The Real Sharp End
When you write a book there are many sources of inspiration that contribute to the final product. In my recently published book, Zero-Time Selling, 10 Essential Steps to Accelerate Every Company’s Sales, I write about the requirement to Sell with the Sharp End. What I mean by the Sharp End is to place your people with the deepest product knowledge and industry expertise closest to your customer. If you want to be a truly responsive seller who can help compress a prospect’s or customer’s buying cycle, then you need people in your front line sales positions who can provide the information the customer requires to make an informed purchase decision in the shortest time possible.
One of my inspirations for the concept of The Sharp End was my father-in-law, George. Like my own father, George returned home from World War II and took advantage of the GI Bill to finish his undergraduate studies and then moved forward to get a Masters Degree. His degree was in Food Technology (as was my father’s) and after graduation he relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area from Corvallis, Oregon to work in the food packaging industry for a large company that sold canning products to the food processors who canned the fruits and tomatoes from California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley that fed the rest of the country.
When I was in the midst of writing my book, George asked me what the book was about. I gave him a brief overview of the concepts I was writing about and he said that he had been in sales. I replied that I hadn’t been aware of that, that I thought he had been a food scientist, like my father. He said that he was a specialist in the science and technology behind food processing and packaging but that soon after he started work he was enlisted to use his expertise in support of his employer’s sales team as they called on their prospects and customers. This went on for a year or so until one day George was summoned to meet with one of the company’s senior sales managers. He was a little concerned that he was in trouble, that perhaps he had made a mistake with a customer or had somehow alienated one of the sales people. Instead, the big boss said that they were going to move George into sales because, as George told me, “I was the only one on a sales call who knew the products and knew what the hell they were talking about.” He was the Sharp End.
George was the proverbial Sharp End in ways that great salespeople must be. He possessed an insatiable intellectual curiosity and appetite for knowledge. Not just for his products and industry but also for business, economics, politics, history, and languages. He not only understood his customer’s business requirements, but he also he knew their history, their culture, and their customs. He took the extra steps that made the difference between just showing up and making an indelible impact on the customer.
George parlayed success in his first sales assignment into a successful career that spanned four decades, running international operations as a senior executive for a major American multi-national corporation. (It was while George was on assignment in Tokyo that my father was also posted to Tokyo to oversee his company’s new Japanese joint-venture. It was there that I met my future wife, George’s daughter, for the first time.)
Even after retirement, like all true Sharp Ends, George kept exploring and learning. For instance, when he was 88 years old, he traveled with a friend, a relative youngster in his mid-70s, contemporary to Tibet. They traveled by themselves from New York City to Beijing and then on to Tibet. Before leaving he fortified himself by consuming a literal shelf full of books about Tibet and China. Three months after he returned I sat in amazement as he gave a slide talk about his travels to a local church group. His first slide was a map of Tibet. Talking without notes he spent twenty minutes describing the geography of the country and the major rivers that have their sources in Tibet and their historical and sociological importance to local and downstream populations.
Last Christmas George gave me book titled “Keynes/Hayek, The Clash That Defined Modern Economics.” It is a history of the intense intellectual duel between John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek in the first half of the 20th century that has framed the economic debate between liberals and conservatives ever since. At age 90 he had just finished reading it and thought I would find it interesting as we moved into an election season again. I set it aside in favor of writing yet another blog article and reading yet another book on sales or marketing.
George passed away this week at age 91. I have a book I need to go read.