Selling

“Everyone lives by selling something,” noted the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. People are selling either a product, a service, a place, an idea, information, or themselves.

Cynics view selling is a form of civilized warfare fought with words, ideas, and disciplined thinking. And they view marketing as an effort to add an element of dignity to what is otherwise a vulgar brawl.

There are many images of selling. The YTS school says that selling consists of “yell, tell, and sell.” The S&P school says selling is “spray and pray,” The LGD school says that selling is “lunch, golf, and dinner.” And the salesperson is described as a “talking brochure.”

There is the well-known story of the Stanley Works in which a consultant told the tool company, “You are not in the business of selling drills. You are in the business of selling holes.” Don’t sell features. Sell benefits, outcomes, and value.


Some individuals are gifted salespeople. They can sell refrigerators to Eskimos, fur coats to Hawaiians, sand to Arabs, all at a profit, and then repurchase them at a discount.

Good salespeople remember that they are born with two ears and one mouth. This reminds them that they should be doing twice as much listening as talking. If you want to lose the sale, make a pitch to the customer.

Some salespeople can be painful bores. Woody Allen lamented: “There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?”

Salespeople must get used to being rejected. Dennis Tamcsin of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance observed: “We have something in this industry called the 10-3-1 ratio. This means that for every 10 calls a salesperson makes, he will only get to make a presentation to three, and if he’s got a good success rate, he’ll make one sale. We need people who won’t shrink from that kind of rejection.”

IBM trains its salespeople to act as if they are always on the verge of losing every customer.

What makes a successful salesperson? To succeed, a salesperson must recognize that the first person he or she has to sell to is himself or herself. His job is to get in touch with the buyer within himself. And his motto should be: “I develop clients, not sales.”

The comedian George Burns had his own opinion about what makes a successful salesperson: “The most important thing in relationship selling is honesty and integrity. If you can fake them, you’ve got it made.”

Here is a story that illustrates the difference between great salespeople and average salespeople.

A Hong Kong shoe manufacturer wondered whether a market existed for his shoes on a remote South Pacific island. He sent an order taker to the island who, upon a cursory examination, wired back: “The people here do not wear shoes. There is no market.” Not convinced, the Hong Kong manufacturer sent a salesperson to the island. This salesperson wired back: “The people here don’t wear shoes. There is a tremendous market.” Afraid that this salesrep was being carried away by the sight of so many shoeless feet, the manufacturer sent a third person, a marketer. This marketing professional interviewed the tribal chief and several natives and wired back:

“The people here don’t wear shoes. As a result their feet are sore and bruised. I have shown the chief how shoes would help his people avoid foot problems. He is enthusiastic. He estimates the 70 percent of his people will buy the shoes at $10 a pair. We probably can sell 5,000 pairs of shoes in the first year. Our cost of bringing the shoes to the island and setting up distribution would amount to $6 a pair. We will clear $20,000 in the first year, which, given our investment, will give us a rate of return on our investment (ROI) of 20 percent, which exceeds our normal ROI of 15 percent. This is not to mention the high value of our future earnings by entering this market. I recommend that we go ahead.”

This illustrates that effective marketing involves careful research into the market opportunity and the preparation of financial estimates based on the proposed strategy indicating whether the returns would meet or exceed the company’s financial objectives.

In the past, a gifted salesperson was one who could “communicate value.” But as products have become more similar, each competitive salesperson delivers essentially the same message. So the new need is for the salesperson who can “create value” by helping the customer make or save more money.

Salespeople must move from persuading to consulting. This can take the form of providing technical help, solving a difficult problem for the customer, or even helping the customer change its whole way of doing business.

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