What’s On Your Radar Screen?


“It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.” Those words, uttered by an Air Force lieutenant, literally changed the course of history. The lieutenant was the command officer in charge of the brand-new radar station on Oahu, Hawaii, on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. The technology of radar was new and somewhat untrusted, and the officer assumed that the large blip on the screen was an expected incoming flight of B-17 bombers, rather than what we all know now that it was.

I hear similar words uttered all the time – by salespeople, by sales managers, and even executives – who, when confronted with change, say, “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it, it’ll go away, it’s not right,” or other words that justify doing business the way they’ve always done it. Too often, like the officer on Oahu, they ignore changes that will have a great impact on their business and their lives.

“We’ve always done it this way” are words that almost always are indicators of a company, a sales force, or a salesperson who is falling behind. What I want to do with this article is to be your personal radar screen, and help provide some warning (whether it’s early or not depends on your situation) of changes that may be coming your way.

What new buying channels are available to your customers today? Yes, this is a leading question, because for nearly everyone reading this article, the Internet has become not only an available buying channel, but a preferred one. For many salespeople, the “milk route” model of selling was the way to go. I did it, too, back in the mid-90s when I was selling industrial components. You’d simply visit your customers, they’d have the week’s order ready, and you’d go on to the next one. Now, many of those same salespeople are showing up and the customer has already ordered – and they don’t know what to do. If that’s you, it’s time to change your paradigm – stop being an order taker and become a relationship manager.

How do your customers access information today? Again, the obvious answer is “the Internet.” I write for a lot of trade magazines, and I find that I get as much feedback now from people who are reading the trade association’s website as are reading the paper magazine. Whatever you want to read – whatever how-to – you can access it on the Net.

For instance, last week I wrote about my dad’s passing. One of the things he left to me was his old Snap-On toolbox, which is unfortunately not in great shape. However, in ten minutes on the Internet I found three websites and numerous videos on YouTube dedicated to restoring these old boxes. I didn’t even know that was a “thing,” but now it’s next on my project list.

There’s a deeper level, however, than just the Internet. Do your customers use social media? The obvious answer is “yes,” but maybe the obvious answer isn’t right. I often speak before groups of business owners large and small, and when the topic of social media comes up, I always ask, “Raise your hand if you consulted Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn before making a major purchase in the last year.” Very few hands go up.

HOWEVER – those same people, when asked, “Raise your hand if you consulted those sites to learn how to do something that was important to you,” nearly all raise their hands. The conclusion – how-to articles draw attention on social media; straight selling does not.

How do your customers’ customers learn about them? No, I didn’t stutter. Take it to the next level. You can benefit your customers immeasurably by helping them grow, and you can also learn critical information by understanding what your customers’ customers say. Are your customers in a “reviewable” industry? If you’re selling to virtually any service industry (restaurants, hotels, dry cleaners, etc.), then yes, they are. Do you know and understand how the reviews work, how your customers are searchable on the sites, and where they rank? If not, why not?

To stay relevant in today’s world, you’re going to have to find other ways of building a relationship with your customers than simply transactions of product for money. Being a partner in helping them build their business, and understanding the various ways and means that they build their business, is one great way.

Is your profession, or industry, viable? I was speaking to a friend of mine a few days ago, and she was telling me about a great vacation she took about ten years ago. She had gone through a travel agent to book it. If there’s any part of sales that’s been devastated by new technology, it’s the travel agent business. Yep, once upon a time, we’d call our travel agent, tell him or her where we wanted to go and when, and the tickets would magically appear. Now, in the time that it took me to write this paragraph, you can (and most people do) do it themselves.

Sure, there are travel agents left – but they are few and far between, and their customers use them mostly for trips that require a lot of planning (my wife and I used one a few years ago when we took a week’s vacation to Hawaii). Sometimes you need to take a step back, give your business a strong look-see, and ask yourself about its viability.

It’s easy to look at new technologies, methods, and changes in the ways of doing business with suspicion. I do it too; I’m often a skeptic. At the same time, understanding where the validity lies, and what the technology does, is essential to keeping current and staying relevant in a profession such as ours, where changes are now measured by the years.

I read a profile on the lieutenant that gave the “don’t worry about it” command at Pearl Harbor. He lived well into his eighties, and as you can imagine, that command haunted him for the rest of his life. I’m not repeating his name here because there’s no need to add to his regret. But, trust me – if you ignore what’s happening on your own radar screen, it may haunt you.