Bill Ackerman is one of the nation’s most prominent expert witnesses. He specializes in testifying about damages in civil trials. When I interviewed him for Automatic Merchandiser’s Vending & OCS Nation podcast, “Lessons in selling from a prominent expert witness - A conversation with Bill Ackerman,” it became clear to both of us that there were striking similarities in what it takes to succeed, both as an expert witness and as a sale rep, selling convenience services.
I asked Ackerman an obvious question, why would his interview be relevant for vending, coffee service, micro market and pantry service operators? Ackerman said he saw a definite connection. “It’s absolutely a connection, because what I do for a living is sell my opinion. I have to go into a courtroom, and I have to sell or convince 12 strangers or a judge as to why they should buy what I'm selling. Yes, I'm very much a salesman, even though I'm an accountant.”
The skills that Ackerman has and the challenges he faces will sound very familiar to convenience services reps. I asked Ackerman to tell me what he thought were the defining characteristics of a great expert witness. His answer was quick. “Preparation,” he said. “You have to know your product. I have to know how I got to the opinion that I'm rendering. I have to know all the nuances. I have to speak intelligently about it. Can't hem and haw on the stand. Know your product and be prepared to be able to sell whatever it is you're going to sell.”
The connection to convenience services sales is obvious: Product knowledge is critical. It is all part of the preparation process. What do we know about the prospect through LinkedIn? What is our company history with the prospect internally?
“Another huge aspect is credibility,” said Ackerman. “That comes through presentation, your background and experience. Are you composed? Are you articulate? You're trying to communicate to a group of people that generally, in my situation, have a seventh-grade education when it comes to financial concepts.”
From a convenience services sales standpoint, credibility comes from connections you share with the prospect. Who do you currently serve that the prospect will respect? Do you have mutual connections on LinkedIn? Do you have a long history in the business? If not, can you make your industry knowledge so obvious that credibility is instantly earned? While your clients may not have a seventh-grade education regarding office refreshment concepts, they certainly know less than you do, even though everyone thinks they are an expert, especially about coffee service. Can you educate them, moving them in the right direction, without patronizing them?
Know the audience
Ackerman stressed the importance of knowing your audience. “I usually come in somewhere midstream at the end of a plaintiff case, or I come in at the very end of a defense case, so I could be the last witness in any trial. By then, you know your jury. We know who has a financial background and who doesn't,” said Ackerman. “Catering your presentation, I’m looking at 12 strange faces. They've never seen me; I've never seen them. What we'll work on is finding me the three or four jurors that understand accounting or finance because of their job. You know what they do for a living, those are the people that I speak to, those are the ones I try to make eye contact with. They're the ones who, if I do my job effectively, will take what I've sold to them and then go back into the jury room and sell it to the other jurors.”
For the rep selling convenience services, it is important to take note of the members of the prospect’s purchasing team who are clearly excited about your program. Ideally, it is the CEO who wandered into your meeting to taste your dark roasted coffee – and loved it. Or that member of the employee committee who is enamored with your ability to deliver healthy selections. These are people you must turn into allies and hopefully, they will sell your program for you, either on the spot or during the group decision-making process.
Respond to objections
For Ackerman, cross-examination is the ultimate sales objection exercise. “What you can't control is cross-examination. I have no idea what the opposing attorney is going to ask me about. Yes, I know because of the facts of the case, what I would anticipate they might have asked me about, and so I try to prepare to make sure that I have candid responses, effective responses, for things that might be pitfalls for me,” he said.
“Sometimes your product has a potential weakness,” said Ackerman. “Well, sometimes my opinions have a potential weakness, and you need to be able to address that weakness, because people aren't stupid – they are going to find the weakness, and they are going to highlight it. You need to be able to address it in a short, concise and constructive manner so that it minimizes what others were perceiving as a weakness.”
That process should sound familiar to sales reps. Examples – strengths and weaknesses of single-cup brewers. Strengths and weaknesses of cold brew coffee – keg compared to bag in box. Strengths and weaknesses of kiosks, as opposed to phone apps. How about the fundamental comparison of micro market strengths versus vending strengths. Depending on which side of the table you are sitting on, like Ackerman, you must be prepared in advance to deal with the objections.
Some valuable lessons
What did we learn from Bill Ackerman in the podcast? Not only did he take us inside the world of a high-profile expert witness, but he also provided some valuable lessons for anyone in sales. The importance of preparation, knowing your product, knowing your material, doing your research, understanding your audience, being prepared to overcome objections and knowing what the customer needs to hear to ultimately decide that your product, your service, and your solution is the right choice.
All episodes of Automatic Merchandiser’s Vending & OCS Nation podcast are available on your favorite music/podcasting app. Just search Vending & OCS Nation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Tullio is a content specialist, speaker, sales trainer, consultant and contributing editor of Automatic Merchandiser/VendingMarketWatch.com. He advises entrepreneurs on how to build a successful business from the ground up and specializes in helping suppliers connect with operators in the convenience services industry – coffee service, vending, micro markets and pantry service specifically.
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