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  • Writer's pictureLacy Starling

#164: Sales is Like Jazz

When I started teaching sales at UC, many of my students would ask me which sales “method” I preferred - SPIN selling, Target Account Selling, the challenger approach, etc. They’d ask me what I thought about reverse closes, or hot-button closes, or how to create a need.

Students on the sales team (a team that traveled to different schools and competed to see who could sell best) were particularly susceptible to this idea that you had to have a system or methods, because they were judged on their ability to hit certain beats in the competition, usually based on the SPIN selling method.

Because I got students later in their college career (my class was one of the last sales classes most students took before graduation), many of them had already been indoctrinated into this view, and I understand it. In a university setting, there has to be structure. There needs to be a curriculum, and if you are taking tests or trying to teach very young salespeople how to sell, a framework is necessary in order to compare apples to apples and to understand if they are receiving and retaining the information. Freestyling it in a freshman-level sales class is much more difficult than what I could do in a practicum course. I didn’t have a textbook or give tests - my class was all about teaching students how to sell in the real world, through practical exercises.

So, when I get that question in the first week of the semester, or sometimes the second, I have to explain to students that we aren’t going to be using a particular selling framework. Instead, we are going to be working on selling the way it happens in the real world. And in the real world, making a sale is usually messy. It doesn’t follow a straight line from Situation to Need-Payoff. And trying to force all your interactions into the framework of a methodology like that will often cost you sales, instead of bringing them in.

I guess the clearest way to think about how I approach teaching sales is to put it through the lens of music. I look at what I do as similar to teaching someone to play jazz. A brilliant jazz musician improvises constantly. They listen to what’s happening around them and build on it. They give others space to improvise, too. A jazz musician doesn’t have sheet music in front of them—they honestly don’t know where each piece is going to go, so they just follow along, sometimes taking the lead and sometimes just providing the background for someone else’s riff. The musicians on the stage have to listen carefully to each other in order to make the piece work, and each song ends when its natural end becomes apparent, not because they’ve reached some clearly-delineated next step.

But you absolutely cannot be a brilliant jazz musician without learning the fundamentals first. You have to understand the reason why notes sound good together. You have to be educated on rhythm, and timing. You have to understand the history, and the theory, and the mechanics, of music in order to be able to throw away that script and improvise something beautiful. As in all things in life, you have to learn the basics before you can ignore them to create your own masterpiece.

Sales is absolutely the same way. Yes, I teach jazz—I teach loose techniques and big ideas that my students can deploy at different times in order to move the conversation forward—but I could not do that if others before me hadn’t been teaching fundamentals. Students have to understand the SPIN method before they can throw it out the window and go from the P to the S and then back to the I, and then do it three more times in a different order before the customer is ready to buy. They need to understand the psychology of selling and buying, and why certain techniques (the reverse close, ahem) ALWAYS make us feel gross, and that NO ONE wants to be sold to, but EVERYONE wants to buy things.

Because my students go through those more structured, fundamental classes first, the loose, improvisational style of my course usually rattles them. They are used to being told to play this note, and then this one, and to not wander off the sheet music, and then I just tear up the music altogether and tell them to start playing and see what happens.

But by the end of the semester, they realize what it is I’ve been trying to get them to understand—that if they went out into the sales world without this training in “jazz” sales, their rigid adherence to a method or certain techniques would make them deaf to the opportunities for improvisation that are what actually lead to the sale.


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