Leanne Hoagland-Smith (author, executive coach and speaker) is the clarity strategist for forward-thinking leaders who wish to solve their SMB people and process including sales, leadership and culture problems. She has also been recognised as one of the Top 25 Sales Influencers in 2013 by Open View Sales Labs.

We recently asked Leanne what it takes to be successful in sales today. Here’s what she shared with us:

Can you tell us about your background in sales? How has the field evolved since you started in sales?

Sales for me started at the tender age of 11 when selling penny candy at my father’s sundry store. I then moved up to selling popcorn at a local movie theater. After college, I worked various positions until I finally started selling pipe, valves and fittings (PVF). I was the first woman insides salesperson selling PVF in the Chicago market. After retiring, I embarked on the road of entrepreneurship and started ADVANCED SYSTEMS 20 years ago in 1997.

As much as sales has evolved with all the technology, the essence of selling has not changed. People still buy from people they know and trust. They still buy first on emotion justified by logic. And they still buy on value unique to them.

What should a successful sales strategy for SMBs include today?

A successful sales strategy starts with the words of Peter Drucker: “Marketing and innovation are the two basic functions of any business.” Until buyers (sales prospects) know about you, your business and your solutions, you will remain pocket poor.

What are the must-have tools to be successful in sales today? What are some outdated tools you find sales professionals still relying on?

The most critical tool for salespeople is emotional intelligence through verbal and written communication. What do you say when asked, “What do you do?” How do you convey a sense of knowledge and trust?

As to outdated tools, I am not sure. If a tool be it paper and pencil or a smart device works for the salesperson, then the tool is functional. My sense is people jump on the latest and greatest tool with the hope it will magically create sales. Far too often I have witnessed salespeople using an elephant gun to kill a fly.

I might also add the emphasis on asking questions may become an outdated tool. There is a lot of emphasis in sales training about asking the right open-ended questions.  When people are continually in asking mode, there is a tendency to fail to actively listen.

What are the most important lessons you’ve had to learn in your career about developing leads?

Developing sales leads is a multi-step process. The most important step is to respond to sales leads. I recently called 12 local vendors, and only two answered their phones. Of the other 10, I left voicemails, and only one returned the call. If you don’t answer your phone, don’t respond to texts or emails, you are losing sales opportunities.

What do you think is the biggest misconception individuals have about how to sell today? What about developing leads specifically? What are people doing wrong?

The biggest misconception is the focus on the seller and not on the buyer.  What happens is in many instances, the seller’s ego takes over, “look and listen to me” and the buyer is viewed as an inconsequential player within the sales process.

As to what salespeople are doing wrong, selling to the wrong people.  When salespeople know who their ideal customer is and have a written profile of that customer, then it makes selling much easier. For example, my ideal customer is a forward thinking and established (minimum of three to five years) executive (SMB owner, sales manager, CEO, CPO, etc.) who is in rapid growth and experiencing repetitive problems. I share this ideal customer with colleagues, and most of my writing is geared toward such individuals.

What advice do you find yourself repeating to clients over and over again about lead development?

With 50 years of experience in sales, the most important lesson is to actively listen. Many in sales miss opportunities to increase sales because they were so focused on asking that next greatest question from their most recent sales training they forgot to listen to their prospects. In the movie the “13th Warrior”, when Antonio Banderas is asked “How do you know to speak our language?”, he responds “I listened.” Banderas not only listened to the words of the “Northmen” but their body language as well as tone.

Probably the second biggest mistake is to sell to the wrong people. This behavior falls at the feet of executive leadership who have never invested the time to learn who their ideal customers are, to understand current market trends, etc. To hire a salesperson and tell him or her to sell without any written plan of action, any support including onboarding and sales development is beyond ridiculous and reflects the culture of the SMB.

During the last 20 years, I consistently find myself asking these several questions beginning with this two-fold question: “Do you have a strategic plan?  If so, are you following it, updating it and employing it to increase sales?” The answer is usually “No” followed by a variety of excuses from time to money.

These responses return to what Michael Gerber wrote in The E-Myth. Business owners and salespeople expend so much energy working IN the business, they fail to work ON the business. The marketplace is dynamic. What worked in the past to secure sales leads such as paid advertising in the newspaper may not work as well today.

The second question is “Do you consistently set and achieve your own personal and professional goals?”  Again the answer is usually “No.” People appear to believe consistent goal achievement is learned through osmosis or must already be programmed in our DNA much like eating. Even though many have the desire to improve, to move forward, without a consistent goal-setting process the ability to ongoing desired results is extremely limited.

My third question is again a two-fold question: “Please tell me what you do extremely well? How do you know this to be your very best talent?” What I know from my own private research in assessing over 500 executive and sales professionals is 98.2 percent do not know what they do well. However, 96.6 percent know what they don’t do well. Noted football coach Vince Lombardi did not recruit the quarterback with the weakest arm. Winning teams win because of their strengths, their talents not their weaknesses.

What role does culture play in an organization’s ability to develop leads and close sales?

There is now a lot talk about culture and its impact on sales and ultimately business results. The recent PR disaster of United Airlines revealed a significant culture issue within this organization.

Believing in simplicity, I believe culture is “the sum total of all emotions, expectations and experiences held by all employees (currently employed and past employed).” Executive leadership is responsible for aligning culture to its positive core values as well as any operational policies.

When any organization wants to develop stronger sales leads, it must first return to its values statement (positive core values) within its strategic plan. This statement will either work with or against the existing culture unless executive leadership changes the “expectations.”

How often do companies want to increase sales and then after the order is received, there is very little follow-up with the vendor? The order languishes in cyberspace until the customer asks about it.

Or how about the salesperson who is hired and then told go sell without any onboarding support or additional sales training? In a true sales culture, everyone understands his or her responsibility in ensuring sales success, which leads to developing loyal customers.

What should SMB leaders be doing to foster a culture of success?

To foster a culture of success or what I prefer to call an engaged sales culture again begins within the strategic plan. All employees truly understand and embrace the values, the current vision (three to five years into the future) and current mission (current goals for the next 12 months). They believe each of them is responsible for sales success from the salesperson who takes the order to the accounting department that processes the invoice to the shipping department which delivers the order. Executive leadership is responsible for communicating where the company is and where the company wants to be through clear expectations.

Here is one question to be asked to learn if everyone understands his or her role:

What have you done specifically today to move us closer to our vision and achieve at least one of our current mission goals while not violating our positive core values?

To further understand the impact of culture, I suggest watching the last 12 minutes of the movie “The Executive Suite” with William Holden via YouTube. Even though this movie was produced in the 1950s, it reflects how culture for many organizations has not changed in 60-plus years.

What trends are you following in lead generation today? Why do they interest you?

Right now there are two evolving trends in sales lead generation. One up-and-coming trend is sales enablement. There are many definitions in the sales world for this up-and-coming term. For me, I have defined sales enablement simply as:

“facilitates sustainable business growth in all organizations through people, processes, strategies and tools.”

When sales enablement is readily understood by all employees, then generating the right sales leads, which should also lead to repeat business or additional sales referrals, happens with much less effort. In organizational performance this is called alignment. We know misalignment happens such as through the non-use of CRMs to United’s PR nightmare.

My sense is when SMBs begin to embrace sales as not just one isolated activity, but sales through sales enablement this expands the organizational mindset to where everyone here at XYZ company is in sales. The end result is sustainable business growth which includes higher profit, longer tenured salespeople, reduced resources and a company that people want to work for and buy from.

The other trend is the application of emotional intelligence (EQ) within the overall sales process. EQ has always been present, but only recently have some recognized the power of emotional intelligence. When correctly applied, EQ fosters an engaged sales culture.

To learn more about EQ and sales, I recommend these three books:

  1. Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
  2. To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink
  3. Sales EQ by Jeb Blount

Since I am a behaviorist, I find these two trends extremely interesting. Both return to the essence of sales success from an intrinsic (How do you behave as a salesperson:) and extrinsic (How does the organization behave?) perspective.