What makes a great salesman?

Spiralslicer

Photo by The Life of Bryan

One of the things I really suck at is selling. Part of it is growing up in Britain with the belief it's about tricking people into buying things they don't need. Being a professional engineer didn't help either. Most programmers are simply baffled that customers don't simply get that their product is better. Why do they need some highly-paid guy in a suit to get involved?

As I got older, I realized that every job is a sales job. To get anything done, you need to persuade a whole bunch of internal and external people to help. Now I'm running a startup, and that's all about selling the idea to everyone I need to deal with; investors, business partners, employees and customers.

I've looked around for role models. My favorite so far is an infomercial host called Ron Popeil. I can imagine my British friends cringing because he's almost a caricature, but this profile by Malcolm Gladwell opened my mind to both how much dedication he has, and how effective he's been. So, what are his secrets?

Feedback and measurement

He's from a family with a long tradition of selling on street corners. At the end of an afternoon, they'd know exactly how much they'd brought in. That gave them a guide they could use to figure out what worked and what didn't. The infomercials followed the same principles, with real-time graphs showing how many people were calling and ordering.

This might sound obvious, but as Dim Bulb repeatedly demonstrates, most TV advertising is driven by the intangible idea of brand, with no idea what's actually working or failing. It's like the difference between the Greek philosophers building elaborate theories on how the universe works, and experimental science that's able to test ideas.

I've become a fanatic on trying to measure everything I can about my communications, keeping track of who I've talked to and when, measuring which pages and posts get visitors, using online ad experiments to gather survey data. Without that foundation, I'll never be able to improve.

Involvement in design

Ron actually built and designed his products in his kitchen. The goal was to create something that would sell itself. Too often, there's a distance between sales teams and the people who build the products. They might have some voice in the planning stages, but they're shut out during the implementation and expected to take whatever the result is and sell it.

Since I keep swapping hats between selling and building, you'd think I wouldn't have this problem. It's funny though, I often get caught up in the geeky coolness of the technology, and lose sight of what people are willing to pay for. The lesson I took from Ron's example here was to keep asking myself what problem every feature I'm working on is actually solving.

Product focus

In the infomercials, the camera quickly focuses on the gadget, and stays there. It's not about the personality of the salesman, it's all about what the device can do. There's an anecdote in Gladwell's story about a showdown between a few salesmen at a trade show. Frosty Wilson was charming and persuasive, everything you'd imagine a great salesman should be, but Ron and his partner both sold twice as much by making the product the star.

In my job, I've learnt it's best to cut to the demo as quickly as possible, and then let people try the prototype themselves. Nobody wants to sit and listen to a lecture, it's much more compelling to see what it can do rather than be told.

Fervent belief

Ron really, truly believed that the products he was selling would make his customers lives better. He sounds like Steve Jobs when he's hammering away at the smallest details of every design, making sure that everyone gets an experience they'll be delighted with. It's not just about getting their money, it's his purpose.

Luckily I am insanely convinced that what I'm building will change the way we work. I've found I'm most effective when I can just informally rant about all the amazing possibilities rather than sticking to a script.

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