EPISODE 74: DHG Growthcast is joined by Meredith Elliot Powell - executive coach, business strategist and author of the book Thrive: Strategies to Turn Uncertainty into Competitive Advantage. Meredith provides insight into the opportunities and challenges associated with selling in today's virtual environment.
[00:00:09] JL: Welcome to today's edition of DHG’s GrowthCast. I'm your host, John Locke. At DHG, our strength lies in our technical knowledge, our industry intelligence, and our future focus. We understand business needs and are laser-focused on company goals. In this ever-changing world, DHG's GrowthCast provides insights and thought-provoking conversations on topics and trends that address growth opportunities and challenges in the current and future marketplace. Thanks for joining us as we discuss tomorrow's needs today.
[00:00:42] ANNOUNCER: The views and concepts expressed by today's panelists are their own and not those of Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP. Always consult the advice of your legal and financial professional before taking any action.
[00:00:58] JL: Today's topic is one that every organization and leader can closely identify with, and that's sales. Joining us today to discuss selling opportunities and challenges associated with selling in today's virtual world is Meredith Elliot Powell. She is a prolific author and has just released another new book, Thrive: Strategies to Turn Uncertainty Into Competitive Advantage. Meredith is an executive coach, a business strategist, and has been named one of the Top 15 Business Growth Experts. She even finds time to host a sales podcast called the Sales Logic.
Meredith, welcome to GrowthCast.
[00:01:36] MEP: Thank you. I'm excited to be here, John.
[00:01:38] JL: Well, I am extremely excited to have you here today to talk about a topic that has created a lot of anxiety for professionals over the last year, and that's sales. Just simply, how do you do it now? You have an incredible career of helping people understand the dynamics surrounding the sales and growth and navigating change in organizations. So can you just start off with a little history for us and how you developed this passion and skill set for sales? Maybe then, how did you turn it into a business?
[00:02:11] MEP: Yeah. I’m right there with most people listening to this podcast, is I have a lot of anxiety around sales. When I started out my career, I tried to stay in things like public relations, marketing, and customer experience because the last thing I wanted to do was sell. But I realized quickly a couple of things. Number one is if I could learn to sell, I can control how much money I made. If I learned to sell, I would have a lot more flexibility in my schedule. If I learned to sell, I would never ever have to worry about having a job. I mean, you always need good salespeople.
But the way that I got past it was the fact that I was actually being trained to sell inside a financial organization that I worked with, and I was not comfortable with it. The whole idea just made me sick. I was trying to do it. One day, we had been in sales training and with these great gurus of sales who were teaching us how to sell. Everybody was having the same anxiety that I was having. I came downstairs to the main floor of the bank that I was working for. I came across the teller line, and I noticed these very tellers that had just been in sales training and saying they would never sell were asking everybody in their brother if they would donate a dollar to the March of Dimes.
It just hit me. I thought, “Why are they so willing?” I mean, that's uncomfortable to ask people for money. They’ll ask people to donate money to the March of Dimes but they won't ask people about something that's very precious to them, and that's their finances. I mean, we sold products that made them money, saved them money, and gave them peace of mind, and it hit me. Most sales training is taught as me-centric, as helping the company, helping the individual, helping the salesperson. It's very rarely taught from the perspective of how to help the customer, and that was it for me. Everything changed. I developed a methodology of how to train salespeople where we didn't focus on the clothes. We focus on the ask, and we focus on the fact that we were using our products and services to help people get ahead and didn't care as much as to getting the deal to close or getting the upsell.
If you focus on the right behaviors and doing the right thing, you sell with integrity, you're going to hit your goals. You're going to surpass your goals. I personally believe now that sales is the most honorable profession you can have.
[00:04:55] JL: Well, what a great story. I think anybody out there who's had a sales experience, a sales training experience, can really identify with that moment that you had. In fact, as I was listening to you talk, I'm thinking back over my career because I actually started in sales originally. Boy, I went through all these trainings with some of these gurus of the time. I think I remember Tom Hopkins and Zig Ziglar and the famous Xerox selling skills program. Wow. What has changed really since those early days?
When you think about that because I'm sure you were going through a lot of those types of programs and methodologies and really philosophies of sales. So when you think about the biggest change that you've seen in the approach to sales training, what has it been really over the last 5 to 10 years in your mind?
[00:05:53] MEP: Yeah. That's so easy for me. I think it's a piece that most sales professionals. Just let me say, when I speak about sales professionals, understand if you are in any type of business, and I don't care what role you have, I don't care if you're in the accounting department, you are in sales. The faster everybody in the organization understands that they play a role in sales, the better the organization is it's going to do. But the biggest change by far and the one we need to pay attention to and the one I see that is missed the most is this started to happen in about 2007, right before the crash of 2008. It is expanded again during COVID, is that the consumer controls the buying cycle. You don't.
Most of us are still using sales techniques that are still out there in sales training, acting like you control the buying cycle, and you don't. Think about this. Right now, I can sit at home in front of my computer. I can Google anything I want and buy it from anybody anywhere in the world that I want to. So being a sales professional is not about selling a product anymore. It is about truly being a problem solver and an advocate. You need to give people a reason to buy from you. I believe that salespeople are more important than they have ever been, but you have to understand that your role has evolved. On the front end, you need the customer more than they need you. If you sell right, they're going to need you more than you need them.
[00:07:36] JL: Yes. Wow. I love that and I think there is a huge shift that all of us need to have in our own mindsets. I love the fact that you're challenging our listeners today to think of themselves, regardless of their roles as a salesperson because we all have an opportunity to influence and to help people better understand opportunities and position those. I've always – There’s so many of these little sales quotes, quips, and paradigms. I'm sure you probably have them all and can roll them off your tongue. But one of the things that I love about the selling mindset is the opportunity to really help somebody make a purchase decision, as opposed to sell them a product.
But as you alluded to, things really have changed dramatically. Even more, we talked about 5 to 10 years. But, wow, let's talk about the last 18 months. So get into the heart of our topic today, selling in the virtual world. What have you observed that is working, and how have you challenged your clients to adapt during this unique era of business life?
[00:08:52] MEP: Yeah. I think that some of the things that I really think are working is number one is that it is that the sales cycle really begins with marketing. What I mean about that is that you have got to position yourself, and your company has to position themselves as truly an expert and a thought leader in the marketplace. People do business with people they have heard of and about. I mean, John, if I just called you on the phone, and you've never heard of me, and I don't in this virtual world have an opportunity to meet you at the local Chamber of Commerce event or at the rotary event, how am I going to become visible in front of you?
I mean, I always challenge my clients to think about this. I mean, since they get up in the morning, since they drink a cup of coffee, their best customers, their top prospects have already started the sales cycle, and they started it without them. They're online googling. They're talking to their friends and their peers about who they're using. They're reading industry magazines. If your name isn't coming up, if your name isn’t popping off their lips, then you're entering the game at halftime. If you want to sell successfully in the virtual world, you have to start at the beginning, meaning that you have to understand your buyer’s journey, and you need to begin to insert yourself into that buyer’s journey.
I told you the consumer is controlling the buying cycle, but the consumer is also overwhelmed. There's too many options and there's too many choices. So what do we all do? We buy from what we recognize. We buy from what we know. You go to the water aisle of the grocery store, and there's 1,000 different types of water you can buy. You just think water is just water, but it's with bubbles. It’s flat. It's got flavor, blah, blah. What do you do? You're overwhelmed. You go to the one you recognize, the one you've heard of. We need to adopt that. In the virtual world, we have got to understand that it begins with that. If I want to get somebody on a video call, they need to have heard of me and about me.
[00:11:04] JL: Well, that is profound I think when we think about where we're at in society, just in general, not just in business. But this overwhelming nature of our world when it comes to the proliferation of information and the opportunities that we have to figure out what is our next step. How do we make an educated buying decision?
So let's talk about what does that look like. Speaking of the work that you and I both do as executive coaches, we’re trying to help people find their highest and best use and to be productive. Those are the types of things that everyone's yearning for. How do you do that? I mean, how does someone who is in a high level position in an industry, whether they're formally in sales, they've got a business that they're running or building, how do they allocate time to do the right things that are going to build that brand in the marketplace and allow people to think of them first so that they will buy from who they know, which is hopefully us, right? Practically, how do people do that?
[00:12:29] MEP: The great thing about it, John, is that it really doesn't take that much time to do. What it takes is consistency. If I had to say one of the most important words in sales, I think it's one of the sexiest words in sales, is that is consistency. I was getting ready to do a speaking engagement about a month ago, and the client said, “Could you tell us the magic bullet for sales?” I said, “Absolutely.” I said, “But the problem is that magic bullet is not going to work.” This is like anything else. It's like getting in shape. It's like anything else you do you. It just takes consistency but it doesn't take a lot of time.
Number one is the biggest thing is you have to be clear on your target market. I mean, as granular as you can get because if you want to be an expert in the field, you have to understand who you're going to be an expert to. You can't be an expert to everybody. The example I lot of use with my audiences that really resonates is when Amazon first came out, they didn't try to sell books online to everybody. I, for one, would have thought that was a stupid idea, which it doesn't bode well for me. But they didn't try to market. They didn't try to market to me. Who they marketed to was a very specific group of early adopters who liked the idea of possibly buying books online. From that, those people convinced the rest of us that Amazon was a good idea. So you need to understand who to be an expert to and the more clear you can get on that.
The second piece is you have to understand what their problems are, and that's really easy. Every quarter, I interview about 5 or 10 of my clients. Just call them up and say, “Tell me what's going on in your world. What are you focused on for the next quarter? Where do you see the biggest opportunities?” I'm not trying to sell a thing. What I'm trying to do is understand what the issues and problems are, and I am there with a notepad taking notes because they just determined what videos I'm going to shoot, what blogs I'm going to write, what articles I'm going to send out to my clients. So I get the exact verbiage from my clients as to what problems I need to be solving. Then I use the vehicles I have such as shooting videos, such as writing blogs, such as articles that maybe people like you or other people have written that I can share with my clients.
But by that very methodology, I become the person that is one step ahead of my target market. Before they're asking me for solutions, I'm providing those solutions proactively. That positions me as more than a salesperson, and it positions me as an expert. So therefore, when I pick up the phone and I make a call or I try to do an email to set up a Zoom, people want to talk to me because they believe they're going to learn something. They believe they're going to gain value. This is what salespeople need to understand. It’s so important is that when you're asking for a sales call, you're asking for time. Time is so precious to a business owner. They don't have much of it, so you better be there ready to deliver something of value, and they need to believe ahead of time you're going to deliver something of value. If you do that, you're going to get more and more of their time.
[00:16:00] JL: Well, I am loving this because you're talking about things that are so simple really but so powerful in the fact that people miss these steps. Your initial thought around consistency, being really consistent in your efforts, and I just love this concept of interviewing your clients regularly because when we talk about, I know internally here at DHG, when we talk about the opportunities that exist for growing your business, your number one opportunity is with your current clients. So those types of conversations can actually yield more business.
I mean, when you're talking about things that people are going through, and you hear something, and you can either solve that problem for them personally, or you know someone who can, boy, how does that up your game as far as the way people think of you and look at you as a trusted advisor or a professional? So that one concept, I think, is an incredible golden nugget. If people would just go back to their clients, when you aren't working with your client or doing a job for your client, and just talk to them, right? Just have a conversation with them.
I want to address something that is kind of the real anxiety in sales, which is around prospecting. We all have – Not everybody but a lot of organizations have sophisticated marketing plans and efforts that bubble up prospects. But I tell you, the game changed back in March of 2020 when it comes to the way you prospect and the way you approach people because you just can't go have coffee with them. You can't set up a joint meeting. So share with us some of your perspectives, and I know you've done it a lot a lot in your own business, how do people really prospect effectively and efficiently when you can't really get out and network and see people.
[00:18:10] MEP: Yeah. Well, again, I'm going to go back to this idea of thought leadership and truly being an expert, as well as clearly defining that target market. So let me just tell you kind of how I prospected in the virtual world. Now, I'm a keynote speaker. That means, by definition, I get on planes. I travel around the world. I engage with thousands of people. So in March, my entire business blew up. I lost every ounce of revenue, and how I made a living became unworkable. I could no longer do it. I couldn't get on a plane. I couldn't do anything. So immediately, I had to figure out how am I going to make a living going forward, not knowing when any of this would come back.
As you said, I'm an executive coach and a master certified strategic planner as well, so that gave me a couple of options. But those were not the main pieces of my business. So I had to redefine what I was going to do, as well as to start prospecting again. The very first thing I did was to reach out and interview my customers. Now, let me tell you how this relates to prospecting, is when you cannot attract new customers. You cannot attract prospects until you understand the problems of your current customers. So let me unpack that a little bit, is that once I understood what my current customers were facing, I can start to solve those problems.
So then I could go out to somebody else in the same industry. I work a lot in healthcare. Let’s just say that I'm able to say that I've got a current customer. I know their top three issues are helping their sales team become virtual, how to keep their staff motivated in a virtual world, and then how to prospect and how to land deals in a virtual marketplace. Once I understood those were the problems and I could solve those problems, then I could go out to prospects and I can say, “Hi, this is Meredith Elliot Powell. I work a lot in your industry. Here's a few clients that I work with. These are the problems that we're focused on. Here are the few things I've done to solve it. If you'd like to talk further, I'd love to share some things that we're doing.” By that, I was able to use the credibility of my existing clients. I was able to use the fact that I intimately understood the problems they were facing because I'd done the research. I was starting out with a value-add way to solve their problems. I wasn't trying to sell anything. I've got something to share with you.
That triple threat opened the door with prospects. So just to go back in and say you can't prospect until you understand what the problems are, and don't ever think you can sit in a room with three of your peers, and determine what your customers’ problems are. You may get the problem right. You won't get the language right, and the language is what matters. I'm just going to say this, John, is that people don't do business with you because they understand you. They do business with you because you understand them. Understand that flip and prospect doors are going to open for you. But use social proof, use the fact that you intimately understand the problem, add value, and show them, and prove to them you already work in the industry.
[00:21:45] JL: A lot packed into that.
[00:21:49] MEP: I say a lot really fast.
[00:21:52] JL: That's great. I love it. I'm thinking that the average person who's trying to figure out what that means for them is, one, you've got to do, again, more research on your current clients to understand their problems. That doesn't mean just the work that you're doing for them. That means having a conversation with them about their entire scope of their responsibilities and their business challenges, which I think people get myopic sometimes in that they only want to talk to them about work-related items that affect the actual jobs that they're doing for them. I think, again, so profound and that we just need to have conversations with people. Then to be able to take all that information, package it up so that you can present that to prospects in a value-added way without having to feel like you're selling anything. You're just really wanting to talk to them about problem solving and some of the things that potentially might be of help to them. So that's just such a great strategy.
The thing that also I really like about the approach is that it decreases a lot of the anxiety that non salespeople have around selling, and they get all worked up. The old concepts of, hey, the hardest part is picking up the phone. You’ve got to somewhat dropped these barriers, and so many of the people that you and I work with are actually experts in their industry. So why should they have this anxiety? It's just how we package that, so wonderful advice.
Tell us what you've observed. I know you fly all around the country, really around the world, talking to people. What were the issues pre-pandemic that you were addressing? I'm just kind of curious about kind of the change that you've observed. So when you were out speaking and talking to organizations pre-pandemic, what's different now that you see around those interviews and the challenges that are bubbling up?
[00:23:59] MEP: Yeah. Pre-pandemic, really some of the biggest issues I saw was the fact that all over the world, I mean, the economy was so good. It was red hot, and businesses were struggling to keep up with growth. At the same time, there was this black cloud hanging over everybody that they were waiting for the ball to drop. We didn't know if the stock market would crash, if something would shift with the marketplace or something like that. Nobody really saw COVID coming. But I was really struck by the fact that even in good economic times, people were very worried about shift and change coming in the market place.
There was also the problems of finding and keeping talent, getting people trained, a lot of issues around next level leadership. Now, what I see is all of those things gone on steroids. Here we are recording this at the time that most of us feel we're starting to come out of this pandemic, but everybody's worried about the fact that what is the next big thing that's going to come and how am I going to manage that change. The shortage of talent is epic, is just off the chart. I mean, it is such an issue. I don't talk to a single client that I've got that is not struggling to find employees, to keep employees, to train employees. Then supply chains are huge issues.
I have businesses on both sides of the spectrum. Either they're exploding right now. They have so much business. They don't know what to do with it. But they can't get the supplies and things that they need to keep up. Or I've got people on the other side that their business is so really shaky, and one shift in the marketplace and they can be close to being back where they were before. So if I had to wrap it up in a nutshell, it really comes up to how do you deal with uncertainty and how do you grow business in a time when the majority of things are outside of your control.
[00:26:25] JL: Well, you and I could talk another hour of sales. But I don't want to miss the opportunity to share with our audience the book that I alluded to earlier in your introduction, Thrive: Turn Uncertainty to Competitive Advantage. I just finished the book, so congratulations. Yes, it was an amazing read. I highly recommend it to our audience. So how I want to leave today is I want to give people a little bit of a taste. But I also want to invite them into reading your book. You talk about these nine different strategies for business to succeed. We don't have time to go through all of them today, but when you think about those nine, as it relates to a couple that especially relate to people who are trying to up their game with sales, what would maybe one or two of those strategies that you would recommend to our listeners that they would focus on in this new era of doing business?
[00:27:30] MEP: Yeah. That’s pretty easy for me. I mean, I love all nine, but there are two in particular that really I'm just incredibly, incredibly passionate about. Number one is the fact that you need to condition yourself for change. You've heard me talking about uncertainty, and it's the biggest issue out there is that people are fearful of what's coming next. Well, fear prevents growth, and you need to understand that. So you need to stop letting change control you and you need to start controlling change. We call this strategy conditioning yourself with change. Change can be your greatest opportunity if you see it coming. If you wait for it, it's going to bury you.
In this strategy, it's a great story of Jim Beam and how they dealt with prohibition and how they were really one of the only companies to survive prohibition, and then how they use surviving prohibition and coming back to put themselves on top. They've remained on top ever since that, so that's enough to bait you. The stories of the nine companies in this book are just fascinating and will motivate you to want to navigate tough and challenging times. But the problem with change is we all wait for it to happen, and you need to stop waiting for it, and you need to anticipate change.
We use a tool called a SCEPTIC; society, competition, economics, politics, technology, industry, customers. Rewind this if you need me to repeat that. But I tell my clients that you should get together every 30 days, every 30 days as a sales team, and you should talk about what changes you see happening with society, competition, politics, and technology. What's shifting with your customers? What of those changes do you need to be paying attention to? If you do that, a couple of things are going to happen. Number one is you're going to start to see shifts in the marketplace before they happen, allowing you to capitalize on them. You will also feel empowered by change, rather than disempowered by it. I also encourage my sales professionals to do this with their clients. It's really powerful strategy to get your clients thinking ahead and being an advocate.
The second strategy is one that we talked about, and that was relevancy. That’s the importance of interviewing your clients and understanding the problems. Rather than go into that one in detail, I'm just going to tell you a quick story around it and why it works. The company we interviewed for the book was Procter and Gamble, P&G. A lot of people know that company. What they don't know is that Procter and Gamble was started by two men who married sisters in the early 1800s, Procter and Gamble. They competed for animal fat. One made soap and one made candles. Their future father-in-law said, “Boys, quit competing and why don't you start a company,” and Procter and Gamble was born. Procter and Gamble's entire history is the fact that they do not develop products that they do not talk to customers first.
The first product they were going to put on the market was soap. I don't care what you sell. There's no bigger commodity than soap. How do you differentiate yourself? How do you get competitive advantage? How do you gain market share? True to form, they went to customers and they said, “Tell us about soap. What do you like? What do you not like? What are the issues?” What they found was people loved soap, but there was a problem with soap. That’s what you want to find. You want to find the problem. When you lather up with soap, it slips out of your hands and it falls to the bottom of the bathtub. A customer said, “We want a soap that floats.”
Procter and Gamble injected air into a bar of soap, took that exact tagline. They didn't change it to a bar that doesn't sink. They said a soap that floats. Ivory soap was born. By the end of the 1800s, they were a million dollar company. They were a million dollar company not because they were the only company that sold soap. But while their competitors were selling soaps that smelled good, the colors came in different shapes, they solved the right problem. They solved the problem their customers had, a soap that flows. You do that, you're going to sell effectively in today's marketplace.
[00:31:38] JL: Well, what a great way to end this segment. Think about the soap that floats with your client, right?
[00:31:45] MEP: Yeah, absolutely.
[00:31:48] JL: Oh, Meredith, this has been fantastic. The time has just flown by, and I can't thank you enough for sharing your insights, and the book Thrive: Turn Uncertainty to Competitive Advantage is a fantastic read. Those stories are just a few of the ones that are out. I love the way you wound all those stories into the entire book, and it just makes it so real. So thank you. Just thank you for your time today. I know you've had an incredible week, and spending this time with us is incredibly cherished and valuable, and appreciate all you do and who you are.
[00:32:23] MEP: Thank you so much. It's been great. I feel like I could have talked to you all day.
[00:32:28] JL: Well, when we get together, we find that we never have enough time, right?
[00:32:32] MEP: Right.
[00:32:33] JL: Also, just to note, the book Thrive: Turn Uncertainty to Competitive Advantage is available on Amazon. I got my copy a couple weeks ago. It's just been released. So I encourage you all to listen to this podcast. Again, there are so many great nuggets in here, and I just really appreciate Meredith’s view of sales. Hopefully, you're a little more excited about sales now and the opportunity to build your business. I hope that you'll stay connected with Meredith at Meredithpowell.com and subscribe to her Sales Logic podcast.
But for now, I'm your host John Locke and I look forward to reconnecting with you soon on another episode of DHG GrowthCast. Until then, be sure to rate, review, and subscribe to DHG GrowthCast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Podbean.
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