Isabelle Murphy got herself through college by doing product demonstrations at the Macy’s in Herald Square at New York. It was her first chance to try out something different from the typical office job, something that would help her to sharpen her sales and people skills. When she first started, she was replacing a man who had a reputation for being incredibly good at the product demonstrations. He was an actor. Everytime he got up to show off one of the products he was selling, there would be a throng of people watching the demo. So when he had to go to do an off-Broadway show, Isabelle came to replace him as a temporary sales person – just a “warm body there.”
Isabelle remembered, “My style was very different. I talked to each of the customers who came up and watched and I asked questions about what they were looking for, what were their interests, and what kinds of things they were doing. And then what I would do, based on that information, was talk to them about the different products that I was selling and how it would help them.” It was solution selling at its best. Focusing on each individual person, Isabelle threw the idea of a large show out the window.
For instance, one time, a man came up to her looking for a present for his wife. Isabelle suggested a fry pan. The man was confused. Why would he want to give a fry pan as a gift to his wife? She suggested that the fry pan was a symbol that he and the boys wanted to make life easier for her and step up their duties in the house. She then told him to buy some perfume as a second gift to represent how beautiful she is. He bought the fry pan, and Isabelle went off to another customer. A week later, the man came back, complimented the fry pan that she suggested, and then bought the whole set!
It turns out, after the original salesman came back from his off-Broadway show, Isabelle had sold just as much as he had, even though she didn’t have the crowds of excited people waiting for demonstrations. It was a transformative experience. The lessons that she learned from stepping back, taking time to understand where people came from, and then using that information to come up with sales suggestions would stay with her for the years to come.
It was in her thirteenth year working for Kodak when she found her original sales skill set kick in in a different way. She had been doing sales management, and corporate had created a new business division that she and several others moved to. After she got trained and subsequent groups were coming on, they asked for somebody to help do training for these people, so she stepped up to the job and began.
It became apparent that she was well suited for running these training programs. The training revolved around solution selling for customers, through active listening and questions, matching them up to a product that fit their needs. These programs were run on a tight, set curriculum, and as time went on Isabelle realized that the key to actually helping these people was not just providing them with a set of basic skills to use, but a real awareness for how to use them. She quit her job. Shifting her focus, she wanted to run her own development programs that would concentrate more on the attitude and behavioral changes that helped people become not only better sales people, but better leaders.
She observed that the traits people looked for in leaders were also present in successful salespeople: understanding the customer and what is important to them, how to meet needs, what the company wants, and how to present it. So she decided to focus more on leadership and team development, pivoting away from her previous work in sales.
She started part-time, taking care of her young children at home and running the programs on the side. As her both her kids and business grew, she began to delve into her company more and it turned consulting into a fulltime job.
Starting the business, her sales experience from the past had suddenly become incredibly useful, but selling a program to businesses was different from selling to consumers. For starters, it was much more complex. Isabelle observed that “the level of complexity triples based on the number of people who are involved because of the individual personalities.” Moreover, the biggest obstacle she had to overcome was gaining credibility.
She pointed out that a lot of other firms could make an “ego sell”, leveraging their ethos and big name to get clients. It was hard to compete against those types of people, but Isabelle found out that if she could get past the initial bias and demonstrate how valuable her service was, it made the process of closing a sale much easier.
It also helped that she knew how to use powerful questions to get them to buy her programs. She explained that through asking questions in places where people least expect, they are forced to think about it in a different perspective and are more likely to come to an understanding with you.
Besides making these big sales, she was also able to build a huge references and referrals list. By starting off small, she would finish each one of her gigs and ask if she could use their name as a reference for future sales. As her list grew, her credibility grew and it became easier and easier to close deals. She articulated that the reason that this works so well is because “the client is already feeling a sense of value because somebody that they trusted has made this recommendation.”
Through learning to navigate the complex world of B2B sales and building a strong list of references and referrals, she has been able to build and scale her business quite well. And even though she has relied on previous successful programs to make her case, that doesn’t mean that each program that she runs is the same; they’re customized towards the needs of each company. For instance, she had an incredible program with Oracle, and she would use that as an example of a big client that was satisfied with how she did her work, but the way she might structure the program would be different for PBS or some other company. Her programs are also less focused on a set curriculum but molding it to the individual personalities in the room, building soft skills and introducing leadership and organizational models. She said it best, “ I can’t teach anybody anything, all I can do is help them think.”
That strategy has largely worked. One of her programs, Empower – which is designed for people who have been deemed to have high potential – is focused much more on the participants’ objectives. She starts by explaining what the program is and how it’s going to help them improve areas such as “how they interact with other people, how flexible they are in terms of looking at different needs, and how comfortable they are with changing things.” The program is also based on what the participant wants to get out of it and what their long-term goals are. Then, based on what they say, she comes up with a contract for how they are going to work together for the next few days. After that, she works on using models to help them develop their skills in various areas from soft skills to technical spots.
Even though her programs had been successful, things could still get incredibly tough. For example, she had been contracting at a company for a while at that point, and she was well-known and trusted there. She had been running the training from the corporate offices, and she was on her way to start at the satellite offices. When she got there, one of the managers at the satellite office kept on taking people out during the training to inform them of non-urgent things. Afterwards, Isabelle felt a bit uncomfortable and talked to the manager about it. The manager got incredibly angry and called corporate to get the programs cut. It turns out, corporate did cut the programs. And even though she had been doing them for a while there, it made her realize that she had to rely on herself, not the company, whenever she was running her programs.
That’s ultimately been the biggest lesson that she’s learned: to count on herself, not the client. Things will change. Many variables will be out of your control, but you can definitely control what you do and what attitude you use to face it.
That’s been one of the toughest parts. In times when Isabelle has had a tough time getting business, it seems so much easier to just give up and get a job with a steady paycheck and benefits. On the flip side, when her business had gotten a lot of clients, she missed a lot of important moments in her children’s lives and that also made her question her career choice.
There’s something in her that keeps her going though. As she explains, “I really love what I do. I have always said when it gets to the point where I don’t like what I’m doing, then I’m going to change it up again. And if I can walk out of a session and a couple of people are thinking in a new way they hadn’t thought of before, then I think I’ve done something really of value.”
That measure of value has shifted over the years. She started with sales training, then team development, and now, it’s diversity and inclusion training. As she grows the business, she continues to pursue a meaningful change in every corporate culture she goes to.
“If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, make sure you’re doing it around something that you really enjoy and you really believe in.”
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