The Secret to Selling Efficiency: Don’t Talk Tech



The following is a story I tell frequently in the context of our efficiency-focused professional sales trainings. If you’ve never heard the story, enjoy. And if you have, feel free to pass it along to any staff or colleagues who might benefit from being reminded that “CFO” does not stand for “Chief Fluorescent Officer.”

When I was a very young man selling efficiency solutions for the first time, I got very lucky and managed to land an appointment with the CFO of a Fortune 500 company. I knew that if I convinced this CFO to let us do lighting retrofits for his national portfolio of properties, it would be a game changer for my company.

So I get an appointment with this guy. His assistant asks me to “make myself comfortable” in the biggest boardroom I had ever seen – complete with a fifty-foot-long endangered tropical hardwood table and three dozen overstuffed leather swivel chairs to boot, each with a leather blotter and crystal water goblet placed neatly in front of it… oh, and with plenty of oil portraits of presumably deceased corporate founders covering the walls. 

The CFO finally arrives, about thirty minutes late for our meeting. He is a caricature of a Fortune 500 accounting head: razor-cut hair… a heavily starched, white button-down Oxford shirt and Ivy League rep tie… wing tips so highly polished that they could be used as mirrors to signal passing planes… yellow legal pad, HP12C calculator and 0.5mm mechanical pencil clenched firmly in hand. He strides confidently into the room and in true New York City rapport-building fashion, slaps his legal pad on the table, tosses his calculator and mechanical pencil down onto it, and says simply, “Hit me.”

So I launch right into it… all the technical specifications of lighting increases I could imagine giving his buildings, the color rendering index and chromaticity of my proposed retrofits, the whole nine yards. About ten minutes into the pitch he stops me. He picks up his mechanical pencil for the first time, puts its point to paper, and says, “What was that last term you just used?”

I said, “Chromaticity”?  He said, “Yeah, that’s it. How do you spell it?” So, I spell it, and he writes it down. “Now what exactly does it mean?” I recite the textbook definition of “chromaticity,” practically verbatim out of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America’s Lighting Handbook. He studiously copies my description word for word, then sets his pencil back down on his legal pad and says, “Thank you. Go on.”

I said, “Excuse me, but of everything I’ve told you so far today, ‘chromaticity’ seems to be the only term that caught your fascination. Why is that?” He looks down, seemingly a little bit embarrassed, and then confesses, “My 11-year-old daughter and I have a little word game we play at dinner every night, and I’m fairly confident I’m going to get her with ‘chromaticity’ tonight, so for that I thank you. Now go on.”

That’s about as much as any non-lighting-industry CFO cares about chromaticity. Would “chromaticity” ultimately convince this particular CFO to invest in a portfolio-wide lighting retrofit? Absolutely not. After that meeting I was so miffed… I wanted to look up his home telephone number, call his daughter after I figured she’d be home from school, and say something like, “Listen smarty pants… You don’t know me, and don’t ask me how I know this, but your father is going to hit you with ‘chromaticity’ tonight at dinner. This is exactly how you spell it, and this is exactly what it means, and don’t tell him that anyone called!” But alas, I didn’t do it. I had learned my lesson, and that was enough satisfaction.

Why am I sharing this story? Because far too many people who actually land the coveted C-level meeting wind up squandering it by focusing on the technical aspects of what they sell. Why do they take this approach? Because most people in sales receive less than three days of professional sales training in their entire career and most of that is product knowledge training. They actually think that the way to sell stuff is to tell people everything they know about their products and that doing so will make it obvious to their prospects that they should buy. Guess what? That approach accomplishes exactly the opposite result.

The more information you shower on a prospect, the worse your chances are of closing a sale. As you blather on about all of the technical details, the prospect gets into deeper and deeper and deeper water. At some point they realize that their toes are no longer touching the bottom of the pool. Their inner voice starts saying, “I'm in way over my head. This is turning out to be a much more complicated conversation than I thought we would be having. I’d better call in some technical experts who can tell me whether or not this salesperson really knows what he (or she) is talking about.”

The moral of the story? Unless you’re interested in giving your prospects some fodder for dinnertime word games with the kids, forget the technical jargon and focus on your prospect’s story, not yours.

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Posted by Mark Jewell