists for sales books.

SMM: This is your third book. How do you come up with your topics? Why agile selling?

KONRATH: I write books to solve problems that I see. When I wrote “Selling to Big Companies” it was because everybody I knew, including me, was struggling to set up meetings with corporate decision makers. I needed to figure out what would work, so I actually spent a year experimenting with different approaches to create a replicable process, and then I had to share it with people. I wrote “SNAP Selling” because I kept having good clients and good prospects disappear into a black hole and tell me they were too busy to get back to me. Suddenly it hit me that this “overwhelm” that everybody was feeling was significantly impacting the buying process and I needed to do something differently in order to be successful. I recognized that the old way of doing things was no longer sufficient.

I was asked to speak to a group of young salespeople at a staffing company and they guy said, “Can you just talk about your first year in sales and what made you successful?” I started thinking about it and realized how much failure there was in my first year of sales and how I was scared to death most of the time. I realized that my ability to deal with the fear was crucial to my success. I would turn my problems into challenges because I could deal with them better. Also, I never allowed myself to fail. I chose to define it as a valuable learning experience because I couldn’t handle the failure. Because of what I did as a consultant for years, I became an expert in the deep dive – how to rapidly get up to speed on something new and learn it so it’s usable fast.

SMM: Did you have somebody in mind when you wrote this new book?

KONRATH: It’s for the B2B sales rep who has to learn something new fast. I read a statistic on how important fast learning is to overall success. A lot of people don’t realize that. They think, “Just follow John around and you’ll learn the job.” The reality is if you’re not successful quickly with something, you’ll abandon it. In sales, if you’re new to a company and you don’t get going in three to six months, you’re likelihood of getting discouraged and leaving is high. The same thing happens with new product launches. If a new product doesn’t take off within three months the salespeople will point their fingers at marketing and have all sorts of complaints about what was wrong and why they couldn’t sell. Early success is crucial to long-term success, whether it’s with a new position, going after new markets or launching a new product.

SMM: Are most salespeople and sales managers in tune with the need to learn quickly and to change some old-school tactics to meet today’s “crazy-busy” business environment (to use a term you like)?

KONRATH: No, and I’ll tell you why. Years ago, I heard a study about creativity that said creativity peaks at the age of 5 and goes steadily downhill until the age of 44, where it remains low until the age of retirement. Most people are on cruise control and they want to be on cruise control because it frees them up to do other things. The old-time salesperson who is not changing is finding it harder and harder to get business, to keep people’s attention, and once they’ve gotten it, to differentiate from competitors. They don’t know how to change. Some will, but not enough.

SMM: What’s your thought on people’s ability to change?

KONRATH: It’s there for everybody, but not necessarily the fire. So many people are left-brained and forget the joy of learning something new. It can really be fun when you experience some successes. When you go back into learner mode, you are not going to be good for a while. That’s the hard part when you’re a professional. To go back into learner mode forces you to be awkward, to mumble…nothing comes out right. You don’t know where to go and in the middle of it you may default to what you were doing – back to the old way. It doesn’t work real well at first because you’re no good at it.

SMM: You hear so often these days that the majority of the buying process is completed before a prospect even contacts a seller to express interest. Yet, in your book, you site research in which executives state that the “sales experience” – what’s it like working with a salesperson during the course of the interaction – is the most important differentiator. How do you explain that contradiction?

KONRATH: I don’t think it’s a contradiction. The fact that companies do wait so much longer to identify themselves as prospects only emphasizes the fact that if you can’t handle your first meeting well, you won’t get a second chance. You have to be smart, you have to be well-researched, you have to know what’s going on in the buyer’s environment. You have to go in there with some knowledge, insight and ideas that they will find interesting. Failure to do that prevents them from moving on. Everything is about the sales experience. Are you bringing value in every single interaction? Do they see you as a resource that they would want to work with? Do you make them think about things they haven’t thought about – bring them ideas that they haven’t considered? When you can do that, you are somebody they want to continue talking with.

SMM: How do incorporate this concept of learning fast into your training?

KONRATH: If you’re going to institute change, you really need to not just do the training, but somehow tap into why they really need to change. Experienced salespeople realize customers have changed and they need to do some things differently, but they don’t think about it or analyze it. They just keep going. I don’t think most sales training provides the wakeup call to how distracted buyers are. That’s what you need to tap into the emotional need to do something different than what they’re currently doing.

SMM: You state in your book that too many companies neglect to address the importance of training salespeople how to understand the buyer and the buyer’s journey.

KONRATH: For many years, I’ve worked with technology companies that love their stuff too much. The bulk of training is either product knowledge or sales training. The missing gap is the customer. The deep dive is understanding the customer. That’s the context that people truly need in order for it to make sense.

SMM: You share a recommended reading list at the end of your book. What are you reading lately?

KONRATH: A lot of what I read isn’t about selling. I’m particularly interested in brain stuff lately. The research that’s coming out about why we do the stuff we do – the book on habits (Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business”) is interesting. One of my favorites is “Your Brain At Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long” by David Rock. He does a nice job of exploring our brains in the context of work and what we need to do in order to make our brain more efficient and work for us, not against us.

Additional insights from Jill Konrath and past Closers Q&As can be found at