The 30 Billion Dollar Man

Seddik Belyamani wrote the book on selling passenger jets.

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For a field salesman, schmoozing the CEO is not enough. “You have to go two or three levels below the head,” says Belyamani. “There have been cases—it hasn’t just happened to me—where there’s a little guy who lives in the corner office and nobody paid attention to him because he was a number-cruncher, and they’re dealing with the big guys. Lo and behold, two or three years later you find that the little guy in the corner office is the CEO.”

Belyamani says the worst sales prospects were the cases in which he didn’t know where he stood or when he didn’t have time to build a relationship with a buyer. “You can tell there’s no electricity—‘Thank you very much for your offer, we’ll consider it.’ ” he says. “When you don’t have a dialogue, you sense that you’re losing. They didn’t ask any questions, they didn’t challenge my numbers. It’s bad.

“Sometimes it works to their advantage to be in disarray, because they’re confusing the hell out of you,” leaving the salesman guessing whether the airline is roiling with internal dissension or putting on an act to beat down the price. Belyamani’s advice in that situation: Stall. “You try to convince them that there’s no rush, that the delivery positions will be there if they make a decision two or three months from now.”

Among the customers Belyamani has worked with, business styles vary. “It’s hard to generalize,” he says. “The Japanese are tough negotiators. They operate by consensus. There’s no real decision maker; it makes it hard to work. When they reach an agreement they live up to it, to the letter. They’re not really hagglers, but they know what they want and they get it.”

Middle Eastern customers “believe in win-lose,” says Belyamani. “They’re not satisfied until they feel that you have given everything.” But they are not as obsessed with numbers as the European and U.S. airlines, which tend to “conduct their negotiations with data. They say ‘Your airplane has a seat-mile cost of X and it needs to be Y for it to work for us.’ It’s a more logical style. You may believe it or not, but at least you’ve started with a rational foundation.”

In dealing with foreign customers, says Belyamani, “if you speak to someone in their own language, it establishes a bond.” Even if you conduct business in English, the jokes and pleasantries may be in Arabic, he says. Belyamani’s multi-lingual talents have served him well.

Another challenge in dealing with foreign customers is government involvement, which can make decisions drag on. “The Saudi order [after the first Gulf War] took at least two years,” Belyamani says. “At one time there wasn’t a single person at Boeing who knew the whole transaction.”

More and more airlines have been privatized by their former government owners, and Belyamani hastens to point out that the decline of government ownership has led to a decline in incidents of bribery. “The U.S. has a very stiff law [the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act], and I’m not interested in going to jail. If somebody brings it up, you say we can’t do it, it’s against the law. We’ve lost campaigns like that, but it’s rare now.”

What attributes for surviving and thriving in this business can’t be taught? “Common sense, a self-starter, integrity,” says Belyamani. He fervently believes that credibility is an aircraft salesman’s most important asset, and he has devised his own credibility scoring system: “If the customer wants to know something and you respond fast, you score. But if you’re wrong and it’s discovered that you’re wrong, then your credibility goes down by a factor of four. If you accidentally get something wrong, and your customer doesn’t notice and you call immediately to correct it, your credibility goes up three times.”

Optimism is also vital, he believes, keeping you going after you lose the very campaign you worked on hardest. “The first losing campaigns were a bit tough,” says Airbus’ Sbai. “You have to take a long-term view: You can lose and win again later.”

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