I spoke to Elinor Stutz recently about her experiences as a successful woman in the sales industry.
Elinor is a big believer in empathetic communication. She likes to make sure she understands her prospects’ needs before she focuses on making the sale. She’s got a great sense of humor and had so many funny stories to share about her experiences in sales. This is my interview with Elinor.
How did you get your start in sales? What sparked your decision to pursue a sales career?
Well, I hope you don’t mind funny stories! I had been a stay at home mom for 15 years, and I had no idea what I would be able to do because I was so out of date with everything. My husband started asking around, and one night he came home and said, “Oh, I’ve got it. You’ve got the personality of a salesperson!”
I got up with a serious look on my face and asked him, “Is that a compliment or an insult?”
He knew me better than I knew myself at that point. Sales turned out to be a great fit. He was right.
Did you start looking for a position in sales right away, or was it just an idea you knew you’d pursue someday?
I couldn’t come up with anything better, so I went for it. This was in the early ‘90s and women weren’t wanted [in sales.] It was really difficult to get a job. The way I was able to get my first job is another kind of comical story:
The only place that was semi-interested in hiring me would have me selling an unknown brand of copier, door-to-door. The director was interviewing me and had me come back 6 times! It was a long distance from where I lived.
So the last time I interviewed, he said, “If only I knew someone who knew you, and knew me, and gave approval, then I’d hire you.” And remember, this was selling an unknown brand of copier door-to-door. I was really discouraged. We had friends over that Saturday night and I was relaying the story to them.
As it happened, the director of the company had been a well-known pitcher, in baseball obviously. My friend’s husband said, “Elinor, you’re not going to believe this. But long before he became a pitcher, he tried his hand in the financial sector and worked for my father. You tell him our last name.” That was Saturday night.
Monday morning, I called the director first thing. “Do you remember telling me that if only I knew someone we both knew, you’d hire me?” He said yes. So I told him the last name of our mutual acquaintance and it was dead silence on the other end, to which I said, “Would you like me to show up at 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock in the morning?”
I didn’t even know at the time that this was a very sales-like thing to do.
I know there must have been times in the beginning where you wondered if you’d made the right decision. Did you ever doubt that sales was right for you?
Well, that first job was a complete nightmare. Looking back now, we can all laugh. But it taught me the best lessons. I was hired, it was an all-male team. The manager was furious that I was hired. He told the men not to talk to me. I had no support anywhere in that office, and I had never sold before (except for Girl Scout cookies).
I had to ask the secretaries how to do my job. They said, “I think you knock on every door in your territory.” I actually had 3 large cities, and I kid you not, I knocked on almost every single door in my territory. Nobody was talking to me in the office, so I spent all day in the field. I would come back to the office just before rush hour to avoid the traffic and follow up on calls. But I didn’t know anything about what I was selling and didn’t have a clue on how to sell.
When people did invite me in for an appointment, I was surprised and I asked them what motivated them to invite me in. Because I hated my job, I wanted to find a better one. I’d ask them about their jobs, what their goals were, if they had any advice. So we began having very personal conversations and by the 3rd month, they said, “If you’d just bring a brochure, we’d buy from you!”
I didn’t even know to do that! We were just having fun conversations, and because I kept coming back, the executives thought it was really important stuff I was selling. They got approval to buy from me and in the 4th month, I became the top sales rep without knowing a thing about sales.
Was that because you were focusing on building solid connections with your prospects? What made you stick with the company through the turbulent beginnings?
Yes. I do what I call the “anti-sale.” Get to know the other people first—their perspectives, what they need and desire, and then offer ideas: “Hey, have you ever thought about…” but don’t suggest until they ask.
People ask me why I stuck through the rough beginning, and believe me, I wanted to quit in the worst way. But I had a higher goal—I had 2 teenage children, and I wanted to be a good role model. I absolutely refused to quit. You can’t believe the nasty tricks that were played on me in the office. I tried to ignore it and keep on going.
Turns out, that’s the key: perseverance. You finally find success despite all of the challenges.
Tell me more about these tricks played on you in the office. Was it like an initiation? Was it gender-based?
Yes, it was pretty awful. Looking back, you might equate it to a hazing at a fraternity or something that style. But for me, I had never experienced anything like this before.
The worst was in the 4th month. I was the top rep and in the 5th month, it looked like I would do the same. The manager said, “You guys, if Elinor makes her numbers this month, I’m going to treat you to a lingerie fashion show for lunch.” I said, “Wait a minute! They’re my numbers, let’s go to regular lunch. I’ll go to a ballgame, we can go to a movie.”
He refused and said “We’re going to the lingerie fashion show.” This place was a mother-daughter combo modeling these crazy outfits. You can imagine. It was attached to a motel on the wrong side of town. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
In the 5th month, I again had the highest numbers. The women were looking at me like, “What are you going to do here?” My car drove me to the place. There was a long, luncheon-style table. For some reason, the end seat was vacant, so I sat down there.
And in the middle of this stupid fashion show, I began calling out people’s names from my team, people who were seated way down the table, and began asking questions about copiers. I wouldn’t let them enjoy the show at all. Afterwards, they said they would never do that again.
You’ve got quite a sense of humor. You’re witty, you’re clever. Tell me about your sales style. Does your personality play a big role in how you sell?
I feel you have to be authentic, and you just have to (as the age-old expression says), “Go with the flow.”
Listen more. Most people do what I call “telling-selling,” and that style turns me off. I lead with questions: Why did you invite me in? What’s on your mind? What’s your biggest problem? What are your goals? What’s inhibiting your success? You strive to get their perspective as complete as possible, and then you know where to lead with further questions.
Take careful notes—in their vocabulary. When it comes to proposal time and you’ve captured ‘their words’—the vocabulary they commonly use—its’ even harder for them to say no because they recognize what they’ve told you.
It seems like your sales techniques come from a place of being very empathetic.
It’s not about selling the first sale. The ultimate picture, which is much more rewarding, is repeat business, referrals, and testimonials. That’s what I call the ‘smooth sale.’ You don’t have to worry about it anymore. You deliver what you promised, and they’re so happy with the customer service, they keep calling you back and for more enhanced services.
People didn’t understand my style. At my first networking event, I announced I was a sales trainer.
There were 2 reactions: Women ran away shrieking, almost literally, thinking I was the most manipulative person they’d ever meet. Men burst out laughing, “How could a woman possibly know anything about sales?” That’s what happened. So I had to go back to the drawing board.
I’m very calm when you meet me, I’m not aggressive, I don’t boast about myself. It’s almost like the opposite of the image most people hold of a salesperson. I’m from the older generation, taught to be very polite and not boast, and ask people about themselves.
The thing about asking people about themselves? You really learn how to sell to them. That’s the technique behind it. People see me as being kind of shy and didn’t believe I could sell.
Would you consider yourself an introverted salesperson?
I used to be, but I’m also extraverted. I’ve been told I give the best parties! I love parties.
Are you an introvert at heart who has learned the best practices in sales and have learned to be more extraverted? Or would you say that working in sales revealed to you that you’re more extraverted than you originally thought?
I think sales revealed to me that I’m more of an extravert than I originally thought. As a child, I was an introvert, but maybe that wasn’t my inclination.
When I’m in the field, I know how to draw people out and get them talking. It’s all intuitive for me. But I have to tell you something funny about a personality test: I had to take one to get the job I wanted, and one of the questions was “Would you rather be an ice cream truck driver or a kamikaze pilot?”
I stopped to think about that. Obviously, I wouldn’t want to kill myself. I thought about the ice cream truck driver, and I thought, after a couple of days, that would be pretty boring. Then I thought about the job I was applying for. You have to take risks as a salesperson—going after sales where they don’t want you in there!
So I chose kamikaze pilot. I was hired and the sales managers’ first words to me were “I don’t know whether to be thrilled to death you’re on my team or scared to death of you!” [Laughs]
What do you think are the 3 most important traits someone who works in sales can possess?
Integrity. Perseverance. Authenticity.
Can you think of a time when your unique sales techniques really rocked the boat?
That same manager who didn’t know whether to be scared of me or thrilled to have me went on a sales appointment with me once. I’d been there close to a year. By the way, another technique I use that differs from other salespeople is: I’ll ask the client if price or service is more important to them.
When they say service, I describe the service I deliver. I was always on top of service, unlike any other. If they said service is most important to them, it was also the green light to sell to them at or near retail. Anyway, on this day, I asked the client if service or price was more important to them.
Back in the car, the manager just reamed me. He said I needed to stop selling that way, I should talk about price at the end of the sale, and just do it like everyone else.
We went back to the office, and he said “Did you get what I said? Are you going to start selling the way I want you to?” I said, “Oh, absolutely. I just have one question: If I’m selling completely wrong, could you explain to me why I’m always at the top of the sales scoreboard?” [Laughs] He turned so beet-red and just went into his office and slammed the door shut. He didn’t come out until 5 o’clock.
He was a nice guy, but he didn’t know how to sell, so they promoted him to manager to get him out of the way. And that was fairly common in corporate sales. Managers were managers because they didn’t know how to sell.
Do you think corporate sales managers today are generally more qualified to be in their positions?
Let’s just say, it wouldn’t surprise me if it were still that way. The corporate world moves more slowly with progress. Many of the companies refuse to allow employees to use social media. For me, that turned the sales process upside down and made sales much easier.
What I teach entrepreneurs: The key to getting around as a solopreneur and competing with corporations is the flexibility you include in your business plan. Bigger companies have zero flexibility. This is where you can beat them.
What do you think has been the greatest challenge in your sales career?
Keeping the belief you will be successful. People are going to tell you you’re never going to make it, things are difficult, and money’s running short. All these obstacles, but you have to believe from the tip of your toes to your brain that you’re going to make it.
I’m a rare survivor of a broken neck. I was supposed to be paralyzed or dead. At the moment the doctors were telling my family that, I could hear them sobbing and I had two visions:
One, I had to give back to my community. I pledged right then that I would start doing that. Two, I saw an image of a generic figure standing on a mound speaking to a large audience. I had always wanted to become a speaker. I decided right then I would do it.
On the day of the surgery, I met with the surgeon for a minute. He said I’d wake up, best case, paralyzed. I mirrored his tone and said, “Doctor, when I wake up, I fully expect to be well.” And the last thing I remembered was him jumping back from the table.
When I woke up, he said, “There’s no rhyme or reason for what’s happened, but you will walk out of this hospital in 4 days.”
I did walk out in 4 days. The staff at Stanford came and were calling me the walking miracle. A couple of years later, Dale Carnegie (who I had studied under in the past) heard my story, tweaked my talk a bit for me, and today I get standing ovations.
Success is possible, I promise you. Believe, become, empower.
About Elinor Stutz
Elinor Stutz is the CEO of Smooth Sale, doing what she enjoys most as an author (she's written two books: Nice Girls DO Get the Sale and HIRED!) and inspirational speaker delivering keynotes to standing ovations.
NowISeeIt included Stutz' blog in their listing of "Top 100 Most Innovative Sales Blogs." She was featured on the cover of the March 2015 "Sales and Service Excellence eMagazine" with article and videos published on page five.
As a contributor of articles for PersonalBrandingBlog.com, she enjoys syndication in major news media such as AllBusiness and U.S. News and World Report. Stutz contributed to the Microsoft e-book, ABC’s of Social Selling 2015.