3 mission-critical sales lessons from heist movies

3 mission-critical sales lessons from heist movies

To many, the archetypal salesperson is a deceptive scoundrel who manipulates people into buying something they don’t need. Think used car salesman meets con artist.

Ironically though, the best salespeople are the most ethical, trustworthy people in SaaS. Their primary goal is to connect customers with products that will make them more successful. As a salesperson, that’s a more sustainable strategy. Screwing someone over might win you a quick commission, but it’ll destroy your reputation long-term.

But the truth is, the salesperson-con men comparison isn’t crazy. In a lot of ways, con men would make great salespeople. They have to get intimately close with their targets, build trust, and close the deal. If they lose, they go to jail. They practically have to sell for their lives.

Nowhere is this more evident than heist movies. You know, the ones where some smooth-talking, impossibly dapper criminal puts together a crack team to steal a big sum of money? While their plots are overblown, these movies have essential kernels of wisdom any salesperson can tap into. Let’s dive into three of them.

1. Ocean’s Eleven: Build a high-powered team of specialists


In most crime movies, the villain is some evil, lone-wolf mastermind who executes a genius plan all by himself. He doesn’t have a team so much as cronies he orders around and treats like shit.

The heist movie flips that on its head and makes the protagonist a cool, likable criminal who brings together a dynamic team of specialized experts. Film scholar Jeremy Strong writes that in these movies, “heightened significance is afforded to the group”—each member has a crucial role to play, which determines the overall success of the heist.

Ocean’s Eleven is the quintessential example. Each operative is a highly-trained specialist that fulfills a key role:

  • The sharp, charismatic leader hatches the plan and uses his charm to recruit the team.
  • The operation’s financier acts as a trusted mentor who helps everyone understand their roles.
  • The team’s slick con artist feeds the team key information from inside the casino, such as the vault's access codes.

There’s also an acrobat who maneuvers his way into the vault, an explosives expert who blows the vault's doors off and gets everyone inside, two car experts for the getaway—you get the idea. The heist process is like a stage production. If everyone plays their unique part, the result is greater than the sum of its parts.

Get your sales team tapped into that teamwork magic


Let’s say you organize your sales team as an assembly line. Under this model, you specialize the different members of your sales team to crush a specific stage of the sales process. Customers are handed to the next specialist at each stage of the sales funnel. Think of them like the Ocean’s Eleven characters:

  • The sales development rep is your inside man. The SDR vets each lead, asks them the pain points their company needs to address, and ensures account executives only talk to qualified buyers. She’s an information-gathering machine.
  • Next, the account executive takes over. This guy needs to be a closer—just like the smooth-talking leader “closed” each team member in Ocean’s Eleven and got them on board for the heist. Your AEs will need to ask smart questions and overcome objections.
  • Finally, account managers handle onboarding. Your account managers need to set your customers up for success just as the financier set the Ocean’s team up for success with his money and wisdom. They need to teach your customers how to unlock your product’s value.

Notice how each team member plays an important role in the sale—just like the Ocean’s heist. As customers move through each step of the funnel, they’re greeted by a dedicated specialist, which creates more predictability for the sales process.

And since they’re totally separate, no one’s stepping on each other’s toes or duking it out for commission. If everyone stays focused on their specific job, the team can eliminate bottlenecks and work together as a focused, singular unit.

2. The Italian Job: Know your target

Ben Franklin supposedly once said, “Failure to prepare is preparation to fail.”

The characters in The Italian Job, out to steal a hefty sum of gold bullion back from an old accomplice-turned-enemy, practically live by that quote.

Just like in Ocean’s, the Italian Job team thrives because everyone plays a unique role. But also consider the extensive information-gathering they do before setting anything into motion.

The team taps the villain's phone and relentlessly listens in on his conversations. They even send the lone woman in the crew to woo the villain and get further into his head. They get to know him better than he knows himself.

It pays off big time. You might think that a savvy, street smart team could pull off a heist without any prep work. But in The Italian Job, they put in the time and get to know their prospect intimately. They read him like a book and prepare for his every move. When the he tries to flee with the gold, they rapidly counterattack and make off with the loot.

How a salesperson can win with research

Don’t take this lesson too literally—you definitely shouldn’t go around tapping phones. But great salespeople know that a little research can give them the information they need to close a deal.

Don’t build your whole sales process around research—it’s no substitute for actual selling. But a bit of research up front can give you the edge you need to hone in on the perfect value proposition for each prospect.

For example, let’s imagine you're selling project management software to a company with a brand new CTO. Consider these quick research strategies:

  • With a quick Google search, you can read all of her recent interviews and see what she’s said about SaaS. Maybe she mentions somewhere that she only wants products that are easy for anyone to use.
  • Or, you might try and contact any connections you share with her and see if they have actionable information. You might get an inside scoop that helps you build rapport—she appreciates straight talking, or likes dogs.
  • While you probably shouldn’t try and take her on a date, you could have an SDR reach out and ask her some questions. You might uncover that, say, she’s trying to uncover more leads on social networks, like Facebook.

By doing research, you can find make-or-break information that informs the way you frame your sales pitch. After all, you’re not selling in a vacuum—there’s a unique context for every prospect.

Preparation pro tip: Find the right tools


Another reason the crew scores big in The Italian Job is that they find the perfect tools for the task. In the film’s most iconic scene, the team makes off with the bad guy’s gold by driving BMW Minis through the LA sewers—the only car that could pull off the tight squeeze. That’s why film critic Joe Morgenstern called the film “the best car commercial ever.”

Salespeople can also better serve their customers if they have the right tools. Consider:

  • Close CRM automates tasks like lead generation, data entry, and bulk email blasts.
  • Leftronic analyzes your sales activity, funnel movement, and task management to give you a customized sales metrics dashboard. It can even integrate with Close.
  • ClearBit also integrates with Close and performs most of the research necessary for lead qualification, so you can target the customers who best match your product.

In Italian Job, it wasn’t enough for the team to have getaway cars. They had to be the right cars. But in addition to automating an ancillary part of the sales process, these tools are also customizable enough to be the “right car” for any sales situation.

3. Inception: Gain trust


While not immediately obvious, Inception is a heist flick at its core. The only difference is that the team is infiltrating somebody’s mind instead of a bank or a casino. When they get in, it’s not their fancy, sci-fi technology that lets them succeed. It’s their application of social proof.

The crew’s goal is to plant the idea in their target's head that he should break up his father’s massive conglomerate. But of course he wouldn’t do that just because some stranger told him to. So when they enter his mind, they show him a dreamed-up image of his dying father telling him to (or, at least, heavily implying that he should) break up the company.

That’s the social proof—the mark accepts the idea on a deep, emotional level because he believes it’s what his father wants. By tapping into a relationship with someone he trusts, the protagonists influence their target to take their desired action.

How salespeople utilize trust


Just as the Inception crew couldn’t pull off an inception without gaining the target’s trust, you’ll never make a sale in SaaS if your prospects don’t trust you as well. The difference is that your end goal is to help them, not manipulate them.

Emotion trumps reason. Prospects might know logically that your product is the right solution for them, but they won’t buy unless they feel a sense of trust towards you and your company. If they doubt your good intentions even slightly, the deal is dead in the water.

Follow these three strategies to make sure that doesn’t happen.

  • Social proof. In Inception, the crew used the target’s loved ones—people with whom he had positive experiences—to tap into social proof and gain his trust. You can do the same thing, but leave family out of it. Try telling prospects how many other customers in their field have used your products to solve the exact same pain points they have.
  • Ask the right questions. Asking questions shows that you want to learn about the prospect's business and make sure your product can actually add value for them before you sell it to them.
  • Address the elephant in the room. Wary prospects usually have one particular doubt holding them back from buying. If you figure out what it is or give them a chance to verbalize it, you can address it directly and make the sale.

Trust is a tough thing to get in sales. But once you have it, it’s yours. If you don’t abuse it, you should have a great customer for years to come.

Same techniques, different goals

At the end of the day, the best salespeople aren’t anything like the con men you see in movies—they don’t spy, steal, or try to hoodwink their prospects.

What really unites the two is that they both need to understand how to work closely with people, inspire trust in them, and make them feel supported to get them to go along with their respective gambits.

But a good salesperson operates with a radically different mindset than a con artist—they constantly think about not only how they can promise value to their customers, but also go above and beyond to deliver on that value.

If you do that consistently, you’ll build a roster of loyal customers who will not only stick with you, but trust you enough to tout you to their friends. You’ll get more repeat customers, more referrals, and a pipeline stuffed to the brim with great leads. Unlike a con man, a good salesperson never has to skip town after getting their payday.

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