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The Panic Room
How to Get Back On-Track
when Sales are Down

Jill Konrath

Last Friday night I went to see "The Panic Room", the new Jodie Foster movie. It's a real thriller! After the show I got to thinking about the different times in my sales career when I felt panicked.

Invariably the situations involved fear of not making my numbers or fear of not meeting my financial goals. Hot prospects had postponed decisions. Competitors were wreaking havoc with my accounts. My sales funnel didn't have enough prospects in it. No one was calling and I didn't know where my business would be coming from.

Can you relate? I bet you can - most sellers have 'been-there, done-that." Every time it's happened to me, it's been a rude wake-up call - one that I most certainly didn't want to hear.

For me, the worst thing about being in the panic zone is acknowledging that I brought it on myself. Usually I've become complacent and stopped doing those things that made me successful. My prospecting activities have dropped off. I've become lazy on sales calls. I'm not thinking enough about the game plan.

Much as I'd like to blame the economy, the marketing department, sleazy competitors or whatever - the reality is this: I'm responsible for my own sales success and unless I change, nothing will get better.

To further explain my point, I'd like to share an excerpt from a book I'm working on. "Sales Wiz" is a business novel about how to improve selling skills. Elizabeth Will, the main character, is an experienced seller who's really struggling right now. Through some strange circumstances, she's found a sales coach (Professor McWizard) who uses highly unorthodox, magical ways to help her get back on track.

EXCERPT from "SALES WIZ", Chapter 4:

"Professor, every customer is so different," Elizabeth emphasized. "Until you get there you don't know what they want to talk about. Sales reps need to be able to go with the flow."

"You've been talking with your colleague, Tom Wigglesworth," surmised Professor McWizard.

"Just a bit," admitted Elizabeth, looking around to avoid eye contact. "You know, he has a long track record of success."

"But the past couple years have been a different story," countered the professor. "I suspect Tom talked about the value of relationships and complained how little customers valued them today. Am I right, Elizabeth?"

She nodded uncomfortably.

"He's wrong, Elizabeth. Dead wrong," Professor McWizard pointed out. "Customers value relationships today more than ever-but only relationships with vendors who consistently provide value." He stood up, motioning her to follow. "We need to visit the museum. There's something you must see."

Elizabeth squirmed. She didn't want to go back into the Museum of Selling Oddities and Curiousities-the last trip there was still too fresh in her mind. The professor, however, was not giving her an option; she dutifully followed him in.

* * *

Professor McWizard quickly went to his control panel. "Last Friday, Dr. Felix Baxter's office," he ordered. The room darkened as the candles flickered and went out.

Elizabeth heard the familiar whir and when the room slowly brightened, a doctor's office appeared. Then it went dark again. As the lights came on and figures slowly emerged, she saw a physician standing beside an examination table. A man was sitting on it. From her position, Elizabeth couldn't tell who the patient was. Professor McWizard pulled her gently to the left.

"That's Tom," Elizabeth gasped when she could finally see. Turning to the professor, she asked with concern, "He's all right, isn't he? Tell me he's OK."

The professor pushed the final button to start the holographic re-creation and motioned her to be silent.

* * *

"How are you feeling?" asked the doctor, feeling Tom's throat and lymph nodes.

"I'm afraid my back is getting worse," answered Tom.

"Hmmmm. Not good. Take off your shirt so I can check it out," directed the doctor. "Do you feel any pain?"

Tom removed his shirt with difficulty, struggling to pull it over his head. "No pain yet," he answered. "Except the emotional kind; it's been tough out there selling."

* * *

"What's wrong with him?" asked Elizabeth, eyes wide with concern.

"Let's walk behind him," said the professor. "It's pretty obvious."

That was an understatement. Protruding from Tom's back were two wings, about ten inches each. The feathers, a beautiful iridescent blue, glimmered under the office lights. They moved ever so slightly back and forth, creating a slight breeze.

"Oh...oh...oh," Elizabeth stammered, heartsick at what she saw, breathtaking though it was. "What is wrong?"

"A bad case of Winging-It. His condition has really worsened this past year," replied the professor. "His wing span is almost two feet now. Covering them up has to be difficult."

Elizabeth groaned; she would have thought it was a bad pun, if she hadn't seen them with her own two eyes. "What can they do for him?" she asked.

"Doctors can't do too much. The wings are part of his infrastructure now. Removing them could be fatal," Professor McWizard said sadly. "The only cure is in Tom's hands and he refuses to take responsibility for his own health."

"Tom can fix it, but the doctors can't?" asked Elizabeth incredulously.

"Absolutely. It's been up to him all along," replied the professor. "Winging-It is a disease caused by lack of sales call planning. Sellers develop a false sense of reality; they believe their personal charm and wonderful personalities overcome everything."

Elizabeth stared at Tom's back. A bad case of Winging-It. The professor's description fit Tom perfectly. She wondered if it could happen to her; she'd become rather lackadaisical in her planning.

"No," Professor McWizard answered her unspoken question. "Not yet, at least. But, the wings aren't the worst of it. It's the lost sales. The lost customers. Finally, the lost self-confidence. The cycle repeats itself, over and over, as the rep's performance slowly goes downhill.

"Elizabeth, Tom's been doing it for years. Don't change because of the end result. Change because it's the right way to sell. Customers care about relationships when they receive value-very much so. But the only way to provide this value is by knowing their business, customers, and industry-better than they do, if possible. Does this make sense?"


  • If you're complacent for too long, you'll ultimately find the "Panic Room."
  • Winging-It! has nasty consequences.
  • Much as we might like to blame others, we really are responsible for our own success.
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Jill Konrath, President of Selling to Big Companies and Leapfrog-Strategies Inc., helps sellers create value, differentiation and demand in competitive markets. For info on speaking, training or consulting services, please call 651-429-1922 or email us at


Copyright 2006, Jill Konrath - (651) 429-1922