Top corporate sales trainer offers new insights into the age-old mystery of successful selling
By Arthur Lightbourn
In the tough, competitive arena of corporate selling, Mike Bosworth made a lot of money as a top sales rep, a top sales manager, a top sales trainer, and author of two highly influential best-selling books on sales training, but, he realizes he didn’t quite get it right.
And now, he’s correcting that through a major transformation in how he trains people to sell and with his latest book, “What Great Salespeople Do: The Science of Selling Through Emotional Connection and the Power of Story” (McGraw-Hill).
He is, in fact, challenging the widely-held belief that selling is an innate talent that really can’t be taught. ‘You’ve either got it or you don’t.’ Wrong, he insists. It can be taught and he is determined to prove it.
His first two books — “Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets” (McGraw-Hill, 1993) and, ”Customer Centric Selling” (McGraw-Hill, 2003) — dealt with two aspects of selling, envisioning and managing the sale, in the niche market of corporate sales.
His latest book, Bosworth said, co-authored with his partner, veteran sales executive Ben Zoldan, “is for everyone selling anything — using a combination of storytelling and empathetic listening.”
We interviewed the 64-year-old sales guru in his Del Mar ocean-view home that he built with royalties from his Solutions Selling courses that were used to train 15,000 IBM salespeople in 1995.
Ironically, while growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, in a family of five children, Bosworth vowed he would never become a salesman.
“My dad was a violent, alcoholic salesman, who never kept a job longer than three months,” he said, “so the last thing in my life that I ever wanted to be was a salesman.”
The family moved from Minnesota to Pasadena in 1959 when Bosworth was 12 — after “my dad lost another job and where my mother’s folks lived.”
“After a year or two, we moved to Pomona because it was cheaper,” he said. “My mother died when I was 18 and the youngest [of my siblings] was 9. So we had a hard childhood.
“It was Xerox that convinced me to try sales back in ’75 and I did really well, really quickly. It kind of changed my life.”
“Of my four siblings,” he quipped, “I’m oldest, the shortest, the baldest and the richest.”
Before joining Xerox in 1972, Bosworth had served a 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam with the U.S. Army, as an ammunition truck driver.
“My experience in Vietnam actually got me interested in the computer industry because they had an early IBM computer system over there that they were tearing their hair out trying to get to work and they gave it to me and I got it to work. Call it, good karma.”
After Vietnam, he resumed his college studies, earning a B.S. degree in marketing and business management from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona where he was recruited on campus by Xerox Computer Services as an application support technician.
When Xerox later offered him a job in sales, he was reluctant, but agreed only after Xerox assured him in writing that he could return to his tech job with its higher salary if he didn’t like selling with its lower base starting salary plus commission.
He rapidly became the top new business salesperson in 1975; was made a sales trainer in 1976; managed the “Branch of the Year” in 1979; and was promoted to national sales manager of field sales in 1980.
The first thing he was told as a sales trainer was: ‘Mike, you can’t teach rapport. We can teach them to close, to handle objections, to write proposals, and do great presentations, but you can’t teach people to connect. That’s chemistry and the chemistry between every two people is unique.’
“But, in 2008,” Bosworth said, “my partner and I finally figured out that we can teach rapport.”
Bosworth’s eureka moment came after a friend of his who was into brain science showed him what really happens inside the human brain “when you meet somebody and you decide that you trust them”; after his exposure to another man who tried without success to convince sales training companies that they ought to teach storytelling as a way of connecting; and when he discovered a change in the universally-accepted belief that 80 percent of sales are produced by 20 percent of sales personnel.
“While I was working at Xerox, in 1979, Xerox ran the numbers that showed that 20 percent of the sales reps were bringing in 80 percent of the business, creating the 80/20 rule. In 2008, a company called Sales Benchmark Index, showed us that it actually had gotten worse over the years, changing the accepted rule from 80/20 to 87/13 — with 13 percent of the salespeople bringing in 87 percent of the business.
“When I went into my own sales training business in 1983,” he said, “my mission was to help the bottom 80 percent. So, it was kind of disconcerting to me, after 37 years, to realize I had helped the top people get even better, and there was now an even a greater disparity between the best and the worst.”
Part of the problem, Bosworth contends, was that top management often promoted their top sales reps to sales managers, in the hope that they could transfer their skills to the rest of the team. Very often, these top sales reps bombed as sales managers “because they did not really understand what they were doing right, and therefore were unable to teach their successful methods to others…Most sales training suffered from the same limitation.”
“In 2008,” Bosworth said, “my partner and I realized that the truly superior salespeople do three things extremely well: They are masters of their products and can envision you using their product. They’re good at managing a complex sale, with multiple people, committees, financial approvers and such. And the third thing they are really good at is connecting with strangers.”
At a basic level, the top reps were selling intuitively, he said. “They had a better sense of the customer and were better able to connect with the customer’s emotions about purchasing…through a skill that not only wasn’t taught in sales training, but which has been largely ignored in the business world: storytelling.”
Storytelling, Bosworth says, appeals to the right side of the brain, “the emotional brain, where you trust and you say, ‘I want that’ and ‘I need that.’
“The brain science is really interesting because most corporations are arming their salespeople with all the information to fill the left brain needs of their [potential] buyers — all the facts and figures — but all that information doesn’t influence a buyer to change [i.e. to buy].
“The human brain, in fact, is wired specifically so that stories, and storytelling, have a much stronger emotional impact than information that’s presented quantitatively” and often results in “paralysis by analysis.”
Bosworth acknowledged he was one of those salesmen who intuitively knew how to influence others, connect with strangers and build trust, “but we didn’t figure out how to teach it to people until 2008.”
Does he have any proof that rapport can be taught?
“Well, it’s early,” he admitted, “but we’ve been doing the StoryLeaders training course for two years and building it. We’ve trained 125 Oracle salespeople so far, and it has been pretty amazing. They used to go out with a PowerPoint presentation of 200 slides with about 15 bullets per slide, and now they go out with 10 picture slides and tell the story of their product.
“So far it’s been just me and my partner doing the [StoryLeaders] training but now that the book is out, we are going to build a channel of independent trainers.
“My biggest hope, with this new book, is that we are going to get more new businesses to start because there’s a whole bunch of latent entrepreneurs out there….but the thing that keeps them from stepping out and starting their own business is a fear of selling.
“My hope is that every latent entrepreneur will read our book and say, ‘You know, I can do this now.’ And that will help the economy because all those new jobs we need are going to come from people starting businesses.”
Veteran sales trainer Mike Bosworth is the co-author of a new book on how top salespeople use the power of storytelling and empathic listening to create sales. He’s also the co-founder of WeConcile™, a new web-based and interactive program to help couples connect more fully and resolve conflicts.
Del Mar since 1997, formerly of Rancho Santa Fe.
Saint Paul, Minnesota
B.S. degree in marketing and business management, California State Polytechnic University, 1972.
Divorced father of three grown children: Brendan, 34, a music school teacher and owner; Brian, 31, a graphic designer; and Shiloah, 27, a mother, all of Seattle, Wash.
Theater, music, reading, and yoga four times a week
Bula and Nutmeg, rescue dogs from the Helen Woodward Animal Center
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” by Michael Pollan
“The Closer,” “Rizzoli and Isles,” “Top Chef,” “Project Runway” and “Real Time with Bill Maher”
Orcas Island, Washington
“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission; and if you’re not getting up every day and looking forward to the day, then you have to change something.”