When I lived in New York City, I would frequently fly out of LaGuardia Airport because it was the most convenient location to my home. Also, I would often drive to New Jersey, crossing the Hudson River on the George Washington Bridge to meet with a business associate. As I drove across that enormous bridge, I was astounded at the vastness of the Hudson, and if you have ever crossed the George Washington Bridge, you probably agree with my viewpoint. That is why I was shocked on January 15, 2009. While watching the news, I saw an airliner floating in the middle of the Hudson with passengers standing on the wings! I soon discovered U.S. Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 that took off from LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, North Carolina, struck a flock of birds and almost immediately lost all engine power. Unable to reach a nearby airport for an emergency landing, pilots Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles glided the plane to a water landing, thereby ditching the aircraft in the Hudson. Amazingly all 155 people on board were rescued by nearby boats with zero casualties and few serious injuries. Someone in the press called it “The Miracle on the Hudson,” and that is, without a doubt, an understatement.
Why did this serious flight emergency turn out so well? Most people would agree that there were several contributing factors, but one main reason would be the outstanding training of the two pilots. Yes, they were ready for an emergency. As you may already know, over the last three decades, the number of fatal commercial airline crashes has been reduced compared to the total number of flights that occur each day. There are many reasons for this marked improvement in safety, such as training simulators and modern computer avionics. However, one specific factor contributing to the improvement in aviation safety is the old-fashioned checklist system. The checklist system has been around for many years and has reduced pilot errors, thus saving passengers and crew members’ lives.
In the book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Dr. Atul Gawande, he discusses an event that caused the military and general aviation to adopt the checklist system. Gawande relates a landmark event that started the whole checklist system, which occurred seventy-four years before the miraculous landing on the Hudson. On “October 30, 1935, at Wright Airfield in Dayton, Ohio, The U.S. Army Air Corps held a flight competition for airplane manufacturers vying to build the military’s next-generation long-range bomber. It was not supposed to be much of a competition. In the early evaluations, The Boeing Corporation’s gleaming aluminum-alloy Model 299 had trounced the design of Martin Douglas. Boeing’s plane could carry five times as many bombs as the army had requested: it could fly faster than previous bombers and almost twice as far. A Seattle newspaperman who had glimpsed the plane on a test flight over his city called it the ‘flying fortress,’ and that name stuck.” Here is what happened next: “A small crowd of Army brass and manufacturing executives watched as the Model 299 test plane taxied onto the runway. The plane roared down the tarmac, lifted off smoothly, and climbed sharply to three hundred feet. Then it stalled, turned on one wing, and crashed in a fiery explosion. An investigation revealed that nothing mechanical had gone wrong. The crash had been due to ‘pilot error.'” What investigators discovered is that flying had become too complicated for human pilots to recall everything by memory, and therefore came the advent of the checklist system.
In addition to the aviation industry, Gawande relates how surgeons have also adopted checklist processes. By installing similar systems and avoiding unnecessary human errors, surgeons have saved numerous patient lives. Subsequently, over the years, many other industries have adopted various checklist systems. Why? For the same reason as aviation and medicine – remembering every essential step to perform a complex procedure is beyond most people’s abilities. Therefore, checklists provide a cognitive safety net to catch the mental mistakes inherent to humans.
So, should salespeople use a checklist system in their process of selling new potential customers? The simple answer is yes, they should because their work is also complicated. As you consider the idea of salespeople using a checklist system, I believe you will agree they are needed to decrease errors and increase efficiency. So, why hasn’t the checklist system been widely adopted in the sales setting? Many people underestimate the complexity of the sales process, which creates an environment where salespeople are left to engage in many impromptu sales presentations. The result of such haphazard sales presentations is an alarming number of lost opportunities. I have been a proponent of the idea of the checklist system in sales for years. In 2016, I introduced this idea in my book, and subsequently, I have been teaching its implementation in my online course, The Science of Selling Academy.
Here is the sample checklist from my book R3R1: The Sales Formula for Success.
As you review the checklist above, understand that it is just a sample of one specific sales presentation for a particular type of service. Every salesperson should have a customized list that coincides with the products or services that they sell. However, in my example, I have seventeen outlined steps. Keep in mind that the salesperson in the example executes each step to give this particular presentation effectively. Not only does the salesperson need to remember the seventeen points, but they also need to remember additional sub-processes, delivering a specific messaging presentation. So, without a list to review, how likely is it that the salesperson overlooks one or more crucial steps? It is highly probable, which negatively affects the outcome of their sales presentation, therefore reducing the possibility of conversion. You see, if the various actions were not necessary, they would not be on the list. So, therefore, each step in the process is vital. The reality is that many salespeople sell extraordinarily complex products and services and might have to follow many more “steps” in one presentation to maximize the possibility of their prospective customers moving forward with their offering. With these facts in mind, is there any wonder why salespeople miss out on so many sales opportunities? No!
My recommendation is that all salespeople have a well-composed sales presentation checklist that they can reference before each sales presentation and subsequently afterward. Their list will help them remember the key elements of the process, making it easier for them to recall the crucial points. The list keeps steps fresh in mind to not overlook any necessary detail—additionally, the same list helps evaluate the prospect’s responses to various sub-presentations. The salesperson can also take the time to perform a post-presentation evaluation. They should follow this process if they complete the sale, but even more importantly, when they do not. That way, they can evaluate what went well or went wrong with each presentation. If salespeople follow the checklist system, they will, in turn, improve their sales conversion ratios. It also has one additional benefit; the salesperson will find their job performance stress goes down. I am sure you would agree that being well prepared always pays off when it comes to delivery; the better the preparation, the better the performance. That was certainly the case with Sully Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles. The passengers of flight 1549 are certainly glad they were on the top of their game that day. It is a simple fact; checklists decrease errors and increase efficiency. It makes sense that if professionals like airline pilots and surgeons find it necessary to use lists to remember key elements of their job, top-notch salespeople should consider doing so as well.