Psst. Wanna buy some chocolate? And other effective sales strategies
Quick! What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “sales?” Maybe it’s a generational thing, but growing up, images of sleazy used car salesmen used to immediately spring to mind. Snake oil salesmen promising miracle cures.
Relentless telemarketers interrupting at dinner time. Ugh.
That’s why I shied away from a sales career. I could never see myself as a pushy, obnoxious sales person. Or the type that oozes false friendliness to entice gullible people to make poor investment decisions that benefits no one but myself. Yup, I watched a lot of TV, saw too many movies featuring that stereotype. No thanks!
On a practical level, I couldn’t see myself working on 100% commissions either. No wonder the underhanded salesmen on the big and small screens tried every trick they knew to separate people from their money. Clearly, they were desperate. Again, something I didn’t want to be, if I could at all avoid it. Who wants to live their life like that?!
That’s how I thought about sales. Ewwww. About as attractive as a worm wriggling and writhing on the sidewalk after a heavy rain. Slowly dying. Or about to get stepped on.
Imagine, then, when actual experience dispelled the stereotypes. I'm not saying there aren't those who fit the sleaze bag mold (we've all come across one or two), but they’re outweighed by many more nice, honest, hardworking individuals. I actually became one of them. The good guys, that is.
It all started innocently and innocuously at first. Did you ever trick-or-treat for UNICEF as a kid?
Like millions of elementary school kids, I did. It was expected of us every Halloween. We were trained to be pint-sized sales people and collect change to help alleviate children’s suffering around the world. A noble cause, but allegations of financial mismanagement by UNICEF and its beneficiaries has pretty much ended the trick-or-treat program. Or you can accept the company line, aptly put by Evelyne Guindon, executive director for UNICEF Quebec in 2006 when they ended the program, “the annual loose change collection isn't worth the money that's amassed.”
Did you ever sell wrapping paper or magazine subscriptions for school-sponsored fundraisers? I see you raising your hand. Yup, in junior high, I was one of the many students encouraged to raise money for needy, deserving kids by selling magazine subscriptions during the holidays. And to entice us, the more we sold, the better the prizes we could win. I was in it to win! I remember trudging door to door in the cold and the snow, asking neighbors if they wanted a magazine subscription. Or if they’d like to get ahead of their renewals for the low, low (well, really not so low) price I was offering. Bummer. I was turned down every single time, though I did occasionally collect a Christmas cookie from a neighbor who felt sorry for me. My parents usually bought the one subscription to TV Guide that saved me from looking like a total sales loser when the school tallied the contributions. I think I won a pencil for my efforts.
It got better in high school. I actually had a pretty good time selling giant Hershey bars for $1 each during chorus practice. For a charitable fundraising drive, of course. So many kids, the teacher who was working with one group or another didn’t notice the passing of chocolate and dollar bills up and down the rows. For a few weeks anyways. Soon after, the school issued a ban on anyone selling anything for any reason on school grounds. I had to take my operation outside, which didn’t work so well, as I lost the opportunity to wave chocolate under the noses of bored, confined teens. I also put on a few pounds when I couldn’t make my sales goals any other way and just bought the remaining bars for myself.
Then there was the summer I went over to the dark side. After my junior year of high school, I took a job as one of those dreaded telemarketers calling at dinner time and during the early evening, selling coupon books for discounts on local attractions and restaurants. I was better at it than I had thought I could be and my conscience started pinging. I worried that I was preying on little old ladies with nary a dollar to their names, who were just so lonely and desperate to talk to anyone that they’d give up money for food and medicine to keep me on the line. Never mind that we were just moving down pages of the citywide phone book. I felt like I could be a horrible human being.
Yet I stayed, because other types of summer jobs had all been long filled. Furthermore, I was exceeding my numbers and felt good about it, since I saw many other young people regularly being fired for not making their quotas. Soon enough, I found myself promoted to a “special” room for their top telemarketers. The company kept us happy with goodies that none of the other telemarketers knew about: pizzas, cookies, brownies, and soft drinks. All to entice us to stay and make money for them. So I stayed. Why not? The pay was decent, for a high school kid anyways, and the extras were fun. Not to mention that I had lots of laughs with the other girls in our special room. (For some reason, very few boys ever made it to this “executive” level.) We’d call up people and introduce ourselves with made-up names, some exotic-sounding and others just plain silly. We were “Bambi” and “Tawny” and who knows what else. It was a game to see who could convincingly present herself as something other than a know-nothing high school or college kid and still make a sale. We were golden as long as we produced.
And we did produce, until the company determined that they had saturated the local market and abruptly closed up shop and disappeared. And I mean disappeared. Wham! Drove to their offices one day and they were gone without a trace. Pizzas and cookies? Gone. Fortunately, the few extra pounds that they produced eventually disappeared, too.
Yeah, I felt a little guilty about selling their entertainment discount books. True, it was legitimate and I even bought a book myself for discounts at shops and restaurants around town. But enough to justify the cost? Eh, not really. I certainly hoped that my elderly customers used more than enough of those coupons to make up for the cost of the book. The whole experience left me feeling that I might have been a little too good at selling something questionably useful to lonely, neglected elders who just needed a human being to talk to.
After that experience, I stayed away from studying sales and marketing in college, though I might have found the courses interesting. I couldn’t shake the impressions of sleazy salesmen or unscrupulous business practices from my mind. So later in my working life, when I had the opportunity to move into technology sales, I was more than a little surprised to learn that there is such a thing as consultative sales: listening to the customer to understand their business problem, seeing if and how my company’s products and services could help them, and then proposing tailored solutions for a winning outcome for us both. It was a sweet spot. It appealed to my heart and mind as an interesting, challenging, and totally “above board” way of doing business. And no lonely, desperate little old ladies were financially harmed in the process. The image of the sleazy salesman was relegated to the old movie or TV show, where he belonged.
Now, well into my adult years, I’m at peace with sales, though I still shy away from “dialing for dollars” when I’m helping with charitable fundraising drives. Trading products and services for dollars is fine, calling people up asking for donations is out of my comfort zone. I still think of myself as a consultative sales specialist when I’m marketing my voice over services. Every “sale” is a “win-win” situation for both the customer and myself, though I like to give a “value add” (to use a term from my long-ago IBM training) to every professionally-produced voice over that I send them. That’s usually on the order of multiple recordings to choose from, very fast delivery of their audio files, and highly responsive customer service. I’m happy when my customer is happy.
Fair, honest exchanges of goods, services, time, and effort. That’s really what sales is about and if it’s done professionally and with the best intentions, it’s an honorable vocation. And one that can leave you feeling great about yourself and your work, and appreciative of your customers.
No extra pounds.
Ah! A clean conscience and a good night’s sleep instead.