Feature article: good conversation is the best sales tool there is

An interview with senior EB trainer Maggie Tillmann on best practices in international sales.

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What’s changed in sales in recent years? What are some of the hurdles you face when selling to international clients for the first time?

I recently caught up with our senior trainer Maggie Tillmann to discuss these very questions. With a background in programme design, decades of professional sales experience and a long history with EB Training, Maggie was the ideal candidate to design our latest offering, our International Sales Skills seminar.

Maggie Tillmann


Mara: Maggie, you’ve been working in sales long enough to have witnessed trends and techniques for selling come and go. What’s changed?

Maggie: What’s different now is that when you start a sales conversation, the person on the other side of the table knows that you’re trying to sell them something. And most of us have a psychological reaction to that…

Mara: We don’t want to be sold to?

Maggie: Yes, we don’t necessarily want to be dictated to or preached at. We don’t necessarily want to be the receivers of straightforward information. This means the challenge now is to create an interactive sales conversation so that you’re talking on a level that encourages the person on the other side of the table to help solve their own problem.

Mara: So instead of telling people that we can solve their problems, we need to show them that we can help them find a solution together?

Maggie: Yes. And that is the biggest single change I’ve seen in recent years. When I got my original sales training in pharmaceuticals, 30 years ago, the training centred around adopting an attitude of “here’s the product, take it or leave it”. We may have explained what was special about the product or its benefits, but there was still that attitude of “here it is, you make the decision”. Now we say: “Let’s talk about your current situation. What are the issues that are really bothering you? What are the things that are making your life difficult? What are the headaches that you’re experiencing?” From there, we try to get into a conversation along the lines of: “Given what you’ve just told me, would you consider looking at our product X because it could actually help you begin to solve that problem in Y way?

Mara: So the old-school sales approach would be to say, “Here’s my product, here’s what it can do for you and here’s why you want it.”

Maggie: Yes.

Mara: Whereas now you say, “Tell me what your pain points are. Tell me where you need help.” Then you tailor the rest of the conversation to how the product would help solve the problem.

Maggie: Exactly. We’ve made a huge leap from the situation a few decades ago to the situation today. Obviously, there have been points in between, but I think the point we’re at today, in 2017/2018, is that salespeople are more obviously problem-solvers, and they’re problem-solvers through conversation. Now we know that good conversation is the tool of choice.

Salespeople are problem-solvers through conversation.

Mara: When focusing on selling on an international level: how does culture come into this? For example, let’s take someone who lives and works in Germany. What’s something that they might have been taught that might be different when they go to England or elsewhere?

Maggie: In my experience, and by that I mean … talking to friends and family who work in German companies and talking to German friends, and reflecting with these friends on the whole range of people I’ve worked with over the last ten years or so, I would say that German colleagues can sometimes struggle to put themselves in the shoes of their perspective audience. Now that is, of course, personal opinion. And one thing I’ve had great success at as a sales trainer is getting them to imagine their audience and imagine what they’re interested in. For example, today I’m working with a young man who is preparing a sales presentation he’ll be giving in Russia. We’ve been looking at Lewis’s book on culture [Richard Lewis, “When Cultures Collide”]. First, we reviewed his section on how to talk to Russians. Next, we began asking how my client can make his sales presentation work for Russians. So, for example, we’ve decided that he will swap the pictures in his presentation to ones that are from a Russian context. For example, he has one picture of flamingos from an American theme park. Well, instead, why not exchange it for picture of a flamingo from a Russian park? Or, as another point, when he includes a quotation, he’s going to see if he can come up with something from a Russian.

Mara: Arguably a minor point, but still so important.

Maggie: Yes, these really are subtle changes. But this is a good example of how to connect to your audience.

Mara: He’s not changing the content directly, just localising it?

Maggie: Exactly. It’s just a small detail that creates a connection without anybody really needing to mention it. So, let’s get back to the question of connecting with an international audience. There are simple things you can do to build a relationship or to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And that’s where you need to start when planning your sales pitch – by reflecting on what’s important to the audience that you’re talking to. Start with the client, and never lose sight of who you’re talking to – the listeners, the audience, the sales and marketing team in that organisation – you’ve got to connect with them on a personal, individual level. And that is the secret. You’re trying to build psychological connection.

Mara: There’s already a shared context if a German is selling to another German. And that context is gone when a salesperson goes into an international setting.

Maggie: Absolutely.

Mara: But the salesperson might not even be aware of that lost context. So as a trainer for international sales, you’re making your clients aware of the shared German context, something they might not have necessarily thought about. And then you’re showing them how that context shifts when they go into an international setting.

Maggie: Yes, and the question becomes how to create a new shared context, either deliberately or insidiously.

Create a new shared context.

Mara: What are some other things that you have clients look at to build a new shared context?

Maggie: For example, the time of day of meetings. In certain international cultures … I’m thinking of working in the Middle East, in particular, it’s a question of when should things happen. We can’t just assume that meetings at 9.00 in the morning are going to work everywhere. They’re just not going to, particularly in settings where there needs to be a range of small talk and “getting to know you” conversation before you even get into the sales pitch.

Mara: In those contexts, in the Middle East, you wouldn’t have a 9.00 a.m. meeting?

Maggie: No, you probably wouldn’t.

Mara: Because you need a lot of small talk before you get started?

Maggie: Yes, exactly.

Mara: OK, so when would you meet?

Maggie: Well, later, obviously! (Laughs) But outside of this particular situation, you need to pay attention to what your local advisor suggests. You should pay great attention to when they advise you to set up a meeting. Or you let your client schedule the time for the meeting.

Mara: Something that might seem like a small detail to someone in Germany, but there’s a reason that person on the ground is suggesting a certain time of day and you need to honour that.

Maggie: That’s right, and that’s what we teach at EB Training. Not only do we help our clients to think about how to put that message across clearly and concisely but also to think about the cultural contexts they’re working in, and how to best meet that audience. So those are the kinds of things I considered when I was designing the sales seminar. I think more than ever we have to learn to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Whether that’s negotiations or pure selling, whatever it is, it’s the talent of being able to empathise that’s going to help us connect.

It’s the talent of being able to empathise thats going to help us connect.

Mara: When a German is selling to a German, or an American to an American, there might be automatic layers of identification that they’re not even aware of. And then when going to an unfamiliar setting, it can be even harder to empathise.

Maggie: It is. And the danger is that we make assumptions. And when we make assumptions, we all know that we can get ourselves into trouble pretty quickly.

Mara: So, how do you train clients to let go of making assumptions? Because that is such a hard thing to do!

Maggie: It is. It’s terribly hard. And if you spoke to my family, they would say I am the worst culprit. (Laughs). But there are techniques you can practise. So when you prepare for an important session, you’ve got to give yourself the distance. You’ve got to learn to take an objective look at the session you’re preparing for and give yourself a checklist of points to review. One of those points should be asking yourself, “Am I being open-minded?” And take steps to assess your approach and ensure you’re not making assumptions about when things are going to take place and who’s going to be there. Remind yourself not to get frustrated if the decision maker isn’t at the first meeting. For example, in France, where there’s a pretty hierarchical approach to the way that businesses are managed, you may have an introduction meeting with someone relatively junior who’s testing you out. You’re not actually going to be able to get to a decision maker until you’ve got past that first hurdle. But you need to be aware of that, that’s all part of the preparation. Part of keeping a distance is knowing that you might not know everything that’s going on and not letting yourself get frustrated by that.

Mara: At its most basic level, it’s a kind of awareness training.

Maggie: A lot of it is, yes. And preparing yourself for that. Another example that comes to mind is names. I’ve been working with students from China recently, and it was very hard for me because, at first, I couldn’t get my tongue around the way their names are pronounced. But I’ve been working extremely hard to say their names correctly and to remember them. So, another simple preparation thing you can do is to learn to pronounce names correctly.

Mara: And it might seem minor to some people, but it’s so important.

Maggie: I’ve been in so many meetings where I’ve been addressed as “Mary” instead of “Maggie”. I’ve had my surname spelt incorrectly on a table-based name plate. These things do matter.

Mara: They do, because how do you feel when that happens?

Maggie: Exactly. You feel kind of let down and disrespected. A lot of communication is about getting these small details right.

Mara: Because that establishes receptivity.

Maggie: Yes, it increases the receptivity. It increases the seriousness with which people will deal with you. Because you’re showing respect. Putting together a sales seminar or a seminar that’s about communication skills really depends on the awareness points, the tension points. It just shows you how broad communication is. In some cases, it’s not only about the words you use, or the message itself, it’s about how the message is delivered, the context the message is delivered in.

In some cases, it’s not only about the words you use ... it’s about how the message is delivered, the context the message is delivered in.

Mara: Tell me a bit more about the International Sales Skills seminar you’ve created for us. Is it something for experienced salespeople, as well as people who are just starting to work in an international setting for the first time?

Maggie: Absolutely. We’ve been talking a lot about what someone who is new to international sales would get from it. But an experienced salesperson would benefit from it, too. For example, they might encounter unexpected reminders because we both know that when we do something well, we often repeat what works well. Well, why not come to something like this and challenge yourself? Maybe the answer is: what I’m doing right now is absolutely great. So you’ve invested two days in a benchmark that shows you’re doing fine. On the other hand, we know that there’s always the opportunity to learn something new, and if you’re sitting in a seminar with five or six others, whether it’s people in your company or people whom you’ve never met before from different sectors, there’s going to be some resonance that comes from just working with a different group of people.

Mara: And one last question: if you had one international sales tip for a German salesperson who’s been trained to sell in German to Germans, what would that be?

Maggie: I would say to them: take the time. Take the time to step back and give yourself time to prepare. Really think about what it’s like to be in the shoes of those other people. Get your creative head on. Get your imaginative head on. We all know that sales is about relationships and solving problems. So, step back, think about the relationships that you’re going to be building with those people. Think about how you’re going to approach solving their problems. Try and do it in a way that makes sense to them rather than doing what feels best for you.

One of our most senior trainers, Maggie Tillmann worked in an extensive range of professional industries – including financial management, pharmaceuticals and the civil service – before switching her focus to coaching and teaching over 15 years ago. In addition to her work with EB Training, she also tutors MBA students at the Open University Business School (the biggest distance learning institute in Europe), and lectures at the Brand Academy (Hamburg University of Applied Sciences) and at the Hamburg School of Business Administration (HSBA).

To learn more about our seminar International Sales Skills, read one participant’s experience taking it. If you’re interested in attending an open session of this seminar with Maggie on 11 and 12 January, get in touch!

By Mara T.