By Christopher Cudworth
If you track the world of business news and thought leadership, you’ve likely heard about the “pain hypothesis” of selling. That is, find your customer’s pain and a way to relieve it, and you’ve got the sale.
By that measure, endurance athletes should know how to be great salespeople, right? We flirt with pain all the time. Sometimes we immerse ourselves into worlds of pain few others can imagine.
There’s just one problem. We also learn to live with pain. A great distance runner once said, and I paraphrase: “You must learn to accept the pain because you can never run through it.” World class cyclist and noted pain freak Jens Voigt famously posted this phrase on his bike frame where he could see it. “SHUT UP LEGS.” That is Jens selling himself on the notion that you should never give in to pain. You can even buy a tee shirt with that phrase. It’s legendary.
So we’re all pain freaks out there. We ride until we pop. We run until we drop. We swim until our shoulders ache and our legs feel like bands of soggy rubber hanging behind our pathetic torsos. And then we keep going.
Our empathy takes on strange forms. We really respect other people who tolerate pain well. We also might not be afraid of pain as others.
Straight into the pain
For example, when I lost my wife to cancer last year at the end of March, it seemed like a good idea to attend church for Easter Services that next week. I went to Good Friday services, the height of sorrow in the Christian year. My brother asked me why I chose to attend that service. I told him, “I wanted to wade straight into the pain.”
Those of us who run and ride know there are no shortcuts through the pain. You can try to run or ride around it. You can avoid the hills or stick with the B group on the Saturday morning group ride. But where’s the merit or gain in that? It doesn’t make you a better athlete. Only pain gets you there.
The pain of selling
So imagine yourself sitting in front of a client on a Wednesday morning with a project or product to sell them. You ask all the right questions and discover the source of their “pain.” It turns out their current supplier is slow. They get the billing all wrong and their product quality sucks. Those are pretty clear pain points! So how do you respond?Obviously you solve their problems with better service, cleaner billing and making sure your products meet their needs and specifications.
Then you have to make it happen. A salesperson’s job is never really done with just making the sale. Keeping the client satisfied is also part of the job. Of course we know that can be a real pain at times.
The first is empathy. That is the ability to identify with the pain of others.
The other is apathy or indifference toward the pain of others. In its extreme expression, these tendencies produce psychopathy or sociopathy. That is, complete disregard or concern for the pain of others. In fact, inflicting pain on others can be a real pleasure for the psychopath or sociopath.
The creatures around and within us
The challenge in endurance sports is that we must cope with our own pain and often disregard the pain of others. Real competitors actually do apply pain to others in an effort to win.
So you can see, this dichotomy presents a real ethical challenge to those employed in sales. It is not uncommon for salespeople to embrace a moral philosophy where the ends justifies the means. We all know “sandbaggers” who hold their sales cards to the very end of a contest and turn them in to win the prize. We all know salespeople who commit ‘territory creep’ in order to win clients that rightly should not be their own. The list goes on and on.
We see it all the time in politics as well, and in religion. Both of those cultural memes are basically large scale attempts at selling a party or a belief system. The stakes are so high that almost anything goes. The result is that we often get a sociopathic brand of leadership because it took so much to win that the ethical candidates and leaders can be forced out in the process.
That’s not good, but it happens all the time. Then the processes that lead to those problems can become institutionalized and fixing the broken systems takes a whole different level of sales based on criticism and if that doesn’t work, revolution.
Grace, race and keeping the faith
So let’s take a look at great leaders who through pain and sacrifice change the world.
Martin Luther was a great salesperson for the biblical principle of grace.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great salesperson for equality in race.
Who saw these people coming? We depend on great salespeople to change the world.
One of John Lennon’s most interesting statements was that he loved advertising. He was an adept salesperson as well as an inspired thinker. He arrived at that position in life through a great deal of personal pain. There’s a lesson in that.
The balance of pain
Fortunately most of us are capable of managing our empathies in a professional and social manner. We apply them professionally because we care about the excellence of our working lives. We apply them socially because our value systems help us use good judgment and show compassion to others. This occurs because most of us learn to compartmentalize our competitive natures and our application of pain. It’s one of the tarsnakes of existence that we must learn from our pain. It teaches us by correcting our wrongs. But it also teaches us that by working through the pain we can achieve great things.
The art of selling
However it does pay to be tough sometimes in sales. In my art business I once pitched an auto dealership on sponsoring a poster project. The poster featured a view of a minor league baseball field in which the sign of the auto dealership was prominently featured in left field. I showed the original painting and made my pitch. Then I sat silent while the prospective client considered the opportunity.
I had been told in a sales training course that the first person who utters a word in such situations is the “loser” in negotiations. So I kept quiet for four whole minutes. Not a word. Finally the client looked up and asked, “So where would my logo go, on the bottom of the poster?”
And the deal was done. I’d suffered through the seal of silence to get the sale. It helped that I’d already pre-sold the companion poster that featured a view from the right field bleachers looking in toward home plate. We build our success on confidences.
And in that respect being a salesperson is much like being an endurance athlete. It takes training and discipline. And sometimes it means keeping your mouth shut. No complaints.
That lesson was taught to me in college during a long winter of base training. Every day we went out for 6-10 miles on snowy, dark roads on cold Iowa afternoons. It was a grind in many ways, and I began to complain about it to my teammates. Finally my roommate pulled me aside and said, “Cud, you just need to shut up and run.”
I took that advice to heart. No one likes a complainer. Truth be told, it’s usually a sign that the complainers do not like themselves.
So the formula for success is often hidden in our experiences. We just need to choose the right methods for survival and then focus on that. Relentlessly.
Author John Irving once wrote a book called The Hotel New Hampshire. One of the main characters was a wrestler whose coach had a cogent piece of advice on how to thrive. “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”
Obsession has its merits in many respects. But so does balance and perspective and drawing from painful lessons learned. It all comes down to understanding pain and how to deal with it. For that reason endurance athletes have a leg up on just about everyone else in the world.