Tom Schuh, founder of Optimum Effect Group, spent over a decade in the military before landing a job in sales with American Express. Despite lacking a college degree or any sales training, he worked his way up the corporate ladder before transitioning into entrepreneurship.
In this episode, Tom shares his perspective on the challenges that he commonly sees in the sales profession and what it takes to build that strategic momentum.
From Sniper to Sharpshooting Sales Exec to Entrepreneur
“Everything that I focus my time on was one customer, one client at a time, and make sure that any effort that expends is in front of the right person. It was the same thing in the military. ”
Tom’s experience in the military mirrored his career arcs in the corporate and entrepreneurial worlds.
Starting out in the Marines as a regular infantryman, he journeyed into special operations and was a team leader before eventually making his way into the smallest unit on the battlefield: the sniper teams.
Not only did Tom hone his survival skills, but this military experience taught him to adapt, overcome, and succeed – all crucial factors in helping him transition to finding a job once his military career ended. He had to be strategic and tactical in everything he did, not stopping for any obstacle, even in the face of fear, or allowing self-defeat to creep in. “The only thing that can defeat you in life is yourself. Everything else is just window dressing.”
Finding a well-paying job without a college degree was going to be a challenge but he was determined. After several discussions with successful folks in his hometown of Buffalo, NY, he found a career path that could have promise – financial planning.
With his target in mind, he entered a local American Express branch claiming to have a meeting with the Vice President. Once Tom had his attention, he admitted he didn’t really have an appointment, but “I’m going to be the best person you’re ever going to hire.”
Tom worked his way up the ladder at American Express, eventually overseeing a team of nearly 500 financial advisors. But even in a big company with all those resources, Tom believed that a salesperson is like an entrepreneur because many rely on the salesperson to do everything from lead generation through service after the sale.
At the height of his corporate career, Tom left to pursue his own business ventures, which are now the Optimum Effect Group. And as an entrepreneur, he drew from his military experience on how to be resilient, face his fears, and think like an army of one.
And as an army of one, you have to be exceptional at what you do because the stakes are high. It’s all about survival.
The Sales Challenges – It Still Comes Down to Who You Target, Where to Find Them and How You Sell It
Tom observes that many challenges that plague salespeople today are caused by a lack of formal training and a failure to truly understand what it takes to solution sell. “Most salespeople focus on trying to be understood instead of seeking to understand.”
It all starts with a lack of clarity with respect to determining who your audience is, getting in front of the right people, and ultimately, how to best engage them. And because of the pressure to perform, many become distracted by the white noise that’s out there in terms of potential prospecting opportunities and approaches.
This leads to the misconception that “volume cures all” and as such, people fool themselves into thinking that lots of activity = results. But results come through having meaningful conversations with relevant consumers to find opportunities to help them.
In the end, Tom fundamentally believes that he’s in the business of helping people.
Improvement and Optimization Through Measurement and Self-Education
Also inhibiting the potential of many sales professionals is the limited time they spend perfecting their craft.
“Most of the successful salespeople that I have met have read hundreds of sales books. They’ve attended dozens of sales conferences, training sessions and things. So, they’re constantly learning and refining.”
In an industry where you are relentlessly competing against a wealth of noise and shortening attention spans, you have to stay on top of emerging techniques, trends, and technologies.
Tom also shares that it’s not uncommon to find that many aren’t fully measuring their performance. If you're not tracking the steps in your sales process, building in ratios, understanding conversion ratios, and leveraging champions in your team, then you will fall behind competitors who are.
Ultimately, whether you’re on a team of 500 or running your own business, you have to think like an entrepreneur and rely on yourself to get the job done. Invest in self-education, focus on one target at a time, and work on overcoming your fears so you can be great at what you do. In business, and particularly in sales, survival depends on it.
Solution selling isn’t about you being understood but rather you truly focusing on the needs and wants of your customer.
Implementing true solution selling involves the following:
Start with the facts and ask fact-based questions like where have you been, where are you trying to go, what resources do you have, etc.
Gather up all the appropriate facts that you need to help figure out what product or service is going to be most appropriate for them
Next, ask your potential customer about their goals. Focus on goals-based questions like what are they trying to accomplish and where are they trying to go.
Discuss the obstacles that are currently preventing them from getting to where they’re trying to go and present obstacles that they may have not been considered.
Then, most importantly, offer help on how to fix those obstacles. Some you will be able to directly help and others you might not.
To get to your ideal audience it’s important to understand where they sit in the buyer’s pyramid and to have a clear picture of who that person is, which is no small feat.
You can think of the buyer’s pyramid (reference Chet Holmes’ book The Ultimate Sales Machine) like this:
3% are the ideal people
6-7% are open to it
30% not thinking about it
30% don’t think they are interested
30% know they are not interested
To determine if these people fit in the top part of the buyer’s pyramid you have to assess if they have the resources and the embedded needs that align to what you want to offer. But more importantly, you have to diagnose where you could be the most value to somebody to help them either get what they want or get away from what they don’t want.
The way to attract more buyers is if you’re offering to teach them something of value or you’re answering questions that they have.
It requires strategic listening, strategic questioningm and ultimately strategic dialogue to determine where people fit in these categories and for you to create genuine value.
Sales is a rate game, not a volume game. Rate increases by making sure you’re in front of the right people, and that might take a little extra work. You have to physically put yourself in front of those people. Think of playing the rate game (which is more strategic) vs. the all-too-common volume game, particularly if you are an entrepreneur. With the diminishing effects of typical lead techniques (email, direct mail, phone and even social), it’s hard to continue to do the same things and expect the same result.
Understand your numbers and know those ratios between the different steps in your sales process in order to diagnose and identify where the true problem is – essentially the hole in the hose.
Invest in perfecting your sales skill. Don’t run around with a dull blade, but rather constantly learn and refine your craft so you can sharpen the sword.