Another great question from Seth Godin—if you weren't looking for anything in return from a friend, customer, or prospect, What's the most generous thing you could do? I'd probably build them a Squidoo lens.
I'm indebted to Godin for writing a lot of stuff that's improved my thinking, and more recently for linking to my SquidWho lens about Pema Chodron. A friendly howdy to those of you finding your way here by that path.
I meet so many businesspeople who have great ideas, strong execution, and a great passion for delivering value to their customers. The missing ingredient is sales. They hate selling or they're terrible at it—or, most typically, both.
Yes, you can outsource selling—but usually you have to be good at it first. You have to unlock the messages that will persuade prospects to buy, and you'll have to "sell" your salespeople before they can sell anyone else.
The Internet at first seemed like it would solve all of these problems, until you realize how many sites and services hate marketing content and mark any commercial activity as spam. Despite this, sales messages proliferate online—to the extent that we can hardly type a few keystrokes without something coming up in our browser or email inbox to sell us something. And the least ethical marketers are the most aggressive, so what gets through our filters are ads for counterfeit pharmaceuticals, get-rich-quick scams, and invitations to porn sites that would make Howard Stern blush.
Do you have to be a natural salesperson to run a business?
It certainly doesn't hurt to be a "natural" salesperson, but it's not necessary. Selling is a skill like any other, and you can learn to take your enthusiasm and excitement about your business and translate that to prospects, which is at the heart of salesmanship.
Wednesday is the day I set aside to blog about something I love (no one wants to read cranky rants every day, right?), and today I'm going to share my love of Jeffrey Gitomer and other sales teachers who base their methods on providing value. Gitomer is probably the best-known proponent of a genuinely new approach to selling—one that provides value before expecting to receive, that nurtures relationships and loyalty, and that tosses out all those cheesy sales techniques that make us all cringe.
The language of professional sales has always been that of a predator. Shark. Barracuda. Wolf. "You don't kill, you don't eat." Think Glengarry, Glen Ross.
The new selling methodologies reject this metaphor of predator and prey. They hold that without a win-win situation, you'll never create any organic growth, because you don't earn repeat or referral business. Everyone knows a shark has to continuously move or it dies.
My metaphor for the new selling methods is the friendly little clownfish. (Like Nemo.) Clownfish make friends with sea anemones, who nobody else likes because they're poisonous. Because of this relationship, they get benefits—protection from predators (despite what happened to Nemo's mom) and some beneficial food relationships. (They also eat anemone excrement and the males sometimes change sex. I make no such implications about salespeople.)
These new methodogies are vital in a low-trust, high-spam world. Cold calling and obnoxious closing techniques are even less effective than they ever were. The new techniques are also a lot more enjoyable. Steak knives optional, no self-loathing required.
Good resources for the reluctant salesperson
These have particularly impressed me. If you have a favorite not mentioned here, or experience with one of these, please leave a comment and let us know about it!
Jeffrey Gitomer, The Sales Bible, Little Red Book of Sales Answers, and his Sales Caffeine newsletter, available from gitomer.com. Gitomer offers one of the most valuable e-newsletters I've seen—I really do look forward to getting it every Tuesday morning. In print, his Sales Bible in particular gives a solid, workable methodology for selling even if you've always sucked at it. (As I have.)
Michael Port, Book Yourself Solid. Port provides a true step-by-step program aimed directly at the individual businessperson. His gentle, thoughtful book includes a variety of strategies including Web methods, holding meetings, direct mail and other ways to bring more (and better) customers to your business.
Miller and Heiman, The New Conceptual Selling. This is more technical, but if you're a professional salesperson or need to make complex sales presentations to support your business, you simply must buy this book. This breaks the sales process down to the smallest detail. Port's book is geared more toward casual conversations that you might have at a dinner party or networking event; Conceptual Selling will help you with a beginning-to-end process for formal presentations and complex sales cycles.
I have a love-hate relationship with Levenger. Whoever writes their catalog copy has some kind of secret window into my psyche. Who else knows how much I want 3x5 cards that won't feather when I write on them with a fountain pen? Who else would dare dream I would pay $8 for a pad of paper? Or that I have a deep-seated passion for grass green fountain pen ink?
The Levenger catalog is one of my many guilty pleasures, on a par with ABBA and the Supernanny. Dreaming about owning Levenger's products is such a pleasure. If only actually placing an order was as enjoyable.
Do not love
Over the years I've had different issues with Levenger. I bought a few fountain pens from them, none of which worked very well. (They've since quit carrying any pens other than their own.) For a couple of years they were constitutionally incapable of keeping my customer data in their shopping cart system—I think that one has been worked out. Just this week I was ready to order something—only to find that it's significantly more expensive on the Web site than it is in the catalog. But my longtime favorite is their shipping and handling.
We'll start with the fact that I'm always slightly appalled by what I'm paying for shipping, especially if I've ordered an item that isn't physically large. I'm willing to pay 5-10 times what a keychain should cost—don't penalize me further by charging me $15 to ship it to me.
But I would forget about the pain of their expensive shipping in two seconds if they got the rest of it right.
If you're in the mail order business, the bar has been set very high. Companies like Amazon and Lands' End ship immediately. If there's something that will prevent them from shipping the next business day, they let you know before you place your order.
That standard of service is just a fact, and it's been a fact for at least ten years. If you run a mail order company, you don't have a lot of room to redefine that expectation.
Levenger, on the other hand, has rather old-fashioned ideas about preparing items to ship. Three or four or five days, whatever. Let's call it a week-ish. Even if you pay for overnight shipping.
Folks, if I'm paying you double or triple shipping charges for overnight shipping, the expectation is that you're going to, you know, step on it.
No one cares that what you do is hard.
Is it really hard to ship the next day? I'm sure it is. And if you're a tiny family-run organization like Dharma Trading Company, you could probably get away with shipping in a couple of days.
Except, guess what, Dharma routinely ships the same day if you order before 10:30 their time. Next day otherwise. When you're a multimillion dollar mail order company with a well-established brand and you can't execute as well as a busy mom-n-pop shop that sells tie-dye supplies, you have a problem.
Also, Levenger uses FedEx Ground. Now I love FedEx Air without reservation. They do a complex job unbelievably well. But FedEx Ground is approximately one million times less good than FedEx Air. It's also one million times less good than USPS Priority Mail, which, frankly, is hard to beat.
FedEx aggressively pursues business by granting highly competitive rates for bulk commitments. I get that, but I don't really care. A premium product needs to deliver their desirable little pleasures to their customers in the best way possible, not the cheapest way. (All the more so when they're charging a fortune for it.)
The love part
Here's what's interesting. I still buy from Levenger. (Although I try to hold my purchases until I'm in a city where they have a retail presence. When you sell things people don't need, they can wait a long time for them.) There's something their story I love. The idea that my words flow so much more smoothly in a lab notebook with a red leather cover. The appreciative looks I get when I lend out my one rollerball—a TrueWriter Kyoto—which is beautiful and hefty and feels expensive. The sexy little blank card holders (in several iterations—one's integrated with a wallet, another with a keychain, etc.) so I can always write myself a note on really swanky paper.
But how much more would I buy if I didn't get an angry sinking feeling every time I added something to their shopping cart? (And because I expect problems, I always get them. Always. That's part of how stories work—we see what we think we're going to see.)
Your story is made of more than words
Are these nitpicks? Yes. The quality of Levenger's products is mostly good. But the story they tell with their actions, the emotional quality that arises when customers order from them, isn't good. An individual problem may be small, but systematic and repeated problems like this communicate a lack of respect for your customer.
Just like in your relationships with individual human beings, what you do always carries more weight than what you say. If your behavior is consistent and positive, people begin to trust you (and will forgive the occasional lapse). If your behavior is inconsistent or disrespectful (or both), customers will start to associate you with that bad taste you leave in their mouth.
It's brutally simple. If you make people feel bad, they will avoid you.
On the other hand, I guess I should love Levenger's approach. Over the years, my anticipation of frustration and annoyance has saved me a hell of a lot of money.
This is a good example of linkbait—101 ways to get more traffic. Don't you want to click through right this instant and start getting some useful ideas?
My favorites are #20 ("do not be boring"), #89 ("break a record or shoot to be in the Guinness world records for something"), and #84 because a profanity filter put asterisks in the word arsenal.
There's a nearly universal fallacy among human beings—what Freud called the "illusion of central position." We assume that our own individual set of stories, preconceptions, experiences, loves, hates, and all our other human characteristics fall right in the middle of the human experience. We are the perfect center of the bell curve.
For example, many (most?) American women perceive women bigger than they are as fat (or "big," or whatever euphemism you might like), and women smaller than they are as anorexic, scrawny, or just plain hateful. Women the same size are "medium." I've seen this hundreds of time, and it never seems to matter how much the woman in question weighs, or how that might correlate to national or international averages.
Whatever the trait in question, we all think we're medium. We define ourselves as the norm. This creates a lot of problems for us as human beings (racism, war, genocide, etc.). On a very mundane level, it creates a giant problem when we're trying to create a genuine sense of connection with customers.
This delusion is so ingrained that it's almost impossible to see how wrong it is. It seems to be deeply embedded in our DNA. I have no doubt that the earliest humans saw the world in terms of "normal people paint our chins blue and eat bak berries. Those evil crazy people paint their foreheads red and eat zor shoots."
All suffering is the suffering of mothers
When I had a child, I suddenly saw everything in the world in terms of mothers and children. Bad news began to hit me with terrible strength, especially bad news that affected children. A 10-month old baby in Lebanon was killed in a bomb attack, and I had to pull the car over because I couldn't stop crying.
I mentally translated all of this to the suffering not of children and babies (although I still find that reality completely intolerable), but the suffering of their mothers. When I think of that 10-month-old baby, the image that won't leave me is that of her parents left behind to grieve. I can so vividly picture them putting all the thought and worry and work that goes into feeding and nurturing a baby, only to have her taken away in a few seconds by a bomb.
This idea remains so ingrained in me that if I hear a news story about, say, a car crash that kills both a mother and her child, I don't feel as bad. "Well, at least the mother wasn't left behind," I think.
Some people (probably mostly parents) might read that and nod, thinking, "Uh huh, I can see that." Others will read it and think, "this woman is a narcissistic whack job." The latter are the ones who are right.
We're all narcissistic whack jobs. You're as crazy as I am, just about different stuff. It's a wonder we've managed to get this far, given that we're walking through the world with dangerous blinders that block 98% of what's actually around us.
Uh, does this have anything to do with my business?
It does, it does, be patient.
First, this is exactly why you have to test your marketing communication. We all think that we're our customer. We think that our customers like the same kinds of sandwiches we do ("turkey? ewwww!"), have the same favorite color, and share our passionate hatred of the word "verbiage."
Remember the benefits, not features definition lens I put up last week? Same idea. You have to pry yourself out of your own head and try to wedge yourself into someone else's. The reason so many companies get it wrong is that it's incredibly hard. But testing helps by creating a more objective frame of reference, a frame that lives outside the dimensions of your own individual biases.
It's perfectly fine to try campaigns based on a customer just like you. They may well work. Sometimes entrepreneurs get lucky and find solid markets that share their traits and preferences.
But it might not work, so get some other things ready. Test a few ideas that seem slightly wrong or crazy or uncomfortable, even if your way seems to be working perfectly. If you test ideas against each other, you nudge yourself a few millimeters out of your own central position and start letting a few glints of other ideas in. That will always make you stronger.
Words much smarter than mine
This is my favorite quote from my favorite famous person, an unassuming, funny Buddhist nun named Pema Chodron. One thing I love about her is that she completely gets the craziness of the illusion of central position. Not in a "you poor unenlightened being, to suffer under this delusion" way. but in a "this one kicks my ass daily and I try to have a sense of humor about it" way.
I try to read this quote a few times a week, and I do what I can to live by it. You might try it, too. It will show you some surprising and worthwhile things.
You could also begin to notice whenever you find yourself blaming others or justifying yourself. If you spent the rest of your life just noticing that and letting it be a way to uncover the silliness of the human condition—the tragic yet comic drama that we all continually buy into—you could develop a lot of wisdom and a lot of kindness as well as a great sense of humor.
(Disclosure: As is often the case on blogs, if you click on that link and buy the book, I make a couple of cents. But I don't care at all about the couple of cents—check the book out of the library or find it at your local bookstore. I think you'll get a lot out of it, whether you're interested in Buddhism or not.)
These are addictive. Stories told in a single sentence.
My favorite so far is:
The next morning she told me she was married, and I told her that I was in her geography class 8 years ago.
Two lessons in this. One, brevity is beautiful. Two, I found it using StumbleUpon, my new favorite thing on the Internet. It's old hat to the blognoscenti, but perhaps it's new to you.
Create a StumbleUpon account, use the handy toolbar widget to tell it what you like, and it will propose new things to you that you would never have found on your own. It's channel surfing, if your television was making educated guesses about what you might like.
You can "stumble" your own stuff for other people to find, too, but make it worthy stuff. There's no sense in sending a message in a bottle if the message isn't worth reading.
The always excellent Copyblogger posted an interesting meditation on who would miss your blog if it wasn't there.
Writer Ryan Imel goes on to expand that question to four sound pieces of advice, not just about your blog but about anything you put out into the world, personal or professional.
"If you follow these principles (notice, not steps—there is no proven formula; relationships don’t have those) you will be sure to see some results."
I especially like that last point. Rather than following a formula, you're creating a conversation. It has give and take, it communicates respect, and it offers value.
I originally called this "It's the benefits, stupid," but this morning it occurred to me that a campaign slogan from the 1992 presidential campaign now officially qualifies as ancient history. Dang, I'm old.
I don't think anyone, anywhere has combined Leonard Cohen, the iPod, and cleft palate surgery in one piece of writing before.
New definition at Sonia's marketing dictionary: benefits, not features.