Sales Leadership Lessons from the Movie “Elf”

Want to be a better sales leader?  Learn to deal with your “Elf”.

My family and I watched a favorite movie this Christmas, “Elf”, and while I knew it would make me laugh I didn’t know I would learn some leadership lessons from it.   Here’s lesson number 1:

 Denying your blindspots

You may know the plot. Buddy the Elf, played by Will Ferrell, finds out he has a father (James Caan’s character), so Buddy walks from the North Pole to New York City during Christmas to find him.   Caan is married, middle-aged, and the father of a 10-year old boy.  He’s also a workaholic executive in the children’s book publishing business.  Buddy finds him and that’s when Cann learns that Buddy is the outcome of a romantic relationship Cann had when he was much younger.

What’s Caan’s first blindspot behavior when he finds this out?  He denies it. A son he didn’t know he had?  An elf?  Gimme a break, he thinks.

Denying is what makes your blindspots flourish and your leadership weaker.  When you deny things that are true about yourself you keep yourself from yourself and prevent yourself from being the leader you could be.

This is a problem.  You don’t trust leaders who you think are phony do you?  So why should others follow you when you’re not fully true?

Denying sometimes looks like this.  Have you ever been asked to volunteer for something and said no because you were too busy or tired?  There’s no crime in saying no, but here’s the kicker: did you justify “no” by telling yourself it’s because you were busy, or by telling yourself you preferred busy to volunteering?

Or, have you said no to an invitation from friends to go out, and justified it by working late instead? It looks authentic doesn’t it, being busy, working late, being tired.  But how often does this happen? Are these honest reasons every time or are they your built-in excuses that you leverage?  Are you being honest with yourself?

Do you have someone on your team who you struggle to lead?  Someone you don’t connect with because he or she is very different from you? Does this person not take your coaching?  Do you get frustrated and impatient?  Maybe you’ve concluded that he’s the problem, not your coaching.  Is it possible that you’ve not found the right way to coach and lead him?  Are you being honest?

People ask me “how do I uncover my blindspots when I can’t see them?”  It seems impossible, but there is a right place to begin.  Start by being honest with yourself.  Take ownership of your beliefs and the actions that follow.  But – and this is critical – don’t judge yourself when you discover an unflattering behavior, or more.  If you judge yourself when you’re trying to discover yourself, your ego will come running to the rescue and convince you it’s not your fault.  You’re busy! You’re working late!  Your coaching is awesome – he just doesn’t get it!

Don’t let your ego win.  Instead, be honest. Surrender.  Discover.  And feel how liberating that is.  You’ll change how you see and lead people.  And people will notice.

To be a greater coach and leader you’ll have to confront your “Elf”, that is, the thing you are denying that prevents you from getting closer to you.


Good Selling,


Mark Sellers

Author, Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching, and The Funnel Principle: What Every Salesperson Must Know About Selling

Creator of the BuyCycle Funnel customer buying journey sales model, the most time tested, proven customer buying journey model on the market

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Customer Buying Journey: Simple Trumps Complex Part 2

In my last blog I highlighted some reasons that using a customer buying journey model for selling makes good sense.

It’s simple.  It’s foundational.  It’s easy to coach to.  It’s true.

In this blog I want to suggest additional ways to leverage this sales model when qualifying and setting strategies for winning deals.

One of the most common mistakes we salespeople make is “over committing” relative to what the customer is committing during the sales process.

You know what I mean.  It’s when a salesperson agrees to work up a SOW without the customer agreeing to a sit down face to face or by phone to go through it.  It’s when a salesperson gives away too much “free consulting” and finds out the customer has used that information to buy from someone else.

Salespeople over commit their resources for many reasons.  They’re under the illusion that it’s the right thing to do.  They confuse being busy with being productive.  They think they’re engaging with the prospect.  They’re afraid that if they don’t do what the customer has asked then they’ll be out of the running.  I have these feelings from time to time too.

A customer buying journey model helps your salespeople avoid these common yet costly selling mistakes.  How? The model in effect lays out the customer’s journey.  It shows us what customers have to do when they are truly committed to buying something from someone.  So in a way it gives you markers that need to be crossed.  If they aren’t crossed then the customer isn’t progressing down its buying journey.  Your busyness by committing to something doesn’t make the deal further along.

One marker is the customer taking a proposal and acting on it.  Either accepting it or rejecting it.  Too often salespeople send proposals that then go into a black hole.  They then play catch me if you can with the customer, sending emails and phone messages.  “Hi it’s Mark, leaving you the 5th message about the same subject as the last 4…”

My clients are getting better at getting a quid pro quo when they submit proposals.  They’re getting the customer to commit to reviewing it.  This might not be a magic bullet but it sure disqualifies enough deals to save my clients a lot of time – they’re less likely to send a proposal that the customer doesn’t agree to review.

There’s another benefit – they lose a sale faster – they were likely to lose it anyway after sending the proposal, lose it to someone else with a lower price.  Why not walk away earlier and spend your time on other viable opportunities?

I realize that sometimes you have to go first with your committing something, like some resource or needs assessment or walking the site to work up an estimate, to get the customer to start committing.  But you are expecting – hoping for – a specific reaction from that commitment, eg the customer committing something in return.  If they don’t give it to you, then your commitment has accomplished it’s mission.  Before you commit to something else step back and ask why the customer hasn’t engaged.

Your time is valuable.  The customer needs to know that.  You can send that message professionally by not over committing your resources in the sales process.

Mark Sellers

Author, The Funnel Principle

Author, Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Creator of The BuyCycle Funnel customer buying journey model of selling

Watch a short video on the customer buying journey

Watch this blog in a video format



Customer Buying Journey: Simple Trumps Complex

I am blown away by the volume of sales advice available these days.  Sales training has become a cottage industry, thanks to many converging forces like technology, information explosion, and access to it.  There’s a lot of good advice out there.  It’s a good time to be selling.

But like the virtues of more information and more access to it, it comes with a vice.  Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing.  Right before our eyes, without seeing it.  A blindspot.

When I coach sales people to set good strategies to qualify and win deals, often it’s something fundamental – simple – that they’ve overlooked, that’s getting in the way.

Which leads me to think that the key to getting better at selling is to escape the overwhelming onslaught of advice and just simplify.  Double down on a few principles that will never fail you.

Understanding how your customers buy is one of those.  It’s a simple, powerful concept of selling.

It’s proven that customers go through a “buying journey” when they make a purchase.  You do too when you buy something.   A significant, pivotal stage in that journey is when people really commit to buy something from somebody, that is, they’re no longer thinking about it, no longer going to “live with the problem”.  This is significant because it means that a customer has to spend money and businesses don’t take that lightly.  Plus, it means that “status quo” loses to the new solution.  Sometimes that means that someone vested in the old solution, the one that’s not working anymore, could suffer a loss of face.

It’s pivotal because once it’s decided to buy something from somebody the customer shifts gears in how they continue along the buying journey.  They’re no longer kicking around the idea of changing – they’ve decided to change.  Maybe it’s like going from holding the car steering wheel nonchalantly with two fingers to grabbing it at 10 and 2 o’clock and committing to having fun on the winding road.

One of the most common mistakes we salespeople make is thinking that a customer has reached this “decided to change” stage when if fact they haven’t.  As managers you have volumes of examples of your salespeople telling you about a prospect who “loves us” and who “can’t stand what they’re using” and with whom “we have a great relationship” and whose system is “really on it’s last leg and has to be replaced”.  And then nothing happens.

In our BuyCycle Funnel buying journey model we call this the “commit funding” stage.  Even when new funding isn’t committed to the buy it’s a commitment to kick out the incumbent and bring in something different.

CEB, which gave us in The Challenger Sale, the concept of “57%” popularized what many of us knew but couldn’t elucidate.  Many customers go through a fair bit of their buying journey before engaging with a salesperson.  Maybe a lot of salespeople today would agree, but they haven’t connected “57%” with something that drives their next selling activity.  “Commit funding” fixes that.

Sales managers would do well to simply, consistently challenge their salespeople to prove – to themselves – that a prospect has reached “commit funding” stage in their buying journey.  What’s the proof? It had better be more than “we have a great relationship” or “they can’t stand what they’re using”.

“Commit funding” needs an authority figure.  We call her the PFA, the Person with Financial Authority.  If the salesperson can’t verify who’s playing that role, then they can’t say a deal has reached “commit funding”.

“Commit funding” is not evidenced by a customer asking the salesperson for a quote or proposal.  That tail wags that dog every day.  If a PFA has “committed funding” then someone somewhere knows of a business reason for doing that.  If a salesperson has no clue what that business reason is, it’s hard to conclude that the customer has “decided to change”.

I realize there’s more to selling than just validating the “57%” leads.  But that’s a foundation that can’t be overlooked, so it’s a good idea for sales managers to repeatedly reinforce this.

Mark Sellers

Author, The Funnel Principle

Author, Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Creator of The BuyCycle Funnel customer buying journey model of selling

Watch a short video on the customer buying journey

Watch this blog in a video format




A Learning Culture for Sales

I want you to ask yourself this question at the end of each day this week.

Did I do my best today to promote a learning culture in my company?

If you’re a sales leader this is your responsibility, but not one from a place of guilt or some piously purposeful motive.  Do it because it’s what drives results.

How many times have sales training programs been met with skepticism or even mutiny?  How common is it for the first reaction to some kind of training is a negative or skeptical one?  Often it comes back to the leader and how he or she set it up.  Leaders that sold the idea of needing the training get more buy in than leaders that didn’t explain the “why”.  This latter, compliance leadership is usually short lived and falling short of potential.

Learning gets compromised when we don’t make time for it.  John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, was said to have enjoyed practices as much as games.  At his core he was a teacher.  He loved to see his players learn.  He decided the place to learn wasn’t during games as much as it was during practices. Game time versus practice time.  It’s hard for salespeople to make time for practice. Leaders have to find a way.

I read an interview this past week in the Wall St. Journal of the CEO of Snap, Inc. Evan Spiegel.   He came under fire last year for making some courageous leadership decisions about the app Snapchat.  He was driven by the long view.  Spiegel shared that his parents forbid him from watching television until he was a teenager.  His parents encouraged him to find things he was passionate about.  They never held it against him when he failed.

So there are two lessons here. One, encourage learning and growing. Two, don’t make failure a negative thing.  How does that hold up in your culture?  What are you doing about it?

Recently I made it safe to fail when coaching a salesperson. He was wondering which tactic he should take next in trying to make progress on a sales opportunity.  I offered up one tactic and he had a different one. Because he was having a stellar year, and because his sales funnel was very healthy, I suggested that he try his tactic for no other reason than to use it as a learning opportunity, a sort of sandbox for selling.

What can you do to “do your best today to promote a learning culture in your company?”  Be a learner yourself.  Be curious and ask more questions.

Show others that it’s ok to fail. This can’t be lip service.  If they see you fail and live to tell they’ll be more likely to give it a go.  If you tell them failing is ok but then whack the snot out of them for failing, that’s not strong leadership.  So put yourself out there and dance like no one’s watching.

Provide resources for learning. Blogs, books, videos, etc.  The world is overflowing with ideas for selling. Salespeople need the next greatest idea for selling a whole lot less than they need to be reminded of a practical sales idea that they can put to use right now.

Mark Sellers

Author, The Funnel Principle, Named by Selling Power magazine a Top Ten Best Book to Read

Creator of The BuyCycle Funnel customer buying journey model

Author, Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Founder Breakthrough Sales Performance


Would you like these results for your sales team?  A client of ours for 5 years this company has delivered double digit top line and net income growth annually the past five years.  Another client increased sales 35% year over year thanks to our coaching and sales training program.  A third client increased the value of its sales funnel by 55% in 9 months.


Check out this short video on The BuyCycle Funnel customer buying journey model

Download a FREE chapter from Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Buy the book The Funnel Principle on Amazon

Buy the book Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Buy the Kindle version of Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Blindspots of Public Figures

Blindspots, ironically, don’t discriminate.  Smart people have them.  Affluent people have them.  Highly educated people have them. People in power have them.  Good people have them.  You have them.

Several weeks ago Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau confessed to a “massive blindspot” – he was found to have worn a blackface outfit to a costume party when he was in his late twenties.

Obviously, this wasn’t clarity of judgment.  Blackface is offensive to African American people.  It is a form of theatrical makeup used mostly by white performers to represent a caricature of African American people.

I’ve never met the PM.  But I’m going to do something that I would do with just about anyone else in this pickle of a situation.  I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he meant no harm by his extremely poor judgment.  I have read comments by people who know Mr. Trudeau and they’re favorable.  They say he’s a decent guy with good values who wants what he thinks is best for all of the people of Canada.

To his credit the PM said this at his press conference responding to the calls for an explanation:

“I always acknowledged that I came from a place of privilege, but I now need to acknowledge that that privilege comes with a massive blindspot.”

The Prime Minister’s blindspot hijacked his clarity of thought and integrity of action.  Whether you choose to forgive him for his action is a personal choice.  I wouldn’t judge you either way.  Forgiveness is perhaps the most powerful act one can choose, even forgiving someone for something he cannot see.  He’s still responsible and must own up to it.

Blindspot episodes are opportunities to grow, and it takes a humble soul to trust that an embrace of the pain of the situation you caused will somehow lead to a better outcome.  Weak leaders will double down on their behaviors and defend it.  This makes their pain sort of go away, but only for a while, like when a bad hangover finally subsides.  A pattern of defending blindspot behaviors causes weak leaders to build up a pressure cooker of unhealthy, undesirable emotions like bitterness, anger, judgment, or self-righteousness, to name a few.

Look around your office.  Does someone you work with consistently exhibit blindspot behaviors that bother you?  Make you mad?  Frustrate you?  Hurt you?  You could try forgiving them for what they know not.  Then, if you have the courage, and I don’t say that lightly, consider how you might make this person aware of his or her blindspot.

Consider telling the person how you are choosing to respond to his or her behavior, and how that affects you.  This makes it partly about you, because you still control your choice.  The minute you give that up you’ve relinquished control.  Resist the urge to create an instant “aha” that will turn this person’s behavior around.  It normally doesn’t work that way.  Recently I found myself in a car ride to a downtown dinner event and asked the guy driving us, the senior most executive of the business I was consulting with, if he thought he sent signals to his staff about his wanting them to push back on him, to not be “yes men”, that were counter to his telling the staff to push back on him.  He paused and considered the possibility.  That’s progress.

Finally, turn the gaze inward and ask yourself what blindspots am I missing about me?  Trust me they’re there.


Mark Sellers

Author, The Funnel Principle, Named a Top Ten Best Book to Read by Selling power magazine

Author, Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Founder, Breakthrough Sales Performance LLC

Creator of The BuyCycle Funnel customer buying journey model



Using Customer Buying Journey to Make Better Sales Calls

Understanding your customer’s buying journey is not an exercise in pedagogy. It is practical and real.  It will help you be more effective in what you do today re: sales opportunities, meetings, strategies and more.  Let’s see how understanding your customer’s buying journey helps you make better sales calls.

Recall, a customer buying journey is the collective set of steps or stages customers go through when they buy.

Let’s say you live in a 22 year old house and the roof has never been replaced.  You’re wondering how many more years it can last.  But nothing’s leaking so far. You put it off.

In a different situation, let’s say you’ve had hail damage and you’re concerned about the roof’s condition. You’re compelled to call your insurance agent to get it looked at.

As a customer you’re in two different stages of your buying journey in these examples.  What gets your attention is different in each one.  In the first one you’re likely more interested in getting educated – how long should your roof last?  What happens if you wait too long?  What are some signs of the roof needing to be replaced?

In the second situation you’re probably more interested in knowing the process for filing a claim, how you pick a roofing company, how long the job takes, and the timeframe for all of this to happen.

If you’re in sales for a roofing company, and you had these two leads on your desk, you should approach them differently, and base your approach on where the customer is in the buying journey.  For the hail damage, you might get some direct mail out asap.  Other roofing companies will be doing the same thing.  With data on which neighborhoods were affected, you might make some cold calls or even canvass the neighborhoods. The message might focus on educating the customer on what happens to a roof during a hail storm, empathizing with the customer (it sucks to have to get a new roof), and giving the customer reason to trust you in this time of stress.

For the non urgent roof situation the message might be about the importance of investing in your home before a roof fails and educating the customer on the dangers of doing nothing.

I sell sales training and coaching services.  An early stage lead for me might be a referral from a client.  For these leads I focus on demonstrating competency, building trust, and learning what I can about the organization.  The leads I get from some of our channel partners often have progressed through several stages of the buying journey.  They bring me in to help close the sale.

In general, for early stage deals you’re safe to focus on this:  build credibility, earn trust, and don’t be overly eager or overly aggressive. Get the stakeholder to talk but don’t ask too many questions.

For later stage deals your selling activity should focus on qualifying a ‘commitment to fund’, meaning, qualifying that the customer is committed to buying something from somebody.  How much has been committed?  The answer to this critical question pivots your selling activities in one direction or a different one.  If you qualify the customer is committed to buy then you shift into “why buy from me” mode.  This is where the customer’s head is at.  Meet him where he is.  Finally, be prepared to tell the customer what a solution should look like.  This presents you as an expert.  Be careful to not come across too cocky.  Most customers like to have options too.


Mark Sellers

Author, The Funnel Principle, Named by Selling Power magazine a Top Ten Best Book to Read

Creator of The BuyCycle Funnel customer buying journey model

Author, Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Founder Breakthrough Sales Performance

Would you like these results for your sales team?  A client of ours for 5 years this company has delivered double digit top line and net income growth annually the past five years.  Another client increased sales 35% year over year thanks to our coaching and sales training program.  A third client increased the value of its sales funnel by 55% in 9 months.

Check out this short video on The BuyCycle Funnel customer buying journey model

Download a FREE chapter from Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Buy the book The Funnel Principle on Amazon

Buy the book Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Buy the Kindle version of Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching















Threethe power of marketing clout. In 2011 CEB published The Challenger Sale.  While it’s initial shock factor was stating that ‘relationship selling is dead’, the underlying driver of that claim became the lead story.  That is, why relationship selling was dying.  As customers became more ‘knowledge independent’ from salespeople they didn’t need salespeople to help them buy like they used to. Customers had less incentive tobuild relationshipswith sellers, especially since many weren’t paying off. Finally, with everyone’s schedules becoming super compressed, it’s become harder for salespeople to establish contact early in the process and develop the relationship throughout the cycle.


CEB coined and marketed a fabulous term for what was happening in the customer buying process called 57%.  Their Challenger research revealed that customers routinely go through as much as 57% of their buying process before engaging salespeople.  The implications are dramatic.  Customers are not engaging with salespeople early in the process.  Salespeople are therefore not part of discovery and shaping of solution images early.  By the time customers engage salespeople they don’t add much value beyond price and availability.  It’s harder to differentiate.


Your Customer Buying Journey: Why it Matters

Do you sell the way your customers want to buy?

Nine years ago Selling Power magazine held its Sales 2.0 Conference in San Francisco.  Speaker after speaker presented ideas on how to influence the “customer buying journey.”  This was a dramatic shift in sales thinking because for years salespeople were taught mostly techniques for how to open sales calls, how to ask questions, how to present, and how to close.  Of course these skills are important.  But they’re not enough.

Salespeople weren’t taught to understand how their customers buy. 

Today the concept of selling to the customer’s buying journey is table stakes, it’s the new standard.  Forward thinking sales organizations have built their entire commercial approaches on this concept.

Well known sales training and research firms confirm through studies and research the logic and benefit of selling to the customer buying journey.

CEB Gartner (The Challenger Sale) published a white paper earlier this year titled The New B2B Buying Journey and Its Implication for Sales.  “As B2B buying behavior rapidly changes, traditional sales approaches will dramatically underachieve”. 

 Aberdeen Consulting Group reported that companies with sales funnel stages defined by the customer buying journey had 33% more accurate sales forecasting and 40% more salespeople making quota. 

 CSO Insights reported that defining how customers buy must be the first place executives begin when conducting sales transformation efforts.

Miller Heiman’s annual Best Practices Study 2017 reported that organizations they rated to be ‘world class’ knew why their customers buy from them 30% more often than non-world class organizations. 

What’s Driving This Shift?

In a word, your customers.

It occurred to me fifteen years ago that customers had more information, more access to it, and more timeliness to it.  And that customers were being influenced more by their peers than by the salespeople calling on them.  Today, for salespeople these trends are only getting worse. Salespeople have to fight to be relevant.

When Customers Shift, Sellers Need to Shift

Your organization’s performance and results are at stake.  There will be casualties to underperformance.  If your team’s underperformance is due to a failure to act, to change how you sell, then you will have committed an unforced error.  In their book Shiftability, authors Mitch Little and Hendre Coetzee say that salespeople need to adopt a growth mindset, one that looks at the world through a learner’s perspective.  This is the mindset that selling to the customer buying journey requires.

Your customers are expecting this from you.

A Customer Buying Journey Defined

A customer buying journey is the collective steps a customer takes or the milestones or stages the customer completes that starts with a problem or opportunity and ends with a solution.  Often these are called “sales funnel or pipeline models” because the stages are used in CRM to guide salespeople in managing their funnels.  With funnel stages, companies can run valuable reports, analyze data and forecast more accurately.

But don’t let the sexiness of using this model to analyze and forecast better cause you to overlook the vital, dirty work of using this approach to sell better, one deal at a time.  This is the real value of a customer buying journey model.

Why Sell to Your Customers’ Buying Journey

You want to know the stage your customer is in when the customer is considering buying because that helps you best influence the customer.  It’s key to making a difference for the customer and your salespeople being relevant.

For example, if a customer you’re calling on is early in the buying journey they’ll want to be educated, not sold to.  They’ll respond a lot more favorably to insightful information you provide.  They want to know what you know, and they don’t mean product or service.  What do you know about their kind of situation that could help them decide to act on it or lower its priority?

On the other hand if the customer is well into committing to a solution, if they’ve already been through determining the impact or upside of the situation, if the checkbook is out, then they’ll likely want to know why should they buy from you versus another alternative.

Not knowing this stage information puts you at a serious disadvantage. You’re more likely to commit common, costly selling mistakes like making assumptions about everything.

Don’t Overthink The Customer Buying Journey

You could be tempted to get ensnared by the lure of research and data by big sales training companies that suggest this data tells you all you need to know about your customer’s buying journey.

While I have been intrigued by the research, I have learned overwhelmingly about customer buying journeys from my clients the past 20 years.  What I have learned most is that my clients know how their customers buy better than any consultant can tell them.  Including me.  My company’s job therefore is to pull it out of them and keep the design simple.   Brilliantly complex customer buying journey models for selling don’t get used.

There’s still time for you and your team to adopt this approach.  But don’t wait too long.

About Breakthrough Sales Performance®

We are the one sales training company to have devoted the past 20 years to helping clients define their customers’ buying journey.  120 global sales teams have implemented The BuyCycle Funnel™ customer buying journey model of selling created by Mark Sellers.  Clients have seen remarkable results, including:

  • Year over year sales increase of 68% for a large engineering consulting firm
  • 57% increase in year over year sales for a technology client
  • Double digit increase of sales of higher margin products for a client in the chemical industry
  • 240% increase in forecasting accuracy for a client in the construction/energy industry
  • Double digit growth of top line and net income annually for five years in a row for a client in the HVAC industry


Contact us today to learn more


Buy The Funnel Principle book here

Buy the book Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Check out a video on The BuyCycle Funnel customer buying journey model