My mother taught me everything I really needed to know about selling. Here's her advice.
My mother was a crack sales rep for Bristol Myers, but to me she was mostly just my mom. As such, it didn't occur to me until a few years ago that her "mom advice" was also a sure-fire recipe for sales success.
Here's what I remember:
1. 'No gift until after you write the thank-you note.'
My mom was BIG on thank-you notes. In her mind, it was the height of rudeness to fail to recognize when somebody had sent you a gift. So every Christmas, before we got to actually play with the toys our relatives sent us, we had to sit down and write our thank-you notes.
Years later, I learned that she always applied the same principles in her sales job. Whenever a store manager cut a special order, or allowed her to rearrange the shelf layout, or did anything that made her job easier, she wrote a personal note and mailed it, on exact the same day.
As the result of this simple discipline, store managers always remembered her name, and always took her calls and positively anticipated her visits.
2. 'Always wear clean underwear.'
And, yes, she did add "in case you get in an accident," but only when she gave the advice to my sister. In my case, her advice was, I think, a reflection of her view that the only way to dress well is to dress from the inside out.
My mother observed that, rightly or wrongly, people judge you on your appearance. She also frequently pointed out that, of all the elements that make up your appearance, the one that's most under your control is what you're wearing.
She believed–and I agree with her–that a big part of how your clothes look on you is how you feel about the clothes themselves. It's hard, maybe impossible, to look sharp if you know that you're wearing something tatty, even if other people probably aren't going to see it.
3. 'Profanity shows a lack of imagination.'
This was my mom's unique way of saying "watch your mouth!"–and it's good advice for anyone in business, especially if you work in sales.
Some people in business use profanity (or even obscenity) in an attempt to add swagger to their personas. However, because it's both common and commonplace, "colorful" language usually falls flat and frequently offends.
Unfortunately, swearing is, like most habits, easy to acquire and difficult to break. So expunge the filth from your vocabulary now, before you accidentally make customers wonder whether they want to do business with somebody who's got a potty mouth.
4. 'If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.'
My mother didn't tolerate malicious gossip and avoided people who did. As a result, the people she worked with (including customers) shared all sorts of things that they otherwise might not have revealed.
Sales is all about trust, and people stop trusting you the minute they minute you trash-talk the competition, your management (worse), or other customers (worst of all).
When you allow venom to creep into your words, it spreads poison over everything. So if you want strong relationships, both personal and professional, hold your tongue when you're tempted to say something unprofessional or petty.
5. 'I don't care if everyone else is doing it.'
I remember being furious at my mom when she said this. She was unfair! She was ruining my social life! She was making me uncool! (The horror, the horror...)
Of course, now that I've got two kids of my own, I know exactly where she was coming from. More importantly, I've come to realize that, just as it's immature to let peer pressure lead you into doing something stupid, it's a losing business strategy to imitate the behavior of other firms in your industry.
That's why I'm skeptical of anyone who claims to be teaching "best practices." Every company is unique and thus must have a unique formula for success. Going with the crowd is the fast track to mediocrity.
6. 'It's no use crying over spilt milk.'
My mom faced a lot of challenges in her life: a stillborn baby in her 20s, a scandal-ridden divorce in her 30s, breast cancer in her 40s. She came through all of it with a (mostly) positive attitude, because she lived in the present and not the past.
I can't ever remember hearing her complain, even once, about what had happened to her. Instead, she made the effort, and largely succeeded, in finding things to enjoy in her life at the time.
That's an incredibly valuable belief to have if your livelihood depends upon sales. No matter how talented you are, no matter how wonderful your product, some deals are going to go south. Focusing on the past is worse than useless. Learn what you can and move on.
Note: My mom died two years ago from complications resulting from reconstructive surgery. I respectfully dedicate this column to her memory.