Becoming an Advisor: Where Selling is Life or Death

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My cousin Sheila is a veteran surgical sales representative for a major Fortune 500 Company. She focuses on orthopedic and neuro-spinal implants as well as general surgical devices. She’s consistently been in the top ten percent of the sales force and has received numerous sales awards over the course of her 20 year career.


Sheila’s recommendations can spell the difference between life and death and she knows it. That’s one of the reasons why she is so passionate about what she does. I asked her recently how her business development approach had changed in the last two decades.


Sheila said that when she started in selling it was about showing up, presenting her product to a doctor and asking for an order. Today there are more buyers and influencers that she needs to work with in most sales situations. There may be as many as 10 people involved in making a decision to purchase one of her products, starting with the surgeons, but also including the C.E.O., C.F.O., and various administrative and support people. In order for her to understand the specific challenges that each of these individuals faces, she has to be a consultant, asking many more questions and listening closely to the answers that she receives.


The second thing that’s different is the level of expertise she needs. Sheila usually spends 2 or 3 days a week in operating rooms advising doctors and nurses during surgery or in hands-on training sessions demonstrating how to use her products. (Rest assured that she does her demonstrations on pig brains, not human brains!)  In some situations she may recommend a competitor’s stent over her own product, if it’s in the patient’s best interest.


Sheila is convinced that the credibility that she has gained because of her expert knowledge about the inner workings of the human brain, while important, is not as significant as the trusted advisor relationship she has with her clients.  One of the ways she succeeds in building relationships is by providing her clients with a steady stream of educational materials, some of which are technical in nature, some of which are more general business information. 


What does this have to do with selling financial services? Here are my takeaways:


  1. You have to think about your clients’ clients. You need to assess how your recommendations are likely to help your clients make their customers happier/ more successful/ more productive.

  2. Educating your customers is going to be critical to your success building long term advisory relationships.

  3. Deep specialist knowledge only takes you so far. You also have to be passionate about what you do.

  4. You clearly need to understand the competition and its product offerings and be prepared in some cases to encourage your clients to take advantage of a better offer.


Selling has changed dramatically over the last 20 years for commercial and business bankers. The challenge going forward is to develop the combination of technical knowledge and advisory skills needed to be successful in a changing environment.


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