I’ll never forget the first call I received from Jerry.

It was a Friday afternoon, just as I was wrapping up my week and putting things away.

His excitement was contagious and for a salesperson getting a customer who is just as excited as you is like a unicorn, mythical and majestic at the same time.  He had a wild and crazy idea that our botanical ingredients, primarily used in the food and beverage world could apply to the functional cosmetic market.  He introduced me to several new terms and key regulatory issues to be aware of.

I cancelled my weekend plans with my wife and told her I needed to do research.  Sales people are inherently driven by the potential of a new deal and FOMO (fear of missing out) is strong in most commissioned sales roles so I didn’t want the opportunity to slip away.

I dug deep into clinical studies, patch tests, skin reactions, Collagen research, fibroblast growth factor, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) and was quickly on the path to understanding just what was possible with our green and white teas, our mushroom extracts, and various other uses for our core ingredients.

Jerry had my attention for the next month, several calls per day and shipment after shipment of samples to his office.  We formulated growth plans for the products he was creating, he spoke often about his investors and their feedback on the products he was creating.  We mapped out what the product launches would look like and he provided some mock ups for us to approve.

As time progressed though I started asking tougher questions.  What were his distribution channels?  Where was manufacturing going to happen?  I started to dig into what I could find about him and there was very little.  This was in the early stages of LinkedIn, which had about 500k users at the time and Zuck was still in high school.  Online information was spotty on Jerry and my salesman spidey senses were on high alert.

We finally had a come to Jesus meeting and I asked Jerry direct questions about his plans.  He stumbled and started circling back on conversations that we had already had.  After hanging up the call it became apparent that Jerry had been wasting our time and had no intention of launching a product nor the means to do so but was using us to do his R&D for him.  Jerry shortly disappeared and the calls and emails stopped and I was left holding the bag of broken promises in my managers’ office.

My head hung low that day.

The phoenix must burn to emerge. – Janet Fitch

Learning from Failure

The following Monday came and I picked everything up from the failed “Jerry Project”.  I felt defeated and as if I had wasted the last month and a half of my career.

So I did what any sales person who had been handed a basket of lemons does: started figuring out how to make lemonade.

The first step was to start looking at where I could apply the knowledge I had learned on my own jumping through Jerry’s hoops.  I started doing research on which companies were using similar solutions and which had the beginnings of a natural line.

I decided to make the most of it and dialed the 800 number of one of the largest cosmetic companies in the world.  After being bounced around through 2 switchboards I was connected with the right person.  The information I had ingested was readily available and I had confidence in the use of our ingredients in this market.

I knew we were offering what they needed and knew also how to position it.

The message was well received and we were invited out for an in-person meeting 2 weeks later.

There was still some learning we had to do but thankfully we found a gracious and willing partner in this customer.  3 months later we came to market with our first of what would eventually be 14 cosmeceutical ingredients and effectively launched an entirely new division of our company, one that is still growing some 11 years later.

Life is what you make of it

We all experience set backs, failures, and challenges in life, and sales is no different.  Here are 3 quick tips to make the best of the setbacks we all face:

  1. Have a robust and diverse pipeline – if you set out to intentionally build a diverse pipeline you won’t be as affected by changing market conditions, shifting trends in technology or strategies, and challenges or loss with one customer won’t upset your year.
  2. Be Agile – the agile methodology is being adopted in all areas of business these days but there is something to be said about being able to sprint, assess, and iterate in the sales process.  Sticking to our fixed methodologies and trying the same way to connect with customers is a quick way to fail.  Don’t be afraid to test new ways of connecting like social media, networking events, blog writing, video storytelling, etc.
  3. Be learning continually – having a broad and extensive knowledge base allows you to ask more intelligent “what if” questions to your customers, determine where there may be green fields of opportunity, and understand the factors that are shaping trends that impact your customers.

Keep Your Head Up

We live in a world of opportunity and the chance to make the most of it is yours for the taking.  It is easier now to connect, influence, inform, and assist than ever before.  Be helpful.  Be relentless. Be positive. And don’t be afraid to pick up the phone right after one potential customer says no and keep dialing until you get the yes.