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Sales tips from battle grounds, big and small

<137>An Actor portraying Doc Holliday backs up actors portraying the Earp brothers with his shotgun during a reenactment of the historic Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on the in Tombstone, Ariz., on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006. Wyatt Earp, who, with brothers Virgil and Morgan and comrade Doc Holliday, made history in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral on Oct. 26, 1881. When the 30-second fight was over, three of their adversaries Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton lay dead. (AP Photo/Sierra Vista Herald, Mark Levy)<252><137>The 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral<137>, which is re-enacted for tourists in Tombstone, Ariz.,<137> is an example of how misunderstandings can get out of hand. Bear that in mind when dealing with customers, advises author John Golden.


Winning the Battle for Sales

By John Golden

(McGraw-Hill, 249 pages, 28.95)

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An 1806 duel between British MP Humphrey Howarth and the Earl of Barrymore is not a classic battle, but it does have its amusing moments, which might make it useful and memorable to sales staff. The MP for Evesham slugged the Earl after being accused of cheating in a late-night card game of whist. The Earl challenged him to a duel and four hours later they met on the field of honour, a nearby racetrack.

Before they took up arms Mr. Howarth began disrobing, until he stood in nothing but his underwear. A large crowd that had gathered in anticipation began to laugh hysterically at the near-naked politician with pistol in hand. The Earl asked why his opponent was being so foolish. He was told that when Mr. Howarth was a young surgeon with the British East India Co., he found that if a person were shot and a piece of fabric was driven into the wound, a fatal infection often ensued because the fibre couldn't be extracted as easily as a bullet.

His theory wasn't put to the test on the racetrack, however, because the Earl decided it was ridiculous to fight a near-naked man. They both fired into the air and deemed that sufficient to preserve their honour.

Mr. Howarth had planned for every contingency, or at least the worst contingency, and in Winning the Battle for Sales, author John Golden says that any good salesperson should be equally careful in planning for their daily duels.

Mr. Golden, president of the Huthwaite sales-performance consulting firm, has gathered 29 stories for his book – many famous military battles and some lesser-known quirky events, such as the duelling tale – from which he draws important lessons for sales staff.

Huthwaite founder Neil Rackham developed what is arguably the most highly lauded system of sales, SPIN selling, and this book is based on those ideas (which, it should be noted, are not about the spin associated with deception but about asking penetrating questions in a consultative fashion to help customers better understand their own needs).

Sales representatives often rely on what they think are clever opening gambits, trying to relate to the buyer's personal interests – talking fishing if there's a photo of the buyer in fishing gear, for example – or making an opening statement about the benefits of the rep's product and service.

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But Mr. Golden says your goals should instead be to establish who you are; why you're there (without giving product details); and your right to ask questions.

He urges you not to dawdle on preliminary pleasantries, because that will leave you short of time later. Don't talk about the solutions you are offering too soon, as that will prompt objections about your capabilities too early in the process. "The most important test of whether you're handling the preliminaries effectively is whether your customers are generally happy to move ahead and answer your questions. If so, then you're probably handling this stage of the call acceptably," he writes.

He offers another example from the history books to illustrate why it's important not to celebrate too soon after your sales victories, and why you need to focus on the follow up to ensure you have a satisfied customer. That example is the first recorded battle in history, in 157 B.C. at Megiddo, when Pharaoh Thutmose III set out to quell a revolt by the King of Kadesh. He caught the enemy troops unaware and routed them, but his young and inexperienced soldiers started looting rather than pressing their advantage. The enemy regrouped, and the Pharoah's forces had to attack a fortified city, turning what could have been a battle of mere hours into a seven-month siege.

The story of David slaying Goliath after he turned down King Saul's unwieldy armour for a slingshot gives us another lesson – a reminder to use the technology that fits best. And the charge of the disorganized Light Brigade sends a message about the need for internal alignment in a company when seeking a sale, so everyone is operating in harmony.

The infamous 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Mr. Golden writes, "was the culmination of … a series of misunderstandings, miscalculations, and mishandling of the objectionable gun-toting by the Cowboys" (a term then used by newspapers interchangeably with rustlers). So avoid misunderstandings with your customers by handling issues adroitly from the start.

The messages may seem trite. But the book isn't. The historical interludes that begin each chapter are fascinating reading. And the sales messages afterward are solid, sensible outlines of a premier consultative sales system, with clear indications of common follies to avoid and best practices for heeding the advice.

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Perhaps, as Mr. Golden expects, you'll remember them better by linking the historical episodes and modern-day advice.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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