Down The Road Apiece

What if I told you there was a simple, yet effective three-word mnemonic to help your sales professionals be more strategic, close deals faster, improve margins and increase customer satisfaction, all at the same time? If you are like most you are thinking, “I wouldn’t say anything, just tell me how.” Or you would say, “Impossible,” but read it just in case.

What I am going to share is a simple memory device your sales team can hold on to, internalize, and make part of their everyday interactions with clients. These three little words provide amazing results over time because the words are rooted in the Golden Rule, one of civilization’s oldest principles. To develop your team’s empathy for customers, repeat these three words, “Third Year First.”

Anytime your salesperson consciously begins your company’s relationship with a customer by imagining the third year of the relationship first—how he wants year three to look, smell, taste, feel and sound—the better your sales cycle flows and the more impressive your results.

It is not just for new salespeople and new accounts either. It is helpful for managers, your highest performing reps, and best of all, it is beneficial for your customer. Let’s explore how this simple concept applied consistently over time will help your sales team perform at its highest level. This happens by harnessing the magic power of empathy.

Before we get too far, I want to define empathy with a quick comparison to its lookalike cousin, sympathy. These two terms are often mixed up in popular culture, but for this article when we think of empathy, we are going to think about a surgical doctor. Pretend we need this surgeon’s help. If our surgeon has sympathy with us, as they describe our much-needed intervention they will wince and say, “Oh, this is really going to hurt, and your recovery is going to be long and it is painful.”

While it is nice to know they care, I do not want a sympathetic surgeon working on me and in the same sense, we don’t want our reps to be sympathetic toward customers saying, “Oh, this is going to be expensive and disruptive.” No, we want our surgeon to have empathy for us, look at us with a straight face and say “This is best. It is going to hurt, and the recovery is tough, but if we do not do this now, it will most certainly get worse.” We do not want our surgeon to experience our pain; we want them to focus on giving us the best outcome possible, which is the same way we want our reps to treat our customers.

So how do you do it? As a manager, you can start by describing to your team what empathy looks like. You can show them by telling stories, but most learning occurs when salespeople do the work and you review their progress through questioning. This is where the Third Year First mnemonic does your heavy lifting. It is as simple as asking, “What’s our ‘Third Year First’ plan with this prospect?” over and over again. I’ll give you three examples of how it works.

1. Bigger Deals

“Third Year First” leads to bigger deals because it reminds your sales pro that even if a deal is small and barely rings the bell this month, their brains will ask right at the start, “What will have to happen to keep them around for three years? How will I make them an amazing three-year customer?” Why does that make deals bigger? Because half the time it leads your salesperson to ask “Third Year” questions up front, which leads to something interesting happening inside the customer’s firm.

The firm will let your sales pro talk to more people, at higher levels in the organization, about bigger ideas. At first glance, this may sound like it adds unwanted time to the process, but here is the thing—in addition to uncovering larger opportunities, the added time early in the process actually shortens the overall sales cycle.

2. Shorter sales cycles

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Slow down to speed up?” It is akin to taking time to “sharpen the saw” or “it is a process, not an event.” Your salespeople equate activity with progress because your sales pipeline demands movement. They need to move their list from suspects to prospects to understanding their needs to a proposal. For that reason, a shift to “Third Year First” will be met with claims that it slows down the process. That’s wrong. “Third Year First” speeds up the process because when your people approach a prospect thinking “Third Year First,” they will have to consider all the things that need to happen.

In time, they are talking to themselves like “to be super happy in three years, the client will need to see a high ROI,” which is the focus on outcomes we are looking for. Just like we want our surgeon to focus on the outcome of making us better, when our reps focus on the client’s best outcome, the client works to get the outcome in-house right away.

As you move from being a vendor pushing a product to helping clients get an outcome, opportunities move to close faster than they would have otherwise because your customer is excited to get the promised result in house, as soon as possible.

Your salespeople equate activity with progress because your sales pipeline demands movement. They need to move their list from suspects to prospects to understanding their needs to a proposal.


3. Higher margins

Not only will sales cycles speed up, there will be fewer price concessions along the way, resulting in higher margins. It may seem like fantasy to think a mantra repeated daily for years will result in bigger deals coming through the door, faster, and with better financial results, but it happens.

I can usually find current evidence inside your own firm. Look at the deals sourced from your top executives. Top executives are more strategic and when they have an opportunity with a client, they are natural “Third Year First” thinkers. They quickly identify the players, the information necessary for this relationship to blossom, and the steps needed to get started right now.

Your top execs also carry the weight of needing the deal to last for three years or more because they are good stewards of your company. When you preach “Third Year First,” you are training your sales team to think like stewards of the company doing what is best for clients because as Jack Welch, the legendary GE executive said, “One thing we have discovered with certainty is that anything we do that makes the customer more successful inevitably results in a financial return for us.” That’s empathy in action.

Top executives are more strategic and when they have an opportunity with a client,
they are natural “Third Year First” thinkers.


Let me finish by touching on the main reason empathy does not take root in your salespeople and “Third Year First” gets resistance. I can capture it in one word: quota. The pressure to hit quota robs the salesperson of their ability to think “Third Year First.” The thing is, we need quotas to manage the company. I am not going to advocate for a quota-less system, but I will say between a world of “no immediate quota” (“First Year Third”) and a strict monthly quota system lies a wide range of choices. Explore this gray area with your team to pull them out of an empathy robbing month-to-month quota focus. If you need help with this idea, let me know.

Saying my “Third Year First” mnemonic is simple yet effective is a bold challenge to issue, but it works. We know that behaviors are not innate and unchangeable. Research tells us behaviors are heavily influenced by environment and circumstance. What “Third Year First” lets you do as a manager is to structure your environment in a way to give your salespeople a chance to exhibit innate empathetic behaviors. When you task them to think about focusing on a long-term result with clients, their deals get more interesting, the deals come in faster, deals tend to be bigger and there’s less negotiation in the end.

Next year, give your sales team the power to predict the future by forcing them to think about what the Third Year looks like, then let them come up with the first steps to take in order to make it happen.

The idea is simple, but not easy, just like the Golden Rule.