Lift and Stalls: The Link Between Flying and Sales

Airplanes fascinate and terrify me. I spend (some of) my free time watching YouTube videos of pilots discussing how planes work. I would never trust myself to actually fly a plane, but I love hearing those who do explain the phenomenon of flight. So it’s probably not surprising that I think flight and Sales share some similar dynamics. Specifically, aerodynamic lift and stalls.

Airplanes fly because a wing creates lift when enough air passes over it, generating low pressure above it and high pressure below it  (note: there’s some controversy about the accuracy of this theory but for the purpose of this post, let’s just roll with it!). An aircraft engine provides the forward propulsion necessary to maintain air flow over the wings, effectively keeping the wing in the air and the plane moving forward. However, when air stops flowing at a sufficient rate, the wing experiences something called aerodynamic stall; it no longer has lift. Lack of lift means gravity takes over and the wing - and whatever it’s attached to - drops toward the ground. When an aircraft experiences a stall (fortunately an incredibly rare event in commercial aviation), the pilot, somewhat counter-intuitively, may pitch the nose of the plane down toward the ground in an attempt to generate speed and airflow over the wings.

So what does this have to do with Sales? It turns out, quite a lot. In my experience, a major reason why sales reps fail to win deals relates to insufficient forward momentum resulting in critical stall points in the sales process. To continue the analogy, a sales rep is the engine that generates thrust and keeps air moving over the wings of the sale. When the rep fails to provide sufficient forward thrust, the sale will enter a stall that may, or may not, be recoverable.

The good news is stalls occur fairly predictably in the sales process, which means a rep can anticipate and avoid them. I’ve outlined a few examples below:

  • The Next Meeting Stall - Getting a first meeting with a prospect isn’t easy, so when it happens it can feel like a huge win. In their exuberance, reps focus too much on this first meeting and fail to secure the next meeting. When the first meeting ends without the prospect’s firm commitment to a next meeting (including a scheduled day and time on the calendar), the deal enters its first stall. Even if the prospect is enthusiastic about the product and believes it solves a key problem, they can easily become distracted in their day-to-day and move on to another solution or another problem altogether. Reps can’t let this happen.
  • The Evaluation Stall - Prospects will almost always need to evaluate the product by seeking input from other key stakeholders or by running a pilot. That said, most prospects are not expert product evaluators; they don’t buy products very often so when they do they have to figure out how to evaluate it and who else needs to be involved in the process. They may have the best of intentions, but sometimes they simply don’t know what to do. This lack of know-how results in a stall when the customer fails to set up an effective evaluation process. Reps need to provide forward thrust at this point in the sale to keep air moving over the wing. They can do so in a number of ways:  First, they can explain how other customers have effectively evaluated their product or successfully piloted it - the more details and specifics the better. Second, they can recommend which stakeholders should be involved, and offer help to coordinate getting their input. Third, they can provide hands-on assistance, such as a product overview and training webinar to the review team. Fourth, they can offer to take care of the data collection and evaluation by, for example, sending an online survey to the participants and collating the results. The more the rep can remove uncertainty from the evaluation process, the less likely the deal will enter a stall.
  • The Budget Stall - Prospects may be expert purchasers, but chances are good that they are not. Even if they love the product and want to buy it, they may not know all the steps required to actually make the purchase. Few things are more frustrating for a rep than reaching this point in the sale only to realize the buyer didn’t take the necessary steps to secure the funds. This stall can be fatal, at least for the current budget cycle. In K-12, budgets and purchasing are complicated processes: a school may need approval at the district level; if the deal exceeds a certain monetary threshold, an RFP may need to be issued; the district may be required to solicit quotes from other providers; for larger deals, board approval may be needed. Reps must provide forward thrust and avoid a stall by asking their main contact detailed questions about the purchasing process, as early in the sales process as possible. They should also contact the Purchasing office directly to find out exactly what needs to happen in order to get a purchase order. Lastly, if it’s a school level purchase, reps should become good friends with the school secretary because, let’s be honest, he or she actually runs the school.

To be clear, some deals will stall no matter how skilled the pilot…er, rep. The rep can pitch the nose of the deal down in an attempt to generate more air flow over the deal and it still might not make a difference. But great sales reps anticipate and control for potential stalls, making them shorter in length and less frequent in number. Happy flying.

P.S. I wrote this on a Southwest flight from Boston to St. Louis.

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