A Lesson in Success

Is emotional intelligence (EI) a crucial factor to success? Dan Mullally, Senior Vice President of Sales for FedEx, explains how EI helps set you apart from your competitors.
A lesson in success from Dan Mullally

Even in our tech-driven society, much of business is still built on relationships — personal connections with customers, vendors and clients. How do you learn to create those connections? Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to read people and communicate effectively, and it’s a key skill no matter what you’re trying to sell.

As senior vice president of sales for FedEx, Dan Mullally oversees 3,300 employees. Along the way, he’s learned some vital lessons about understanding others. FedEx Updates spoke with Dan about how EI helps with sales, and how to make it work for anyone.

How did you get started in sales?

I wasn’t interested in sales when I started my career. My experience was that salespeople took money from people. But it turned out for me that I could sell to industries. I could sell transportation because it’s something that businesses can’t live without. I wasn’t taking money out of their pocketbook. Both people won: The salesperson closed business, and the company got an effective solution.

The next part of the equation was that it was all built on relationships.

As a salesperson just out of college, how did you get your foot in the door?

The first part of that is you have to provide a business value that they’re going to understand. Once you demonstrate that you can deliver, the personal value comes in.

Probably my biggest sales success when I was young was at a company called Consolidated Freightways. The largest account in Chicago was Western Electric. Everybody wanted them.

So I looked for a different way to approach them. I called on them every Friday at 10 a.m. for 52 consecutive weeks. I never missed. And after refusing to meet with me for the first 10, they started to see me every week. And I’ll never forget it: That Christmas, I walked into their lobby, and there were 25 salespeople standing there with gifts ready to give to Western Electric. And the only one allowed to go upstairs was me, because I was conducting business with Western Electric and providing solutions and moving their product. The rest of those people had to wait or go home!

It sounds like that solid relationship really set you apart from your competitors. What advice would you give people looking to develop their EI to build their own sales relationships?

Get as diverse as you possibly can get. Early in my sales career, I was hired by a guy who only hired a certain type of individual: white, Irish-Catholic baseball fans. The problem is, all the customers you sell to are not white, Irish-Catholic baseball fans. And you would be stymied if you could not step out of that structure.

When you get more diverse, you can entertain other ways of doing business, other ways of thinking. It expands your horizons. Being sensitive to people and being able to understand their situation allows you to build the relationship. And if you’re open and diverse, you can be friendly with someone who’s very different from you ― and you can learn from people who are very different from you.

Meeting with people in a very different situation than you, how do you start to forge those connections?

For the longest time, when I first started out of college, I would think, “What are we going to talk about? This guy’s got kids, I’m not married.” But I started finding common ground.

It takes a while, sometimes. You start to pick up on little things: sports or a family picture or an animal or a plaque they got as an award. These things tell you who they are, and you learn from it. And you start to find out that you can talk about those things.

Can you give us a business example?

I met with a lady who was running one of the biggest nut companies in Chicago. She was very critical of our company. All of a sudden, I noticed a picture of a Bichon Frise dog behind her, and I said, “Is that your dog?” She said, “Yes, it is.” I said, “Gee, I never met somebody who owned a Bichon Frise who is so grouchy!” She burst out laughing. Twenty years later, we’re still friends. We handle all of her business exclusively, and I buy a thousand tins of nuts from her every Christmas.

Sales involves a lot of rejection. How should people deal with that?

It’s a hard, hard job. That’s why it’s so critical for the management to keep salespeople excited, because they’re going to fail way more often than they are going to be successful. Way more. That’s why it’s really important to communicate with them, and coach and motivate them.

As a salesperson, it’s tricky. You have to see that rejection and say, “How do I build upon this and move forward? Where’s the opportunity to move forward?” It’s a lot of patience. You need to understand it’s not a one-time event, it’s a process.

You were in the seminary in high school and college. What did it teach you about emotional intelligence? Would you say it helped your sales skills?

I got a lot of group dynamic work that helped me learn how to listen. Not just being a listener but being a good listener. That means being able to articulate back what a person has said to you.

If you teach a salesperson a new product, the first thing they do is go dump that product on everybody they meet. They never find out if they need it or not. They say, “We’ve got a new service to California now, and you’re going to love it!” And the business guy replies with, “Well, that would be great, except I don’t ship to California.”

You learn to ask questions. You learn to let people talk, instead of you doing all the talking.

How important is listening in your job now? How do you maintain those habits when you’re supervising 3,000 people?

It’s the hardest part of my job. You have to make yourself available. I have a special email account called “Ask Dan” that allows my employees to have direct access to me. It only comes to me in my office. Everyone on my sales team can ask me anything they want. Nobody is going to get in trouble. Because of my job, I can ask anybody I want to look into the person’s questions or problem. This way, they’ll get an answer quickly. So you accelerate the communication.

I also personally go out and speak with 900 inside salespeople once a quarter in four different venues in the country. I speak to them about what’s going on in the organization, how we treat people, why they’re important to our success. I do the same thing with my field sales team. So it is a constant communication.

How does EI inform the way you oversee your employees?

I’m a big believer in treating people the way you want to be treated. How do you act when you become a new manager? Well, what I know for sure about being a manager is I don’t want to treat my people in the negative ways my managers treated me.  Your teammates will not respond to your leadership if that’s who you are.

It’s very important to me to appreciate everybody as part of the team. I’m nothing without the couriers or security guards or anyone else. And they need to get my respect and attention and appreciation, just like anybody else. It’s critical.

Dan’s EI tips summarized

Emotional intelligence is important to building business relationships. Your clients must feel confident with you as a salesperson and be comfortable doing business with you. Use these tips from Dan to nurture your business relationships:

  1. Be diverse. Get as diverse as you possibly can. You only get better in your life when you can entertain other ideas and other ways of thinking and other ways of doing business.
  2. Find a common ground. Learn to pick up on things that are common to you and your client. You might find that you share an interest in sports, animals or traveling. Once you find that open door and step through it, a lot of good things can happen. But, he says, stay away from politics and religion and other divisive subjects.
  3. Show empathy and sensitivity. When you see how people celebrate life, what they think and what’s of value to them, you learn from it. It expands your horizons and allows you to grow skillsets that permit you to be more empathetic. How can you have empathy for someone if you don’t have any sense of what they may or may not be going through, or any way to digest it? You can’t. Being able to understand their situation allows you to build the relationship.
  4. Learn to be a good listener. Listening is extremely important in sales. Not just being a listener, but being a good listener. You have to be a good listener to be an empathic, sensitive person. Sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s important.
  5. Practice the Golden Rule. If you treat people the way you want to be treated, you’ll be fine.

Source: FedEx Small Business Center, https://smallbusiness.fedex.com/emotional-intelligence.html