EPISODE 408: Dave Kurlan Tells Why Your Lack of Urgency Will Destroy Your Sales Career

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Creativity in Sales Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on June 23, 2021. It featured sales Hall of Famer Dave Kurlan, author of Baseline Selling.]

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DAVE’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Have fun. It’s so easy to get caught up in tactics and strategy and steps and methodology and things, but none of that will really help you sell if you aren’t enjoying what you’re doing and bringing enjoyment to the person that you’re talking with. I’ve seen so many salespeople when we’re teaching them how to deliver an opening statement on the phone. Put some life into it. If you could just have some fun and be a little playful, even if you suck, having fun and being a little playful makes you better.”


Fred Diamond: Welcome to the Creativity in Sales webcast, our guest, Dave Kurlan. I’ve known Dave for a long time. Dave, he of course is the author of Baseline Selling. Interestingly, this week wound up being almost baseball week at the Institute for Excellence in Sales. On Wednesday, we interviewed a guy named Greg Davison with FireEye. He was a Triple-A baseball coach.

Yesterday on our Optimal Sales Mindset show, we interviewed two former Major League ballplayers, Mike O’Connor, Geoff Goetz. They talked about the mindset of being a professional pitcher, and how you can translate that to your sales career. It was a great show. Today, we have Dave Kurlan.

Dave is truly one of the gurus of the sales performance improvement world. He’s been doing this since the ’80s, and has continued to really be vital and at the forefront of what’s going on. Of course, he leads the Objective Management Group, one of the industry leaders if not the industry leader in assessment as you’re hiring your sales organization.

Also is part of Kurlan and Associates. He provides consulting tools for sales organizations as they grow. To bring the baseball week to an end, Dave, you’re of course the author of Baseline Selling, which is a great book. I have it on my bookshelf over there. You tie in some ideas about baseball, and how it can apply to professional sales.

We’re going to be going for about 30 minutes today. Of course, at the end of the show, Dave will give you an action step you can do to take your sales career to the next level. Dave Kurlan, it’s great to see you. I’ve obviously been a fan. I first saw you speak in Northern Virginia probably nine years ago.

Our good friend, Alex Bartholomaus, is one of your partners. He brought you up to Northern Virginia to speak and I read the book. I probably read it maybe half a dozen times over the last eight, nine years. It’s good to see you. We’re talking today about urgency, and why the lack of urgency can really cause you some trouble in your sales career.

It’s an interesting time, David. It’s an interesting word, urgency. Prior to the pandemic, we were talking about urgency all the time. You have to be urgent to really connect to show your customers value, if you will. We did a show last week with a sales leader from D&B, Dun & Bradstreet. Dave, we talked about fatigue.

As we come out of the pandemic and – his name is Tim Solms with D&B – how he’s paying attention to the fatigue of his team. A lot of people have responded to that. I’m doing all the talking, I want you to start doing some talking. First off, it’s great to see. You’re up in the Boston area. Of course I’m in Northern Virginia. I’m looking at the attendees, we have people watching from all over the globe. Urgency, let’s get to it.

Dave Kurlan: Well, first, thank you for inviting me and having me be part of your unofficial baseball week. I love that it’s unofficial baseball week. I love talking baseball in sales. You want to talk urgency, and you also mentioned fatigue. All that urgency creates fatigue, and there’s urgency from two sides. Salespeople must create urgency to get prospects to take action, to give prospects a reason to go through qualification.

When salespeople start asking qualifying questions and a prospect doesn’t have a compelling reason to answer those questions, they don’t. Salespeople end up leaving a lot of money on the table, because either the prospect doesn’t appear to be qualified or they have happy years and they plow forward anyhow.

Urgency, there has to be urgency on the part of the customer. The salesperson also has to have urgency to get that business closed. It’s magical when the prospect and the salesperson both have urgency. There’s alignment, and the sense is that they are collaborating together to get something done.

When only the salesperson has urgency and the prospect doesn’t, the salesperson will be seen as pushy and tone deaf. When only the prospect has urgency and the salesperson didn’t uncover it, the salesperson will be seen as unresponsive and not listening. So it’s crucial that we have both urgencies in place and marry them up, and work together.

Not many people talk about urgency in that way. I have a slide. Now, urgency happens when salespeople do a good job of taking a consultative approach to selling. As you know, if you ask 100 salespeople what it means to sell consultatively, you’ll get 100 different answers. Everybody pretty much agrees that there’s questions that are asked, but there’s a huge gap between the 15% of sales people who can actually sell consultatively.

Everyone else who either thinks they are, but they’re just skimming the surface, or who has no idea what it is and they continue to take a transactional approach. Your listeners are probably a little more sophisticated. They get to hear you and your guests every freaking day, so they probably have a pretty good idea what a consultative approach to selling is.

The real test of whether you’ve truly taken a consultative approach to selling is in this slide. This is not international statistics. Objective Management Group assessed 2.1 million sales people. This particular slide isn’t on 2.1 million salespeople, it’s on a particular sales organization that we just evaluated. It’s typical of every sales organization, and every sales team that we evaluate.

In this case, this particular sales team was better than normal. 88% of their sales people were at least uncovering some business reasons to do business, but the first disconnect happens when we need to go to uncovering issues to getting some compelling reasons to buy, and to buy from you. They were losing almost half of those opportunities. Only 44% of them, were they actually uncovering compelling reasons to buy.

Then they weren’t leveraging those compelling reasons to buy to create urgency. 87% of those opportunities went away, because they were only able to create urgency in 6% of the cases. What does that mean? The best example of this is in software. Software as a Service, SaaS sales, technology, where salespeople are in a rush to demo their application.

They use that to get people interested, so that’s the getting them interested piece. They get those prospects who are usually not the decision makers. They get them to the point where those prospects think that what’s being demonstrated is nice to have, but that’s not enough.

Fred Diamond: Dave, I have a question for you. We’re getting some questions from the audience here. Again, we’re talking to Dave Kurlan, and we got a question here from Josie. Josie is a frequent listener. Josie says, “How has the last 10 months affected this?” I want to ask you that question specifically.

I get what you’re saying, but here’s the thing. Here’s one of the main propositions that we’ve been dealing with over the last 12 months. Dave, I can’t believe we’re doing today’s show in June of 2021. Like I said, we’ve been doing a webinar every single day. In some cases, we’ve had hundreds of people on. We’ve had a lot of people come on every single day.

People were focused on three things. Again, we’re still in the pandemic at some level, so everybody is focused on one of three things. They’re focused on what COVID means from a perspective. Now of course, we’re beginning to get out of lockdown mode. People are getting vaccinated. People are talking about going back to the office. People are planning on taking vacations. All those kinds of things, but how are you responding to that?

Secondly, there’s still a huge amount of financial implications. I’m not going to mention names, but we have a lot of large companies who are members of the Institute. Some of them said that they think the next 12 months are going to be a big challenge, because people have been focused on other things.

People have been focused on their company, and their company’s customers getting out of COVID. They’re dealing with their own financial implications. Then the third thing is whatever the third thing is. Maybe your company had an acquisition. Maybe you were going to grow, and your IPO didn’t happen. Specific pertinent things. How does this apply when people are really still focused on those three things?

Dave Kurlan: That’s a great question. The assumption is that everybody is focused on those three things. We’re not seeing that much of that. We’re seeing business as usual right now, except for the fact that a lot of it is still taking place virtually. Whether they are focused on those three things, I think the thing that’s changed and will continue to be part of the new normal is competition.

That is when everybody started selling virtually, then the competition that was furthest away from you is just as close as you are when they’re selling virtually. Distance ceases to be a differentiator. That means much more competition. Much more emphasis on price, because most sellers are still unsophisticated enough and don’t know how to have a value-based conversation instead of a price-based conversation.

Back to my urgency slide, when you only get a prospect to nice to have and not to must have, at nice to have it ends up being about price. At must have, it ends up about can you help me. With more competition and more conversations around price, it becomes a race to the bottom. Price becomes a central buying criteria.

To succeed now coming out of COVID, and next year when I think buying conditions are going to be very different. After all these tax increases go into effect, and all this inflation becomes a reality. The first thing that happens is big companies go into spending freezes and start laying people off. That’s going to change everything and send a ripple effect across every industry.

Then it will be even more important to differentiate through your ability to take a consultative approach, sell value, create urgency and be not the product that they must have, but the company that they must get that product or service from.

Fred Diamond: Thank you, Josie, for that question. We have another question that’s coming in here from Nick. Nick is not too far from you, he’s in Upstate New York. Nick is a frequent watcher of the Creativity and Sales webinars and Sales Game Changers podcast. He says, “How can I show more value? It’s something that I struggle with.”

Nick is on the early stage of his career. Let’s talk about that for a few moments. I’d like to get specific. You’ve coached tens of thousands, maybe even approaching 100,000 in your career. I don’t know if you keep count, but a lot.

Dave Kurlan: I don’t have enough fingers.

Fred Diamond: [Laughs] By the way, why do you have 10 toes and four fingers and two thumbs? Anyway, talk a little bit about providing value. That’s something we talk a lot about. Again, we’ve been doing webinars every day since the pandemic kicked in, and there’s words that come up all the time. Empathy, active listening, and extreme value is one that we spend a lot of time with.

Talk a little bit about that, about how sales professionals can really demonstrate value to the customer. I understand what you said, we’re making the presumption that everyone is dealing with one of those three states. At the same time though, people are more than ever focused on their own business.

Having to grow because their customers’ customers’ customer has been affected by the pandemic over the last year. Dave, talk about your advice for sales professionals on how they can really begin to show more value to their customers.

Dave Kurlan: It’s a great question, Nick. I think value is as misunderstood as consultative selling is. This company that’s on the slide right now is a great example of that. They all scored pretty well at selling value, but they weren’t selling value because to sell value effectively, it requires three other things.

One, the sales process that’s being followed has to be a sales process that supports a value conversation. Two, value on its own doesn’t work. It has to be part of, and integrated with a consultative approach. Three, you have to know the value you’re providing, and the value isn’t the messaging that the company is created.

It’s not that unique value proposition that you’ve hopefully learned to share the way the company intend it. It’s the specific value that this particular prospect would get from doing business with you. They need to be able to articulate what that value is that they’re looking for, and you need to show how you can be the value.

A quick history on value. Back in, it was probably the ’90s. That’s when marketing companies helped companies develop their unique value propositions. Pretty soon everybody had one, so it wasn’t very unique. In the early part of this century, companies started working on the value add. That’s the one thing that a company would do in addition to the value they provided that would differentiate them.

Of course, then everybody had a value add. A unique value proposition isn’t unique, and a value add isn’t unique. If you look at the many surveys that are conducted every year with buyers, and not necessarily procurement people, but anybody who buys stuff. One of the questions they always ask is, how do you differentiate and choose which company you’re going to do business with?

For years, the surveys have shown the same thing that differentiation takes place in the field. That’s code for, we pick it based on the salesperson. It’s not based on a product, it’s not based on the price, it’s not based on the company. In the field means we go with the salesperson that we believe gets it. The salesperson who understands what we need, and can articulate their ability to deliver that value.

Today, 2021, the key to selling value is to be the value. In other words, you can’t go out there and regurgitate what someone can find with two clicks on Google. They don’t need you for that. They don’t need you to talk about the product, the specifications, the prices. They need you to understand what’s going on with them.

What they’re frustrated with, and why they’re talking with you in the first place. How you can put their mind at ease, take care of their problem and be the value that they need. That goes back to what you said about being really good at having active listening skills.

Fred Diamond: If you don’t mind, let’s get deep into that. Nick, thank you for the question. You’re one of the world’s experts on sales assessment of sales professionals, or assessment of sales professionals. A lot of what you do is help organizations hire the right people for all the right factors, and all those types of things.

I want to talk a little bit about the sales professional, and how they can get to the point where they’re not just regurgitating things that the customer doesn’t know. I want to talk a little bit about the concept of an elite sales professional. That’s another word that has come up a lot.

We actually had a debate on Wednesday’s show with Greg Davison from FireEye. He said he didn’t like that term elite, because it sets people on the team apart from other people. But one thing that we’ve seen, Dave Kurlan, is that if you’re not elite right now, there’s no real value for the customer to even engage with you because the customer knows the challenges that they’re facing.

What they need is they need, like you just said, they need someone who’s going to come in, show them things. We had an episode about a month ago with a couple CIOs. I said to them, “What do you need from sales professionals?” They didn’t say, I don’t need a 10-year strategy on AI technology. I don’t need Microsoft’s in depth blah, blah, blah.

They said, “Give me something I don’t know that’s going to help my team be more effective, that’s going to allow me to provide more value to my customer, or to the citizens.” They were both in public sector. Let’s get a little bit deep here, Dave, if you don’t mind on how the sales professional can take their career to the next level, specifically to truly be that type of a value driven professional.

I think if you’re not that, you’re gone. Companies don’t need you, customers surely don’t need you. There’s going to be more and more self-serve, and access to information on the public services.

Dave Kurlan: I think that’s a great question. I think to answer that question, we need a little context for the answer. Which is very soon if not before the year is over, the only salespeople that are going to be left in the B2B world are salespeople from companies that aren’t the top name brands, aren’t the price leaders, aren’t the marketing leaders.

They’re going to be the salespeople from smaller companies who are more expensively priced, who have a story to tell, who might have a new technology, who might have a new company. Who might be selling something very costly, who might have very long sales cycles. We’re really talking about companies with complex sales.

If it isn’t one of those, it’s going to go self-serve. It’s going to be point and click. The number of B2B salespeople is going to shrink. If you want to be part of that shrinking number of B2B salespeople, you must develop the ability to differentiate, set yourself apart, and be a brand unto yourself.

You want people to say, “Wow that is the best conversation I have ever had with a salesperson because they didn’t sound like a salesperson. He sounded like somebody who had my best interests in mind, who gave me what I needed to know and showed how they could help me on a regular basis going forward if we partner.”

I am so sick of hearing about getting on the list to be a potential vendor. How is that a freaking win? That’s not differentiating, that’s being one of many. One of many doesn’t work going forward. You’ve got to be the one that they want to partner with. No more being the vendor, being the supplier, being a resource, being a second source. That is just aiming so low.

How do we be the person, the company, the team, the organization that this prospect, their colleagues, that company says, you know what? We talked to these people before, and they were just like everybody else, but this time, what a breath of fresh air. Or, we brought in a group of salespeople, and we brought in a salesperson that we had never met with before. Wow, that was the most unique conversation we ever had with a salesperson.

Long answer to a short question, what do you have to do differently to be that salesperson? It’s like when we’re talking about coaching, how do you know whether your coaching is any good? If your sales people avoid it, if your sales people don’t want to schedule another session, your coaching sucks.

But if they say, “Wow, that was great. When can we do this again?” Now you’re finally having impactful coaching that’s going to make them a better salesperson, that’s going to impact deals, get more wins and it’s the same with selling. How do you become that kind of salesperson that’s going to get that kind of a reaction from prospects and customers?

Fred Diamond: Dave, that’s a brilliant answer. I want to follow up that and actually, Jerry says, “Great answer.” Neil says, “Wow.” I don’t want to sound too – I’m not even sure what the right word is here, but you devoted your career to helping sales professionals and sales leaders take their companies to the next level.

There’s a speaker we’ve had on the IES live stage and webinars numerous times. Her name is Lisa Earle McLeod. You probably know her. She wrote a book called Selling is a Noble Profession. I want to talk to you a second about you devoted your career to helping sales leaders grow their lives by being more effective.

The mission of the Institute for Excellence in Sales is to help sales leaders acquire, retain, motivate and elevate top tier sales talent. Again, this is a little bit off course here. I want you to give us some of your thoughts on selling as a noble profession. Again, you’ve devoted your career. You’ve helped, again, we mentioned probably ten thousands of sales professionals.

Let’s talk about the value that sales professionals can bring their customers. You just answered why you need to do it, you’re going to get shut out if you aren’t. Talk a little bit about what that value looks like from the customer perspective, and how sales is a noble profession.

How you can help your customers take their companies to the next level, as compared to reaching your quota, selling tools, it’s going to make them more productive, blah, blah, blah, those kinds of things? A little bit of a question you might not have answered in a while, but just I feel compelled to ask you right now after your previous answer.

Dave Kurlan: It’s interesting and you went off course, so I’m going to go off course a little bit before I answer if that’s okay.

Fred Diamond: Of course.

Dave Kurlan: I recorded a video a couple of months ago on why to choose sales as a career. That came from an opportunity I had to present at a high school career night. I asked to speak at that high school. My son graduated there last year, if you want to call it a graduation. They were having a career night, and as usual with every career night, you look at the list of professions that are represented and sales is never even on the list.

People feel sales is such a dishonorable place to go, they don’t include it on a list of careers, despite the fact that in the United States alone there’s 16 million freaking salespeople. That’s a pretty big number for something that doesn’t make it onto a list. Now there’s 50 universities that are offering a sales major.

We talked about some of the possibilities and the growth opportunities, and the income opportunities and the earnings opportunities in doing that. I wanted to get out there that maybe sales is something that you could choose on purpose, instead of how most people get into sales, which is by accident. Especially during recessions and depressions when engineers and technical people are getting laid off and they say, “Well, unless you want to take a job in sales.”

To directly answer that question, when sales people are helping, that’s when they’re the difference makers. The other thing to keep in mind is especially in tough times. If we look at the years 2008 to 2015 when the economy was in really rough shape. Not the boom years of 2017 to early 2020, but the tough years. It’s sales people that drive the engine of the economy.

If sales people can, as a group, as a population, get better at helping companies and helping consumers decide to spend their money when people aren’t spending money, they’re helping the economy. The world’s economy is as the US’s economy. If we’re doing good here, that has a ripple effect across the globe. It’s sales people that are directly responsible for that. That’s my take on it.

Fred Diamond: Now that’s a great answer. Actually, Marcus says, “Wow, thank you so much, Dave.”

Dave Kurlan: That’s my second wow. Two wows a half hour, and I’ll have 48 for the day.

Fred Diamond: [Laughs] we got a lot of people who watch the webinars and say wow frequently when we get an answer like that. It’s interesting, we’re called the Institute for Excellence in Sales. One of the other key lessons that really came clear over the last year is that if you think about yourself as a service, and not a service provider in the sense of doing IT, coding, those kinds of program management, if you will, but providing extremely valuable service to your customer.

Someone said, “Well, why don’t you call yourself the Institute for Excellence in Service?” Well, because we’re not. We are of service to the sales professionals, and the sales leaders who bring them. Dave, I’ve taken you off course a whole bunch of times. Before we get to our last question, why don’t you hit on one other point here?

Daniella says, “Great webinar today. Thank you.” Is there one final point, not your action step. We’re going to hold off on your action step for about two, three minutes. Is there something else you want to talk about in context here of creating urgency that would be pertinent to the audience?

Dave Kurlan: I think there is in terms of creating urgency. You’re in control of urgency. You and you alone have that ability to have two parts of urgency happen. You must have the urgency to continue asking questions, even beyond the point where you think you’ve asked enough questions until you’ve uncovered the buried treasure of urgency.

Urgency comes from the impact and the monetization of their compelling reason to buy. When you uncover that, that is like unlocking the buried treasure. If we use a water analogy, instead of a baseball analogy, this is really going sideways for me. If you’re on a boat on a snorkeling deep sea diving trip, most sales people ask questions the way snorkelers snorkel.

They skim across the surface and see lots of fish. Salespeople skim across the surface and jump from question to question to question, but a deep-sea diver knows that there’s a shipwreck right there. They will deep dive until they find the treasure with that shipwreck, and that’s how salespeople need to sell.

You can start with a few broad-brush questions, but when you hear an answer that indicates that there’s some kind of frustration or dissatisfaction, or anger or stress, or commotion going on, you ought to stop right there and just go straight down because that buried treasure will be behind it.

It might take 15 questions, it might take 50 questions, but you can’t stop asking until you reach the destination. You can’t be sitting there thinking, “Geez, I’ve asked 10 questions, I better stop.” Don’t stop.

Fred Diamond: Dave, I got one last question for you before we ask you for your final thought. Let’s see, we got Neil. Did I mentioned Neil already? Neil said, “Great job today, Fred.” Thank you. It’s Dave who’s doing a great job, not me. Let’s see, we have Shora, who also says this was fantastic. Dave, I want to ask you one last question. Again, you’ve assessed tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of sales professionals.

Dave Kurlan: 2.1 million.

Fred Diamond: That’s more than tens of thousands. You’re the expert on the planet on if a sales professional will succeed in a given opportunity. I just have one final question before we ask you for your action step. Vertical expertise, I’m just curious on your thoughts. We talk about a lot about if you really want to get great.

I’m based in the DC area in Northern Virginia. We have obviously the public sector market here, federal specifically. We have a lot of people who have done extremely well, 30, 40 years in their career, just focusing on the federal marketplace. Answer that question. From what you’ve seen, if you really want to be successful and have a wildly successful 20, 30-year career, do you recommend that people focus on a vertical marketplace or an industry?

Dave Kurlan: I think that’s a great option, because you can become an expert in that vertical. You can spend 20, 30 years in sales calling on every industry and still be an expert. But if you immerse yourself with a single industry, a single vertical, a single audience, it’s easier and faster to become an expert. But you must understand that longevity in the role doesn’t make you an expert. Bringing value to that audience makes you an expert.

Fred Diamond: Once again, we talked today on the Sales Game Changers Podcast and the Creativity in Sales Webcast with Dave Kurlan. Dave, we’ve done over 370 episodes. We transcribe them all. I have this amazing transcriber, her name is Mariana, she lives in Spain. She speaks better English than you or I do. She transcribes them all, you can go back and read every single one we’ve ever done.

Dave, before I asked you for your final action step, I just want to acknowledge. You may not be aware of this – you might be, I don’t know. You have helped, and I’ve mentioned tens of thousands. You told me 2.1 million. 2.1 million, you have affected the careers of over two million people. That is unbelievable.

I want to thank you for the value that you’ve provided to the sales industry, the sales performance improvement industry. It’s been a fascinating conversation. We went down some paths that you and I hadn’t really planned on, but the mission between both of us and almost everybody I have on the show, is to help sales professionals take their career to the next level.

Which will help their companies grow, which will help everybody improve their lives of them, people who work for their company and their customers, so I just want to acknowledge you for that. Dave Kurlan, give us one final action step. Something people should do right now, after listening to the webinar or listening to the podcast in the future, to take their sales career to the next level.

Dave Kurlan: Two words, have fun.

Fred Diamond: Have fun.

Dave Kurlan: It’s so easy to get caught up in tactics and strategy and steps and methodology and things, but none of that will really help you sell if you aren’t enjoying what you’re doing and bringing enjoyment to the person that you’re talking with. I’ve seen so many salespeople when we’re teaching them how to deliver an opening statement on the phone.

I can’t even get them past the introduction where they say, “Hi, Fred. It’s Dave Kurlan,” because they say, “[somber tone] Hi, Fred. It’s Dave Kurlan.” Who would want to talk to that person? I say, “You know what? You sound a little flat. Try it again, but add some life.” Listen to the recording of this, and see how you sound compared to some of your colleagues.

I’ll give you one more chance. Put some life into it. It sounds a lot like the first two attempts, and you can’t help that person become more successful. But if that person could just have some fun and be a little playful, even if you suck, having fun and being a little playful makes you better.

Fred Diamond: Absolutely. Daniella says, “Love this. Having fun every day.” Norton, good to see you. A relatively new listener I guess. Norton says, “I’ve enjoyed this very much.” Let’s see. Ricardo, who’s a frequent listener says, “Thank you so much, Dave Kurlan.” Dave Kurlan, once again thank you so much. Dave, thank you so much for all that you do, and for being with us today.

Dave Kurlan: You’re welcome, but I have to point out we didn’t talk about baseball.

Fred Diamond: We didn’t, so everybody go buy Baseline Selling or listen to my show from yesterday with Mike O’Connor and Geoff Goetz, and go Phillies, for that matter. Thanks, Dave.

Dave Kurlan: Thank you, Fred.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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