Knowing When It Is Time to Cut Loose From A Dead-End Deal (Lesson 4)

When I was selling telephony systems some time ago for a firm out of Baltimore, I was in charge of the mid-Atlantic states and part of the Northeast. Most customers who bought had systems that were anywhere from five to 15 years old and were looking for an upgrade in their technology.

Most except a Pittsburgh-based company called Farrell Steel, that is.

Farrell Steel was one of those family companies led by a patriarch hesitant to change his role or anything else until the day he dropped dead, despite his children (and grandchildren) begging for changes…and for him to step aside.

One year, I called Farrell Steel to talk about what they were currently using for their telephone systems.

“We get a couple calls like this every year. You know those old plug board operator systems you see in black and white movies?” one of the Farrell children asked me. “Well we’ve still got one of those. Dad won’t get rid of it because my grandfather put it in back in 1952.”

“You’ve had that system for over 30 years?” I asked, in shock. I hadn’t heard a potential client ever mention one before. Most were gone by the mid-1970s.

“I don’t think Dad’s ever going to let it go. I’d like to do business with you, but it’s just not going to happen while he gets the final say in everything,” said the Farrell son. “He’d probably also want to do business for a phone system with somebody from up here.”

“I understand. I’ll follow you up in three or four months,” I said.

“I wouldn’t bother,” he said.

I called him back in a few months and was rebuffed. Same thing happened three months after that and three months after that. The next two years, I called every four months. I only called twice the fourth year I pursued them.

I always had nice, long conversations with the younger Farrell and convinced myself that his father was bound to leave the job at some point and my persistence would pay off.

I finally put Farrell Steel into the folder of dead-end leads I only called once a year. I tried to do the math of how many telephony sales reps had called over the years, leading to nothing but wasted time.

Here’s the kicker: In the seventh year, I was told that the younger Farrells had taken over after their father had a stroke. They were finally ready to make a commitment, and they did… to someone else.

Sure, I never wasted my time traveling up to Pittsburgh to meet with them, but I think about all of the calls I made to Farrell Steel. It had to be at least a dozen. That was probably 10 hours of chasing down a lead that would never materialize, and I should have recognized it the last few years. Heck, in our first conversation, he basically told me the family preferred to buy local.

It’s only one example of a lead I should have let go, but I look back to when I was younger, more naïve and probably a bit too optimistic and wonder how many Farrell Steels there were I wasted too much time with.

I think one of the greatest powers that elite salespeople have is to know when to walk away.