Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How I Finally Learned Sales

Selling things was something I long considered inferior to my intelligence, just as I figured I was too creative to really learn computer skills. But being of prime working age in the 21st century, those are both skills that come in handy again and again and again.

I have held many customer service positions--waitress, barista, waitress again, and finally vitamin-seller right now at a health food store. I have interacted with thousands of customers over the years, and right after college I found my lack of a powerful job rather depressing. A customer would ask me what my favorite side dish was at the restaurant where I worked, and I'd look at them with a blase expression and think, "Why has this person who has so much money chosen to put together that clothing combination?" or "Don't they know I'm a brilliant artist?" or "Has this person ever even seen a Woody Allen movie?" You can see this attitude time and time again when you walk into a Barnes & Noble or Borders--ask a salesperson for the latest bestseller and watch him raise his eyebrows--after all, he has a master's degree in creative writing and you don't.

So on the one hand you have unwilling salespeople who would rather be painting, or discussing politics, or drinking, or a combination of all three, and on the other hand you have the idea of the aggressive, fight-to-the-death salesperson. When we think of sales, we think of movies like Glengarry Glen Ross, where a group of men must play a desperate all-night game of lying and manipulation to make their sales quotas. We also think of door-to-door religious converters, and kids on the street holding clipboards who block your path by saying, "Do you have a minute for the environment?"

But this is a terrible business practice that only exists because aggressive, manipulative selling proves profitable among certain businesses. More credible businesses usually don't use these practices. I think about another sales job I had where I was a telemarketer for a few weeks. Our company was being contracted out by an obscure auto insurance company to find leads over the telephone. We had a script that we could not deviate from, that asked questions like, "How many cars do you have at your home?" The script never asked any yes or no questions like, "would you be interested in finding out about lower rates?" because the running wisdom was that yes or no questions allowed people to say "no" and hang up. Our bait was that we might be able to "save them money" over their current plan, but any American who pays attention to television would already know that they could compare rates on, and find the best deals there. Or, they might also know that Geico has really cheap insurance.

And there you have it--the most successful businesses in the U.S. never need to resort to manipulative selling practices, because they already have a great product. McDonald's can give you a hamburger in 60 seconds. Starbuck's gives you a strong cup of coffee that tastes the same each time. Geico gives you an online insurance quote and never has a salesperson call you. You would never find representatives from any of these companies stopping you in the street to buy their product. This is because they are at or near the top of their market. And if a company is resorting to aggressive selling practices, it probably has an inferior product.

But back to my experience as a salesperson--when I finally decided at my current job to pay attention to sales, I thought I would have to be like one of these manipulative guys in Glengarry Glen Ross. I thought I'd be trying to sell people the most expensive vitamins, and hypnotizing them into buying more than one product. But I soon found that people have a mind of their own, and will buy what they want to buy. And the more I worked there, the more I realized--the big secret of selling is liking and respecting people. That's it. So simple. No math involved, no analyzing of how much money I think this person makes.

It starts with a really simple thought, which I pulled from contemporary spiritual practices (but works for capitalism, ha), which works with any person in your life, regardless of whether or not you are selling something to them. The thought is, "I am talking to myself." If you understand the person you are talking to to be yourself, you will immediately be more concerned for them and more aware of their intelligence. Whenever I think this, I usually get an intuitive feeling of what they're doing in the store, it could be "I have a cold and I want to get out of here as fast as possible, just give me something," it could be "my girlfriend's all into natural products and wants me to stop taking antibiotics, but I think natural products are for hippies," or it could be "I have an hour to spend here and I want to find the perfect lipstick, because I've had a bad day." Selling things is not hard in Beverly Hills, but there are customers who want to spend $200 on vitamins and customers who want to spend $8. There are customers who don't want to spend money that day at all. And on a good day, provided that I'm not stressed out about my own life, I can help them all. Sometimes it's not about selling anything at all, but developing a relationship of trust with the customer. For example, sometimes I'll show a customer a couple of products, and they seem sort of doubtful, in which case I excuse myself to give her the privacy to decide for herself whether she wants those products or not. It's a real pity we don't work on commission.

But it's funny to me that being a successful salesperson is a simple matter of liking the people you interact with. That wisdom probably comes from the same place as, "do what you love, and the money will follow."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree. Something we all need to practice more. It's hard at first, but gets easier. Thanks for the reminder.