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People Tools for More Sales

Want more sales? Get better people skills.

We have all had head-shaking moments when we just don’t understand why people behave the way they do. Why did that client back out of a deal that made so much sense? Why did I struggle to communicate with that prospect? Why are people so hard to figure out?

A manual on how people operate would be helpful in these cases. Alan C. Fox provides one in his book People Tools. This is a collection of the skills he developed throughout his varied career but mostly from his experience in founding a commercial real estate company that owns and manages more than 70 properties in 11 states. In that capacity, he has cultivated relationships with investors as well as maintained the many responsibilities of real estate management.

Real estate management was just one of Alan’s careers. His resume also includes degrees in accounting, law, education and professional writing. He was also a tax supervisor in a national certified public accounting firm.

He has an artful side also, which he expresses as the founder, editor and publisher of the literary magazine Rattle. He brings all that to bear in People Tools, which he promises to be the start of a series. In this discussion with InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman, Alan explains how he uses his tools to win in business and in life. 

FELDMAN: An important quote and concept that you build on is “Know Thyself” from Socrates. Is that the foundation that people need in order to begin?

FOX: Absolutely. You have to know what your abilities are and what they are not, and to use your strengths. Each of us is unique. Your needs, life experience and resources are different from mine, so we each start from a different place. It makes sense that your choice of tools often will be different from mine, which means that Socrates is the single tool that each of us needs in order to effectively rummage in our toolbox. You have to know who you are, what you like and what you dislike.

For example, I find that I like communicating with people by email because it’s more efficient. I can answer five emails in a minute, whereas telephone calls are, “Hi, how are you?” and you have to get acquainted and then say good-bye, etc. So you should know your strengths. People would say to me, “You’re a great businessman.” Let me tell you something: Put me behind a retail counter, and I wouldn’t be too good.

In sales, you have to tailor your approach to what you’re good at. Are you good in person? Are you really good at writing? Are you really good over the phone? You have to evaluate yourself, and you do that by observing what you do.

FELDMAN: A prevalent tool throughout your book was “The Belt Buckle.” Could you explain that and where it came from?

FOX: I interviewed someone who was an All-American defensive football player in college. I asked him how someone takes on the greats like Jim Brown and Gale Sayers – this was a while ago. He said, “Look, they can fake with their eyes. They can fake with their head. They can fake with their shoulders. They can’t fake with their belt buckles. I just watch the belt buckle.”

I take that to mean “pay attention to what people do, including yourself.” Very often, there’s a difference between what people say and what they do. That is really the best way to figure out what I need. If I say I like action films but I always end up watching romantic films, well then do I really prefer movies that are more romantic?


FELDMAN: Throughout your book, you also write a great deal about efficiency. Time is the most valuable resource on the planet, and creating efficiencies can result in huge breakthroughs in sales.


FOX: Absolutely. People don’t pay enough attention to efficiency, particularly in prospecting. You have to realize that you have a limited amount of time and energy and you have to make every moment count as much as you possibly can. On your days off, what do you most enjoy, and what’s the most efficient way to go about it?

I see life as a matter of how efficient you are, whether it’s in spending your money or in allocating your time; and how efficient you are in being with people who will do you some good, whether it’s business or personal.

FELDMAN: That also relates to the “Sunk Cost” tool. You’ve put time and money into making something work, and you keep doing it even though it’s not the best or most efficient method of achieving your goals.

FOX: I was talking this morning with someone who has a business partner who is making bad decisions but still wanted to be named chief executive officer. He said, “What do I do? I put a lot of time and money into this, but it’s not working out.”

I said it doesn’t matter how much time, effort and money you put in. What is important is that you have other opportunities that would be more productive. If you have to cut it loose, cut it loose.

I do that with the people in my life. Some people turn out to be toxic. They’re just no fun to be with. They’re downers. If I’ve known them for two days, two years or 20 years, it’s not cost. Although, after 20 years I’ll give them a little bit more of a tryout and talk to them about it.

FELDMAN: The “Sunk Cost” tool is especially true in chasing prospects. Many salespeople keep trying to sell prospects even after getting burned. Is that because they figure they’ve invested too much to turn back?

FOX: Oh, absolutely. Let me tell you a little story. I have a rule that if I talk to you about real estate and you say you’ll invest, and for whatever reason you don’t buy, it’s absolutely not a problem and we can both walk away happy. But my rule is, I will never try to sell you real estate again.

My business partner had me send a contract to somebody not too long ago.  A week goes by and I call politely with my first approach, which is, “Did you receive the contract?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ll get around to it.” No problem. Another week goes by and nothing. I ask my partner, “Hey, what’s going on with this guy?” And finally a week later, the guy says, “Oh, things have come up and I’m not going to invest.” I say that’s fine, and I ask him to send back the contract.

Six months later, my partner says the same guy really wants to invest in this new thing. I say no, I have a policy. He says, “Please? He refers people. He’s wonderful. Please, please, please?”

I think to myself that this is a good chance to test my policy, because I haven’t tested it in years. So, I send out a contract. Well, you can guess the end of the story.


FELDMAN: Proving your point that “Patterns Persist”?

FOX: Yes, exactly. Patterns persist. If I go to a buffet restaurant, I’m going to eat too much 99 times out of 100. My solution is either I don’t go to the buffet restaurant or I go but I tell my wife, “You go to the buffet. Here’s what I want – low carbs, mostly protein – and only once and don’t go back.” I get around my pattern. When you detect a pattern, believe it will continue.

Take basketball coach Phil Jackson. People said he was successful in Chicago because he had Michael Jordan. Then Jackson went to the Los Angeles Lakers and people said, “Ah, can he do it again?” Guess what? He did. Patterns persist.

FELDMAN: Another breakthrough for more sales is what you call “Target Practice” and “Expanding Your Target.” How does that work?

FOX: Any goal in life is a target. I want the job. I want an invitation to the party. I want to win the game. Often, when the goal is especially important, the target seems to shrink to a tiny dot. This is much like the apple resting upon the head of his young son as William Tell was forced by the Austrian governor to prove his prowess with a bow and arrow.

You can approach archery either the hard way, like William Tell, or the easy way. The hard way is to practice, practice, practice, taking greater and greater risks under more and more challenging conditions. Certainly practice and challenge are useful tools.

But there is another type of “Target Practice,” which yields a bountiful harvest. Expand your target. When I think about “Target Practice,” I see my target becoming larger. Instead of using a minuscule bull’s-eye, I aim at a target as big as an IMAX screen.

If you want to be more successful, expand your target. Make it larger. In sales, in insurance particularly, maybe you want to have more products. I mean, my goodness, there are so many different permutations of life insurance. The more products you have, the bigger your target becomes because maybe one of them will stick with a prospect, whereas the others won’t.

Also, expand your target in terms of the type of people you approach. Expand geographically, expand to other markets or add new services. If your pattern isn’t working as successfully as you think it should, then expand your target and have a bigger range, and I think that will be more successful.

FELDMAN: I was intrigued by “The 80 Percent Solution” and how it applies to employees and partners. How long have you been using that tool?

FOX: I came up with “The 80 Percent Solution” with my business partner 45 years ago, and we’ve been in real estate together ever since.

It means that if my business partner is meeting 80 percent of what I think would be ideal or practically perfect, that is good enough. It doesn’t have to be 99 percent. Think of it in terms of your life partner or spouse. I think that there are 10,000 women in the world who I could be perfectly happy with – and I don’t know if my wife is No. 1, No. 10,000 or No. 300, because I can’t possibly give 10,000 tryouts.

The overriding thought that led to my conclusion was this – if a person meets 80 percent of my ideal, then I will stick with him or her and will not spend one second thinking about a replacement.  A later refinement of that thought is if the person’s “score” is between 60 percent and 79 percent, I could be out looking. Below 60 percent and I’ll get them out of my life, the sooner the better.

Now, if I’m getting brain surgery, I’d rather have somebody who’s 99 percent because that’s life or death. But for most purposes, for friends and employees, it’s good. I don’t have a single employee, including me, who hasn’t made mistakes. So I don’t hold mistakes against people. Otherwise, you’re going to spend a lot of time looking for perfection and not achieving it.

If you want to set your sights at 85 percent or 90 percent, OK. If you want to settle for 70 percent, it is totally subjective.

FELDMAN: That leads to another chapter, which is “Get Past Perfect.” Would you tell us about that?

FOX: When I started out in business, I was a failed perfectionist. In those days before computers, when we actually typed letters, I insisted that not only were letters perfect, they also had to have no erasures. I had a secretary typing a letter 20 times, and that’s very inefficient. So you have to get past that and do what’s practical.

When I look back in my life, there’s not a single day in which I haven’t done something that I would have liked to have done differently or better. You can aim for being perfect, and then you get what you get.

The first sentence in my book says, “If you have enough joy in your life, what else do you really need?” And as a spoiler, it’s also the last sentence.

If I’m enjoying every day, what else do I need? I don’t need more money or more friends or more anything.

FELDMAN: Your “Shrink the Glass” is a great way to maintain the positive. Rather than ask “Is the glass half empty or is it half full?” just shrink the glass and make it the right size for what you have.

FOX: I have a great personal example –  I don’t like going to weddings of people I don’t know. My wife knows lots of people and wants to go to weddings. So from time to time I find myself at a wedding, and I don’t want to be there.

I can either groan to myself for three or four hours, or I can say, “Wow, this is such a nice place. I’m enjoying the wind on my face. It’s really nice. The food is great.” At one wedding I didn’t want to go to, I met a guy who made me $20 million in a business transaction. If you’re there, you might as well enjoy being there, because grumbling about it is not going to do anything but make you less happy.


FELDMAN: One of your tools is “The Picture: Function over Form.” How does that apply in sales?


FOX: In sales, you have to get to the essence of what you are trying to sell. In real estate, I am selling cash flow. So my clients can have a certain percentage of cash return, which I distribute monthly, and that’s the essence of what I’m selling. The form is real estate, and I give people nice pictures because I want them to have some confidence that it looks good.

But my father taught me that, in real estate, “Don’t go see the property and fall in love with it. It’s the numbers. If you want property to earn and profit, you look at the numbers first.” That’s the essence of it.

So in sales, you have to determine what your clients or prospects really want. When I was in college, I was approached by a life insurance salesman and I said, “Once I’m dead, I really don’t care.” Well, that was true, but not totally true. I certainly cared about my wife and my children. So, my hot button – the function – was for me to feel good providing security for those I loved. And the form of it, whether it was insurance or real estate or whatever, didn’t really make too much difference.

FELDMAN: How did that work out with the life insurance agent?

FOX: Well, I bought life insurance! This life insurance salesman was really very pleasant, and it was kind of a test for me to say that I really don’t care. A lot of salesmen would have tried the hard sell or disagreed with me.

He reframed it and said, “I absolutely understand that you wouldn’t care once you are dead. But do you care what happens to the really important people in your life, like your wife and children? Wouldn’t you like them to have a decent life?” So he was applying continual assent. He was agreeing with me and then showing me how his product, in this case life insurance, was going to help me get what I really wanted.

He was a nice guy and I liked him, which I think is an important part of sales. When I travel, I like to shop, but if I walk into a shop and even if they have something I really, really like, and the salesperson is horrible, I will walk out without buying a thing. Other shops I walk into, and frankly there’s nothing much that appeals to me, but the salesperson is so nice I just try to find something to buy. So, in the insurance case, I really liked the guy, and I found myself wanting to help him out.


FELDMAN: How do you get leverage in a sales situation with clients?

FOX: Leverage is important but I think about leverage probably a little bit differently than most. Leverage is what I think.

I remember sitting in my office with a prospective investor and his last question was, “Well, if I want to invest what do I do?” I didn’t say, “I am desperate. Today is Tuesday. I’ve got to close this escrow on Friday, and I desperately need $10,000!”

 I never would say that. I said, “You can tell me now. You can tell me tomorrow. You can tell me next week. Whatever is comfortable for you is actually fine. I will say, though, that this is first come, first served, so when I run out, I run out.”

Now, I didn’t have any real leverage at all. I was desperate. But I convinced myself that I would take care of the problem, and I was just as calm as could be. So to me, leverage is what you think you have, and you have to be comfortable. In many transactions, I’ve told people this is not going to change my life. I mean we’ll do the deal or we won’t. You won’t waste time with me, but I’m certainly not desperate here. So I think you have to convince yourself first, and that’s really the heart of it.

Obviously, if I have some real leverage, I will use it. If I don’t, I will create it.

FELDMAN: You also talk about how “Showbiz” is important in sales, always leaving them wanting more. You don’t want to give them too much. How do you find that balance?

FOX: When you’re trying to sell, it’s kind of nerve-wracking, and you tend to overdo it. People have a sixth sense when someone else is trying too hard. I always want to figure out what is enough and then do less.

We recently saw The Wolf of Wall Street. I remember the book and I enjoyed the movie. But it’s a three-hour movie. I would have liked it better if they had taken 20 or 30 minutes off, and it would have left me wanting more.

With a sales presentation, if you think half an hour is exactly the right amount of time, then make it 20 or 25 minutes. It’s better to end 10 minutes early than one minute too late, when you’ve lost your prospect and they’re bored and they wish you’d get out of there. Don’t let it get to that point. Leave them wanting more. Leave yourself wanting more for your own life.

FELDMAN: What’s the best piece of sales advice you can give someone?

FOX: No. 1 is smile. Let me tell you why. I think we all like to be around people who are happy. I used to think that when you’re happy, that’s when you smile. And interestingly enough, recent research in psychology indicates very clearly that we become happier just by the physical act of smiling. If you turn up the corners of your mouth, you feel better and more endorphins come into your brain. That’s very clear in the research.

So, in sales you should smile and you should be energetic. I’ve done a number of book signings and the last one didn’t go quite as well as I would have liked. Before I started the signing, I forgot to say to myself, “Now Alan, amp up your energy.”

We like to be around people who are enthusiastic and let us know it by smiling and showing us they are enthusiastic. That’s the real road to success in sales.

Find out more about Alan Fox and People Tools and follow Alan’s blog at

Founder, President, Publisher [email protected].

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