President and CEO
GE Medical Systems, Americas
Nothing happens in business unless and until someone sells something. I learned how to sell at the Steak and Ale Restaurant, in South Bend, Indiana. Working my way through college as a waitress, I became really good at adapting my style to the different personalities of my customers.
The best salespeople see things through their customers' eyes, modify their styles to their customers' chemistry, and pull together their offering to meet their customers' needs. Ten years ago, our customers were focused on technology. Today, technology performance has to be translated into improving patient outcomes, enhancing quality, and reducing costs. It's a more subtle conversation. So the biggest challenge for salespeople is to get quality time in front of their customers.
But being in front of the customer doesn't help if you do all the talking. My father used to say, "Many a sale was lost from the jawbone of an ass." What Dad said then applies today.
Beth Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) began her 20-plus-year career with GE Medical Systems in sales. She now oversees a sales team of some 1,500 people throughout the Americas and is responsible for more than $3 billion in revenue.
National Semiconductor Corp.
I'm not going to excuse the snake oil that's been sold over the past few years, or the business scandals. But these times of distrust haven't changed things. People who have a knack for selling have always had it. The essence of selling is understanding your customer's needs and convincing him that you're the best one to meet them.
In today's semiconductor business, there's tremendous pressure to sell on price. But the best way to sell is to sell on value. That's harder, because it takes brains. But that's the only way to prosper. Back in the 1970s, when I ran National Semiconductor's point-of-sale division, our "value sell" was a missionary sell. We had to convince the big supermarket chains that they needed our checkout-scanning systems. The only way to do that was to understand their business. I knew the industry so well that presidents of the supermarket chains used to ask me for business advice. We were fundamentally changing the way that these supermarkets operated.
Now, when you combine brains with tenacity, you've really got something. My toughest sale was in the point-of-sale business. We were trying to sell scanners to a supermarket chain in Detroit. When I heard that the store was planning to go with NCR instead, I called up the vice president in charge and said, "Jack, what the hell are you doing here? You know we're the better choice." It was a done deal, he told me, and besides, he was taking off for Europe the next afternoon. I took a red-eye to Detroit to meet him for breakfast. I listened to his concerns and the issues that were raised by his guys, refuted their points, listened some more, and turned them around. We made the sale.
Fred Bialek has been called the "toughest SOB who ever sold." He was one of five people who left Fairchild Semiconductor in 1967 to relaunch National Semiconductor Corp. Today, Bialek is a private consultant.
Senior vice president, world sales and field operations
Mountain View, California
Selling is like martial arts: To do it well, you have to apply the right amount of energy in the right spots, adding skill and precision over time. When Google was founded in 1998, people wondered whether the world needed another search engine. We focused on demonstrating and delivering value to our customers and users. Since then, the boom times went bust. There's no longer room for mistakes or for people who never knew how to sell in the first place.
So we continue to pick our salespeople carefully. We have a rigorous hiring process. We also pick our customers carefully. Before we can even begin the sales process, we make sure that there's a fit between Google and the customer. If we don't believe that we can solve a customer's problem, then we walk away from the opportunity — even if the customer is willing to do business with us. It's painful in the short term, but it's the right thing to do for long-term growth.
For example, two years ago, we turned down a multimillion-dollar relationship because our immediate product couldn't really solve this customer's problem. Our competition won the account. Since that time, we've broadened our product's capabilities, and the competition has failed to deliver on its initial promise. Now the customer is with us.
Omid Kordestani (email@example.com) leads a 90-person sales team at Google. He became the company's top sales executive in 1999 and played a critical role in bringing it to profitability. Prior to joining Google, Kordestani was vice president of business development and sales at Netscape Communications.
CBS Television Network
New York, New York
I've been in the network business for 31 years and head of CBS Television's sales for the past 10. In selling commercial time, integrity means everything. About 80% of our business comes from the same people every year, so selling is about the strength of your relationships. In the end, the honest broker really does win.
Consider one of our more difficult sales this year: the documentary "9/11," which aired in March. We made 12 pitches and ended up with one big client, Nextel, which sponsored the show. The challenge was to come up with an appropriate sponsorship message and format. We suggested a few ideas and even brought in the executive producer to help explain the concept.
One of the heads of sales at a rival network was recently quoted as saying that salesmen don't have much of a conscience. That's a total violation of logic. Ask Nancy Smith at American Express, Tony Ponturo at Budweiser, or Mike Browner at General Motors. If one of those clients told me that one of my salespeople has no conscience, I'd fire that person. In a business based on relationships, when our people sell CBS, they are really selling their own integrity and creativity.
Joseph Abruzzese oversees all of CBS Television's network sales, including CBS Entertainment, Sports, News, Late Night, and the UPN Network.
Salesman, George Nahas Oldsmobile Inc.
How do you make a sale? By learning how to read your customers. And that's not a skill you learn by reading books. It comes with experience.
We don't pressure people here. We present a good product at a good price, and we let customers make up their minds. If I used that philosophy up the road in Orlando, I'd probably be broke. But we're in a retirement community. Our customers expect a friendly attitude. I greet them in shorts, because our customers tend to dress casual. If it's 100 degrees, and I'm wearing a shirt and tie, I'm going to be sweating. Who wants to buy a car from a guy who's sweating?
I work hard to listen effectively. When a customer arrives, we don't go right out and look at cars. We talk about what they want. It's amazing what you learn if you just listen: The husband and wife have been driving that Lincoln Town Car for five years, she's hated it for five years, and he didn't even know it.
My philosophy: Pay close-enough attention to your customers, and you can sell a car to the world's biggest grouch. I know. He's already bought three cars from me.
John O'Bryant (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the top salesman at George Nahas Oldsmobile, which was named the industry's Quality Dealer this year by Time magazine. He has been Salesman of the Year four times since joining the dealership nearly 10 years ago.
Senior Girl Scout, Troop 1231
Girl Scout Council of Southeastern Massachusetts
I've been selling Girl Scout cookies since first grade, when I was a Brownie. I've sold about 12,000 boxes over the years. This year, like other girls in my troop, I had three weeks to sell as many cookies as I could. I sold 2,040 boxes.
My customers are so loyal and supportive. It makes a difference when your customers know that you're enthusiastic about what you're doing. In some ways, my success is their success. They want to be on a winning team.
If you make a personal connection, you can sell to just about anyone. That connection starts with how you tell your story. I'm not a cute little Brownie anymore. My story is that I'm a busy teen who has a lot of stuff going on: finals, band concert, science fair, plus my job. I'm the one who sells the cookies, not my parents. And I've stuck with the Girl Scouts for many, many years, because I believe in what we do. One lesson that I've learned, which I didn't understand at first, is how important it is to make the customers feel invested in the sale. I try to make people feel as if they're buying more than just a box of cookies. They're buying a taste of the Girl Scout experience.
Lesley Blumberg outsold all 20,000 girls in the Girl Scout Council of Southeastern Massachusetts and broke a personal record in this year's cookie sale. The high-school senior was the top seller in her council for the eighth year in a row. This year alone, her sales raised enough money to pay for a Girl Scout - sponsored school program in which 625 kids — both girls and boys — participate.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.