The more you toil on the ground, the less you have to sweat in the air
Such a banality and yet …
From my experience as a flight instructor, one always encounters two types of student pilots. Firstly, there are the young trainees, the beginners, who are predominantly full of enthusiasm but also full of uncertainty, of course, and therefore arrive with heaps of documents to the airfield. They have precisely planned for every scenario, from the flight route to the weather to the most abstruse eventualities. Often, you will be surprised by these novices when they show you their remarkable planning tools and instruments, which you, as an experienced flight instructor, have never heard of or seen before. The efforts that these young pilots go to are immense. Secondly, you have skilled veterans, the “old hands”. While the newcomers arrive at least an hour early at the airport, the veterans will always be 5 minutes late. The novices need an extra-large pilot case to carry all their documents and plans, while the old-timers will, at best, turn up with an ancient map. On the way to the plane, they gaze into the sky and then question the flight instructor about the weather forecast.
Sure, one can now argue how much preparation work is sensible. Nonetheless, as a flight instructor, I am tired of these discussions and therefore let it run its course. And so, the inevitable happens; after just a short time, my oh so accomplished expert pilot discovers that an ancient map on the plane whilst in the air, is just as valuable as an out-dated navigation system in the car. Suddenly, realization kicks in that in 150 km distance the weather might be different from the departure airport. And adding a tiny technical problem to the mix can abruptly result in a very stressful situation. For these exact reasons, many flights, destined to reach Venice or Nice, have instead diverted their journey back to base after just one hour in the air.
Are you wondering what this has to do with sales?
Salespeople are very much equal and the same as trainees or experienced pilots. The newcomers in sales place an absurd amount of effort into preparing themselves. They conduct presentations, create essays about customers, develop strategies, etc. The “old hands” on the other side… Seriously, I always encounter salespeople who try to convince me that they do not have time to prepare intensely for a sales pitch. Furthermore, they explain to me how they develop their strategy ad hoc during a conversation and underline their statement with the slogan: “The more precisely you plan, the more you risk being taken by utter surprise.”
And then, while meeting the customer, suddenly everything gets out of hand. Relevant documents are missing, or the customer presents unexpected new facts or has objections and all of a sudden, everything results in stress.
To prepare certainly takes effort. And the energy we apply must be in reasonable proportion to the (potential) outcome. In the long run, we cannot sustain the enormous efforts of our initial sales pitches, but luckily, we do not have to. As an experienced professional pilot, you apply a specific structure and well-defined framework of how to prepare for a flight, which, by the way, distinguishes you from amateurs and hobbyist pilots. Moreover, professional pilots are not only aware of the need to plan for the actual flight but know they must prepare themselves mentally on a much more fundamental level, which includes their personal abilities and flying skills but also all possible eventualities.
Concrete preparation – the other person’s perspective
If we want to apply this knowledge to the everyday life of a salesperson, our first step must be to develop a concrete flight plan for the upcoming sales pitch and the expected negotiations. More than anything else, though, we must clearly and unambiguously define our goal. This sounds so obvious again, but I have encountered numerous salespeople who, when asked to describe their target, reply: “Let’s see.”
Quite frankly? If you just “want to have a peek”, please do not be surprised if your customer gets annoyed. How much time are you prepared to spend with a total stranger who just wants to see how it goes?
Hence, define exactly your goal for the forthcoming conversation. You can aim to complete the sale or intend to gather information and to strengthen the customer relationship. However, when drafting your target planning, you must, in any case, take into consideration how your client can profit. Naturally, you want to consolidate your relationship with your client, but your customers will perceive conversations and appointments with no real benefit as rather annoying and obtrusive.
Concrete preparation – prepare your arguments
In the second step, but this is indeed just the second step, you prepare your arguments. But again, it is crucial to differentiate between what is sensible and what is ballast. On an airplane, this is apparent; everything you install or take with you costs energy; in the end, each extra kilo the plane transports, counts as energy consumption. Of course, this implies one decides what is necessary or whether one is prepared to pay the price for luxurious amenities.
For acquisition talks or negotiations, please challenge yourself whether your argumentation is truly necessary or just “nice to have”? Will the discussion benefit your customer, or is it just a “hobby” of yours? Will your argumentation lead you closer to your goal, or are you somewhat more worried to finish your talk without a conclusion? When considering all these points, please always think backward and keep the ending in mind. Because in the end, your customer will demand: “What’s in it for me?”
If you answer all these questions well in advance, your conversations will be much more productive, and you will get less likely bogged down by minor problems. And quite incidentally, your customer will perceive each communication as beneficial and will appreciate the invested time.
Prepare your questions
Another area is even more significant than great arguments. I assume you all know and agree with the statement: “Those who ask questions, lead the conversation!” You also presumably understand that open questions are the method of choice for a conversation. But how many questions shall one ask and which ones?
It’s unbelievable, but as a conversation starter, we still keep asking whether someone “got here all right”? Really? Nowadays, even the smallest rental car is equipped with a navigation system. We surely can do better!
And so, the conversation takes its course. In the beginning, we conscientiously ask one or two questions, but this changes abruptly as soon as stress comes into play. Go ahead and observe your co-workers and see how they perform when a little stressed and under pressure. Do you know what will happen? At first, they will revert to asking closed questions, and finally, this will subside to no more questions at all – but statements instead!
Our brain is responsible for this because our so-called conscious mind is the one formulating open questions. But, as we all know, under stress, our brain is too occupied with other strategies and somewhat plans to either attack, flee, or play dead.
Meaning, if we are in most desperate need of it, we are unable to formulate relevant open questions.
The solution is preparation!
Prepare yourself and develop a set of important open questions for each step of your conversation or negotiation. Come up with ideas about what you can ask during the opening phase, mid-presentation or mid-consultation, and during the final stage. Formulate as many open questions as possible, but please remember, when stressed and under pressure, you can only retrieve and apply what you have already practiced.
Pilots undergo repeatedly and regularly flight simulator training. They do not do this because they lack professional expertise or anticipate an imminent emergency. For them, consistent practice and preparation are part of their high-level professionalism. No professional pilot would ever say: “Because I have flown a thousand times, I no longer need training!” Pilots recognize training and preparation as a crucial advantage in the event of an emergency.
But how often do salespeople have training? When was the last time you had several role-play conversations with your colleagues? When did you last obtain constructive feedback?
“The more you toil on the ground, the less you have to sweat in the air!” Training and preparation give pilots a vital advantage to be able to think under stress. It equips them to make the right decisions and to be never overrun by a situation. This is the same for sales. During acquisitions or negotiations, you also gain an advantage through preparation. Like this, you are perfectly adorned for every challenge and will always be one step ahead of your customers.