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Sales Lessons From... My Tennis Coach
By Helen Berman

What works for tennis, I've found, often works for sales.

Maybe you've seen the T-shirt saying, "Tennis is life; the rest is just details." As a tennis fanatic myself, I'd change that slightly: "Tennis is life, but don't forget the details." In truth, a good tennis game is a matter of getting dozens of tiny factors into exact balance. Whether I win or lose might depend on a tiny adjustment in my grip, getting to the ball a fraction of a second too early or late, or putting a bit more spin on my serve.

I may never make it to the U.S. Open - except in my daydreams - but attention to these details has helped me become a more challenging player. I think it's also made me a better salesperson. After all, sales success often comes down to getting the details right: thinking a half-second faster on your feet, paying close attention to your client's words and expressions, having just the right selling point on hand when you need it.

What works for tennis, I've found, often works for sales. So while I can't guarantee that the following "tennis" lessons will make you a better player on the court, I do know they'll almost certainly make you a better player in the advertising sales game.

Consider, then, Sales Lessons From... My Tennis Coach:

Lesson 1: Be prepared!

Ever play tennis in cowboy boots? I have. That's what happens when you forget to pack the right gear! It's like showing up at your client's without a media kit (it's happened, right?) or closing a sale without knowing the details of the contract.

Avoid the embarrassment of showing up unprepared. Life is hectic, so keep a logistics list in your computer, detailing all the "must haves" you need for every call. By printing it out before every business trip, you won't have to worry about losing track of the minutiae. When you use technology for the grunge work, you save your mind for sales strategy.

Lesson 2: Remember to breathe.

To play a good game, it's critical to stay fresh, relaxed, and ready to rock. That's not so tough at the start of a match. But as I play from point to point, it's easy to start falling apart. First I might hit the ball too late. That throws me physically and mentally off balance, so I start worrying about my shots. Once I've lost my cool, I start missing my returns.

At that point, I can either act on my panic or step back and regroup. Granted, regrouping is counterintuitive: Every muscle wants to keep swinging at the ball. But if I step back, I can get my body into a ready position. I can breathe, relax, and focus on getting the next ball in my "hitting zone."

It's the same in sales. As one call piles on top of another, we're always tempted to keep plunging in, hoping that the faster we go, the better we'll "deal" with all of it. All we end up with is feeling overwhelmed. At such moments, it's far better to stop and breathe. By taking our minds off our last call, we can get into a ready position for the next call. That's how we re-enter our sales "hitting zone."

Lesson 3: Watch the ball, not the merely outcome.

Tim Gallway, author of "The Inner Game of Tennis," notes that every player tends to focus exclusively on the same thing: the need to win the match. (After all, it's a competitive sport!) That need to win is what he calls "the suck of the game."

The irony, though, is that the needing to win doesn't always help your game. I've seen it myself. As my competitive spirit flares up and I relentlessly pursue the point, I take my eye off the ball, look at where I imagine my ball will land--and miss the point.

To let go of the "suck," as Gallway advises, tennis players need momentarily to ignore the accuracy of their strokes and instead focus on the way the ball spins as it flies toward them over the net. By focusing on the ball, rather than on the need to stroke perfectly, these players eventually enter a groove where their playing automatically improves.

Salespeople, of course, are suckers for the "suck of the game." We all want to win the sale. But when we pursue winning as our only goal, instead of meeting the client's needs, we end up with giant egos and unhappy clients. To land and keep more accounts, we need to be 100 percent engaged with the prospect. By focusing on their wants and needs, we keep an eye on the ball, and that's where the real sales game is won.

Lesson 4: Don't rush the net.

Personally, I love killing the ball. I play aggressively at the net, and get the greatest feeling from smashing the ball at my opponent's feet. The only problem is that I often race in before I should, miss the shot, or worse, leave myself open to getting it shot past my own head!

As in tennis, timing is everything in sales. We all love to close the deal, but when we rush in too early, we risk scaring off our prospect. One wrong move, and we've lost any valuable ground we might have painstakingly gained.

The secret, then, is knowing when to hit the killer shot. To set it up, it's important to use mini closes to test the client's readiness. Before getting the ultimate "yes," it pays to get "yeses" to less-critical questions: "Do you understand how our publication penetrates a larger market than you now reach?" "Are you comfortable with the benefits you'll get from our special issue?" Each "yes" puts you in closer contact with the net, helping you set up your killer shot.

Lesson 5: Don't go for broke; go for consistency.

Ever watch beginning players in a match? They'll fire off killer shots, one after the other, trying to make every stroke a "put-away." It's as if they're afraid an "ordinary" shot will leave them open to getting creamed by the opponent.

In fact, though, the opposite is true. The more killer shots a player attempts, the more likely he or she will make an error. What's more important is consistency. Players who win are those who strategically set up their shots, saving the killer shot for the moment when it counts.

Beginning sales reps also go for overkill. Many like to pursue only the huge or prestigious accounts in hopes of bringing down the big commissions. That's shortsighted. Anybody can close a great sale once in a while, but only the best sales reps know just when and how to approach each client for a "yes." They learn from their mistakes and produce consistent results, closing contract after contract, regardless of size.

Whether in sales or tennis, it's important not to make every shot a "put-away." More critical is taking the time to learn your partner's style, to set up your "shots" strategically, and to know when and how to make the killer play.

Remember, tennis and sales are games of strategic maneuvering. Each "hit" - each "yes" - takes you closer to winning the point and the ad sale.


An exciting speaker and inspiring sales mentor, Helen Berman has appeared at dozens of media conferences and seminars worldwide, in addition to writing popular sales columns for Folio and Expo magazines. She's also written the two-volume book, Ad Sales: Winning Secrets of the Magazine Pros and is working on a new book, Integrated Media Sales: Beyond the Page, Beyond the Banner. To contact Helen directly, call 310-230-3899 or learn more online www.helenberman.com

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