EPISODE 375: Thrive Author Meridith Elliott Powell on Turning Uncertainty into Competitive Sales Advantage

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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 4, 2021. It featured Meridith Elliott Powell, author of the new bestseller Thrive.]

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MERIDITH’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Really do the work day in and day out to start to view uncertainty as opportunity. Start to think of yourself as somebody who runs to the sound of the gunfire and takes action. If you do that, everything else is going to fall in place. Really focus and believe your job is to help others move through that uncertainty. If you help others move through that uncertainty, you are going to move through it flawlessly.”


Fred Diamond : We’ve got Meridith Elliott Powell. You may recognize her name, first of all because she’s an amazing speaker. There’s a good chance you might have seen her speak at your company or your organization. She also was on the podcast last year.

Meridith, the new book is called Thrive, Strategies to Turn Uncertainty to Competitive Advantage. Tell us why you wrote the book. Give us a little more insight into you. You’re the author of what, seven books, is it now?

Meridith Elliott Powell: Yeah, I’m up to seven. First, I got to say congratulations. It does not surprise me at all that you have had so much success with your podcast, and all that you do with the Institute. Yes, I am out on book number seven. Who ever thought it would be that prolific?

I got to tell you, this one is my favorite, Thrive, turning uncertainty to competitive advantage. It’s an interesting story. A couple of years ago, back in 2018, 2019, when the economy was red hot, if we can all remember those days and we’d never even really heard of a pandemic, I became obsessed with the word uncertainty. Because the very first question we all ask our customers is how’s business?

Everybody was answering me the same. Business is good, business is great. In fact, we’re headed for our best year on record, but this uncertainty. I thought, why does uncertainty always have to be a negative? Why does it always prevent growth rather than propel it? That put me on a mission to just find companies that maybe had started to think about uncertainty as opportunity.

That’s where the book was born. It’s the study of nine companies that have been in business since late 1700s, early 1900s. They’re still in business thriving today. From that research, I wrote proven nine-step formula of what it takes to thrive in an uncertain marketplace.

Fred Diamond: We’re going to get to some of your steps in a little bit. For people watching and listening today, the podcast is going to go live in June of 2021. We are coming out of the pandemic in the United States, and people are out there and about. I know you’re going to do a whole bunch of public speaking live at the end of the summer.

You got some big things coming up, and people are beginning to process that. The Institute for Excellence in Sales, we’re going to go back to our live in-person events in September in the Washington DC area. What do you see as some of the biggest sales and biggest growth challenges as we’re coming out of the pandemic?

Meridith Elliott Powell: Some of the biggest challenges, I think, that I’m seeing is the fact that COVID has changed a lot. It’s especially changed a lot in sales. Number one is I think that virtual sales is really here to stay for a lot of reasons. Number one, customers like it because it’s more efficient and effective for them.

Companies like it, because it holds down on expenses. We no longer travel across the country just to have dinner with people. I think that’s the thing is that if you didn’t master virtual sales, you still need to be doing a lot of work around it. The other is that really creativity and value in sales, how we sell now is very different.

It is an overcrowded marketplace, much more than it was even before COVID. Sales is no longer just a lone sport that we do as individual salespeople. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that we have to embrace rather than repel.

Fred Diamond: It’s interesting. We started doing daily webinars back in March. I can’t believe it’s March of 2020, it’s been close to 15 months now. It’s literally insane, and we do four a week. Tuesday is focused on Women in Sales. Wednesday, I interview sales VPs about how they’re managing their team, leading their team and how they’re working with their customers.

Thursday, we started doing a webcast called the Optimal Sales Mindset. We focus on the whole mindset, motivation, energy, those kinds of things. Friday, we call the show the Creativity in Sales webinar. Of course, you’re on that today. The reason is because you had to rethink. It’s funny, prior to the pandemic, we talked about process.

If you follow this process, there’s a good chance you may be successful. Then all of a sudden, boom, the lights changed and things had to shift. As a sales professional, you had to be creative. There are so many ways you need to be creative. Talk a little bit about what you’re seeing, or what you’re recommending as creativity being.

Once again, process has shifted and the main reason is because our customers have shifted. Every customer, everybody listening has had to do some kind of shift. You mentioned the word shift before, talk a little bit about how do you want to be creative in order to be successful?

Meridith Elliott Powell: Creativity in sales, it was something I never even thought about really before this pandemic hit, because we pretty much had a way that we did sales. Well, I think one of the biggest things that you’ve got to embrace is what worked for you in March of 2020 probably isn’t working for you now.

Another big challenge and another big mistake I see salespeople make, who are still using methodologies and systems that are really gone out of date. When it comes to creativity in sales, rather than plan everything you’re doing, you really need to be listening to your customers, listening to your competition, and looking for the opportunity and looking for the shift.

Looking for the way to differentiate yourself. I’ll just give you a really quick story. Before COVID happened, I was calling on a large healthcare company. We were looking to really make their team more efficient and more effective at what we’re going to call traditional sales. How do they get in the door with the doctors’ offices?

How do they maximize that time? How do they win over the gatekeeper? All the stuff we’ve all known. Well, then COVID hit and boom, we had to teach the team to sell virtually. I had to be the very first one to pivot, and be at the door with all these virtual strategy ideas on how I could take a 400-man sales team and make them efficient and effective at virtual selling better than anybody else could do it.

We moved through that whole process, and then the election happened. We went from Trump to Biden, and with that came the idea that healthcare was going to get funded. It was going to explode. There was going to be more opportunity. I had to be the first one to jump to the plate for my CEO and say, “Let’s talk about how we can position your sales team long before this funding ever comes through to be able to take advantage of where the money is going to go, and where the opportunities are.”

That’s being creative in sales. I’m not just selling sales training, I’m selling every idea I can think of and paying attention to what’s happening in my customers’ market environment, and beating them to the punch of asking me for anything. I’m a step ahead.

Fred Diamond: That’s such a brilliant point. We’re going to get to thrive in a second. We have a question here from Richard. Richard is in the DC area. Richard says, “Meridith mentioned things we should be leaving behind. What should we be leaving behind?”

That’s an interesting question. You had mentioned that a few seconds ago, and not what we should be leaving behind from the last year because I want to get to that in a second. What things might we still be doing that aren’t working at all anymore, because of the new world that we’re in?

Meridith Elliott Powell: I think one of the biggest things that you’ve got to leave behind is something I mentioned, but I want to elaborate on. That is assuming that you can operate as a lone agent. Marketing and sales have got to be aligned. People have to have heard of you, and about you.

You have to be a thought leader. Not only your company, but you as an individual have got to be. People, they need to believe that you can solve the problem before they ever interact with you. The other is you’ve got to leave behind the fact that you can still operate without sales automation, without the tools and things that we’ve got happening with sales.

You can no longer think you can remember to follow up on a customer. You not only need to use a CRM, it has to be actively packed with information. You also need to leave behind that you believe that you are relevant in the marketplace. That the problem you were selling before is not the problem you’re selling now.

What you’re selling is constantly changing. It may still be the same product or service, but you need to be reconfiguring it to sell in the marketplace. I would say the other is leave behind the fact that any sales training you get is static, because it’s constantly shifting and constantly changing.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk specifically here. You raised some great points. Let’s get specific. One thing you mentioned, which is a great point is the fact that you may still be selling what you’re selling, but what your customer needs is different.

One thing that we’ve talked a lot about on the daily Sales Game Changers webinars and podcasts is the fact that three things have happened in the world. Everybody on the planet is dealing with the pandemic and what it means. Secondly, everybody is dealing with the financial implications. The pandemic, and how does your company thrive, or rethink.

Then the third thing is, you’re dealing with your own stuff. Has your company been affected? Has your family been affected? One thing that we know, we have a very thriving Women in Sales Program. Women in sales, especially in middle level management have just been – I hate to say this, but have just been crushed over the last year because they’ve had to take care of the home and the children and all those types of things.

There’s been this cosmic shift, if you will, to provide value for the customers, because like you said, we got to be thinking in terms of not just what we offer them, but what they need. It’s become even more apparent because we know they’re dealing with this still, in June of 2021. Talk a little bit, Meridith Elliott Powell, what should sales professionals be doing to be of even more value to their customers?

Then as a follow up, the follow up comes here from Josie. Josie says, “What about leaders? What should leaders be doing?” What should reps be doing to be of value or else they’re done? They’re toast. Customers don’t need you right now. Secondly, how can leaders be leading?

Meridith Elliott Powell: It’s one of my favorite questions. You and I were talking about a friend of ours before we got started, Bill Cates. Bill wrote the book on this, and the book is about relevancy. If you are not relevant, you are dead in this marketplace. However, the flip of that is it is a myth that people will not spend money, and that you can’t grow in the middle of highly volatile times.

They will spend money if you’re relevant. One of my favorite stories from the book is from Procter & Gamble. Procter & Gamble, P&G, what a lot of people don’t know is they were started in the early 1800s by two men who married sisters, Procter and Gamble. One sold candles and the other sold soap.

Their future father-in-law said, “Boys, why don’t you quit competing? Why don’t you form a company?” Procter & Gamble was born. Now, Procter & Gamble, a base value for them is that they’re relevant. If you know the history of Procter & Gamble, they never go to market with a single product or service, they don’t develop it until they talk to customers first.

What should salespeople be doing? I got to tell you in my own business, once a quarter I survey my customers. Tell me what’s going on with you. Tell me where you’re focused in 2021. If you could solve one problem, what would it be? Then you listen, because you’re about to get gold.

First they’re going to tell you exactly what their problems are, but they’re going to tell you in the language that you need to use. Back to Procter & Gamble. The first product they decided to put on the market was soap. Now talk about a commodity, try to sell soap. How do you differentiate yourself?

Well, they didn’t try to come up with that themselves. They went out, and they talked to their customers. Customers said, “We love soap. We would buy soap, but the problem with soap is that when you lather up with it, it pops out of your hands. It goes to the bottom of the bathtub, we want a soap that floats.”

Procter & Gamble injected air into Ivory Soap. Took the exact language the customer said, and Ivory Soap was born. Ivory Soap, if any of you remember from growing up, it was tagged a soap that floats. By the end of the 1800s they were a million dollar company. Not because they were slick, not because they were fancy, but because they were relevant.

That to me is really what salespeople need to be doing. The value of salespeople is that we talk to customers, and customers talk to us. Just pay attention, and feed that to your marketing department.

Fred Diamond: Let’s get deep on that for a second, if you don’t mind. Thanks for referencing the great Bill Cates. He was one of our finalists for our sales speaker of the year. He actually was our keynote speaker at our award event a couple years ago. He’s a good dear friend. Relevance, talk specifically about sales leaders right now.

We’re coming out of the pandemic, if you will. People are going to be listening to this in the future. Your book is called Thrive. We’re going to talk about how to thrive in uncertainty in a second. Maybe we can start the conversation right now. So sales leaders, how would sales leaders be relevant moving forward?

Meridith Elliott Powell: Well, I think that first of all, the most important thing that sales leaders need to be doing is they need to be providing a vision for their team. What does success look like for the team in an uncertain marketplace? They need to be relentless about that vision. I like to see a sales leader who starts every meeting with a vision of what the team is going to be.

They finish every one-to-one coaching session with a vision of what that individual is going to accomplish, and the impact that they are going to make. Providing that vision. Why does the vision matter? Because in uncertain times, people get stuck. Listen, sales is hard. We get rejected a lot. The sales cycle is so long, it can feel like you just want to give up and you don’t want to keep going.

Well, that vision is what keeps you going. That’s what I’m fighting for. That’s what I’m pushing through. Sales leaders also need to be reminding salespeople of the difference that they make. I think the power of selling in an uncertain marketplace is you’re really making an impact. Don’t pull back from your customers, go in to help them. They need you now more than ever.

Drove me crazy that salespeople didn’t get labeled as essential. I don’t know anybody more essential in a pandemic than we are, because we’re going in to solve a problem and really help people. The other thing that sales leaders need to be doing is helping their sales teams get the skills. Selling in today’s world, it’s just different.

It’s a lot of building reputation in the marketplace. It’s a lot of value added selling. It’s really critical thinking, and business acumen. Lord help you, you better have a strong nurture-based follow up system. The skills set has changed, and I would bet that a lot of sales teams are missing the skills they need. Sales leaders have never been more important as a coach, and somebody to identify where the gaps are and to really help people get there.

Fred Diamond: When pandemic kicked in, we were doing the webinars every day. There wasn’t a whole lot of transactional stuff happening the first couple of months, March, April, May, June, of the pandemic, if you will. We realized that if you’re a sales professional, you need to be professional.

Now you might not be transacting, because everybody was trying to figure out what’s going on with them, their company, their customers, or customers’ customers, et cetera. We realized that, okay, if you’re a sales professional, what should you be doing right now as a sales professional?

Your book is called Thrive. Talk about the word thrive, if you don’t mind. I know the book is called Thrive, strategies or uncertainty, how to be thriving in uncertainty. The reason I’m you specifically, what does it mean to thrive? I’ll tell you why. Another big question, another main theme that we realized was we used to use the word elite a lot.

Sales professionals now need to be elite. We’ve been wrestling with what is the definition of elite. Just for a second, define what thrive can mean or might mean to a sales professional. Again, June 2021 people are going to be listening this through the summer, possibly. Thrive. Define what thrive really means today.

Meridith Elliott Powell: Thrive really means today that you find opportunity in the middle of extreme obstacles. That you have the skill set to see the challenge in front of you, and find the one silver lining, the path through. Then for salespeople, they’re able to use that then to help their customers. That you also see obstacles and setbacks as opportunity as well.

Thriving is about realizing that it’s your every failure has a learning opportunity to help you succeed. The biggest definition I can give to it is that when uncertainty hits, thriving is about running to the sound of the gunfire and taking action. That’s what thriving is. Are you somebody who goes in or are you somebody who gets stuck?

What we want to be and especially as salespeople – again, ever since I got into the profession over 20 years ago, I think it’s a really noble profession. It’s an important profession. What I do is go in with my customers and help them solve the problems they need solved, so that they can make their dreams come true.

You better thrive as a salesperson. You better run to the sound of the gunfire. Anybody can sell in a good economy, you need to sell in a tough one. That’s why your customers needs you.

Fred Diamond: That’s a really interesting point. You said elite sales professionals, they run to the gunfire, if you will. Let’s talk about that for a second. Again, we’re talking to the great Meridith Elliott Powell. She’s a great speaker. Speaks all around the world. She’s going to be back on live stages everywhere, middle of the summer and moving forward.

Actually we had Meridith scheduled to speak at the Institute for Excellence in Sales in 2021. Obviously, we didn’t do that event. We only did a couple in the beginning part of the year, and we’re going to start again in September. Let’s talk about boldness. We do an award event every year, we actually just did it yesterday, June 3rd.

It’s the Institute for Excellence in Sales, our Sales Excellence Awards. We have an award, Meridith. It’s called the Jay Nussbaum Rising Sales Star Award. It’s the second year we’ve given it away. Jay Nussbaum was a huge public sector sales leader at Oracle and Xerox and Citibank, and Accenture. Just bigger-than-life character.

He’s an absolutely fantastic guy. He died two years ago of cancer, so we have this new award, anybody under the age of 40 can apply. This year, the winner was a woman from Red Hat, a company not too far from you. Her name is Veronica Poissant.

We did a show about Jay about a year or so ago. Jay had said to a sales leader, “Be bold.” We’ve started using, in some cases, the hashtag #BeBold. It’s subtle, but at the same time it fits in with what you just talked about. Talk about that for a little bit, because the concept that you just brought up, a great sales professional runs to where the gunfire is.

We talk about when’s the best time to prospect? How do we get a call going with a sales professional? How do we ask for an introduction? We try to map it out and strategize. Talk about boldness, if you don’t mind, and how that applies to thriving in uncertain times.

Meridith Elliott Powell: I think the biggest thing is, and this is where I think we struggle to be bold or we struggle to run to the sound of the gunfire. We think sales is about us. We think that, I don’t want to bother people. How do I get a prospect? How do I get a referral? How do I figure out the best way to talk to a customer when they’re going through a challenging time?

The moment I hear that, I notice, and this isn’t as negative as it probably sounds, but I notice that the sales professional or the sales team is more focused on their own interests than the customer. Imagine that you had a child who was ill, or a family member who needed something. You don’t hesitate to call anybody at 12 o’clock at night to try to get help for a family member.

Why? Because you’re so concerned about getting what that family member needs. You need that mindset when it comes to your customers. Sales is never about you. Anytime I talk to a customer, I don’t know if I’m going to be the one who solves their problem. I’m just showing up to see what the problem is.

Maybe I need to call you, Fred, and say, “You know what? My customer has this problem, Fred, and I think you can solve it.” That is being bold and running to the sound of the gunfire. You run to the sound of the gunfire when your mindset is focused on helping people, and your goals are sitting somewhere in the background.

Now, the irony is the faster we run to the sound of the gunfire, the more we run to the sound of the gunfire, the more we achieve our goals and blow straight past them. You have to make that flip in your head.

Fred Diamond: Meridith, to be honest with you I’m getting choked up here because that is such a brilliant point. We’re getting a nice comment here from Ricardo. Ricardo says, “Yes.” Mario says, “Thank you so much.” It’s interesting, because the reason I’m doing these webinars and these podcast is for that particular agenda that you just said.

We spend so much time on how can I be better at making phone calls? How do I learn my script? How do I understand the features and benefits? If I get someone on the phone, what’s something I could say in 15 seconds or less to want them to talk to me more? I’m thinking about a lot of the elite sales leaders that we have on our Wednesday show.

All of them have made the shift to understanding one thing. Well, let’s talk about that for a second then. Give us some specifics. I’ll tell you one right now. I did something recently with a personal relationship. I was wondering how to make this particular personal relationship better. What should I be doing to make it better?

Then I said, “You know what? Let me flip it, and let me put myself in this particular human being’s shoes. Let me try to view everything from their perspective.” When I did, it just lightened up the interaction. The cause for need, the cause for concern. It was away from my needs. Trust me, in a little bit I was thinking about my needs.

Let’s talk about that for a second, because I think for people watching and listening today, I think that’s worth the price of gold. Talk specifically, if you don’t mind. Maybe you’ve never talked about this before, but what are some things that sales professionals should do right now to make that flip where they’re viewing the world from the customer’s perspective?

Meridith Elliott Powell: Number one is what I’d love to see everybody who’s listening to this do, just take 10 of your customers. Maybe people that didn’t hire you last year. Didn’t buy from you, or somebody you just haven’t touched base with in a long time. Take rejection off the table. Every time I hear ideas about how to overcome rejection and stuff, it just makes me crazy.

The moment you worry about rejection, you’re holding back. I just want you to call out, and not worry about whether the customer is going to say yes or no. Literally just reaching out with a servant’s heart that says, “Hey, Fred, we haven’t talked in a while. I just want to check in and see how you’re doing. How did you come off 2020? Where are you focused in 2021? What are some of the obstacles that you’re going through?”

All I’m doing is listening as to what’s going on with you. I’m not worried about selling anything right now, or maybe it’s different. Maybe it looks like this. I’ll give you a great example of one that I had. I was supposed to be speaking actually last month, I was supposed to be speaking in Athens, Greece. This was one we had put off in last year.

It was supposed to happen in May this year, Greece got shut down again. They called me and said, “We can’t possibly do it. We don’t have any money. We don’t have any budget.” I said, “Hold on, you still have customers that need things. You still have businesses out there that are struggling in the middle of this pandemic, struggling to rebuild. Let’s just take all that other stuff off the table. Talk to me about what you need. I’ve got ideas about things that we can do.”

We started to throw some ideas on the table, and there were some things I felt like I could do for them. Well, one of the guys who’s on the committee called me to end up, I’m going to do some work inside his company. It is all of a sudden about hearing the fact that people are in need, and what can you do to help them?

I think we’re like healthcare professionals. Healthcare professionals don’t stand there worrying about whether they’re going to get paid for this certain procedure in the middle of a trauma. They just run in and they help. Now you’ve got to guide your way through that, because I realized we’ve got to pay bills and things but don’t back away because of those things.

Come there with ideas and just reach out with no fear of rejection. If you were all coming to Asheville, North Carolina where I live, I would boldly say don’t make a dinner reservation and don’t make any plans, because I’m going to tell you everything you need to do because I want you to have a good time. That’s how we need to approach sales.

I know my product can make your life better, so I’m going to do everything I can to try to help you understand why you should embrace it.

Fred Diamond: Meridith Elliott Powell, I want to thank you so much. The new book is called Thrive, your seventh book. Strategies to Turn Uncertainty to Competitive Advantage. Best of luck. When does the book come out by the way?

Meridith Elliott Powell: It launches officially on June 22. Please watch LinkedIn, watch the social networks. We’ll be doing a lot of promotion, a lot of topping and we will reveal all nine strategies you need to turn uncertainty to competitive advantage.

Fred Diamond: Go to Meridith’s website, meridithelliottpowell.com. She spells her name M-E-R-I-D-I-T-H. A little bit of a unique spelling.

Meridith Elliott Powell: Yes, unfortunately, my parents didn’t know about email.

Fred Diamond: Good for you. Again, I want to thank everybody for watching today’s Sales Game Changers Webinar, the Creativity in Sales Webinar. If you’re listening as a Sales Game Changers podcast listener, thank you so much.

Meridith, before I asked you for your final action step, I just want to say I’m still shaking here about your comment, because it’s said some personal things for me. I just want to acknowledge how many professionals you’ve helped over your career. You were introduced to us by our good friend, Karen Snyder, who’s down here in DC.

Two years ago, she said, “You really need to meet Meridith.” Like I said, we put you on our 2020 calendar, which we didn’t do because of the pandemic. But you’ve touched so many lives with your speaking, you’re an amazing speaker. You’re brilliant on the stage. I just want to acknowledge you and the books as well.

How many lives you’ve touched. How many careers you’ve impacted, which of course led to how many companies you’ve helped get better. Give us your final action step. Again, you’ve given us dozens of great ideas, things that people can put into play. Give us something specific that sales professionals can do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Meridith Elliott Powell: If there’s something specific, really do the work day in and day out to start to view uncertainty as opportunity. Start to think of yourself as somebody who runs to the sound of the gunfire and takes action. If you do that, everything else is going to fall in place. Really focus and believe your job is to help others move through that uncertainty. If you help others move through that uncertainty, you are going to move through it flawlessly.

Fred Diamond: Go to where the gunfire is. Meridith Elliott Powell, thank you so much. Everybody who’s watched today, or who’s listened as a Sales Game Changers podcast listener, thank you all.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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