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Sales: Techniques or Values?
“The very substance of our existing which has made us leaders in technique, stands as a barrier to any thinking which might be able to comprehend technique from beyond its own dynamism.”
The odd quote above takes some time to understand but has been rattling around in my brain for weeks now. George could have said this: to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We live in a technological society, meaning the solutions to most problems are seen as technical or knowledge problems. If we just develop the right skills and tools, we can solve anything.
Take a subject like energy. We have a problem: we use a lot of energy, and as more and more countries industrialize and more people are born, we use more and more energy. What possible solutions are there? Here in the United States, the solutions to the energy crisis are framed as technical problems. Use too much fossil fuel? Make a more efficient air conditioner, a tighter house, a lower-GWP refrigerant, get an electric car, and maybe switch to solar panels. We can overcome our problems with strategy and technology.
Maybe we should go back to the horse and buggy?
But that whole conversation is for people much smarter than me. I would like to focus on something that is a little more relevant for me as a small business owner: sales.
Let’s take a look at my average sales process:
I convince or educate the homeowner that they need a new system, or I have failed. The new system they need is the ideal system for that homeowner. I have spent time explaining the benefits, redesigning their ductwork, and offering a great financing package. Through a blend of sales strategies and hard work, I have the ability to close the deal. Failure to do so is through some fault of my own.
Then some Chuck-in-a-truck swoops in with a low-priced bid and beats me. What happened? I know my design was better, my workmanship is better, and I care more. Why does Side Job Steve win more bids than I do? How did I lose?
At this point, your mind may go one of two ways. Either doubt begins to creep in, and you tell yourself you're just not good enough, or somehow Low Bid Larry has an edge that is unfair. You decide at this point to increase your skill level and become the best salesman, with training, techniques, and the like.
None of these ideas are bad. As a young business owner, I certainly need to consider additional sales training and marketing. However, I believe something deeper is at work here.
Our current sales mindset presents sales as a game; if you learn the right rules and follow the playbook, you'll win. This is a common idea in our technological society, where every problem—from climate change to America's social problems—can be fixed by the right combination of hard work and technological innovation. There's a problem with this, though.
What it implies is that any failure to win bids, charm customers, and be a success is on our shoulders. It implies that we can control other people with the right inputs and outputs, like an air conditioner or a computer. I don't know about you, but I've tried that with my kids and my wife, and my success has been… limited.
As HVAC professionals, we love fixing things. If a unit is broken, we can follow the sequence of operations, look at the wiring diagram, follow a flow chart, and FIX IT. But I don’t think relationships with people don’t fit well into this mechanical mindset.
We can’t treat people like machines. We can't win every job. There is no magic formula to do that. But do you know what's more important than winning every bid? Being at peace with yourself. There are no magic sales strategies, but we can live by a set of commitments and values that keep us true to who we want to be.
Our values will then help guide us to techniques that we feel comfortable with. The values are the bones of our companies, and the techniques we use for sales are the flesh on the bones. You don’t want to be grafting on anything that doesn’t match the bones. This values-first approach allows you to evaluate which of the myriad of available techniques you would like to use. Ask yourself: do these strategies fit with my values?
So, here are my commitments to my customers and to myself. This list helps me take the weight of the whole sales process off of my shoulders and actually enjoy interacting with the person I’m talking to. If that sounds nice, consider making your own list of commitments.
1. Care about the homeowner
- When I walk into someone’s home, I want to enter as someone there to serve the homeowner. What are their needs? Obviously, the heat or AC is broken, but I can signal my care for their property and family by doing a lot of little things. Listen to their stories, ask questions, and care about them. You are talking to another human being, and they are valuable and important in their own right.
2. Be Honest
- Tell the homeowner what you can and can’t do. What is it that you or your company is really good at? What will you hang your hat on? I will do the best work I know how to do, own my mistakes, and follow best practices. I recently had to resend a bid I made because I quoted the wrong equipment. I apologized and told the homeowner I was a new business owner. I’m sure I could have made up some excuse to save face, but I chose not to. I would rather be seen as an honest dummy than a manipulative genius.
3. Do Work I Can Be Proud Of
- Even if it’s a free quote, I want to do a quick block load calculation and maybe some static pressure testing. I want to include a properly sized, high-quality filter, float switches, surge protection, and whatever else I think belongs in a well-installed HVAC system. I want to install equipment that is going to last a long time and provide a healthy and comfortable environment. We have to be careful with diving deep into a system if we aren’t getting paid for it because it can create resentment within us if a sale doesn’t come from it. But I want to provide a minimum standard of care and quality, even if the homeowner doesn’t care one lick about it. It’s important to me.
P.S. — Jim Johnson has a sales course on ESCO Institute's HVACR Learning Network, and it particularly dives into professionalism and values. If that sounds interesting to you, you can check out PEAK Performance For The Technical Professional.