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Don’t forget to think inside the box

In recent articles, I’ve offered contrarian concepts such as prospecting with a sieve instead of a funnel; or planting seeds instead of hunting. This month’s contrarian sales concept is to “think inside the box.” It’s so easy to boast about being an outside the box thinker that everyone forgot about all the great tools inside the box.


Outside-the-box thinkers pride themselves on innovation and creativity and there is, of course, nothing wrong with those traits. High level performers are able to bring a personal style and innovation to the foundational skills of selling, but everyone should first master the great ideas inside the box.

A star football player doesn’t ignore the basics of blocking and tackling. An engineer doesn’t try to reinvent the shape of the wheel. High powered salespeople don’t ignore the skills that made them successful early in their careers.

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Unfortunately many salespeople never master the basics. Circumstances create sales results that mask the need for rudimentary skills development. Consider the salesperson who inherits accounts from departing salespeople within an organization or the salesperson whose growth merely mirrors a rise in economic trends. These are salespeople who can succeed without fundamental sales skills…until it is too late.

Success starts with a cold call. It is true that experienced sales veterans are able to network and gain new business by referrals. It is even truer that the foundation of business-to-business selling skills starts with a cold call. A salesperson who has never mastered the skill of selling from scratch to a prospect with an initial cold call has not mastered the most essential skill in the box.

Count contacts. Thirty years ago, successful salespeople kept a stack of business cards wrapped in a rubber band conveniently located on the console of their trucks. Today this basic idea inside the box is as valuable as ever. The tool has changed—i.e. an electronic database has (hopefully) replaced the rubber band, but the concept remains. Meet more people; count your contacts; the law of averages will help you grow your business. It’s a formula inside the box that works.

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Let people share their story. Outside-the-box thinkers assert that they creatively think outside the box to learn about their prospects and customers. They use the internet, referral dialogues, and jobsite visits to understand client needs before meeting them. You can’t sell to a prospect only with research.

Inside-the-box thinkers recognize that the buyer’s favorite subject is the buyer! The best way to understand people is by listening and asking questions while you’re meeting them. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Letting people share their story is the best and oldest inside-the-box idea of them all.

Promise and deliver…the things you can do easily. Outside-the-box thinkers are creative people who put out fires and believe they should resourcefully cater to the demands of high maintenance customers. Inside-the-box thinkers prevent fires and make promises within the confines of their company’s operational capability. I’ve never been a fan of the “under-promise and over-deliver” concept. Just promise and deliver what you can. Your clients will be thrilled. The best way to remain profitable is the old school way—i.e. sell what you can deliver in the normal course of business.

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Before you think outside the box, make sure you’re not ignoring the essential tools in the box. The tried and true ways are still the best. Blocking and tackling properly might be boring, but is still the key to winning championships. Salespeople who master and exploit the boring ideas inside the box ultimately produce the most exciting results.

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