The Back Pocket Conglomerate

How often have you experienced a great service or product, and then raved about it to people you know? If you’re like most people, plenty, I bet. And if the person you’ve told about this great experience then purchases the same product or service you did, then the business in question gets their due reward.

But do you get yours?

Hardly ever, I bet. But you should, because you just became an ‘ipso facto’ salesperson for the business you just recommended.

We’ve all done it. At the time it seems like we’re just tipping off people we know about a good business they should buy from, thus doing both parties a justified favor. Your friend deserves a good recommendation, and the business in question deserves referral business. But you can do both that friend and that business a lot better by negotiating with every good business you come across- you can request a discount for any friends you introduce AND a referral commission for yourself.

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You’re going around ‘selling’ anyway, aren’t you? So why not make it count?

When I mention ‘selling’ to some people (you?), they pull a face as if I’d just insulted their mother, as if ‘selling’ is something to be ashamed of. I remember that feeling, so I thought this week I’d share with you my early experiences of overcoming this resistance so many of us feel towards selling, because if you want to make money in business, like it or not, you have to sell.

As a child, I once expressed my disinterest with selling to my father (who, for all his faults, was an incredible salesman), and he replied, “People can only have jobs if somebody, somewhere is selling something. Jesus Christ was the best salesman the world has ever seen.” I thought that was a fair point, and so I became more interested in this ‘dirty’ business of selling that had previously ranked as low as running a brothel in my young mind.

By the time I’d reached my teens, my Dad had his own car dealership, and guess what my summer job was? Cleaning cars. But it wasn’t long after that he had me in the showroom facing those dreaded customers. I was 17 and just wanted to be out with my friends, playing hockey, chasing girls, and anything else other than selling cars. But the cool car that my Dad gave me on my 17th birthday (a 1979 Ford Escort RS2000 for any car buffs reading) came at a price: I was to work on Saturdays in the showroom selling new Fords and used cars. Ugh!

Little did I know at the time, but I was about to acquire an education money can’t buy, a training course none of my school teachers knew anything of, and they would have baulked in disgust had I even suggested it. It wasn’t just an education in sales though, it was an education about the minds of the general public. And it was terrifying. At 17 years old, I was exposed to all kinds of people and their weird behavior.

The full time salesmen at the dealership looked at me in awe to begin with: the son of the legendary salesman, their boss. They would race me to customers on the forecourt (and beat me) because they assumed I must be such a killer salesman surely by genetic right, and that they needed to get to the customers before I unleashed my ostensible selling skills on them.

But I sucked at it. I would speak to plenty of customers, show them the cars, I was polite, all that good stuff. But they all walked.

Never wanting to be shown up, my Dad literally pulled me aside one Saturday after watching me lose yet another customer. And as he always reminded me, that customer had just cost fifty pounds (this was in England) through advertising.

(Sidebar: how many businesses do you know ask where you heard about them from? How do they know their advertising is working otherwise??)

The disappointment was clearly visible in his face. When we started speaking, I realized that he’d actually been secretly loitering around me to overhear my lousy sales pitch…

“I hate this,” I said. “Can’t I just be a delivery driver, or something?”

Matching the speed of my customary walk of shame back to the showroom from the forecourt, he said, “I heard you speak to that customer. No wonder you hate it!”

I despondently replied, “What?! I didn’t do anything wrong. I showed him the car, and he didn’t like it!”

Dad said, “Oh really? And what did you learn about that customer?”

“Learn about him? What are you talking about?” I said.

Then he said something that stuck with me: “People don’t buy products. PEOPLE BUY PEOPLE. And that means learning about them and what they REALLY want. They don’t want a car, they want an image, a lifestyle. They want a friend, someone to follow, something to believe in. The product is incidental to their desires. I could replace you with a bloody robot!”

End of father/son ‘chat’.

I went home and got on with my Saturday, had an early night in preparation for the big Sunday game as usual. But his words stuck. I would show him next Saturday…

So I stopped selling products and started selling myself. The product almost became secondary. I would ask questions about the prospective customers, ask about their relationships, what they did, establish what we had in common.

The first thing my teen mind noticed was that the wife was in control of the purchase without the guy even knowing it. That put me off marrying anyone ever.

But I soon realized that my Dad was right. His truth dawned on me on the day that I sat an elderly couple’s young grandson in one of the cars and made him pretend to drive it instead of yammering about power steering as a sales pitch to the couple. The couple shortly wrote a check and refused to speak to anyone else but me forever after.

I had forgotten about ‘selling’, which was just as well because I HATED it. I was now just being nice to people, considering them and what was right for them, solving their problems.

It was at this point that I also accidentally discovered the power of reverse psychology. Rather than hassle and pressure a customer, I’d say, “Listen, this is a really important decision, so let me sit you down, get you a cup of tea, and give you some time to yourself. I’ll be sitting over there when you need me.” Conversion rate: 70%.

And I continued to look after them long after the sale. If a customer of mine had a problem with the service department they would call me and hear me yelling at the service guys in the background (what the customer didn’t see were the service department guys giving me the finger and laughing, but you see my effect.)

And, as per my training, if a customer complained I would actually listen, apologize, and then ask how I could make it better. (Sidebar: ever come across someone handle a complaint like this lately?? There doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by when I get bad service and the person responsible wants to argue with me and make it worse. Where have all the professionals gone?)

My Dad sold the dealership a couple of years later (a great salesman doesn’t necessarily make a good business owner), and I landed a job selling BMWs. In 1988 BMWs came without a stereo. When customers (understandably) complained why a BMW came without a stereo, I would walk them to the Blaupunkt stereo kiosk and explain, “Well, BMW understands that you’re an individual with your own preferences. You choose the stereo. BMW want your car to be yours, to be unique, and tailored. Like a fine suit.” I sold a lot of BMWs in the late eighties.

But it was at BMW’s training center that I learned something else very important: that each customer has something called a primary buying motive. And our objective as salespeople was to discover what that was with each customer we faced. In the case of cars the primary buying motive could be safety, reliability, fuel economy, performance, etc. etc. Sure, all of these things are important, but there would always be ONE THING, just one, that was foremost in the customer’s mind. Their ‘hot button’ was to be discovered and pushed repeatedly.

Armed with this new knowledge, solving peoples’ problems became even easier and more fun.

And in hindsight these times were some of the happiest of my life…

Selling doesn’t have to make you shudder. It should only have that effect on you if you’re actually selling instead of just trying to help people.

I’m reminded of something the Oscar-winning actor, Ben Kingsley, once said in reply to a question about what his biggest secret to acting was: “I don’t act. The camera hates acting.”

Whether you realize it or not, you’re selling every day. Whatever it is you want in life, you will, consciously or unconsciously, be employing sales skills. Even government employees, supposedly safe from the ‘yucky’ world of selling, use selling skills- everyone wants a promotion, right?

When you told that neighbor about how much you enjoyed a product or service, you were being an awesome salesperson without even knowing it. But not getting paid…

It doesn’t take long to set up these arrangements; you only have to ask the business owner. If I’m speaking to the person of authority I haven’t had a single occasion where they said no, in fact, they were grateful and excited that I asked. You simply say: “If I send more customers your way, do you offer a referral commission? And can I offer them a discount to incentivize them?”

Then the next time you’re telling your friends about that great business, you tell them to say that you sent them so they’ll get looked after. Then make sure the business owner knows whom you’re sending ahead of time (in writing by email), so they will pay you. The big ticket businesses are best: new home builders, swimming pool contractors, car dealerships, realtors, etc.

And in no time you’ll be representing the best businesses in town, rightfully doing them a favor, doing your friends a favor, and getting a reward.

Most valuable of all, you’ll be practicing something you need to make money in business: helping people solve their problems. Also known as ‘selling’…

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Best Wishes,

Jim Sheridan.

2 Responses

  1. Irene

    Excellent article. It’s not just about selling, it’s about how to get along well in life and make everyone’s life (including yours) a little more pleasant.

  2. Nate

    This article is awesome! It reminded me of some things I learned doing customer service for years, and has helped me to see selling from a different perspective. I don’t like selling, but I do like helping people, and this is how I will think when considering any sales employment opportunities.


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