A while ago I gave a speech at a pharmaceutical company. It had taken me quite some time to turn that company from prospect into client. Their sales director was a former trainer himself. After about two years of my constant efforts, he finally booked me for a sales kick-off.
There were about 150 people in the room, about 80% of them women. The sales director was in a great mood. He started with a humorous remark and announced me by saying, “We made sure to book the best for this kick-off,” which made it easy for me to add to the humour with a few comments, warm up the audience and build on their excitement. Even during my presentation, the sales director gave me great queues for spontaneous jokes or stories, which helped create a fun atmosphere for the participants.
He was wearing a purple-coloured shirt. I had read in “Cosmopolitan” about what individual shirt colours are supposed to reveal about the men who wear them. And according to “Cosmopolitan,” a purple shirt worn by a man says he's “sexually frustrated.”
I don't know what in the world made me say that out loud, I think it was because the sales director and I were both in a good mood, joking a lot, so at some point during my presentation, I stand before him, look him in the eyes, and ask him, “I assume you know what it means when a man wears a purple shirt, right?”
He says, “No.”
And in front of the whole group, I say, “He's sexually frustrated.”
Lots of laughter from the audience. The ladies thought it was hilarious.
In the break we chatted casually. After the second part of my presentation, he concluded with a few nice closing remarks.
Later that night, I received a phone call from a sales representative whom I know. She told me, “Guess what? He changed his shirt before dinner.” His personal assistant had asked him, “How does Limbeck dare to say something like that?”
Two days later, I received an email from him, “Hello Mr. Limbeck, I had had great expectations when I booked you for our company and had been looking forward to your presentation. However, you embarrassed me in front of my whole sales team. Is that your way to thank me? That was a joke which I wouldn't even dare crack among good friends.”
And he was absolutely right. That was disrespectful.
I called him right away, left him a message, he called back, I apologised and I meant it, I also sent him a nice bottle of champagne to make up for my mistake, although it was said and I couldn't take it back, not even with a bottle of champagne. I also asked him if I should call the CEO as well, since he had been in the audience too. The sales director appreciated that. So I also called the CEO and politely apologised for the lack of respect I had shown his sales director. The CEO didn't think it was such a big deal, but the sales director did, and that's what counted.
That was a big learning curve for me. I learned the hard way not to show disrespect toward my client for the sake of a quick joke. Of course, I like to be provocative or polarising at times, but in this case, I went too far.
When you realise that you went too far, don't think that you're the worst person in the whole wide world – of course, that's the way I felt at that moment, but learn something from the situation. We need failures, because they are our best teachers.
I still call this customer regularly to offer my services for seminars or other events. Remember, a complaint is a chance for more business, especially if you were able to handle it professionally. In my case, my client's reaction really hit home, and I've learned my lesson. You can play with your customer a little, you can joke, but don't cross the line.
By Martin Limbeck, an international sales authority and sought-after keynote speaker, dubbed “The Porsche of Sales'' - he helps sales professionals seal more deals. Martin has trained and inspired audiences in sixteen countries for more than twenty years. The Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) has been honoured as Top Speaker of the Year 2014, International Speaker of the Year 2012, and Trainer of the Year 2011 and 2008. He teaches at Reutlingen European School of Business, Steinbeis University Berlin, and St. Gallen University, and is the author of several bestsellers. His latest work is NO Is Short for Next Opportunity — How Top Sales Professionals Think.