How to Sell Like a Top Gun

Last Updated Nov 11, 2009 2:36 PM EST

This morning I introduced you to Lt. Col. Rob "Waldo" Waldman, author of the newly published book "Never Fly Solo." About three years ago, I spent an hour with Waldo, being "trained" to fly on "sales missions." Here's how to use the lessons of successful fighter pilots (i.e. Top Guns) in your sales process:
  • Step 1. Achieve the right attitude. In combat, "The Right Stuff" is the attitude of confidence that a jet pilot needs to strap himself or herself into a vehicle that moves faster than the speed of sound and then start dodging missiles. In sales, "The Right Stuff" comes from knowing your objective for the call, relentlessly preparing for the call, and getting focused on the primary mission objective, which is helping the customer.
  • Step 2. Gather intelligence. Before any flight mission, pilots gather every bit of information they can about the environment into which their jets will be flying - not just enemy positions, but every aspect of the situation that might have an effect on the mission. In sales, you gather intelligence by studying the customer's website, press releases, current vendors, and your competition.
  • Step 3. Devise contingency plans. The "fog of war" means that the real world and combat conditions are likely to change, sometimes radically, from moment to moment. In sales, you build a contingency plan by asking yourself "what-if" questions: What if they challenge me with price? What if they are currently engaged with another vendor? What if they ask for as referral? Have answers to these objections ready and waiting.
  • Step 4. Mentally rehearse the call. Jet pilots always "chair fly" a mission, multiple times, envisioning the entire mission, including the effective handling of unexpected events and the final outcome. Thisacclimatizes the mind to successful execution in the real world. In sales, this means envisioning the call in your mind - delivering your value proposal, asking the right questions, and rebutting her concerns.
  • Step 5. Brief the mission. Immediately prior to a mission, jet pilots always review and confirm their mission objectives, roles and responsibilities, latest intelligence, and contingencies. In sales, spend at least fifteen minutes prior to any sales call going over everything you know about the customer, your overall plan for the sales call, your responses to objections and (this is important) the condition of your equipment.
  • Step 6. Build Situational Awareness. Jet pilots know that the success of a mission depends upon their Situational Awareness (SA), which is their ability to perceive such as weather, enemy threat, airspeed, location of wingmen, fuel state, and terrain. In sales, SA means listening to the customer. Ask questions based questions upon research, listen to the responses and adapt your approach accordingly.
  • Step 7. Document what happens. Jet fighters always have flight recorders that track exactly what happened at every moment of the mission. This allows a pilot to more easily replicate success, and avoid future problems. In a sales call, your "flight recorder" is your record every important detail of the call. You'll need this intelligence to refer to next time you contact that customer for a follow-up.
  • Step 8. Make your go/no-go decision. There comes a point in every flight mission where the fighter pilot needs to decide whether the mission, if pursued, will succeed or fail. Same is true in Sales. When your objective is met or when you feel the prospect is no longer willing to listen, end the call. But be sure you come up with a follow-on objective/plan for what to do after the call.
  • Step 9. Debrief the mission. Fighter pilots always debrief a mission, in order to determine what can be learned and how the team can improve. After every sales call, take off your 'rank' so that everyone is on an even playing field. This facilitates open communication and allows you (and your support team) to admit their mistakes. Review the positive and negative events that took place and draw lessons from them.
  • Step 10. Execute the Follow-Through. Fighter pilots complete their mission by filing a report, requesting service on the aircraft, expanding their training commitments, and so forth, to make each mission part of a process of constant improvement. In sales, the follow-through is doing whatever it takes to develop the ongoing customer relationship. Most of all, it means delivering on your promises!
Powerful stuff, eh? And good advice.

Happy hunting.