Five firefighting skills every sales person can use
By Brian Summers
Many people don’t know I was a volunteer firefighter and a professional firefighter until May of 2010. Let’s take a look at what firefighting has to do with sales. Below are the top five firefighting skills I believe every sales person can use.
Many people don’t know I was a volunteer firefighter and a professional firefighter until May of 2010.
So how did I end up overseeing a sales force and millions of dollars in sales in the largest city in the U.S.? I’m still trying to figure out that question, but I can tell you that a lot of what I learned at the fire station is applicable to the sales world in which we all live.
To become a firefighter, you must pass a written, physical and agility exam. More importantly, you must be driven to achieve the goal of getting paid to fight fires. I took the written exam in 1996. More than 5,000 people take the written exam each year, but only 5 percent become firefighters. Wanting to be a firefighter isn’t good enough — you have to want it badly.
That drive allowed me to be successful in sales much later on. While I had various “sales” jobs in the past — caddy, Christmas tree salesman, waiter, etc. — I never thought much of becoming a salesman. Before joining the fire department, I had worked with a large newspaper group. I was in the corporate world, but not involved in the sales aspect. It wasn’t until 2002 that I learned I could succeed in sales.
It started pretty innocently. Many firefighters have second jobs since they have a lot of time off. Kevin is a painter, Frank is a mason, Mike is a carpenter, Glen a plumber and Jeff an electrician. During my first couple of years on the job, I did a lot of painting on the side. My boss paid by the day and understood a firefighter’s work schedule.
In 2001, a woman I knew named Mary Kathleen called me from the newspaper. She told me she had a full-time job for me and wanted me to interview for it. I told her I couldn’t be there every day because of the fire department. She didn’t mind, saying she knew I could get the job done in fewer hours because I knew how to manage my time. More importantly, she told me I was one of the hardest workers she knew.
So began my dual life: blue-collar and white-collar worker all rolled into one! I got quite a few jabs at the firehouse showing up in my suit coming and going from the newspaper. My job for Mary Kathleen was actually quite simple — a lot of data entry, tracking sales and following upon orders. Then one day, my life changed. One of the salespeople at the newspaper quit. Mary Kathleen asked me to come to her office that afternoon and told me she wanted me to be a salesperson. I had never considered getting into sales. I mean, only crazy people take a smaller salary and depend more upon bonuses. I told her I didn’t know how to sell. She said I had a lot of drive, worked hard and was good with people. When I asked her what I needed to know about the sales job, she told me something very simple:
1. You have to sell this much every month … and you get a bonus
2. You have to sell this much every quarter … and you get a bonus
3. You have to sell this much every year … and you get a bonus
I realized Mary Kathleen was taking a big risk. I was already working more than 40 hours a week at another job. And not just any job — a job that could require me to be awake all night. If I didn’t hit the numbers, she would be the one answering to her bosses.
Needless to say, Mary Kathleen’s risk paid off. She trusted her instincts, overlooked a situation most people would have passed on and watched as I hit my goals.
Now that you know a little about my past, let’s take a look at what firefighting has to do with sales. Below are the top five firefighting skills I believe every sales person can use.
1. Stay calm
It sounds simple, but I have seen far too many salespeople get over-excited. A manager with my company once asked how I stayed so calm, and I replied, “Well, nobody is going to die if the deal doesn’t go through.” As a firefighter, you’re taught to react calmly because people’s lives are in danger.
Staying calm is important in the business world, too. If you’re leading a sales meeting or presentation, for example, you set the tone. The way you speak and the way you move sets the tone for the meeting. If you are nervous and too excited, those emotions will resonate throughout the meeting.
Remember, nobody is going to die if your presentation doesn’t go well. 2. Hit the hydrant
For those of you not familiar with the term, hitting the hydrant means hooking up the hose from the hydrant to the fire engine. It’s the single most important function at the scene of a fire, yet no firefighter wants to do it. The guy hitting the hydrant is not one of the first in the building, and every firefighter wants to be the first one in. Since the hydrant man is dropped off at the hydrant, he is away from the action right from the beginning. The bottom line, though, is that if the hydrant man doesn’t do his job, the fire won’t go out.
Think of the hydrant as your way to generate sales. Cold calling, drop-offs and networking are all ways you can hit the hydrant to generate sales. Nobody likes to cold call, yet it’s one of the most effective ways to generate sales.
At the fire academy, the instructors constantly make you practice hitting the hydrant. Every firefighter must become proficient in it. And everyone learns how to hit the hydrant the same way. There is no variation. If you don’t get water on the fire quickly, the fire will get out of control. You know your brothers are depending on you.
If you’re a sales manager, you must teach your “firefighters” how to hit the hydrant quickly and efficiently if they’re going to have a successful sales career.
3. Respect your co-workers
Respect. It’s a simple word most people understand. People demand respect. Some people will actually shoot another person for “disrespecting” them. Yet, the one thing I have learned is that respect must be earned. From the first day at the firehouse, the probationary firefighter is told to “shut your mouth and open your ears.” You are told to listen to what the veteran firefighters and officers tell you to do. You don’t have a say in what will be prepared for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You don’t have a say in what is watched on television. You are there to learn, and that is ingrained in you from day one.
While you are told to respect everyone, you learn very quickly that you don’t have to like everyone. There were plenty of guys I worked with that I couldn’t care less about when the shift ended. I didn’t know their families. I didn’t know their hobbies. It wasn’t a personal issue. Sometimes, people just aren’t going to get along outside of work.
You can’t expect all of your employees to get along either. You can, however, demand mutual respect. Regardless of whether or not we liked each other, when my fellow firefighters were at work, there was a mutual respect for each other. They were ready to sacrifice their lives for their brothers. While we are on the subject of respect, make sure you respect your clients. I worked in some pretty diverse neighborhoods. One of the reasons firefighters are respected is the nature of their jobs, but the major reason is the respect they show everyone. From the man or woman receiving government assistance to the millionaire business owner, a firefighter’s objective is always the same: protect life and property. It doesn’t matter who you are.
4. Do your job
One thing most people don’t realize is that every seat on the fire truck has a specific job assigned to it. Whether you’re the chauffeur, the officer, the vent man, the can man, the hydrant man or the hose man, you don’t defer from your assigned job during your shift. That’s called freelancing.
Freelancing kills firefighters. If the hydrant man decides not to hit the hydrant and enter the building to search for victims, his actions will delay water getting on the fire. This delay could quite possibly kill those inside the building.
Luckily, in the sales world, nobody is going to die if a salesperson decides to freelance, but it can kill your sales.
My suggestion is role specialization. If someone can close the cases, then that person is the “opener,” and a company should do everything possible to support that person’s role. The opener shouldn’t have to worry about how to fix a billing issue. He or she should be notified about the billing issue and know that someone is handling it who will notify them when it’s fixed.
Don’t blur role specialization. Make your job descriptions simple, and make sure everyone understands the role they play and the importance of their roles. Remember that freelancing kills!
Keep it simple, stupid! I once had a captain tell me, “Buddy, we have a pretty simple job. We put the wet stuff on the red stuff, and we go home!”
Too many times, we try to overcomplicate the sales process. To paraphrase my captain, we have a pretty simple job in sales. “We present to the decision maker, make the sale and go home.”
While preparation in both firefighting and sales is essential, we must not forget the role of the salesperson: to generate sales.
As firefighters, we trained for many different situations. Fighting a high-rise fire is certainly different than a house fire. Putting out a car fire is certainly different than a boat fire. In the end though, we ultimately put the wet stuff on the red stuff and went home.
Treat your sales training the same way. You have a “bread and butter” decision maker presentation, and you build your training from there. In the end though, present to the decision maker, make the sale and go home.
Use these five simple firefighting rules to increase sales. Good luck and good selling to you all.