How to Sell Like a Fighter Pilot
There are real similarities between flying combat missions and going on sales calls, according to former fighter pilot Rob "Waldo" Wingman, author of the bestseller Never Fly Solo: Lead with Courage, Build Trusting Partnerships, and Reach New Heights in Business.
As he explained it to me a while back: "Both jobs require short-term mission success and long-term victory, both require specialized training, and both demand an ability to perform under stress."
Here are Wingman's 10 steps for "flying" your next sales "mission."
Phase 1: Preparation
1. Achieve the right attitude. The term "the right stuff" refers to the attitude of confidence that a jet pilots need in order to strap themselves into a vehicle that moves faster than the speed of sound. In sales, "the right stuff" comes from getting enthusiastic about this opportunity to be of service. Enthusiasm breeds confidence and confidence absorbs fear, the greatest deterrent to sales success. Remember: Fear prevents you from taking risks and prospects never buy from fearful salespersons.
2. Gather intelligence. Before any flight mission, pilots gather every bit of information they can about the environment into which their jets will be flying–not just enemy positions, but every aspect of the situation that might have an effect on the mission. In sales, you gather intelligence by studying the customer's website, press releases, current vendors, and your competition. Decide what questions you will need to ask that will help qualify or disqualify this lead.
3. Devise contingency plans. Successful flight missions require pilots to expect the unexpected. Even reams of competitive intelligence can't totally dispel "fog of war"–the fact that the real-world and combat conditions are likely to change, sometimes radically, from moment to moment. In sales, you build a contingency plan by asking yourself "what if" questions: What if they challenge me with price? What if they are currently engaged with another vendor? What if they ask for as referral? Make sure you have answers to these objections ready and waiting.
4. Mentally rehearse the call. Jet pilots always "chair fly" a mission, multiple times, before they ever come near their aircraft. In sales, this translates into envisioning the sales call in your mind – delivering your value proposal, asking the right questions, and rebutting her concerns. Remember: don't just envision a smooth mission with no problems. Envision the mistakes and objections (i.e missile launches) that might come up and mentally rehearse how you will handle them.
5. Prep the mission. Immediately prior to a mission, pilots always review and confirm their mission objectives, roles and responsibilities, latest intelligence, and contingencies. In sales, you should spend at least 15 minutes prior to any sales call going over everything you know about the customer, your overall plan for the sales call, your responses to objections–and, if you're presenting, the condition of your equipment.
Phase 2: Execution
6. Maintain situational awareness. Pilots are able to perceive what's actually going on at any moment of time, monitoring changes to weather, enemy threat, airspeed, fuel state, terrain, and more. In the context of a sales call, situational awareness comes from listening to the customer: Adapt to your sales environment as it changes, remaining aware of your prospect's challenges. Remember that stress and tension reduce your ability to sense what's really going on, so remind yourself to relax and smile. Let calm and confidence direct your flight path.
7. Document what happens. Jet fighters have flight recorders that track exactly what happened at every moment of the mission. This information often proves invaluable after the flight, allowing a pilot to more easily replicate success, and avoid future problems. In a sales call, your "flight recorder" is a pen and paper, or a (quiet) keyboard if you're on the phone. Record every important detail of the call–you'll need this intelligence when you follow up.
8. Make go/no-go decisions. There comes a point in every flight mission where the fighter pilot needs to decide whether the mission, if pursued, will succeed or fail. Just like a pilot, you need to know when to press on with a call, and when to abort it. Don't get shot down! If you're going after an impossible target, you are wasting valuable time and energy when you could be engaging an alternate target.
Phase 3: Mission Complete
9. Debrief the mission. Fighter pilots always debrief a mission, in order to determine what can be learned and how the team can improve. After every sales call, review the positive and negative events that took place. Ask yourself: What went right or wrong? What were the lessons learned? Why did the call develop the way that it did? How can you and your training be improved or revised to ensure better success next time? Finally, share lessons learned and best practices with your team.
10. Follow up/follow through. Fighter pilots complete their mission by filing a report, requesting service on the aircraft, expanding their training commitments, and so forth. In sales, the follow-through is doing whatever it takes to develop the ongoing customer relationship. It means delivering on your promises. If you really want to win in the future, exceed the customer's expectations. Be on time and on target for the next step in the sales process.
Interesting stuff, eh? By the way, I helped Wingman get through some of his nervousness about writing a book back when he was first working with a publisher. He's a great guy, fun to talk to, and a real jolt of fresh air.
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GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist
Geoffrey James is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is "Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts that You Need to Know."