Four lessons learned from selling something intangible

In 2015, my wife, Holly, was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. Like everything else in my life, both personal and working, there were lessons to be learned from that experience. First, life is too short and cancer doesn’t discriminate. You see, at the time, Holly was a two-time Ironman Finisher training for her third. I was the complete opposite. It was the jolt I needed to take care of myself.

Our two kids are competitive swimmers, and at the time, they practiced Monday to Friday from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. My career had reached a point where I would use picking the kids up from swim practice on my way home from work as justification to work late. I was the 60 to 70 hours a week CEO.

When Holly was diagnosed with cancer, I realized something needed to change. I told Holly to focus on getting well, and I would take care of everything else. As a result, I placed my career on hold and became Mr. Mom for eight months, while Holly had her surgery and underwent treatment.

After nearly 24 years in mining and steel construction in chief financial, sales, and executive roles, I told everyone in my industry that I was done. And I was, until late 2015 when I got a call from Vistage Worldwide telling me about their CEO peer advisory boards and inviting me to come build my practice of leading these groups. During one conversation, I asked the recruiter, “Where were you guys when I needed you during any of my previous leadership roles?”

Holly finished treatment in early 2016, and I went to California to learn how I could help CEOs avoid loneliness and bad decisions. I discovered that a lot of the Vistage chair candidates were CEOs, CFOs, and C-Suite executives—basically highly intelligent people. However, very few of them had any sales background, and a big part of building a practice of peer advisory boards was selling. In fact, I leaned over to the person next to me and commented that anybody without a sales background was going to struggle persuading twelve to sixteen CEOs to join a peer advisory board, especially one led by a Vistage chair who had never run a peer advisory group.

The recruiter had told me this would be the toughest thing I had ever done, but I didn’t believe it. After all, how hard could it be to get twelve to sixteen CEOs into a room on a monthly basis?

Well, I learned early on that its was really tough. While I had a lot of sales experience in steel construction materials, I had zero experience selling something intangible. Why should anyone believe me when I said, “Trust me, I can help you become a better leader and avoid bad decisions.”

Maybe I was the one making the bad decision going from selling tangible products like steel buildings to something intangible like myself and a concept that CEOs who don’t compete with each other can help each other make better decisions.

Well, I did it and currently have one, soon to be two, peer advisory boards. Here are the four lessons I learned about selling something intangible.

1. Create a mindset of abundance

Operating from a mindset of abundance instead of scarcity is critically important in sales. When I first started out, I heard people say “no” a lot. I thought I was running out of people and would never get twelve CEOs to fill my group. That was when I changed my mindset from scarcity to abundance. There were plenty of people out there—I just had to find the right ones for my board.

2. Embrace a state of readiness

When I was selling something tangible in construction, there was always a deadline. Bids had to be submitted by a certain date, etc. There is no clear deadline for your prospect when you’re selling something intangible. As a CEO, you have to show up to work and be the smartest person in the room every single day, and it can be exhausting. In a peer advisory board or one-to-one coaching setting, I’m asking people to show up and allow themselves to not be the smartest person in the room, and that’s hard to do. After all, that requires vulnerability. When was the last time someone asked a CEO to intentionally be vulnerable? Not everyone is ready to embrace the concept of coaching or a peer advisory group, and I have to be ready when they are ready.

3. Be authentic and don’t rush things

Whether you are selling something tangible or intangible, it is all about relationships. In my business, I may have a lot of conversations with a CEO before they join the group. In order for them to gain value as a member of my board, they have to trust me, and I have to invest the time to build that trust. I believe it will happen, and sometimes maybe it will not, and that’s okay. Be authentic, genuinely care, and let things happen.

4. Approach people with a desire to understand

When you’re in sales, it’s important to listen first. I try to approach every conversation from a position of curiosity and seek to understand rather than from a position seeking to respond. I focus on questioning the answers versus responding to them to better understand someone’s challenges or issues. One of my members once said, “You ask the questions, and I hear me telling myself the answer as I’m talking.” If you ask questions with the intention of understanding, the outcome can be dramatically different than if your desire is to respond with what you perceive to be the solution.

While these are four lessons I learned once I started selling something intangible, they are lessons that can help anyone in sales if we are more intentional and simply take the time to learn and apply them.

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