“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” – Naguib Mahfouz
I got very, very lucky in my first job in the corporate world. Oh, I didn’t know it at the time. I was looking for just a job – I ended up finding a career.
I stumbled into pharmaceuticals. My final concurrence interview for that sales job was anything but easy. I had no legitimate business pedigree. No sales background.
By rights – that last interview should have been my Waterloo. Instead, it became a springboard for a lifetime of learning.
Back then most of the people attempting to enter pharmaceutical sales were walking into an industry about to experience significant change. The era of the “blockbuster” new medicines was at hand. Companies were investing millions in bringing sales forces together that would optimize their investments. Marketing became a focal point and a dramatically different selling model was sweeping much of the landscape. The latest was labeled consultative selling but it was really a continuation of milestone work that dated back as far as the 20’s and E.K. Strong’s landmark book, The Psychology of Selling and Advertising. The interaction with the customer, experts reasoned, was a specific process and set of skills that could be learned, not just an instinctive “feel.” Consultative selling carried it to another level. Stated simply, it challenged salespeople to develop and incorporate well thought out questions designed to build a deeper relationship with the customer.
Radical concept – now the industry expected physicians to actually listen.
Against that backdrop, I made my way onto the audition stage. I had chosen to pursue a job in Pharma because I’d heard the pay was good and I had met one or two people in the industry.
In other words, I had no vision, no plan, and no strategy.
My interview that fateful day revealed an unwelcome truth
I knew next to nothing about business, particularly sales.
I had one advantage – I was a converted Journalism major who had toyed with Broadcasting as a backup; I could always talk. That carried me through at least a portion of the interview – conducted by a District Manager and a local Field Trainer. And then came what should have been my doom. The manager paused, studied me for a few moments and asked me to role-play a sales call with his colleague. I was to sell the lamp that sat on a coffee table beside me. The only backdrop provided, the potential buyer was looking to match something in a Mediterranean motif.
I was at an impasse. I had literally never sold anything in my life – not cookies for the PTA, not seeds for the various grade school fund drives, not candy for the holiday Christmas pageant. Nothing. One would think that would be my biggest immediate challenge.
My lack of selling instinct was overwhelmed by a larger fear. What was “Mediterranean décor” and what the heck was I supposed to say about that?
I paused and in that moment a single ray of divine providence shone down on me. In retrospect, I can say it changed the trajectory of my professional life. Faced with nothing to say I opted to ask my “client” a question.
I didn’t want to – but I had nothing.
“Sir, when you say Mediterranean, can you tell me a little more about that?”
My potential buyer said, “Well, my wife is really big into Mediterranean and she wants me to pick up something for the living room.”
Okay, still lost here.
“Yes sir, can you give me a bigger picture, when you say Mediterranean…what specifically would you be looking for?
“You know, muted colors…brown, oranges, grays…but something that accents the room.” (Which, by the way, tells me today that it was debatable my interviewer knew much about design either.)
It’s important to say that at that point in my life I cannot be completely sure I even knew where the Mediterranean was but I at least understood a bit more about what colors might be needed – unfortunately, not enough to do anything with it.
I fought my natural instincts and I continued to ask questions.
“Something that accents the room.” I answered, “What other things do you have in the room?”
Somewhere, somehow – magic occurred. I actually began to understand what the heck it was I was supposed to talk about – a half-dozen questions in – I could jump back on my “go-to” – talking.
Now it’s critical to note that at the end of the role-play I had not really closed for action-something I was to learn was anathema for top salespeople. Nor can I say it was a particular cogent presentation. But it was clear when it was over that the District Manager was overjoyed. He saw someone he believed was instinctively asking questions to better understand customer needs, demonstrated active listening skills, and clarified and confirmed understanding before simply presenting information. He was downright gleeful, as was the Field Trainer who was the other half of the simulation. Both took the time to point out I was one of the few who actually created dialogue – not just a regurgitation of mindless (and imagined) product features or benefits.
Apparently, I was a natural – at least in their eyes. I smiled and nodded, accepting their compliments with the calm demeanor of someone who knew exactly what he was doing and why.
What a crock.
The truth was two things salvaged the interview for me. The first was my inherent lack of knowledge on what I was doing – both from a selling standpoint and as regards interior decorating. The second was that because I knew so very little on both fronts I had no choice but to ask questions – a lot of them.
Those questions saved me. I got very lucky, winning a job I was probably not fully prepared to assume.
This was my first lesson in my corporate journey, and like many of the ones that followed – it took me years to truly appreciate it.
Straight Talk – I began to learn two things that fateful day.
About the author: Tim Cole is the founder and CEO of The Compass Alliance. His book, The Compass Solution: A Guide to Winning Your Career offers practical direction to both senior leaders and employees on how to cultivate a rich culture – and ensure a significant work experience. You can learn more at www.thecompassalliance.com