Up in the Balloon


by Jim Brewer

It was early in my professional sales career at a great company, CompuServe. I was going through the monthly sales review with my boss, Clark Woodford, a gifted charismatic leader who earned his stripes at IBM and was developing 20 and 30-year-olds into a world-class sales team. We were discussing a big account, almost a million dollars a month in recurring network services. It would certainly make my year and would go a long way to helping our division make its number.

“Brewer, are they up in the balloon with us?” Clark asked.

“What?” I laughed. “No, they seemed to be standing on the ground last time we met. I have never even been on a balloon. What do you mean?”

“Bob and I were talking over lunch yesterday about real connection and communication with our clients and prospects. When it is going well, it’s like a balloon flight. You are above the landscape, looking down, seeing the beautiful patterns below. You are riding the wind currents. By going a bit higher or lower you can let the wind take you in the direction you want to go.

“The client is by your side with an expansive view of the landscape. Both of you are focused on the beauty, the journey, and where you might go together. It is a much different experience than it might be in be in a farm truck going to the same place; bouncing along a dirt road, map in hand, arguing about how to get there and dealing with every pothole along the way.

“So, my question for you is ‘Are they up in the balloon with us?’” Clark focused our attention back to the account.

Somehow the focus of the conversation had shifted. It was no longer about the negotiated pricing, the competitors who were vying for the business, the service level agreements, concerns of various members of the client team, and the other myriad details of the sale. If you are going on a balloon ride with someone, it is about different things.

First, it’s trust. Am I safe with this pilot? Does he know what he or she is doing? Will we land safely? Significant projects present a huge career risk for the buyer. That buyer is betting his or her future on your performance. How can you establish trust?

Then, it’s the ride. Will it be fun? Am I with companions that will fret over perceived issues? Or am I riding with people that will anticipate potential problems and do what is necessary before it's necessary? Even when they are surprised by the ones that no one could see coming, will they rise to the occasion without throwing blame all around?

There is always the remaining question. What is the cost? Now, even that is a different conversation and no longer the most important question. How much more would you spend to go on a balloon flight than a ride in a farm truck?

Thanks, Clark. It is a question that I now always ask myself and my team. “Are they up in the balloon with us?”

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Jim Brewer