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19 Common Sales Errors and How to Avoid Them

According to management consultants, success is often the result of avoiding errors rather than merely making the smart moves. That's certainly true in Sales, where these 19 common errors keep cropping up, even among experienced sales reps.

This post not only describes each error, but also explains why each error is made, how it affects the customer and (most importantly) how to avoid making the error in the first place.

I honestly believe that this may be the most useful post I've ever added to this blog, so enjoy.



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ERROR #1: Neglecting to Develop Sales Skills.
  • What you did: You never bothered to hone your basic selling skills, like rapport building, cold calling, closing, etc.
  • Why you did it: You were too busy with the day-to-day pressures of making your numbers to spend the time.
  • How it screwed you up: You've plateaued at a certain level of selling, and never fulfill your potential as a sales professional.
  • What the prospect thought: "Gee, is this guy from the 1990's or what??"
  • How to avoid a repeat: Ask a respected peer to monitor your sales interactions and provide advice about where you need work. Then schedule a regular time every week to work on those skills.

ERROR #2: Forgetting to Prime Your Pipeline.
  • What you did: You avoided lead generation, getting referrals, and cold calling.
  • Why you did it: When you've got plenty of prospects and customers, it seems like a waste of time to generate more opportunities.
  • How it screwed you up: When your current slate of clients ran out of steam, you had to hustle to build your pipeline... and experienced some lean weeks without commission while you do it.
  • What the prospect thought: "Why hasn't that company gotten in touch with me. I guess I'll buy from somebody else."
  • How to avoid a repeat: Schedule quality time for cold-calling and asking for referrals and other lead generation activities. Then execute those activities until you're certain that you'll have customers to work with... no matter what happens in the future.

ERROR #3: Failing to Qualify Prospects.
  • What you did: You started a sales opportunity without first confirming that the customer was likely (or able) to buy.
  • Why you did it: You were so excited that the "customer" is willing to talk that you don't want to burst your bubble by discovering that they're not really a customer.
  • How it screwed you up: You spent days developing an "opportunity" that generated exactly zero revenue for your firm and zero commission for your wallet.
  • What the prospect thought: "Why is this guy still here? Oh, well, I guess I'll get him to do some free consulting for us."
  • How to avoid a repeat: In the very early stages of the sales cycle, ask questions that will reveal if the prospect really needs what you've got to offer and (more importantly) has the money to buy.

ERROR #4: Proposing a Generic Solution.
  • What you did: You took a bunch of boilerplate material and threw together a solution that would probably work with any company in that industry.
  • Why you did it: You didn't have the time to customize your presentation or solution, so you just proposed what you already had in hand.
  • How it screwed you up: The prospect will be less than enthusiastic (to say the least) when it become clear that the solution is just a cookie-cutter intended for anyone.
  • What the prospect thought: "Does this idiot really think I need a cookie-cutter solution?"
  • How to avoid a repeat: Don't fool yourself into thinking that your generic solution will fill the bill for everyone. Instead, ask questions that uncover real customer needs, then build and present a solution that matches those needs.

ERROR #5: Trying to Negotiate Too Soon.
  • What you did: You entered in discussions of price, delivery, etc. before you've secured agreement that a financial transaction is going to take place.
  • Why you did it: You wanted to close the deal as quickly as possible, but more quickly than was practical.
  • How it screwed you up: Rather than negotiating terms, you ended up in a price discussion. As a result, you got a lower price than you otherwise might have commanded.
  • What the prospect thought: "I'm not convinced that I should buy, so let's see how low I can get him to go on the price!"
  • How to avoid a repeat: Before final negotiation, establish an overwhelming need for your product, and your product alone. Ace out the competition and leave no other option that can satisfy the customer's requirements.

ERROR #6. Not Learning Your Own Product.
  • What you did: You didn't take the time to learn the ins and outs of your product set.
  • Why you did it: You figured that you could always check the specification (or call an engineer) later, once the customer was interested.
  • How it screwed you up: The customer knew more about your products (and your competition) than you, totally destroying your credibility and ability to add value.
  • What the prospect thought: "How dare that firm send a complete novice to sell to us!"
  • How to avoid a repeat: When they have product training at the quarterly sales meeting, actually attend the training course -- without a hangover from the previous night's partying. Before calling on the customer, review the products that might interest him. Have all the spec sheets and information to hand (either online or in your briefcase), just in case.

ERROR #7. Not Learning About the Customer's Industry.
  • What you did: You didn't bother to research the basics of the customer's industry.
  • Why you did it: You probably figured that one industry is pretty much like another, so why bother learning the details.
  • How it screwed you up: The customer realized that your experience wasn't really applicable to his industry, thereby putting you into the "also-ran" category.
  • What the prospect thought: "Doesn't this guy realize that we have unique needs?"
  • How to avoid a repeat: Prior to meeting with any customer, dig around on the Internet to find analyst reports and news articles about the industry. Find out the major players, the major firms, and the major concerns. Take notes, so that you don't have to do it all over again next time you call on a similar customer.

ERROR #8: Not Understanding Basic Business Principles.
  • What you did: You revealed your ignorance of basic business and accounting.
  • Why you did it: Uhhh... Because you are ignorant about basic business and accounting.
  • How it screwed you up: Your lack of knowledge seriously limited your ability to add value. You couldn't talk intelligently about ROI or how your offerings would impact the customer's bottom line.
  • What the prospect thought: "Why is this guy in sales?"
  • How to avoid a repeat: Go to your local college or community college and enroll in a basic business course. Find out how to read a financial report, how understand an annual report, and how to calculate ROI. You don't need an MBA degree to sell, but you do need to know what you're talking about.

ERROR #9: Letting the Ball Drop.
  • What you did: Like millions of sales pros before you, you simply didn't do what it takes to close the deal.
  • Why you did it: Probably you were working too many accounts and too many deals.
  • How it screwed you up: While you may have made some sales elsewhere, this lost opportunity means lower revenue for your company, and a loss in your reputation, both with your management and with your erstwhile prospects.
  • What the prospect thought: "What the heck ever happened to that sales guy??"
  • How to avoid a repeat: It's all a matter of organization. Spend a half hour EVERY MORNING to structure your day. Schedule time so that you're 100 sure that you can return ALL your calls promptly. If you discover that you're swamped, hand some of your accounts to somebody else.

ERROR #10: Talking too much.
  • What you did: You nattered on and on about your company and its offerings.
  • Why you did it: You wanted to make the sale so badly that you tried too hard.
  • How it screwed you up: You didn't find out what you really needed to know in order to close the deal.
  • What the prospect thought: "My Lord, this guy loves the sound of his own voice."
  • How to avoid a repeat: Get "centered" before your next sales call. During your conversation with the customer, focus your intent on customer: words, gestures, tonality and context. Don't think about what you're going to say next. Listen, then respond, then ask another question.

ERROR #11: Asking obvious questions.
  • What you did: You asked lots of questions that you could have easily have answered by searching on the Internet.
  • Why you did it: You figured you could wing it without laying the groundwork.
  • How it screwed you up: You ended up wasting valuable time with the customer.
  • What the prospect thought: "For cryin' out loud, doesn't this guy know we have a website?"
  • How to avoid a repeat: Research the customer thoroughly before your first important meeting. Continue to research throughout the cycle, as you learn more about the customer.

ERROR #12: Ignoring the Competition.
  • What you did: You never discovered who else was selling to the account.
  • Why you did it: You were so excited at the opportunity, you didn't want to look too hard at something that might scuttle it.
  • How it screwed you up: The competitor outmaneuvered you by getting the inside track for his proposal.
  • What the prospect thought: "Why is he still calling me?"
  • How to avoid a repeat: Always ask who else is calling on a prospect. Figure out their sales strategy based upon whom they're calling upon. Come up with a plan to counter the competitor's move to keep the playing field level.

ERROR #13: Forgetting to Actually Sell.
  • What you did: You got so into "relationship building" that you never moved the sales forward.
  • Why you did it: You found it easier to make a new friend than to take the risks involved in developing and closing the account.
  • How it screwed you up: You were afraid to put the friendship at risk, so you never got up the gumption to close the deal.
  • What the prospect thought: "Gosh, what a nice guy!"
  • How to avoid a repeat: Remember that the best way to build a long-term SALES relationship is to sell to the customer, early and frequently. Put rapport-building activities into a business context, so that you become business allies rather than bosom buddies.

ERROR #14: Failing to Find Out How The Customer Buys.
  • What you did: You didn't discover anything about that customer's unique buying process.
  • Why you did it: You were focused on your sales process -- how you thought the sale was supposed to going -- rather than on the customer's buying process.
  • How it screwed you up: You ended up dealing with inexplicable delays as the customer took actions that were outside your understanding. You pushed for decisions when the time wasn't ripe. Ultimately, you didn't take the steps you needed to take in order to clinch the deal.
  • What the prospect thought: "This guy is really pushy."
  • How to avoid a repeat: Gently ask and discover how the customer buys. Then adjust your sales process so that it matches the buying process. Take the steps that help the customer move to the next stage in their buying process.

ERROR #15: Missing a Big Change in a Customer Account
  • What you did: You kept believing the deal would go through, even though the customer's environment was changing.
  • Why you did it: You were hoping that the big layoff/restructure/acquisition (or whatever) wouldn't make a difference.
  • How it screwed you up: Your sponsors and contacts lost power (or even their jobs) in the big shakeup, leaving you without the leverage to move the sale forward.
  • What the prospect thought: "I wonder if I can get a job working in his firm."
  • How to avoid a repeat: As soon as you discover there are big changes in the works, increase your focus on the account. Offer to help during the transition. Make more calls to your contacts. Find out who's benefiting from the change (there's always somebody). Move quickly to shore up your position and build enough connections so that the deal will remain alive, regardless of what happens.

ERROR #16: Delaying Too Long to Close.
  • What you did: You avoided closing the deal, even though the prospect was sending signals that it was time to close.
  • Why you did it: You were afraid the answer will be "no" and wanted to avoid that horrible feeling of losing the deal.
  • How it screwed you up: Because you missed the right point to close, the deal may have slipped away. Other priorities and roadblocks emerged, making it harder (and perhaps impossible) to close the deal.
  • What the prospect thought: "Maybe there's something wrong with this deal, because it's almost like this guy doesn't want to sell it to me. Maybe I should look elsewhere..."
  • How to avoid a repeat: Throughout the sales cycle, position for the close by confirming that the discussions are on target. When there are no substantive issues left to address, make a final check for agreement and then ask for the business. Just do it.

ERROR #17: Continuing to Sell After Closing.
  • What you did: You kept talking and selling, even though the customer already say that he was going to buy.
  • Why you did it: You were so certain that the customer would say "NO!" that you didn't hear the "YES!" when it happened.
  • How it screwed you up: Best case, you ended up offering discounts and perks that will degrade the profitability of the deal. Worst case, you accidentally surfaced objections that scuttled the deal.
  • What the prospect thought: "Man, this guy must really love the sound of his voice... just a second, did he just offer me a 10% discount????"
  • How to avoid a repeat: Remember that selling is mostly about listening, not talking. When you get a "yes," stop talking, smile, and take the order. It's that simple.

ERROR #18: Failing to Follow-up After a Sale.
  • What you did: You never bothered to check on the customer to make certain that they were delighted with the purchase.
  • Why you did it: You had moved on to other opportunities and felt that you shouldn't be bothered with last week's news.
  • How it screwed you up: You pretty much screwed up that relationship and at the same time damaged your reputation in that industry. Word gets around.
  • What the prospect thought: "All this jerk cares about is making sale.."
  • How to avoid a repeat: After each sale closes, schedule a series of follow-up phone calls and email to check on the customer's status.

ERROR #19: Failing to build long-term relationships.
  • What you did: You focused on closing business, regardless of what your customers really needed.
  • Why you did it: You were so focused on yourself that you dehumanized the customer into a way to make your quota.
  • How it screwed you up: Long term, you're committing career suicide. The easiest customers are always repeat customers. Because you're not building relationship, you'll be constantly be building your pipeline from scratch, which means more work for less money.
  • What the prospect thought: "I never want to see this idiot in my office again."
  • How to avoid a repeat: Think of selling as a way to help people, and to change the world for the better. Honor your customers and your relationships, just as you honor your friends and family.
READERS: Any other errors that should be in this list?