Jan 30

Let me explain what I mean by this- I used to sell Cutco knives back in the day and nothing I’ve done since has given me the same “jolt of learning” with regards to salesmanship as that first visceral first experience of sitting in my neighbor’s kitchen with my stomach in knots and asking him to shell out nearly a thousand dollars for a set of knives and then having the guts to ask for a list of all his friends so I could try and sell them too. Many people that know me are well-aware that I used to slang cutlery because odds are that if they were friends with me back then, they got the pitch at some point. It was one of those “MCI Friends & Family-type” arrangements where as the salesperson you would supposedly raid your own address book, pitch all your friends on these knife sets and then at the end of the demo try to get them to give you referrals so you could go and try to sell knives to their friends. Theoretically you could network like this indefinitely and make good money on commission. BTW, the knives are actually extremely good quality (or at least the Manchurian candidate brainwashing we received in our sales training is still effective because I actually still have my set and use them daily ten years later). You can’t sell something you don’t believe in and I actually had the honor of “Fast start Record Breaker” having sold $3k worth of knives in my first week. ooooohhhh, ahhhhh so yea I believed in the product. Lemme tell you though that there is nothing more scary than sitting down for the first time with a complete stranger who has let you in his/her house on a friend’s recommendation and then trying to convince that person within 30min to purchase $683 worth of cutlery from you (why $683 you ask? well this magic number is forever imprinted in my brain as being the sale price before tax of the Homemaker +8 Classic handle knife set – the big kahuna that you always go for when closing a client before you try to upsell with gift sets and extras). Anyways, I promise I do have a point with where I’m going in all this…

So I’m on chapter five now of my Fasttrac book digging into the section titled “Entering and Capturing the Market” and it’s talking about basically all the steps involved in sales- the process of identifying your market, analyzing the segments, how you market to each differently and how the sales funnel works and ultimately how you close deals. One thing it has not mentioned though is the role of humor in diffusing awkward moments. When I sold knives, I worked directly under this guy Don Gerould who happened to be the kingpin for the west coast (like zone division manager or something). He was a phenomenal sales person and one thing he did well was utilize this technique I call “over-reaching and retreating” to diffuse a potentially-awkward situation. So a typical scenario would go like this:

Don – “Great, so I’m glad you chose to buy three of the Homemaker +8’s… there’s just one other thing I could use your help with…”
Customer (incredulous at this point) – “ummm, yeaahhhhh…”
Don – “Well as you know I work on referral. You obviously found value in the knives I showed you here today, if I could just get you to fill out my notebook with 100 names of your closest friends that would appreciate…”
Customer – “100 Names!?! Are you crazy!!!”
Don – “Awww, alright I’m just kidding. Ten will be fine.”
Customer (scratching head) – “Oh is that all? Well, yeah, I suppose I could do that.”

That technique alone translated to probably fifty extra customers for me. Granted, it would be out of place if you had not established good rapport by that point in the conversation, but I can tell you that the value of that type of initial expectation-setting and then retreat is something that I will never forget. Had I gone in asking for the ten names each time, I’m quite sure that I would have been turned down many of those times. Using this tension-shattering technique was priceless. And really if you think about it, nobody ever wants awkwardness- neither the salesperson nor the buyer. Like any technique, delivery and appropriateness for the moment is everything – used correctly it discharges the tension that builds like static electricity during the closing when you are asking someone to pull out their checkbook or give you referrals. Here’s another quick example:

This lame sign was probably responsible for 30% of the total take from a yard sale I threw two weeks ago. I finally moved out of my house and turned it into a rental. I had six years of accumulated junk in the garage (stuff like napkin dispensers, computer parts, roommates’ hubcaps and these weird wrought-iron holders of some type that I don’t even know what they were, but they sold). My house was a good five turns off the main road and in running this yard sale (even though I had an article in the paper, a post on craigslist and signage everywhere) a real concern of mine was that people might bail after the third turn out of boredom trying to find my place. I made a progression of strategically-placed signs that created a dialogue with the buyers before I ever even met them. There was probably 300 people in all that showed up that day and I must have gotten 20-30 different comments from people on how much they liked the signage. The simple, light-hearted curve ball that was tossed to people as they snaked their way through the turns in my subdivision was enough to put most people in a good mood and create a favorable buying environment. The lesson I extracted from that day was that even minor efforts to humanize the buying situation by using conversational English and humor can result in massive returns- and this undoubtedly applies to ecommerce and not just face-to-face sales. Think Flickr before Yahoo acquired them as a good example. And forget what your high school English teacher might have told you about the importance of formality- if the message is for public consumption then the strengthened connection you have with the buyer from using informal, conversational style trumps any type of alleged respect you might garner by demonstrating that you can write near-Shakespearean-style prose.

Of course there are a bunch of other great sales techniques I learned that summer from Don but this is probably enough rambling for one night. What are some anecdotal sales experiences that you have?

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3 Responses to “Diffusing awkward sales moments by “over-reaching and retreating””

  1. Sam says:

    Sean, I’m thoroughly enjoying checking out your site. Your feed is in my Google Reader as of 10 minutes ago. Great thoughts here on marketing. Funny, I sold Cutco here in NC when I was a teen.

    Kind regards,

  2. lizbiz says:

    Loved your entry.. its funny though, because I am selling Cutco now to pay for college, etc… and I am in NC! Funny, I know quite well the “you want HOW MANY PHONE NUMBERS??” I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who has had some great forever career-building marketing and sales experience from this company!

  3. […] I used to sell cutlery. It was my first job one summer while I was in college. The trouble with selling anything for the first time is that it’s obvious when you’ve never sold anything- confidence comes only from making sales. Once you’ve sold, it becomes infinitely easier to sell again, but getting that first sale is the hardest thing ever. I’d say 70% of the people that were in our group dropped out without getting a single sale. Having never held a job at that point (let alone a sales position) I was not confident. But I was fortunate in that I lucked out with quick initial wins in pitching wealthy people that either happened to need a new set of $700 knives or people that were just sympathetic with how green I was and bought out of sheer pity for my pitch. Whatever the reason for those first couple sales, I went on to sell over $3k of cutlery in my first week driven by the confidence I could sell. And I’m convinced that the secret sauce to that whole equation was a simple bit of advice from my sales manager, Don Gerould: “Fake it until you make it.” Not “fake it” in the sense of “mislead others” but mentally trick yourself into believing you have successfully sold before until you have actually done it and the feeling becomes substantiated by reality. […]

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