We spent a lot of time with my mother’s best friend Jackie when I was growing up. I always looked up to her and loved her vocabulary. On one occasion, Jackie told me that I was a true instigator. I asked her what that meant and she told me to get the dictionary and look up the definition. This predated the Internet, so I actually had to use the paper dictionary and looked up the meaning. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defined instigate as “to goad or urge forward”. Furthermore, the synonyms are “provoke or incite”. I was reminded recently that we need more professional instigators in sales. Good sales people accept full responsibility for getting a prospective customer engaged in a sales cycle and then driving them through a quality process resulting in a successful outcome. Unfortunately, I see fewer and fewer sales people that accept this responsibility and actually know how to manage the customer through a timely sales cycle. Rather I see sales people that make excuses, point fingers and are generally intimidated by the customer.

There are ways to professionally and tactfully “provoke or incite” the customer to collaborate with you during the sales cycle. Shame on the sales rep that doesn’t build a mutually respectful relationship from the first interaction and every interaction thereafter. My sales reps have heard my incessantly harp on the “mutual respect” notion and that they need to insist on it with customers throughout the sales process. Sometimes it’s okay and actually warranted to let a customer know that their demands are unreasonable and that you have some principles for healthy customer relationships that you won’t deviate from. Calling bull shit on a customer also feels incredibly liberating for sales people:-) There is nothing that offends me more than a sniveling, groveling sales rep that acts as if whatever the customer says or does is the gospel. Sometimes the customer is wrong and good sales people have the conviction to tell them.

I’d like to see more sales reps act professionally provocative with their customers. There is a ton of psychological game playing from both sides in sales-customer relationships, much of which is the customer testing you. I’ve found that many customers, in particular senior execs, want to dispense with the posturing and hear what you really think. Where is your domain expertise and value add as a sales rep? If you are afraid to be honest with the customer then you are not building a real relationship. When a customer makes a commitment to you and reneges on it, how do you respond as a sales rep? Do you hold the customer accountable? Or is it an unhealthy relationship that is entirely one sided where just you (as a sales rep) and your company are held accountable.

I recall a particularly contentious negotiation with a F1000 company. Their negotiation team had a list of “non-starters” that was ridiculously long and many of the items were absurd. They also were insisting on penalty-laden language and clauses throughout the contract that only applied to my company. They also were piece meal negotiating. My sales rep (and ultimately my responsibility as VP of Sales) did a poor job of preparing for the negotiation by asking for all of their requests (legal, financial, business, etc.) in total up front so that we could consider their business in aggregate versus what we would be investing/risking. It came to a head when I informed them that we were not interested in doing business exclusively under their terms. Furthermore, I shared with them that we had been fortunate enough to enjoy some extraordinary customer relationships and had also experienced some dysfunctional customer relationships. We had gleaned the common elements of both out positive and negative customer relationships, and had decided as a business that we would focus on those customers that exhibited the positive attributes and avoid doing business with those that exhibited the negative. They thought that this was a negotiating ploy on my part and I assured them that we were not interested in doing business with them.  Their CIO called our CEO and suggested that I was unprofessional with them and that he had never experienced anything like that in all of his years negotiating. I had already briefed my CEO on what had transpired and he completely had my back.

They ended up going with one of our competitors and were a miserably unhappy customer for our competitor, which we were able to leverage against them. Remember-some customers and deals you should wish upon your competitors:-) So get out there all of you sales people and start instigating!!!