Inc. 500 CEOs share their biggest sales mistakes

Anyone who has lost a customer knows the meaning of the word humbled. Sales mistakes are embarrassing, costly, and humorous only in hindsight. But they sure are instructive, and growing companies make them all the time. We asked CEOs from our Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private U.S. companies to share the sales techniques they've learned to avoid.

* * *

1. Don't follow through. It's easy to become complacent and tell yourself you've got the business locked up. An admittedly cocky attitude toward a top client cost Aurora Pucciarello, CEO of Max Distribution, a $5.5-million logistics company in Dallas. She had a lucrative three-year contract, and to renew it she needed only to return the client's request for a proposal. "We were told to just fill out the same numbers as before. We thought, 'Great, we've got them in our pocket.' We put the proposal on the filing cabinet -- and forgot about it."

Only a phone call from the client let Pucciarello know she'd missed the proposal deadline -- and lost the business. She cried that day. "The client was 10% of our sales, and all we had to do was fill in this form." Max Distribution won the account back -- six years later. That gave the company plenty of time to overhaul its bid-proposal system.

* * *

2. Bad-mouth the customer. A few years back Paul Lyon couldn't understand why he wasn't selling more of his novelty gifts to a particular chain. "I unloaded on the buyer's boss at a trade show," recalls Lyon, the owner and former top sales dog at $9.4-million Lyon Design, in Salt Lake City. "I lost my temper." The buyer in question was reprimanded -- and retaliated by cutting off Lyon Design for "a good six months." Five years later that chain is Lyon Design's best customer, "but it was a long hard road to get the business back."

* * *

3. Sell when you shouldn't. In the start-up days, it's perfectly logical for a CEO to double as chief salesperson. But once a company takes off, it makes less sense to play sales rep. For Jim Genstein, it makes no sense at all. Genstein is CEO of In-a-Flash, a $2.6-million direct-mail company in Pittsburgh that sells educational flash cards. "I'm not allowed to talk to customers, because I don't have the time to be warm and fuzzy," he says.

When Genstein takes a customer phone call, all he hears is the clock ticking. "Some people will talk forever before making a choice about a $35 purchase. I'll get to my boiling point and say, 'Sorry, I have to say good-bye now' -- which is why my employees don't let me on the phone."

* * *

4. Don't listen. You know your niche. But making the sale might depend on your willingness to let your customers teach you a thing or two. "I tend to talk without listening, and big companies want you to listen first," says Jeff Hopmayer, CEO of Original American Scones, in Oak Park, Ill., which last year sold $5.9 million worth of baked goods.

At first, the more Hopmayer pushed his agenda with the big companies he approached, the slower things went. "One company spent $187,000 on focus groups to tell me it was OK to sell my scones," he says. "That drove me nuts." Hopmayer didn't win the orders until, he says, "I realized that by listening I could make improvements and make more sales."

* * *

5. Assume you know what customers want. Millard Choate, CEO of Choate Construction, in Marietta, Ga., generally finds that his company's speed is a strong selling point. But one potential customer was unimpressed. "We showed this company slides of buildings we'd done in a short period of time. Normally, that's how we get jobs." (Choate Construction's sales have grown from $17 million to $136 million in five years.) Choate was shocked when his proposal was rejected. "They said our company was more powerful than what they wanted. They wanted to go at a sleepier pace." That would have been fine had Choate known. "We could have gone slow," he says. "The lesson I took out of it was, Read your client as much as you can."