Business Operations

Olson on Sales: Stealing Is Legal

“I don’t have to be that smart. I just have to be smart enough to steal ideas from smart people.”


My brother has had a brilliant career. He had a lot of Fortune 500 Vice President jobs, but the one he had that we would most recognize was Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for DIRECTV during the Entourage era. He says, “I don’t have to be that smart. I just have to be smart enough to steal ideas from smart people.” In fact, he was much more a marketer than a salesperson, so when he went to DIRECTV, most of the curriculum he used with his sales team he took (stole!) from me!

Another one of my brother’s quotes: “You know why we’ve done so well? Because we kept reading after college.” Reading is a conversation with an expert who is begging us to steal their ideas! Picasso said it best: “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”



I sold lumber for 17 years and did it the wrong way for the first seven! I was a know-it-all. You can’t teach someone who knows everything, anything. I worked with brilliant salespeople but wouldn’t listen to any of them. I worked hard, but I wasn’t friendly with my customers. All I cared about was getting the order and my customers felt it, so people would pick me off when I was the least expensive, but never worked with me like a partner (where the real money in sales is) because I wasn’t treating them like a partner.

I woke up one day and realized I had to change my style. I had to be more likable. I started studying the two most charming guys I knew, Matt Dierdorff and Steve McNulty, who both still trade lumber today. Matt and Steve are not pushovers but everyone who meets them, likes them. After studying my two friends for about six months I realized that their best attribute was their ability to LISTEN to others.

I started to slow down, LISTEN, and take the time to get to know everyone (not just the buyer!) at all of my accounts. When I started caring about my customers, they started caring about and buying a lot more from me. I doubled my business in less than a year!


Why Is This a Good Deal?

I have a brilliant student. She has done very well in a short time in the business. She is a demanding student in the sense that she will challenge the ideas I give her, but once she is convinced, she executes!

She works with a Master Seller. When she was new, she would ask him, “Why is this a good deal? What should I tell my customers?” Then she would repeat what he told her with her own spin.


Best Customers, Best Practices

We need to get curious. We need to start asking our best customers how they run their businesses. Get into the details with them. People love talking about their business. This will build a better bond with these customers. In addition, we can take the ideas we get from our best operators and share them with our other customers. This makes us look like more knowledgeable salespeople, brings value to our entire account base, and sets us apart from all the sellers who are just trying to get the order.


I Don’t Like Them

We don’t have to love all our co-workers, but we can steal their ideas. I worked with a salesperson who didn’t like me much, in fact did everything he could to get me fired (it didn’t work). We were rearranging the cubicles on the floor and when the Vice President asked me where I wanted to sit, I told I wanted to sit across from this salesperson. He said, “James, you don’t even like him. Why do you want to sit across from him?” “Because he is a great salesman, and I can learn from him.”

And I did learn a lot from him. There was also some, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” strategy happening.

We don’t have to go it alone. There are plenty of people that will help us, that want to help us. We just have to keep our egos in check and our curiosity high to take in (steal) all the great ideas that are floating around us.


526 Media Group

Publisher of two monthly magazines for LBM dealers and distributors—The Merchant Magazine, founded in 1922 to serve the western U.S., and Building Products Digest, formed in 1982 to serve east of the Rockies.

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