December 13, 2007

Selling stuff

Before I moved to Nags Head I worked in record and stereo stores as a salesman and later as a store manager. I didn't get much training in sales but over time I developed 3 principals of successful selling that I tried to pass on to my co-workers:
  • Know your product
  • Be enthusiastic
  • Give the customer what they are looking for
These might seem simple, even obvious but I have found over the years that the large majority of people working in retail don't do any of these things much less all of them. What is even more fascinating is how these principals are reflected in my experience in town government and now in the non-profit arena.
It's interesting how they translate in new situations. "Know your product" translates to credibility. When you can explain honestly what products do and how they work customers learn to trust your judgment. They come back because they know they will get accurate and useful information.
"Be enthusiastic" sounds trite but it is extremely important. People respond to passion, to emotion. They may ask about how many watts an amp is but what they want to hear is that "IT ROCKS". Likewise if you can't convey passion about a cause you probably won' get people to embrace it, no matter how noble.
The last principal is probably the most universal. A long time ago a very pretentious individual challenged me to explain the difference between the philosophies of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Rather than pontificate on dialectic materialism and the role of capital in building wealth I decided to simplify the concept. Adam Smith believed people were greedy and Karl Marx didn't. Marx says people will work for the greater good, Adam Smith says people look out for themselves. In the end that's the fundamental difference. Time, world politics, and my experience says that Smith was right. People only act in their own self interest. If you meet that self interest they will buy and come back. If you don't give them what they want they either won't buy or they won't buy again. The only way to be successful in life is to give people what they want.
This may seem like a really obvious thing but when was the last time you heard someone say "What I want you to do is..." or "I need you to do this for me" That simple statement and even simpler motivation predominates many relationships. What's sad is that with one more step people could increase their odds of success. When we approach people and explain how they will benefit from an their action we are much more likely to get their coopersation.
One place the place to see this is in local government. people tell town officials what they want the board to do and how they will benefit. "Pave my street" Let me build a day care" The board however generally make decisions that advance the specific values of the board. Some boards members value safety or the environment or low taxes. If you explain how your request fits into their values they are much more apt to grant their request. Want your street paved explain how acting now will save money in the future, want a zoning change explain how the tax base will grow or how it will help make the community safer or greener or better, anything except what it will do for you. This approach requires that you spend some time figuring out what the board values and prioritizes but thats not hard. Read the paper or go to couple of meetings or just talk them and ask what's important, then demonstrate how your request fulfills their wants. You will be successful.
This point was recently reinforced at an excellent class I attended. Dave Rendell, a professor from Mt. Olive College, spend the day helping seven seekers understand how to build support for non profit organizations. I won't try to summarize the entire 6 hours but the key element for me was to be reminded that when I talk to people about supporting The Eure Outer Banks Arts Center I need to make sure I know how they will benefit from their support. If this sounds a bit mercenary let me assure you its not. People support lots of good causes and they do it for a lot of reasons but all those reasons end with the donor feeling good. Some people give because they want to help, some people give because they get a sense of involvement and contact with others, some people give to get recognition and to demonstrate their success. Good fundraisers (and successful people in all walks of life) take time to learn what people want then they provide it and take the money or the volunteer time or both. What's more they aren't embarassed or guilty about it at all because they know that they gave as good as they got. They also know that if they did it right they will be able to go back to the supporter and do it again because people like to feel good and if you make them feel good they will come back for more.
If this all sounds unethical and manipulative it isn't. My old tips on selling, my experience as an elected official and Dave Rendell's concepts in class all are based on core elements of human behavior. Knowing the concepts and implementing them in your daily life isn't unethical its just smart. What's unethical is not being credible and leading people to do things that benefits you and not them.
The next time you want someone to do something take a minute to explain what they wil get out of it then see how they react. You might be surprised how quickly this type of analysis yeilds benefits.


PS. Dave Rendell is a fascinating fellow. He is an expert in social enterprise which involves commercial transactions for community improvement (think fair market coffee). He also as some interesting ideas about self development. He calls it the Freak Factor:
What's your problem? I'm serious. What is your problem? What do you wish you could change about yourself? What is the complaint that you hear the most from those closest to you, your friends, co-workers, and family members? Are you too loud, too hyper, too organized, not organized enough? You get the idea.
So, what should you do? Most people think that they should find and fix their weaknesses. Unfortunately, this just leads to frustration and failure. Your weaknesses are actually the best clue to your strengths. Furthermore, building your strengths, not fixing your weaknesses, is your best strategy for success.

The Freak Factor is designed to encourage you to become more of who you are, not to turn you into someone else. It's about becoming more different, more unique, not more average and more mediocre.
Read his blog if you want more. I've gotten a lot of benefit from his teachings already. I'll be back for more.

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