Pilot your way to sales success

October 1, 1998

Pharmaceutical Representative

Checkpoints pilots use in flight can help reps.

Most of us learn through our errors rather than through our successes. It's useful, therefore, to analyze the most serious system errors that most commonly lead to crashes. After observing companies of all sizes over the course of several years, I realized that the errors that lead to failure for salespeople are similar to those that lead to crashes for airplane pilots. When these errors are recognized and acted upon, the system corrects itself and a crash can be avoided.

With this in mind, I applied a framework for examining system errors that I learned while becoming instrument-rated as a pilot. If pilots fail to trust their instruments, they can commit fatal errors. The following are the most common factors involved in fatal accidents in instrument flying. Can you relate them to a current situation in your life?

Fixation. You realize that you have stopped scanning and are staring at just one instrument. Typically, that instrument is malfunctioning and feeding you erroneous information.

In business, you find that the one customer who gives you all of your headaches and the least percent of your income is taking up most of your time. If you're concentrating on one area of your business debt structure, asset deployment, or even on just one client, you may be fixing on a highly troubled, low-return area. Pull out and refine your focus. You should be scanning constantly for opportunities, interpreting information and returning to areas of greatest consequence. If you discover you are focusing on something that is throwing you off balance, get back on course and focus on what you can do.

Ambiguity. You have information from two independent sources that disagree and can't be reconciled. Two instruments may contradict each other, but there is often a third instrument that can verify which of the two is faulty. If you find you are stuck between two sources of information, stop trying to resolve it. Get further information. Instead of trying to resolve the discrepancy, go to a third source to verify it.

Complacency. The better you think you're doing, the greater should be your cause for concern. That doesn't mean that every time something positive happens to you, you wait for the other shoe to drop. But it does mean that events occur randomly, and that your grandmother was right: "Always expect the best, but prepare for the worst."

Fly 'ahead of the plane' and be prepared for the worst scenario. Be constantly on the lookout for a decent emergency landing spot.

Emotion. If you're ecstatic about a new acquisition, achievement, or relationship, you're emotionally clouded and may be unsuitable for flight. Give the controls to someone else. Similarly, if you're depressed, your judgment is clouded. Because emotions are results of thought processes, get the thought processes under control before you fly. Get emotions under control before you lead others through change.

Confusion. You have lost situational awareness and you have a gut feeling that something isn't right. The worst thing to do is to fail to acknowledge your confusion and to continue to fly blindly. The best thing to do is admit your confusion and get immediate air traffic-control feedback. Ask for help.

Distraction. You are aware that your attention is being drawn to an item that is not really important. Bring your attention back into focus immediately.

Underload or overload. If the flight is easy or boring you may not be paying attention to important information. A fellow pilot came too close to a fatal error during his weekly commutes through the Los Angeles basin from San Diego to Monterey, CA. With the plane on autopilot, casually reading the newspaper, it wasn't until he was at a 35° bank when he noticed that his flight director was malfunctioning, putting him into a spiral.

The opposite can be equally true: If you're so busy that you can't think, you are likely to overlook something.

Poor communication. Difficulty communicating with an air-traffic controller or another crew member may indicate that someone does not know what is really happening.

A crew that crashed a jet near Cali, Columbia was misled by an air-traffic controller who didn't know where the jet was as it approached the airport. The crash came shortly after the controller told the crew to fly over a radio beacon about 40 miles north of the airport. At the time, the plane had passed the beacon. The crew was trying to turn around to go back to the beacon when they hit a mountain.

In this instance, the controller and the crew had different ideas of the airplane's location because of misunderstandings throughout their conversations. Similar to every crash, there was an unusual sequence of events. The controller and pilot didn't understand each other, and the controller was giving clearances that made no sense because he had no radar and could not see the airplane.

Failure to meet targets. If you're reaching checkpoints significantly early or late, or if speed or fuel consumption is very different than planned, find out why. Keep targets clear, visible to everyone, and track them frequently.

Nobody is flying the aircraft. One of the most reassuring phrases a student pilot can hear from an instructor is, "I've got it." But many student-instructor fatalities occur when nobody is sure who is flying the plane. Clearly indicate who is in control and who is responsible.

Flexible flight plans

Predictable errors are preventable errors. The time to change may be now, and it may not be as mysterious as you think.

Janet E. Lapp is a professional speaker. This article was taken from her book "Plant Your Feet Firmly in Mid-Air."

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