Selling Like Columbo

Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the November 6, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The State of NJ Tech

Prognosticators are always saying that New Jersey can

prosper if it supports high tech companies, and the New Jersey


Council encourages such opinions. On Tuesday, November 12, in fact,

the NJTC sponsors two different predictive panels. One, the


New Jersey Technology Outlook, is in the morning in Mount Laurel,

and it will predict growth over the next six months. The other is

the Pricewaterhouse Coopers study of Internet computing businesses,

and it will make two-year projections. It will be held in the


in Edison.

"Technology remains a sector of the state economy with tremendous

potential for growth," says Milton Leontiades, dean of the

Rutgers School of Business at Camden. He moderates the panel


on the status of four technology sectors — life sciences,


information technology, and electronics — and the predictions

for growth over the next six months. It will be held at 8 a.m. at

the Regency Palace Hotel and Conference Center in Mount Laurel. Cost:


John Tesoriero, executive director of the New Jersey Commission

on Science and Technology, will provide the overview. Joseph


COO of the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, will

address the life sciences industry. Henry Debnam of Lockheed

Martin Technology Services in Cherry Hill will discuss the


sector. Ben Reytblat, president of Piscataway-based Quadriz

Solutions will analyze the information technology industry. Greg

Olson, CEO of Sensors Unlimited in Princeton, will discuss the

electronics sector.

The same day at 4 p.m., NJTC co-sponsors "Emerging Patterns of

Internet Computing," at the Sheraton Edison, 125 Raritan Center

Parkway. It will discuss innovations in microprocessors, server


storage networks, resource management, among other areas. This seminar

will analyze technologies as commodities, not only at the level of

an individual business but also at a global level.

Dan Gordon is in charge. Cost: $75 including a copy of the


Forecast Book prepared by Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Call 856-787-9700.

Top Of Page
Selling Like Columbo

You know the swaggering, confident guy, the salesman

in the Armani suit with the slicked-back hair? The James Bond of


if you will. Chances are, says Elliot Levine, that he will be

bested by a shambling Columbo type every time. Counter-intuitive yes,

but as Levine lays out his hypothesis — backed by research and

experience — it makes perfect sense.

Levine, owner of the Sales Factor, a Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, sales

consulting and staff augmentation company, speaks on "Five Radical

Concepts in Selling" on Wednesday, November 13, at 8 a.m. at a

meeting of GetContactX at the Palmer Inn. Cost: $69 for members, $99

for others. Register at

Levine, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts (Class of 1975),

began his professional life as a program director for emotionally

disturbed children. He left after five years, he quips, because he

"wanted to earn a five-figure salary."

He took some technology courses, and moved into Boston’s hot tech

industry. In 1980 he began selling, eventually running tech sales

forces of as many as 500 people. Next he ran two tech companies. One,

Softmart, a Philadelphia-area company, helped companies to manage

their software licensing agreements. The other, Savoir, a San


company, sold mid-range hardware systems for IBM, NCR, and Unisys.

In 1999, tired of moving around and seeing the need for companies

to ramp up sales in a slowing market, he founded Sales Factor


a company that now has five full-time employees.

"Businesses are focused on cutting costs," he says. "There

are lay-offs and more lay-offs, but there is a law of diminishing

returns. They have cut everything and everyone, but they are not


revenue." At some point, he declares, "you have to sell your

way out of it."

Easier said than done, he acknowledges. In the 1980s and ’90s, he

observes, so many sales organizations were successful. Now, sales

professionals in these same organizations are saying "`my Rolodex

doesn’t work anymore."

Clearly, it is time for desperate measures. So, does Levine offer

pep talks, inspirational posters, fight songs? No, he is pushing (ever

so gently) a totally laid-back approach, heavy on listening, and


lacking any hint of strong arm tactics. His own style is witty and

understated, suggesting perhaps a bright, mild-mannered academic.

There is nary a trace of the attributes one associates with, say,

an individual who would really, really like to sell you a solid Chevy

with only 99,000 miles on the odometer.

Yet, he swears his sales techniques are far more effective than those

of his more bellicose peers. Here is his advice on emulating his


Be a good listener. A big reason that introverts are


salespeople than are extroverts, says Levine, is that they are better

listeners. While extroverts speak up frequently, running every thought

that comes into their heads through their mouths, introverts tend

to sit back, test their opinions silently, and then make a suggestion.

Introverts talk less, and listen more. And who can resist the appeal

of talking? Prospects like people who give them an opportunity to

talk, and liking someone is most often a prerequisite to giving him


Get through the gate. Receptionists are masters at


out salespeople, says Levine. Four words into a spiel, and they’ve

got you. Once detected, the salesperson is almost invariably told

that the boss is "in a meeting."

Levine has found a loophole. He allows the receptionist to help him.

"These are people who have no control over anything," he says.

In asking — oh, so subtly — for their help, he is handing

them control.

He might say, "`I received a request from your department, but

I’m not sure who sent it. It might be a Mr. Cooper, or a Ms. Cohen.

Not sure. Hmmmmm.’" At this point, the receptionist might suggest

a name, or a title, or might even put him through.

Do not fill in the blanks. Once in touch with a prospect

— on the phone or in person — Levine does not bombard him

with information. Quite the contrary. There are two thoughts behind

this strategy. For one thing, he points out, people hate to have reams

on information shot at them. Most people just shut down and want the

presentation to be over.

His other thought is a variation on the receptionist strategy. People,

naturally wanting to help, will ask for information to aid a person

who may need a hand. For this reason, Levine tends not to give his

name, his affiliation, or any information about what he might want

to sell. He lets his prey tease it out of him.

"I left some brochures at the desk. You’re probably not


though," is the sort of approach. It has induced prospects to

ask him his name, his business, the nature of his products. It is

important to feed these tidbits little by little, and only as


Shift into sales mode, says Levine, and the mood is shot. Instantly.

Always cede control. It’s true in love. It’s true in


And it’s true in sales. Push, and the beloved, the recalcitrant teen,

and the prospect all will back away. It’s practically a law of


Lean back, and all will have to fight an impulse to dive into your


As an example, and an extreme one at that, Levine talks about what

happened when a client he had wooed for six weeks "went dark."

He explains that this expression is used by salespeople to describe

what happens when a prospect stops returning calls, claims to be


every day of the month, or otherwise makes it clear he wants to remain

forever unavailable to the salesperson.

In this case, Levine guessed that the prospect was ambivalent about

the deal, and was embarrassed to see him because he had taken up so

much of his time. Levine called, and left a message. He said "`My

intuition tells me you’ve probably resolved your issues, and that’s

fine." He said perhaps the two could meet again in the New Year.

"I threw in the towel," says Levine. "I told him `the

date is off.’"

The prospect, who had been evading him, called the very next day,

saying that, no, his issues were not resolved, and he still might

be interested in buying. "As soon as I gave him permission to

say no," Levine recounts, "he felt comfortable calling."

Walk in baby steps. Sales is not a race. Salespeople who

hurry to the finish risk blowing the whole deal. "It’s


says Levine. "It’s small steps. If you go for the close, and lose

it, it’s over." Instead, draw the prospect in little-by-little,

or better yet, let him draw you in, requesting more and more


asking about any special deals.

Keep the funnel full. Even with impeccable tactics, no

salesperson is going to close every sale. Often, in this unforgiving

climate, says Levine, a salesperson will be given five leads and told

he had better close them — or else. Better, far better, he says,

to have 50 leads.

One way for companies to keep the funnel full, he says, is to hire

telemarketers to do nothing but call all day long, and hand leads

to the salespeople. Salespeople hate to make calls, he says, and often

aren’t very good at it. A dedicated telemarketing staff is able to

organize calls, keep track of callbacks, fax out information, and

be available all day long to answer questions.

Plentiful leads in hand, salespeople may find it easier to play

hard to get, to be a Columbo, blending in with the background, and

seeming to ask for something only as an afterthought.

Previous Story Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments