I received a phone call from a young man we will call Damien from a company we will call Star Printing, selling ink cartridges last week.

The call from Damien went something like this.

Damien: “Yo Kevin. How youse goin’?”
Kevin: “Fine, thank you. Who is calling?”
Damien: “Damien from Star Printing. I called ya about two weeks ago about supplying you with cartridges for your Lexmark printer. Does you remember?”
Kevin: “No.”
Damien: “Jeez, I should have made a better first impression.”
Kevin: “Yes.”
Damien: “Wouldja like me to tell you about our amazing offer where you can get a free SatNav?”
Kevin: “OK.”
Damien: “All you have to do Kevin is to??…”

Aside from the appalling English, for a person like me the approach was all wrong. Far too familiar, no structure and too much emphasis on being upbeat. I was called by a more senior person later on with what for me was a more appropriate tone and approach but the damage was done. I was not a buyer with that company even if the price was right. They had not matched my personality, my thinking style and had trampled on my needs as a person. They may have had a good solution for my business, but by now, I was not listening.

It reminded me of my time in Shell where we built, after years of failure, a strong position in specialty products to the mining industry. The uses of these products were manifold. As an illustration, one product was used to keep a cam taller than a man separated from the cam housing as it rotated and lifted half the weight of a 6500 tonne dragline off the ground as it walked. The surface area was no more than 400 square centimetres. For the uninitiated it is almost impossible to keep moving metal pieces from cold welding together when that much pressure is applied. These were special products indeed.

Our failures had been built, in part, by insufficient product depth and breadth, but more importantly by using inappropriate people as sales people.

During our numerous failures, we used university trained mechanical and civil engineers who had many years of sales experience. We taught them about the products and used interactions with mining customers to teach them about mining. Our sales guys sold products to solve mechanical problems.

Our successful years were built on using industry people who had many years of experience using or maintaining the equipment on which the speciality products were used, as sales people. We only taught them about the products. They already knew about mining and the problems people in mining companies had. These guys sold solutions to people’s problems.

Much of the new found success of the business, beyond the people themselves, was in how we had them interact with mining customers. Mining customers were not a single entity. A single mining customer was, in fact, several people.

The mining manager was interested in the overall operation of the mine: the capital costs, the operating costs the cost of capital and the impact the company had on employees and the environment.

The finance manager was interested in meeting budget.

The operations manager was interested in machinery availability time. Especially the equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars; it had to be available or use seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day.

The maintenance manager was interested in the maintenance costs.

The procurement manager was interested in purchasing costs.

For every recommendation to switch from a competitor’s product to our products our sales people would write a report with up to six sections quantifying:

  • All benefits
  • Reduced consumption costs
  • Reduced maintenance costs in detail
  • Improved machine downtime and the value of the increased machine availability to mining operations
  • The impact of reduced consumption on the environment
  • The impact of switching to individual budget accounts within the mining company.


The lead section of the proposal differed depending on the audience and what their interests were.

Our specialty products sales people were encouraged to “read” each of their stakeholders, to ensure that the report matched their personal preferences. The preferences included brevity over completeness of information, text over graphics, tables of numbers over graphs, format versus content, formality of language versus informality and written versus spoken communication.

In twenty-twenty hindsight we had concentrated on two very important principles when selling to large organisations.

Solve the individual’s problem

Every individual in a large organisation sees the problems and opportunities of the organisation through the prism of their own life.

If they need affirmation that their job is secure they may worry much more about budgets than the health of the organisation. Promising to reduce costs in an area outside of their budgetary control will do little for them, particularly if you are about to increase costs in their budget.

If they are measured more by output per hour, talking to them about reduced costs will not strike a chord.

If they have little time, then making an offer that takes a lot of time even if it has a high return will get little traction.

If they are risk averse, then exposing them to risk in your proposal will be unlikely to garner support your proposal.

Rarely do product features, sell a product. Sometimes product benefits do. Most of the time, however, it is the advantage the individual can get from the benefits delivered by the features of the product, that swings the sale.

In large organisations that means tailoring the communication of the advantages gained from using your product, to several individuals.

Match the individual’s thinking style

Every individual has a preferred thinking style.

Research by the 1981 Nobel Prize for Medicine winner, Roger Sperry and other researchers, notably Ned Hermann and Kobus Neethling, identified that the brain has four thinking styles. The thinking styles are labelled by the quadrant of the brain that controls the thinking style. That is, left cerebral quadrant, right cerebral quadrant, left limbic quadrant and right limbic quadrant.

Left cerebral quadrant thinking style is characterised by a liking for working with facts, dealing with facts in a precise and exact way, looking at problems in a logical and rational way, interested in technical aspects and seeing performance as important.

Right cerebral quadrant thinking style is characterised by seeing the whole picture and not detail, liking change and trying new things, enjoying being busy with several things at the one time, having imagination, liking to find a connection between the present and the future and having a gut feeling for new ideas.

Left limbic quadrant thinking style is characterised by liking facts to be organised and orderly, liking to work with detail, preferring safety and security to risk-taking, liking facts in a sequential and chronological order and preferring a stable and reliable work environment.

Right limbic quadrant thinking style is characterised by experiencing facts in an emotional way, liking interaction with people, feeling empathy towards others and solving problems through an emotional, not logical process. When communicating, these people make much use of very picturesque language and body language and facial expressions.

All people are dominant in one or more styles. Sixty percent of the population are dominant in any two styles, thirty percent in any three styles, seven percent in one style and three percent are whole brained, that is, equally at home with all four styles. There is no best thinking style profile. The challenge comes when people with dominant and opposite thinking styles have to interact.

Tailoring what we say and how we say it to fit the thinking style of recipients automatically improves the quality of the communication and the value placed by the recipient on receiving future communications from us. For example, if the CEO of your prospect has a right cerebral dominant thinking style (big picture, holistic, intuitive), do not put proposals to them with lots of detail. Use the classic executive summary supported by visuals in the form of a slide pack.

However, if the finance manager is on the contract review team and they are left limbic (sequential, organised, detailed) and left cerebral (logical, analytical, fact based) combined dominant thinking styles, then putting a detailed appendix in the proposal with lots of tables would also be necessary.

To understand someone’s thinking style spend some time asking questions and observing. Do they have their CDs in alphabetical order (left limbic)? Is their desk a perpetual mess (right cerebral)? Are they empathetic to the point of being annoying (right limbic)? Are they only interested in facts (left cerebral)?

To be effective as a sales person we need to know who we are selling to. We need to know, in large organisations, who are the many people we are selling to. In large organisations, we need to know what problem we can solve for them and what their dominant thinking style is.