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Selling Lessons From A Trumpet Lesson

It was an exciting week. I started out in St. Paul on Sunday afternoon. I was there Monday and Tuesday to attend a few meetings with a special client, deliver a few presentations, facilitate some discussions and attend their annual sales awards dinner. It was two of the best days I’ve ever spent with a client. More about that another time.

Several months ago, after already having this trip booked, I was hired by a company in Dallas to deliver the keynote at their sales kickoff meeting on Friday, first thing in the morning. No offense to those in the Midwest, but what was I going to do between Tuesday evening in St. Paul and Thursday evening in Dallas? Flying home to Martha’s Vineyard wasn’t an option. I considered meeting clients, some friends, but I came up with a much better idea…

I gave up playing the trumpet professionally in 1975. The reason was this: no matter how many teachers I went to, no matter how long I practiced (six hours a day, generally), and no matter how insightful, creative and analytical I tried to be, I couldn’t overcome significant problems with range (high notes) and endurance. Busy professional trumpeters, such as I was, can have two or three gigs in a single day, sometimes amounting to eight or even ten hours of playing. Having to play in the upper registers, needless to say, adds a lot of weight to that burden. One day, frustrated with my lack of ability to overcome those technical obstacles, I just packed it it. Done. Over.

Thirty-two years later I picked up the horn again. I sounded horrible at first, but began to get my chops back, little by little. But my previous obstacles—range and endurance—were still obstacles. I was no better off.

Back in the 1970s there was a remarkable young trumpeter for whom range and endurance didn’t appear to be even a consideration. He could play as high or low as he desired with no visible effort or strain. Hours of playing lead trumpet in Maynard Ferguson’s band every night, perhaps the most demanding job anywhere for a trumpet player, was a breeze. At 24 years old and 124 pounds (!), he rocked the community of trumpet players back on their heels, me included. His command of the instrument stared me right in the face—and it contributed to my quitting.

Knowing I had an extra two days in the Midwest, I looked up that amazing trumpeter, Lynn Nicholson. He now lives in Las Vegas, and gives trumpet lessons! A few emails back and forth and we were set. I would head to Vegas from St. Paul. Lynn would pick me up at my hotel, and he would give me a two-hour lesson. What I found curious, though, is in every email we exchanged during the eight weeks prior to my visit, he would remind me to keep an open mind. Again and again he wrote it. Keep and open mind.  I assured him that this wasn’t an issue for me, but nevertheless he kept insisting that these two-hours would be very different for me and an open mind was what was required.

The lesson was yesterday.

I hate hackneyed cliches. I try not to use them. But here goes. Yesterday was a paradigm- changing, out-of-the-box thinking, smack-in-the-side-of-the-head day. Some of the core beliefs that I had about playing the trumpet (from some of the “best” teachers anywhere), were not only wrong—but get this—not even applicable. What he showed me was so counter intuitive, it defied logic, at least at first.

Talk about needing an open mind… One new paradigm for example: the higher you play the more relaxed your lips should get. Picture that. I sure couldn’t. Every trumpet teacher I ever had implored me to strengthen my lips with exercises, because the higher I needed to play the tighter they were going to have to be. So very wrong. Lynn proved it to me with a demonstration of his range and dynamic capabilities. The sheer volume of bright, cutting, healthy sound, up and down three-and-a-half octaves was astonishing. Lynn is capable of producing a sound so big that he wears sound-reducing headphones. Then he told me his embouchure (lip and muscles around his mouth) are weaker than mine. He’s actually played only 10 hours in the past three months. Less is more? Weak is strong?  All that and more.  My mind was spinning.

Lynn talked about the adaptive algorithm that trumpet players (and everyone else) naturally employ to get past an immediate obstacle. After the lesson I was back in my hotel and had to play with a mute, which not only dampened the sound, but altered the physical characteristics of the trumpet, mainly in the amount of additional resistance to blowing the mute caused.  I felt off-balance and confused working on what Lynn taught me.

I emailed Lynn telling him where I was with what I learned, with a question about how to manage it. His response, “Great news! You are making substantial progress, for sure. Don’t worry about the mute. It is simply another aspect of the adaptive algorithm, and will be handled appropriately as you allow the concepts to be implemented in the absence of thought.” And it was. Ten minutes later more progress in the right direction. My range had increased from two-and-a-half octaves to four.

Understand, I’ve got a long way to go. Not ready to be up on YouTube for all to hear, but the old, incorrect foundations are intellectually and physically broken down. Now, new habit building, doing the right things the right way. Major progress, and this time, for a change, in the right direction!

I think you understand where I’m headed relating to sales, selling and leading a sales team. Times are seriously tough. We all need range and endurance. Are the foundations we’ve built, during very different times and under very different circumstances applicable? Is the answer to a significant challenge the color yellow when the options you see in front of your are only fast or slow? Is your mind open?  Do you understand that change is the only option?  And what adaptive algorithms will enable solutions to manifest themselves from the absence of thought?

Here’s a video of Lynn in 1974. His solo is 2:09 into the clip.

And here he is now.

Total and complete command of the instrument. Effortless.  Gives me the chills every time I hear this clip.

I’m in Dallas now, and gonna practice for a little while…

Photo:  This blogger, the subject of “show-and-tell” at the grandkids’ pre-school.

8 Tips For Saving Money On Sales Training

Sales training is more important now than during any time I can remember.  I’ve written again and again about the right approach to training.  So long as you are following those guidelines, here are some tips to reduce the typical cost of sales training:

  1. Employ a blended-learning or distance-learning-only approach. Not every situation requires classroom training.  In fact, the trend among leading training companies is to move away from the standard instructor-led classroom training model.   Webinars, podcasts and conference calls, if part of a training strategy, can help keep costs down.  Some of the leading companies have very innovative and proven non-classroom sales training solutions.

  2. Consider weekend training.  If classroom training is called for, weekend training can help reduce airfare, the cost of conference rooms in hotels, and the “lost opportunity” cost of salespeople being out of their territories.

  3. Negotiate Fees.  If you’re serious about a strategic approach to training, vendors will appreciate that.  Some may be willing to work with you on fees for a long term commitment.  Note:  A number of vendors are having financial problems right now.  A number have scaled way back.  We expect several others to follow suit.  Make sure you understand the vendor’s financial viability to the extent that they will share it with you.

  4. Consider Train-the-Trainer. This approach works well for some companies but is absolutely the wrong thing for others.  If you have a trustworthy training partner, ask them to share the strengths and weaknesses of this approach for your situation.

  5. Don’t be cheap. Don’t go for the lowest cost company.  You get what you pay for.  And don’t negotiate a deal to the point the training company doesn’t make a fair profit.  You’ll both lose in the end.

  6. Don’t invest in training your company doesn’t need. Every training intervention should be preceded by a needs analysis.  What are your precise requirements?  Work with vendor in designing a curriculum to meet those and only those needs.

  7. Don’t skimp on learning reinforcement. Learning reinforcement is a critical component of your training investment, as is requirements definition.  Make sure you understand how your salespeople will be supported and coached so that real, measurable, and sustainable behavioral change will take place.  You won’t save money here, but you will increase your return on your investment if you take reinforcement seriously.

  8. Don’t assume bigger means better. Each of the big training companies is a perfect fit for some situations.  None of them are perfect for all situations.  Sometimes they are just to big to handle smaller, focused training interventions.  Or, if you run sales in a smaller company, a large vendor may not be appropriate.  ESR has found many smaller firms that deliver real value to their clients.  And they often come at a lower investment level.

(This list originated from an interview I did about buying sales training in Sales and Marketing Management magazine.)

Photo credit: © tasssd – Fotolia.com

The Brooks Group: Getting A (Second) Life.

The Brooks Group surprised ESR when we commenced coverage of them for our last Sales Training Vendor Guide.  They scored very well in both solution breadth and solution effectiveness, even against many of the bigger, more well-known training companies.

Al Case, Vivian and I did an analyst briefing call with the Brooks Group management team earlier this week.  For all the details, you’ll have to wait for ESR’s upcoming Guide.

I will share with you that Brooks is determined to continue being rated in the top tier.  Their advancements in prospect nurturing, measurement, post-program reinforcement (especially coaching), distance learning and technology-enabled learning (the image shows their soon-to-be-released Second Life training facility—click to enlarge) put them in the short-list category for certain companies with certain sales training requirements.

ESR believes that a Second Life training capability at this point is a nice-to-have for a small percentage of sales training buyers.  But as sales training moves further away from the three-day live classroom model, training teams continue to become more diverse, and travel budgets are cut, if not eliminated, Second Life and other such platforms will become the norm.  Although the Brooks Group isn’t the only training company to offer a Second Life implementation, they are absolutely doing the right thing moving in that direction.

Finally, this all may sound terrific to you, if you’re searching out a sales performance improvement provider. I can only warn you that selecting The Brooks Group or any other company based upon this or any other one-page write up is precisely the wrong thing to do.  If you are presently, or will be evaluating sales training companies, consider investing in ESR’s upcoming Sales Training Vendor Guide, where we really compare and contrast The Brooks Group against 25 other leading providers.

Disclosure: The Brooks Group subscribes to ESR’s research.


Having been a professional trumpeter, early on I learned the word “chops” as it is used to describe a player who has a powerful embouchure (the use of the muscles surrounding the mouth in order to create a sound on a wind instrument).  Here is Japanese trumpeter Eric Miyashiro providing a dazzling rendition of Over the Rainbow (that perhaps only a trumpter player could love).

Both the sound quality and video are poor in this example, but if you listen all the way through, especially the last half, you’ll hear what super chops applied to the trumpet sound like.  Eric is a disciple of Maynard Ferguson (1928-2006) who pioneered playing jazz in the upper registers of the trumpet.

With an ear sensitized to the word “chops”, I’ve heard it applied to many different skills over the years:  Tiger Woods’s golf game, Obama’s facility with the TelePrompTer, Yo-Yo Ma’s fingers on his cello, NASCAR drivers, a strong software programmer.

Here’s a question for you: Which of your salespeople have chops?  In what areas are those chops applied to winning business?  Competitive chops?  Presentation chops?  Negotiation chops?  Can you isolate any specific aspect of their approach, skill or behavior?  Can those be understood and taught to others?

One of my trumpet teachers years ago, the highly esteemed Roy Stevens, had a wonderful Great Dane, whose name was Chops.  Cute!

If you’ve got eight minutes to spare, here is Eric playing MacArthur Park recorded at a rehearsal in London.

UPDATE 12/29/2008:

I just learned that Freddie Hubbard, another trumpet king, died today.  Here is a fine example of Freddie, his own unique style, and chops galore!

A Few Good Sales Coaching Blog Posts

If you’re in sales (or general) management, two consecutive posts on Bill Caskey’s Inside the Sales Mind blog are really worth reading:

  1. Sales Training Q&A #12: How to Maintain a High Performance Sales Team.  During my years as a sales consultant this was one of the coaching exercises I did with every sales manager.  It is very, very effective.  I learned this reality check from my former boss, Ken Arnold, many years ago.  Don’t watch this video only once.  Watch it until you can, at any time of the day, week, month, quarter or year, instantly respond to the question, “If you had to reduce your sales team by 20 percent, whom would you fire?”  Make sure you answer Bryan Neale’s other questions as well.

  2. Salespeople, What Is Your Selling Time Worth? The second post discusses how to calculate the value of a sales person’s time.  It too, makes a lot of sense.  We used to handle this one slightly differently:

If a salesperson’s quota is $2 million, and you use the same denominator, 2000, what you are calculating is how much product or service the salesperson needs to be selling on an hourly basis.  In this case, it’s $1,000 per hour!  Ask a salesperson to go through the math with you.  Then remind them that they need to be spending their time in a way that will return an average of a thousand an hour.  It’s usually pretty sobering.

One of the other points I like to make is this:

“Do you really believe a particular opportunity is qualified and worth pursuing? Give it the acid test. Ask yourself: ‘If I had to fund every penny of my salary, benefits, expenses, and other costs of acquiring this contract, in return for, say, reimbursement and a 30 to 40 percent commission, would I do it?’ Makes your collar feel a bit tight, doesn’t it? That’s the bet your company is making. That’s why it’s your responsibility to be logical, objective, diligent, and unemotional in pursuing the right deals.”  Source: How Winners Sell (Kaplan, 2004).