Q.  What is the worst single piece of advice to a sales person you have ever heard?

A. Wow. I love this question. I don’t think I have  ever been asked it before.

I can’t identify one single piece of  advice. I’ll have to opt for two. I’m going to identify them, and then explain  why I think they are so damaging. Here they are:

  • 1.   Be yourself.
  • 2.   Learn on your own by trial and error.

1.  Be yourself.

I just read, on one of the LinkedIn  groups of which I am a member, a newly self-appointed sales trainer advising  sales people to “just be yourself.” That is good advice if you are naturally  self motivated, goal-driven, highly organized; if you are intelligent,  personable, empathetic and sensitive; if you have great listening skills, the  ability to connect with anyone, a keen ability to paint word pictures and tell enthralling  stories, and the natural ability to ask for action.

If that’s not you, then being  yourself isn’t quite good enough, and you’ll have to work on some things if you  want to become better.  Almost every  sales person I have ever met, myself included, has some rough spots that should  be smoothed out.

As a professional sales person, you are never  finished with your life-long task of making yourself better.  The ultimate challenge for professionals is  the constant need to change themselves in order to become better.  It takes drive, discipline, and energy,  continually applied and rightly focused, to improve.

“You’re OK the way you are” may be an idea instilled  in you by your mother in order to make you feel good about yourself, but in the  real world of commerce and sales, it is a bromine that takes the energy out of  the process of improving yourself, and provides an easy hiding place for those  who are not motivated to excel.

The truth is, you are not good enough!  Not yet.

If you are a professional, you get that.  You understand that you can, and should,  continually improve and make yourself better.

Vince Lombardi said this:

We will  constantly strive for perfection, knowing full well that we will never attain  it, because no one is perfect.  But we  will strive for perfection, for in the process we will catch excellence.

Which would you rather?

A sales force of people who think they just need to  “be themselves” to do well.

Or, a group who think they can always become better,  that there standards for how you do sales well, and that they need to work hard  and consistently to enhance their skills, improve their practices and develop  their competencies.  A group who strives  for perfection.

Silly question.

If a sales trainer tells you that you just need to  “be yourself,” run from them.

2.  Learn on your own, by trial and error.

Certainly learning by trial and  error is possible, and we all do it.  It  just isn’t very efficient, nor very effective.

When I say it isn’t very efficient,  I mean that there are quicker, easier ways to learn and improve than to rely  exclusively on trial and error.  Look,  other people have gone before you, and figured out this thing called “sales”.  There is a body of knowledge about how you do  sales well. You can spend five years trying to figure it out on your own, or  you can buy a book by someone who is an expert in it, and learn far more in  five hours. Which makes more sense?

For the life of me, I cannot  understand the prevailing idea among employers that their sales people will  just learn on their own, by trial and error. From my personal experience, I  believe that only about five percent of employers actually invest in the growth  and development of their sales people.

Nor do I understand the 95 percent of sales people  who have not spent $20 on their own improvement in the last 12 months.

I am amazed that so many people think they have the  time to learn exclusively by trial and error.   I don’t.  When I first began my  consulting practice, I went out and got all the books on how you build a  consulting practice.  When I first  starting speaking and presenting, I hired a coach to help me develop quickly. When  I wrote my first book, I read all the books on how you do it before I began to  write it.  I couldn’t afford to waste  time and money making stupid mistakes.

When I say it isn’t very effective,  I mean that most people, most of the time, get it wrong!  Most of us, myself included, have distorted  views of how we appear to other people.  We  have distorted views of how our actions impact people, how the customers really  felt, and why we didn’t get the order.   If we base our decisions about what’s effective on the basis of our  perceptions of what we did well and poorly, we will be wrong much of the time.

As evidence of this, I’ll appeal to  your own experience.  Sales managers, and  sales trainers, how many times have you made a call with a sales person, debriefed  afterward, and discovered that the sales person didn’t have a clue as to what  really happened in the sales call? In my experience, it is most of the time. I’m  not picking on sales people.  It is human  nature.  We all see reality through our  unique perspectives, we all put our personal spin on things.

A study was done a few years ago in  an attempt to see if sales people could identify their most effective  practices.  Two hundred good sales people  were interviewed, and they indicated the practices they thought brought them  the results.  Guess what happened when  the researchers accompanied them into the field to verify their ideas?  There was “no relationship” between what they  said they did and what they actually did!

Now, don’t misinterpret what I am  saying.  We should all learn by trial and  error.  Analyzing our failures and  changing our behavior to avoid them in the future is a classic approach to  personal growth, and a discipline to which we should all adhere.  My problem is with those who promote it as  the exclusive way to learn to sell well.

It is neither efficient nor  effective.

The advice to “be yourself” and  “learn exclusively by trial and error” are two of the most pernicious ideas in  the world of sales.  Don’t let them misguide  you!

Dave Kahle has trained tens of thousands of B2B salespeople, sales managers and business owners to be more effective in the 21st Century economy. He’s authored nine books, and presented in 47 states and seven countries. To access Dave’s training, insights and tools online, visit The Sales Resource Center. Visit www.davekahle.com to check out a seminar near you.

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