10 Lessons Learned from 34 Years in Sales

10 Lessons Learned from 34 Years in Sales

Recently a new salesperson asked me what was the most important lesson I’ve learned regarding selling.  I came up with a few lessons that were top of mind, but that got me thinking, “What are the lessons I’ve learned?” I came up with 10 lessons.


First, a little context. I began my career in engineering, transitioned into sales engineering, then vice president of sales and marketing for a manufacturing company, followed by a global sales training consultant and finally to the founding of The Millau Group Global.  You’ll see that my approach to selling is as much from engineering and continuous process improvement as it is traditional selling.

Over the last 34 years, I learned 10 lessons – mostly the hard way.

  1. The better you become at losing, the more you will win. Having a closing rate of 1 out of 4, which is the across all industry average equates to losing 75% of the time.  Try to identify one out of the three that you’re not going to win and disengage.  Invest your time where you will receive a greater return. I was told early in my career that, “Dave, you’re a bulldog! You never give up!”  It took me many years to realize that was likely the worst compliment I ever received.
  2. Selling is a process. As such, it is a profession that can be mastered through discipline and study; you don’t need to be a natural born salesperson (if that even exists). A sales process is similar to any other process in your organization. Understand that a process produces data; it’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s data. Use the data to reduce variation, defects (lost orders) and waste (resources expended on the 75% of sales that are lost by a typical organization). There is no room for gut feelings or hope in a process.
  3. Your time is valuable; make certain you’re receiving an acceptable return for the time you spend with your customers and prospects.
  4. The customer is not right all the time, nor do they want to be; they respect a salesperson who tells them no; it builds your credibility and it’s the right thing to do.
  5. Focus on the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) for the person you’re calling on; people make buying decisions based on how they are personally impacted. Companies do not make buying decisions. The more the person feels they will be positively impacted with your solution, the more likely they are to want to buy from you.
  6. Seek to uncover or develop trigger events, i.e. the problem the decision influencer is trying to solve with his or her purchase; no trigger event, no sale.  Do this before you discuss solutions or present your product or service. Focus the majority of your sales efforts on how you uniquely solve the trigger event; this is how you differentiate.
  7. Ask for an action. Prior to every customer interaction, based on who you’re calling on and where they are in their buying process, consider what’s the appropriate action to ask for that will move your sale forward. Practice your ask, then execute it. If you get your action, continue, if you don’t, ask yourself why you didn’t and either rectify the situation or consider disengaging. Remember, customers typically need multiple proposals. Even if they’re not actually considering your proposal, you’re likely to hear, “Great quote… We love your company… Just sharpen your pencil…”. Translation? I need four proposals for purchases such as this, so I’m going to do everything I can to keep you engaged and spending your sales time and resources developing a proposal I can use as leverage against who I want to purchase from.
  8. Understand what makes a good fitting customer for you and your company and adhere to it. The earlier you disengage the more commission you will make.
  9. Develop someone in the account who can be your mentor and provide you with guidance on how best to pursue the opportunity. Also, identify and engage the person who owns the budget, the finalizer. If you cannot, understand that your probability of closing is very low.
  10. Don’t be an unpaid consultant. I fell into this trap many, many times early in my career. Surely, if I’m providing this consulting, they must want to buy from me! WRONG! Most customers will take all of the consulting you want to provide. Get an action in return from your consulting. If you don’t get your desired action, consider what that means regarding your probability of closing the order.

If I knew then what I know now…

David L. Varner
Founder of The Millau Group Global
Dave has been a leader in the training industry for over 20 years, speaker and author of the soon to be released book: The Sales Checklist

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David Varner

David Varner: With a background in engineering, sales and global consulting, Dave brings a unique perspective to the sales training industry. This is evident in the workshops that Millau offers: simple to execute, based on data - not emotions - and produce immediate, measurable results. Dave is the co-author of the soon to be released books, The Sales Checklist and Not The Next Shiny Thing.