Want to succeed in sales? Do your homework.


Most of us remember the day we graduated from college vividly. Everyone’s story is different. As I sat among a sea of green-and-white engineering graduates (Go MSU!), my most unforgettable recollection was the overwhelming excitement I felt about NEVER having to do homework again … EVER.

That tells you what they didn’t teach me about the real world.

Today, that memory still makes me laugh late at night when I’m plowing through stacks of industry research, preparing for a sales pitch, or following up on promises after a day or two of business travel. Over the years, I’ve come to look forward to this type of homework. That’s because the knowledge and insight that comes from diving deep is what often helps us to uncover new opportunities, new thinking and growth—for our business, our clients and for us personally.

Recently, I was on the opposite end of homework, handing out difficult assignments to participants in The Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) Bootcamp Session XIV. TEN is one of Upstate New York’s fastest-growing initiatives, designed to help new ventures in early stage technology or life sciences get off the ground, or to help established firms consider new avenues for growth.

While I provided training on how to do the research and analysis essential to creating a differentiated and sustainable brand, other experts such as Jack Derby and George Simmons from Derby Management, and Roger O’Brien from O’Brien Associates, provided instruction on sales processes, sales compensation, and sales and investor presentations. That’s a lot of ground to cover in only six days. However, by providing the latest thinking on what companies need to have to get customers and investors to not only buy, but buy often and pay more, TEN is creating both community-wide and individual engines for economic growth.

In coaching business owners through the curriculum and the creation of their strategic business plans, it’s clear that the value of doing homework is irrefutable. There are no shortcuts to launching a business, product or service, or to achieving sustained success. Without doing some intensive homework, you can’t possibly know what problems customers need to solve, why they’d care about your product, or what upcoming trend—technology, economic, legislative, environmental or societal–will impact your ability to close deals.

That seems logical and just plain common sense. But you’d be surprised by how many times we speak with entrepreneurs and established businesses that have overlooked the need for research and strategic planning. The rationale varies, from lack of time or budget to more emotional factors like not wanting to have an idea that someone feels passionate about questioned.

But here’s the point. Without the clarity that proper preparation brings, it’s almost impossible to prove to customers and investors that the value of an idea is completely executable. This weakness will limit your sales potential, regardless of how good the idea is. It will also hinder opportunities to fully integrate sales and marketing activities, yielding much lower returns on investment.

This same need for clarity applies to existing products and services, too. As market dynamics shift, value propositions and the processes you use to engage people in your brand should also shift accordingly.

By rolling up your sleeves, you’ll be surprised at what you can learn. If it helps, don’t even think of it as homework. As TEN coach Roger O’Brien so eloquently put it, “Sales is education.” So prepare to teach your targets something they’ll really want to buy into.