Building Sales by Having a True Conversation

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” ~ Albert Einstein

I was twenty-two years old when I graduated from the University of Maryland.  Within two weeks, I found myself working as a salesman for the New York Life Insurance Company.  I was quickly given a spot in a bullpen with a dozen other salespeople, and I was given a desk, a phone, and a phonebook.  If you’re wondering where the computer was, I must tell you that no salesman or office had a computer at that time.  I repeat; not one computer to be found.  Within two years, this was all about to change, but I consider myself fortunate to have sold at this time, and I’ll tell you why.

When salespeople in our office prepared to meet with their clients, they did so in a far different way than you might imagine.  A typical preparation consisted of packing a rate book to figure out a client’s premium, an application to write the policy on, and a nice clean yellow pad of paper.

If, by chance, a client wanted an illustration of future dividend projections or cash values (known as a policy illustration,) you went to the general office for their assistance.  You provided the administrative people with ages and names, the information was phoned to New York, and you waited.  You could get a verbal answer or two on the phone, but a typical policy illustration took about a week to return in the mail.

Unencumbered with stacks of data, customers talked of problems and needs while salespeople talked of concepts and solutions.  In those next few moments, something occurred that has since become rare.  People sold – and they sold based on who they were, not how computer literate they were.

It was tragic to me to see so many of our most talented and tenured salespeople become casualties during the computer revolution of the early eighties.  Many from this generation of sales veterans had ten times the product knowledge of their competition.  They had experience and business savvy that was light-years ahead of those they were competing with.  What they did not have were pages and pages of illustrations with projected dividend options, and multiple cash values based on projected interest rates.  They could not quickly manipulate an interest rate or payment amount.  Then again, most of them would not have, even if they had the knowledge.  It just was not how they conducted business.  They were the true heroes of the selling profession, and when the computers came in, a generation of tremendous sales professionals was lost.  They became obsolete overnight, and unwilling to change their ways, quietly faded away.  My father, Lee Jolles, was one of them.

I am all for technology, and I was one of those “young whippersnappers” who embraced this change, and fought his battles with his new computer.  In retrospect, it diminished my selling abilities, and contributed to making me more of a computing machine that made more eye contact with his screen than his client, rather than a trusted business advisor.  Remember, machines have no feelings.  I lost who I was and I lost the empathy I once displayed with my customers as well.  I even lost my yellow pad of paper.

When it comes to change, I don’t want to sound like the old man standing in front of his house shouting, “Get off my lawn!” Change is often inevitable, and ultimately we adjust our ways to allow technology to enhance what we do.  Used properly, this technology should mean better service and improved efficiency.  Those who are careful to blend technology with old school attention continue to display honor within selling.

And so, standing on my lawn, watching you walk by, with one eyebrow up in the air, I leave you with this one last reminder:  The next meeting you have with a client, there will be a time to Google and gather the data you feel is necessary. But before you break out your laptop, tablet, or other display of data to show the client how smart you are, take out something else first.  Take out your yellow pad of paper and listen without the distraction of the computer screen: Your reward will be the connection you make with the client and the trust you will be building by having a true conversation.

Related: The Detergent That Destroyed A Sales Process