The “Right Way” Entrepreneur

I have written before about the sales mindset. But I would like to expand on this subject with some additional thoughts. Entrepreneurs are always selling whether it is raising money, peddling a product, or convincing a new team member to come on board. We have all heard the adage, “he could sell ice to an Eskimo.” This conjures up an image of a slick, fast-talking huckster who cons his “marks” into purchasing something they really do not need. Obviously, this is the antithesis of how we want to be perceived as entrepreneurs.

I am trying to expunge the terminology of “selling” from my vocabulary. Why? In my opinion the traditional notion of selling is product-based. In other words, I have a product and I am going to do everything I can to convince you to buy it. What goes unsaid here is, “I’m going to do everything I can to convince you to buy it whether you want it or not.” Maybe this is just my personal bias, but I have observed others over the years that act in similar fashion when they get into the sales mode. Instead of “selling to” I’ve moved into a “buying from” mindset. I submit the following:

  • When we sell something to someone else, we’re product-focused.
  • When we help someone buy something, we’re customer-focused.

The difference in these two approaches is night and day. When we help someone buy, the product takes a back seat. We are more interested in building a relationship and creating trust with someone else. We are more interested in understanding exactly what they need. Through this discovery process we may find that our product is not best suited for this individual. But that is OK because we are helping them buy what they need – not what we want them to have. You may be thinking, “This flies in the face of so many of the selling techniques that are time-tested and proven.” And you may be right. But I am willing to wager that an entrepreneur who genuinely wants to help people buy what they need is going to win far more often than a salesman who just wants to move product. When relationships take precedence, they can produce unanticipated results. I have experienced numerous instances where I determined that what we were helping a customer buy was not right for him or her. But it was clear that the relationship was more important than the sale. And ultimately, we received referrals from those customers that did result in someone else buying from us.

When we absolutely must make the sale, we are less likely to focus on the customer. We are desperate to close the deal. One of my colleagues told me about an encounter she had with an individual who had called her to set up an introductory meeting. From the outset he was selling. He made no effort to learn more about her and establish a rapport – much less build a relationship. He made no effort to understand what she needed to purchase. He simply launched into his pitch and barely took a breath. By the end she was worn out listening to him and told me how off-putting the whole encounter had been.

There are some very simple rules that we can follow to ensure that we avoid the “selling to” approach.

  1. Always start the process by asking questions of the customer. This will help to establish a rapport and to determine his or her needs.
  2. Eliminate the terms “sales” and “selling” from our vocabulary.
  3. Genuinely care about the customer and find a way to meet his/her needs even if it involves a product that is not our own.
  4. Make certain that it is clear to the customer that it is his/her best interest that we have at heart and not our own.
  5. Remember the only way to develop long-term satisfied customers is to help them buy what they need. And the endorsement of long-term satisfied customers is worth its weight in gold.

When we always focus on the customer, we win. Sometimes this requires us to look past an immediate transaction. But it will always pay big dividends in the end.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Cold Calling Entrepreneur

My cell phone rang the other day. The person on the other end started by introducing himself but did not speak clearly so I couldn’t catch his name. He immediately launched with a hearty, “Mr. Harris, how are you doing today?” This sort of greeting is always a warning signal for me that someone is going to try and sell something. Being a polite person, I responded by saying that I was fine. Before I could say anything else, he began reading from his script. He was peddling the most amazing product since the invention of the light bulb and it was going to save me millions of dollars . . . or something like that. This guy literally filibustered for more than 30 seconds without taking a breath. He obviously had a lot of practice doing this.

Does this sort of old school cold calling really work? Perhaps it does to a point, but I question whether it is the most effective approach. Let’s examine all the ways I found this conversation to be off-putting. #1 – Failure to speak clearly – the fact that he spoke so fast that I couldn’t understand his name was certainly not the right way to get started. #2 – Cliché greeting – asking how I was doing is incredibly trite and inauthentic. #3 – No need-determination – this was at the heart of his ineffective approach. He arrogantly assumed that I needed his product or service and made no attempt to validate this assumption. #4 – Reading from a script – I had no confidence that he understood what he was supposed to be selling. After listening to him tout his product for a while I finally interrupted him and said, “I’m not interested, thank you.” And then I hung up. I wonder how many times this happens to him every day.

This type of cold calling utilizes a classic high-pressure technique and I’m surprised that in today’s business world there are still companies (and salespeople) who use it. Cold calling can be a thankless task yielding poor results except for a high degree of discouragement. Cold calling should be less about the product or service we are selling and more about building and collecting relationships that we can serve. The problem is that many companies still expect salespeople to meet quotas and apply extreme pressure to sell, sell and sell. The alternative (and much more effective) approach is to call without making any attempt whatsoever to sell anything. Instead the call is to introduce one’s self and build a rapport with the customer. This process includes attempting to understand how the customer does business and to identify his points of pain.

I would begin a call like this by indicating that I’m not calling to sell anything. This statement is usually somewhat disarming and increases the chance for a customer to stay on the phone. Instead, I’m doing some research to learn more about how customers are dealing with a certain issue. If my product is inventory management software, I’m going to ask open-ended questions that get the customer to talk about what problems he might be experiencing with his current inventory management system. And I’m going to carefully listen to his responses and ask pertinent follow-up questions based upon what he has told me. I will not read from a script. Once I have a greater understanding about my prospective customer and his needs, I’m going to thank him for his time and hang up.

I’ll follow-up with a handwritten note expressing appreciation to the customer for his time. Very few people write notes anymore. I won’t send it by e-mail because I won’t stand out as much. I may wait several days and send him something relating to the conversation we had – perhaps it’s an article that is applicable to his situation. But I’m still not selling him anything. Instead, I’m working to build a relationship. By the time I call him again, he knows who I am. And there’s a reasonable chance that I’ve differentiated myself from the high-pressure cold callers he hears from every day. When I finally call him days or even weeks later to help him buy my product, it’s now a warm call.

Effective selling isn’t about the product we’re pushing. It’s all about the customer and his or her needs. And while this premise seems so basic, it’s not practiced extensively. Thus, when we take the personal approach rather than the product approach, we have a real opportunity to stand out from our competition.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Just Say It

There are very few things in life that I truly hate. We optimistic entrepreneurs are upbeat and resilient. But there is this one thing. Let me set the scene and see if you share the same disdain as do I. You reach out to a prospective customer and are able to actually snag a meeting. Arriving early, you are well prepared and have done considerable research on this person and his company. No question will go unanswered and every key point will be covered. The meeting seems to go well and you get positive though non-committal feedback from the prospective customer. As you wrap up you hear those 11 dreaded words . . . “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”

Naturally you are polite when you are told this, but you leave indicating that you’ll check back in a week – the customer smiles and nods. Of course you send a nice thank you note, and a week later you are in follow-up mode. You call and leave a voicemail message. You e-mail and re-state your interest in working with this individual. There is no response. Another week goes by with another voicemail and e-mail. The third week you actually reach the customer when you call and he tells you how slammed he’s been; asks a question, and says he’s still thinking about it. But there’s hope isn’t there? He asked a question – that seems to be a sign that he’s interested.

You know the rest of the story. After an interminable period of time you somehow learn that he actually committed to buy the product from a competitor – weeks ago. This is a locker-kicking, punching-the-wall moment of frustration. The age-old question spews from your lips, “Why couldn’t he just say NO?!”

Whether or not we’re entrepreneurs, we’re always going to find ourselves in situations where we need someone to say yes or no. It doesn’t seem like these answers should be hard to provide. And yet there apparently is a great deal of indecision in the world today because getting to yes or no is a great struggle for some. Why? What’s the point of the “string-along?” Often it may be that a person is concerned about hurting someone else’s feelings by saying no. It’s true that a person may need to consider his or her options and truly contemplate before providing an answer. But that’s no reason for not responding to phone calls and e-mails.

Having dealt with this issue for many years, I’ve resolved not to treat others in similar fashion. When I’m called for a meeting I will try to quickly determine if I have an interest in what the other person is offering – now or ever. If I’m not interested – ever – I’ll tell the other person and refuse the meeting. It’s a quick “no.” If I’m not interested now but might be in the future, I’ll say this, “I can tell you that I’m not interested right now. However, I’m happy to take the meeting because I want to learn more about you and your product for future reference. It certainly helps to build a relationship.” The other person knows exactly where I stand and can decide herself if she still wants to schedule the meeting. If I go through with the meeting and don’t want what is being offered I will say “no” on the spot. If I truly need time to contemplate, I’ll tell the other person that I need to do so and will provide a firm date for follow-up.

Here’s one more thing about a “no” answer. Many of us learned that when we’re told no, it’s simply a plea to be “sold” some more. I think this is still true but with a twist. If I say no – never, that’s probably what I mean. But if I say no – not right now, that could very well mean that I’m a “yes” in the future. There’s no harm in building relationships and keeping our name in front of someone with whom we want to do business. Being in the right place at the right time is a real art. Through relationships the odds of being in this position are vastly improved.

We’d much rather hear a quick no than be strung along through indecision or sensitivity for our feelings. Giving no as an answer allows the other person to move into a longer term relationship-building mode, and enables him or her to pursue other prospects without wasting time.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Audio Episode 47 – Trained Monkeys.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Buy or Sell?

Question: I see people use essentially the same sales techniques, but some are successful and some are not. How can this be?

Answer: There are so many books about selling that it would be impossible to read all of them in a lifetime. And there are so many different techniques that it makes our heads spin. So what does it all boil down to? I can simplify it fairly easily. A successful salesperson does not sell anything. Nothing at all. Nada. Instead, he or she helps a customer buy something.

The distinction between buying and selling is huge. And it can be the difference between success or failure. Let’s examine what all this means. Old-school salespeople do the schmooze with the customer. They use techniques such as asking questions that get the customer to answer with the word “yes.” They attempt to close at least seven times with different methods. They try and create a sense of urgency – i.e. the price is going to increase tomorrow, or there is only one left. I’m not quarreling with the fact that these methods may have worked in the past. But people are more sophisticated in today’s world and they don’t respond to manipulation as they may have in an earlier era.

Rather than selling to someone, I submit that helping someone buy can be as effective as old-school salesmanship – maybe even more so. This starts from a premise of respect in that we want to help meet the needs of a customer – notice the mindset is accentuated by the words “respect” and “help.” Understanding the needs of a customer means asking a lot of questions; usually many more than a customer is typically asked. In the process, there is an opportunity to build a relationship with the customer. Working with someone on a relationship basis is part of the “help” to which I’ve referred. Think about this for a moment. Are you more or less inclined to buy from someone who has genuinely tried to understand your needs and at the same time you are both able to get to know each other better?

Of course you need to be completely knowledgeable about your product or service in order to answer the questions raised by the customer. And you’ll certainly want to demonstrate the features and how they translate into benefits. But I think the sale is won or lost in the first few seconds of the encounter based upon how well you connect with the customer. Will this happen with manipulation and pressure? Or is the connection made through the process of thoroughly understanding needs and building relationships?

To be successful at sales simply practice the Golden Rule. In all likelihood, helping someone buy is the way you would want it to be when you are the customer.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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