EPISODE 496: Optimal Pre-Call Planning with Level Five Sales Expert John Hoskins

Subscribe to the Podcast now on Apple Podcasts!

Become a member of the elite Institute for Excellence in Sales and take your sales career to the next level!

Attend the next Institute for Excellence in Sales Women in Sales Leadership Forum starting April 22, 2022. Register here.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Creativity in Sales virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on February 18, 2022. It featured an interview with sales expert John Hoskins. He’s the author of multiple books around The Level Five Coaching System for Frontline Sales Leaders. The Level Five Coaching Communication Skills book was just published.]

Find John on LinkedIn.

JOHN’S TIP: “Be a zealot about pre-call planning. Read 10-K’s, look at their Twitter, go look at their Facebook, go find out as much as you can about that person and their business as you possibly can. If you look at the risk factors in most 10-K’s, if you’re calling on public companies, you’ll know what’s on the mind of that person and you don’t have to ask the ‘what keeps you up at night’ question because it’s right there in black and white. Get your call opening correct and that call plan. The planning is priceless. Planning a call is priceless.”


Fred Diamond: I’m excited today to have John Hoskins. John, of course, is the author of Level Five Selling, Level Five Coaching System, Level Five Sales Leader, and his new book which just came out, Level Five Coaching Communication Skills. John, congratulations on all of those books. We’re excited to have you here. John’s practice focuses exclusively on developing frontline sales leaders as masterful sales coaches. I’m excited to have you here, John, I read your books. Of course, the new one just came out and I’m excited for you. The Level Five concepts I think are absolutely brilliant. We’re going to get deep into that today. It’s great to see you. Let’s just get started. You sold two companies in 2006. You started a sales assessment firm in 2011.

We talk about sales assessment a lot on the Sales Game Changers podcast. What had you start Level Five Selling five years after that, and are you ready to retire? I know you’re down in Arizona, I’m up in Virginia. It’s actually warm here even though it’s in the middle of February, but it’s great to see you. Tell us what had you start Level Five Selling.

John Hoskins: Thank you, Fred, for having me and it’s a privilege. I know that you get scores of requests from people to be interviewed by yourself and you’ve had some of the best of the best in the industry in terms of consultants. I feel privileged to be here. I appreciate your inviting me. The answer to the question was the first book, Level Five Selling, I wrote that in Vancouver, British Columbia in a summer. I was up there and my wife’s Canadian, we were on vacation, and I had this a bucket list thing.

I really was kind of retired and the phone rang and the emails came in and people said, “How can I get my sales force to sell like this?” My first thought was, well, I’ll build a sales training program, and then about two minutes later, I said, “Don’t do that.” Because our point of view is that sales training events, the two-day or three0day PSS, whatever it might be, which I started selling PSS by the way, at Xerox. They don’t really sustain. They don’t last. There’s that curve, that learning curve drop off, and we really believe that they’re basically about sharing knowledge, maybe building a little bit of skill. But if you really want to build capability and skill and not just share content, you need to have a continuous quality improvement process around coaching. We focused on the frontline sales leader.

Fred Diamond: We’ve had a lot of guests on who have gone through Xerox and we talk about methodology. Actually, a couple weeks ago we had the great Mike Bosworth who wrote Solution Selling and we talked about storytelling. As a matter of fact, I have sales leaders on the show all the time, and they always ask me for advice after the show, and I always say, have a pocketful of stories ready to go.

I believe that the frontline sales leader, especially the frontline new sales leader is the hardest job in sales. Imagine if you were promoted to your first sales leadership job in January of 2020. There’s very few classes that people get sent to right away. A lot of it is learning under fire and learning from mentors. All of a sudden everybody’s in their house, you can’t touch people, you can’t jump into a conference room. You can’t take them out to lunch at least for a year, year and a half. Why are you so passionate about that role of the frontline sales leader?

John Hoskins: Well, when I was Chief Revenue Officer and also Regional Vice President and had frontline sales leaders reporting to me, it was obvious that if that frontline sales leader was a really good recruiter, somebody who could retain quality people, somebody who knew how to train people and onboard them, and someone who knew how to coach, if they could get those three pieces of the job correct, then I would make my quota and go to President’s Club. But if that wasn’t there, you have a problem. To me, they were the linchpin. If you get that right, then a lot of other things happen.

Now, as you know, Fred, you described it beautifully. Probably what happens often is a really high performing sales rep gets promoted into sales leadership. You would hope that they have the same characteristics and traits and competencies that are required to be a great sales leader. It’s not always the case. In fact, there’s quite a high turnover in that kind of an approach. They don’t hand you a handbook and say, here’s how to be a great sales leader. Our whole focus is making the frontline sales leader masterful coaches, trainers, recruiters and retainers.

Fred Diamond: We see that all the time that there’s an assumption that if you were the top sales rep, and even though we’ve talked about it thousands of times, we see that all the time where leadership above this particular person will say, “Well, you know you were the great sales rep, you figured it out, you know our customers, you should be able to just snap right in,” and it’s a completely different discipline.

There are so many things that are wrought with failure. First of all, you’re going to make probably less money in the beginning. More responsibility, less money, gee, where can I sign up? Also you’re going to be probably working, I’m going to say almost around the clock if you’re managing 8, 9, 10 people. If you think about it, John, there was before the pandemic, and now there’s during the pandemic, and everybody on the planet has had to deal with not just how do I perform at my job, but how do I survive the pandemic? How does my wife, my children, how do my parents who I haven’t seen?

Even though it’s slowly quasi-beginning to come back, it’s still not and it’s going to be a while and all the ramifications are going to be there. Think about all the stuff that we’re adding besides just how do you be a great sales leader. Level Five, again, you have the four books. The new one just came out, Level Five Coaching Communication Skills. Talk about what Level Five means. What is the Level Five sales call and what is the brand all about?

John Hoskins: For your listeners, Fred, I’d ask them to visualize a staircase, five levels. Like a step 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. By the way, this model was not something that came out of my brain. It was from talking to sales managers and buyers, customers, and asking them, tell me about the behaviors that you see from the people that call on you. Tell me about the behaviors that you’ve observed when you go on joint calls. That’s how we developed that model, through call observation, and through interviews with sales leaders and sales managers.

The first level we call the professional visitor. You can imagine this person is a well-paid tourist. They have an expense account there, they maybe use a milk route approach to how they go around. They believe that everybody buys from their friends and of course, problem nobody can have that many friends. Of course, people do want to buy from people they like, but this person tends to have one point of contact in the account and if that contact turns over, typically the account will turn over. They’ll say, well, this guy knows the name of my wife and my kids, but he doesn’t know the name of my boss.

If it’s a complex sale, B2B, lots of decision makers and influencers, that professional visitor doesn’t do very well. But believe it or not, when we work with customers, they will still tell us that somewhere between 10% and 15% of the calls that their people make are professional visits. The second level up, staircase two, we call the price peddler. Now the price peddler, their product is the price list. In terms of selling value, they come in and we’ll talk to a VP of sales. “Oh yeah, Mike, I sell value and so let’s go look at some calls.”

Call starts out and says, “Hey, what are you currently paying for your paperclips, Fred?” Right away they went to the price conversation. Now, even if the rep doesn’t have control over price, there’s research that says 60% of all sales calls, the buyer will ask about price. They’re going to bring you into the price conversation fairly quickly and you need to understand how to navigate out of that conversation and begin to build value because until you establish value, any price is going to be too high. That price peddler, we get people telling us that somewhere between 15% to 20%, and depending on the industry segment, if they’re in a commodity market, that’s where price really comes into play a lot. Those people live and die by price, and the price of loyalty is a penny in most industries. Any competitor comes along, they have a better price, you’re going to lose that business.

Now the next step up, level three, this is the one where we see the most common type of call, we call it the technical teller. This is the old spray and pray artist, that talking brochure. They believe that their job is customer education. The problem with that is going back to, you mentioned Neil Rackham earlier in our conversation. Neil actually discovered that people who do this actually create more objections for themselves. They’re too busy talking to ever close. If there’s a short window, if you’re calling on a cardiologist, or you’re calling in someone that’s high-level and they’re busy, you don’t get a chance to get out of technical tell. They basically say, “Tell me what you got, Fred,” and you start, blah, blah, blah. So not an effective approach.

What would you guess we hear, Fred, from our customers in terms of the percent of calls that are fielded that are at the technical teller level? What would you think?

Fred Diamond: I would say way too many. Especially for the B2B, still I would say it’s way too many. I’m going to say 70%.

John Hoskins: Basically we hear 50% a lot but we do get numbers higher than that depending on the industry segment. The more technical the product, the more apps there are to talk about bits and bytes. It’s a hard thing for them to get out of. They don’t really establish needs and again, they’re not creating a lot of value for the client. Because we know today that a lot of what they’re telling the client, the client can find out on their own way before they ever see a sales rep. Not a good place to be. Now you add up those first three, we call those scrap and waste, and the average scrap and waste out there in the field today is around 60%. Can you imagine if Boeing built planes that only landed safely 60% of the time, or 40% of the time? It’s Six Sigma. We have a quality problem with calls.

The next level up, that’s level four, this is the first level of professional selling and it’s a big leap to get up there from the technical tell, price peddler, and professional visitor. But this person actually does pre-call plan, they know how to ask questions, they understand their product and its applications well. They understand how the client will make decisions. The issue here is that they tend to sell from a point of view of only what the innate characteristics of their product will do for the customer. They don’t necessarily translate that into the customer’s business issues and how they’re going to get a return on investment from acquiring that product. It’s a good call, but it isn’t the greatest call.

The great one, at level five, we call that the value creator. The value creator is actually someone who does understand the business issues. I had a client tell me the other day, I want my salespeople to be able to help my customers see around corners and bring information to them that they may not have even thought of so far, insights if you will, about their business, how they can run it better. I was talking to a guy the other day in the food service business. He said, when you’re selling butter, it’s really hard to differentiate butter. Butter is butter, and it gets to a price conversation. But if you can go into that restaurant and you can say, “Hey, I was looking at your menu and I was seeing some things that are going on the industry right now that are really popular, and I think you have a miss here that might be something that could add a lot of revenue to your restaurant. Have you thought about this?”

He said, you do that enough for that customer and ultimately, they’re going to start buying butter from you. The way I like to think about the difference between four and five, Fred, is the sales rep at four is saying, “I have a product, I’m going to exchange that product with you and you’re going to give me money.” The sales rep at level five, they say, “I have a product, I’m going to give you this product and you’re going to make more money.” It’s a nuance but it’s a mindset difference in terms of how the rep approaches the buyer.

Fred Diamond: I’m thinking here a couple things. One is, if I were to put professional visitor on my business card, that would be pretty ridiculous at some point to think that, what do I do for a living? Well, I’m a professional visitor, and you know what? If people pay me a quarter of a million dollars a year to be a professional visitor, it’s not a bad gig but there’s not a whole lot of value. Even what you said before about, well, he knows my wife, and he knows my kids’ names. Well, it’s not that hard to find that anymore and there’s really not value.

The other thing that I’m thinking about here, and we talk about getting to level five a lot and you put the term level five. The other thing that’s interesting about the level five, John, we talk a lot about the sales professional, right? What are you doing to be a sales professional. The beginning of the pandemic, when we started doing these daily Sales Game Changers webinars, we were saying. But if you’re a professional golfer, you’re working on your driving. Doesn’t matter if there’s a pandemic going on. Same thing in sales. What are you doing to be a professional? And part of the profession, John, is long term. You may not get that sale today but if you’re a professional and you’re at the level five where you’re helping the customer find new opportunities, that you know what, John? They’re probably struggling with right now. Everybody on the planet is trying to rebound from the last two years. A big part of it is, who are we going forward? How do we be more valuable to our customers? Not just us as a sales professional to our customers, but thinking in terms of how you can be more valuable to your customer, and not just your customer anymore, John, but your customer’s customer.

John Hoskins: Bingo, that would be a level five rep who understands not only their customer but their customer’s customer. I agree. This professional thing to me, if you think of any other profession, F. Lee Bailey practice before court. Physicians go to teaching schools. Musicians, Yo-Yo Ma practices, you can bet on it. Tiger Woods goes to the range. I can go through every profession out there, and they don’t stop. It’s like, if I turn the corner in January, I want to lose 10 pounds. I go to a trainer and I go to two weeks to the trainer and that’s it? I’m not going to lose 10 pounds. You got to go every week. You got to put it on your calendar, book it, and make it happen. A lot of this data dump two-day thing, and then you’re off and you’re running and you’re ready to go, doesn’t work that way. You got to go to the putting range. You got to work on your short game if you really want to be a great golfer. Same in sales.

Fred Diamond: Absolutely. Again, the new book is Level Five Coaching Communication Skills. Let’s talk about what it means to be a level five sales leader, and talk a little bit about some of the coaching communication skills that they have to be adept at.

John Hoskins: I’m going to give you a story again, an idea of, here’s this new manager coming in to take over a team. Let’s make it even more complex. Let’s say that she’s taking over the team that she used to be on. She’s now managing her peers. She’s not been given any kind of training or direction on how to be a sales manager, she only knows what her old sales manager did, or what other sales managers did that she used to work for. All of this IP that we have really comes out of our customer work. This particular piece came from working with, I call it an adult beverage company that has a very good bourbon. The CEO of that organization came from Coca-Cola. He said to me, “John, I want my managers to do three things. Recruit and retain people, I want them to train, and I want them to coach.”

We use the level five model there, but then they came to us and they said, you know what strikes us? As much as the sales leaders look at representatives and buyers look at representatives and they say they’re at different levels, salespeople look at managers, and they look at them at different levels, and they experience them at different levels. What do we think those are? We started looking into that. The first level we call the buddy. Again, you’re coming into a group of people that you’ve been a peer with. You’re operating at this level, there’s a term that says admiration is not respect. Leadership is not a personality contest. You have to make tough decisions that sometimes aren’t too popular. They’re thinking a salesperson will perform better if they like them. However, it gets into a situation where they often will play favorites and that doesn’t bode well with the rest of the team. That’s the first level on that same five level step piece.

They figure out that the buddy level doesn’t work and they learn that that’s not a guarantee for sales results, and they move into what we call the parental approach. The parent is the manages the salesperson, but it creates a lot of limitations. Because just like parenting, the salesperson starts to feel entitled, it stifles innovation, they might even protect them. Let’s say that they’re not able to make a sale, they might go up, make the sale for them. It stifles learning for that individual contributor. Again, like helicopter parenting of today, the performers really aren’t allowed to think for themselves. They aren’t allowed to go out and get bloody. That’s where you learn in the crucible of making mistakes.

Next level up, this is the one that they say, well, none of those works. I’m going to go to the old two stripes, three stripes, I got three stripes, you got two, I’m going to be a boss. I’m going to tell you what to do and if you don’t do it, there’s consequences. The problem with that is you get compliance from people in terms of telling them what to do, but you don’t get commitment. Then if they go do what you tell them to do and it doesn’t work, whose fault is it? It’s the boss’s fault, because you told me to do that. There’s that old expression that people join companies and quit managers. This is the manager that gets quit a lot, the micromanager boss.

The fourth level up, again, just like with the leadership or the sales level, this is the first level of professional coaching, but we call it the expert coach. Here she passes along her knowledge tailored to the specific individual’s needs, not like a brush across everything. She looks at the individual and says, what do you need? And she starts to coach there. Problem again is this is a person who is telling versus asking. A great leader passes along their experience through the questions they ask, not through the things they tell someone to do. The expert coach again, while it’s pretty good, it isn’t what we call the best and the best we call the performance partner.

The performance partner passes along that wisdom through inquiry. Because it’s through inquiry, there’s a statement that says people will tolerate your conclusion as a boss, but they’re going to act on their own conclusions. What this inquiry process does is helps that person come to their own conclusion, the a-ha, if you will, of how they’re to solve the performance challenge and then they’re committed to it and you’re the partner who has their back and you’re helping them get there. It’s just a different thing. Instead of a tell, it’s an ask. That’s the five levels.

Fred Diamond: We have a comment here from Johnie. Johnie says, “I’m at level three.” Good observation there, Johnie, to see where you are and there’s two more levels to get to. That’s quite fascinating, too. If you think about it, it’s similar to, John, how we were talking about if you’re a sales professional, you want to get to the level five, the value creator. We had mentioned Neil Rackham, we brought Neil Rackham to speak and one of the most vivid memories I have, Neil was on stage, and I know you were at Xerox, where he talked about how sales is about value creation. It was one of the most impactful moments we’ve ever had on our live stage. Similar thing here, you want to get to that point, and here’s the thing. If you aren’t at that point, John, now you’re going to be valueless as a sales professional because, and we talked about this every day, the customer is in control. This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed this but it is what it is.

Coming out of the pandemic, if you’re not creating this value, again, we’ve been saying a lot, John, not just about how you create value to your customer but how they can create value to their customer’s customer. The same thing here as a sales leader, if you’re not helping with the performance improvement through commitment, inquiry, passion, that your team is going to struggle and of course, you’re eventually going to just lose your job because the company’s not going to need you around.

John Hoskins: I was trained by Neil at Xerox and I’ve enjoyed many moments with him. One of the things that he taught me about value creator which always stuck with me is that if you came out of that call and someone went and interviewed that buyer, would that buyer say they would have paid for the call? At that point, that’s the gold standard. The buyer says, that call was so valuable to me that I would have paid to have that salesperson come here. That’s a high standard. He’s so sage in terms of how he looks at the sales process, and some of his sound bites just have stuck with me for years.

Fred Diamond: We actually met him before we started the Institute for Excellence in Sales. We’re based in Virginia, he lives not far from us, and he very kindly gave us a couple of hours when we started this, and we had him speak twice and he’s just absolute revolutionary. Well, John, unfortunately, we’re coming down to the end here. We do have some questions, so let’s get to a couple of these. Let’s see, we got one here from Eric. Eric says, “John mentioned that he interviewed tons of customers. What is their biggest complaint?” You might have touched on this before. When you did all your interviews with customers about their sales professional, what were some of the things that stuck with you that our listeners may want to be aware of?

John Hoskins: I’m not alone in finding out this data point, it’s out there with McKinsey and CSO Insights and others, but they don’t understand my business. There’s nothing that frustrates me more Fred, than I get a call from a sales rep and they go, “Well, tell me more about level five selling, what do you do?” I’m like, “I’m all over LinkedIn, I got a website, I’ve written some books, do some homework and call me back.” That’s the one.

Fred Diamond: Actually, when people ask me, Fred, how do I become a better sales professional? What’s a thing I should do? I always say this, “Become an expert in an industry.” Become an expert in your customer’s industry. If you sell to the government, you got to become a student of the government. If you sell to health care, if you sell to financial services, entertainment, the restaurant industry, aeronautics, you need to be an expert.

If you think about it, and actually this is really appropriate. If you’re going to get to that level five, the value creator, you can’t just create it about your product, you got to create about where the customer is in the industry, and where the industry is going so that they want to talk to you. It may not lead to a sale at this moment but they’ll want to talk to you again. In sales, our whole goal is to talk to the customer again, right?

John Hoskins: You got to be a student of their business, and you have to be intellectually curious. You just can’t not know enough. There’s so much you can learn. That’s one of the reasons when we work with clients, we want to go on calls with their reps before we do anything. Well, let’s see what reality is. Because a lot of times the people we’re talking to that are the buyer, they have been in the field for months. You never really know what’s going on.

Fred Diamond: Yeah, that’s a great point. So many things have changed. We’re getting some comments here. Eric who just asked a question said, “This was great, Fred. Thank you.” Well, thank John. We got a comment here from Suzanna. She says, thank you guys. We got a comment here from Neil – not Neil Rackham, it’s a different Neil, I’m sure, who’s always watching our podcast, the live virtual learning session says, great job today.

Again, the fourth book, Level Five Coaching Communication Skills, it’s out now. John, I just want to acknowledge you and congratulate you for the value you’ve brought to tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of sales professionals in your career with the level five work, all the books and the coaching and the consulting. Thank you so much for helping. Well, we actually have a couple more comments coming in here. Beth says, “Time well spent.”  John, as we like to end every Sales Game Changers podcast episode, why don’t you give us a final action step?  You’ve given us so many great ideas but give us something specific sales professionals listening today should do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

John Hoskins: I would say pre-call planning. Be a zealot about pre-call planning. Read 10-Ks, go look at their Twitter, go look at their Facebook, go find out as much as you can about that person and their business as you possibly can. If you look at the risk factors in most 10-Ks, if you’re calling on public companies, you’ll know what’s on the mind of that person and you don’t have to ask the ‘what keeps you up at night’ question because it’s right there in black and white. So pre-call planning.

What are you going to ask? What do you think they’re going to ask? What objections are you going to reach? What’s the primary call objective and the secondary call objective? If your primary doesn’t work, what’s your backup? Get your call opening correct and that call plan. I forget who said, it was some general or something but the plan was useless but the planning was priceless. Planning a call is priceless.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *