My first sales job was working for a book wholesaler. We didn’t publish anything, we bought books in bulk at the end of their normal print runs and discounted them to retailers at bargain prices so our titles tended to be at the popular end of the market, mostly large format books on popular subjects with a lot of illustrations.
After spending a week or so learning the ropes in the warehouse and the invoicing department my boss, Trevor took me out on the road to meet a real customer for the first time. Trevor had seen and done pretty much everything in the book industry and was a hard guy to impress so I was determined that I was going to blow his sock off with my natural sales ability. In order to get one step ahead of Trevor I went to the warehouse manager and asked him for a list of the top selling books we stocked and I made sure that these sure fire winners were right on top of the massive sample bag I had to carry.
Our first call, my first ever sales call, was with a shop in a small town nearby that had been a customer of ours for years. They sold toys, some kids clothes and some books, most of which came from us.
Trevor checked me out before we left: “Do you have a catalogue, a pen and an order pad?” He asked, and that was it, I was good to go.
The lady who ran the shop was a very nice lady who typically offered sales people a coffee and liked to chat away for a while with sales people before getting down to business. Being a total hot shot I decided to leave the time wasting chit chat to Trevor. As the gossip seemed to be winding down I decided to launch my killer moves.
“Let me show you what is really selling right now.” I said and pulled out the bestselling book we had in the whole warehouse: “Hitler’s Panzer Armies of WW2.” “This is a great seller, everyone else is buying tons of this title you should order a good size quantity.” I enthused.
The lady smiled, “Well Bill, this is really a children’s shop, we sell to kids and their parents so we really only stock children’s books” I was furious. “OK, how about this. Our warehouse manager tells me that this is almost flying out the door, it’s a real money maker,” I said showing her my sample of ‘Horrible Murders of Old London Town’”
She was polite enough to pretend to look at the blood spattered cover of the book for a second before handing it back to me. “hmm, mainly we just sell children’s books, puzzle books that sort of thing and we’re really just interested in children’s books.”
My first customer ever was simply refusing to work with me so I jammed the sample back into my bag reaching for the next sure fire winner. By this time Trevor was staring at me with a mixture of shock and curiosity. He had actually moved around to the customer’s side of the counter to get a victim’s perspective on my catastrophic sales performance.
I reached in to my bag and pulled out number 3 on our top seller list. Surely she could not possibly turn me down on “The History of Torture” – a real winner. Trevor saw what I was reaching for and put his hand on my arm to stop me. “Bill, why don’t you wait for me in the car?”
Many people have been thrown out of a meeting by a client but I think I have an almost unique claim to fame in that I was thrown out of my very first sales call by my own boss. I sat fuming in the car for half an hour while Trevor took a reasonable order for a bunch of kids books.
Eventually he joined me in the car and said, “Bill, how do you find out what a customer wants to buy?” I had learned my lesson: “You look to see what kind of things they already stock?”
“You check to see what they have bought before?”
“You look at what other shops like theirs have bought and sell those?”
After a long silence I gave up, knowing my sales career was over by 10.30 am on my first day on the road.
“I give up.”
“Well,” said Trevor, “you ask them you idiot.”
“Isn’t that cheating?” I asked.
Trevor looked into the distance and wondered what he had done to deserve a salesman as dumb as me.
“No Bill, selling people things that they want to buy is not cheating, it is called selling.”
Trevor was nice enough not to fire me but it was some time before I was allowed to fly solo. Eventually I was allowed out on my own and Trevor’s check list had expanded from the original: “Do you have a catalogue, a pen and an order pad?” to include his final check off: “what is the first question you are going to ask customers?”
I didn’t hesitate: “I am going to ask everyone what kind of books they want to buy, Trevor.” Trevor nodded, far from confident.
One of the great truths of selling is that telling isn’t selling but like most novice sales people I had assumed that my mission was to convince people to do what I wanted. I would tell them what made sense and convince them to follow my stunning plan. Unfortunately many, many sales people can spend years in their role without progressing past the novice stage. There are plenty of novices with a dozen years experience out there.
It is easy to forget that the easiest and fastest opportunity to sell is when you are selling something the customer actually wants to buy and there is one great place to start the discovery process and that is asking the most basic questions possible of the customer.
For weeks my sales calls were identical. “Hello I am Bill from the book company. What sort of books do you think you might want to buy?” The customer who had a pretty good idea about what made their business tick would say something like: “we like books about cooking and so forth.” I would dive into my massive sample bag and say: “Here you are, this one is all about cooking and so forth, would you like to buy some?” and very often they would. In fact I became not too bad at selling books so I was pretty cocky when Trevor said he would come out on the road with me for a day.
Our first call that day was with a classic car museum. “Hi I’m Bill from the book company, what kinds of books are selling well you right now?”
“Oh, you know, books about old cars mainly” said the museum manager wondering about why someone was asking such a stupid question.
“Great!” I said, “We have some of those, you might want to buy some”.
After showing him our books about classic cars and getting the order I threw in my killer punch. “Do people ever come in here who are not very interested in old cars, children for example? You could sell some kids books.”
The manager thought for a second then said, “why not, we can give it a try.”
So we sold the car museum some children’s’ books and I crowned myself the Greatest Salesman in the World. Back in the car with Trevor I could not contain myself with triumph: “Did you see that Trevor? I really got him there. What an idiot he had never thought of selling kids books so I showed him.”
Trevor looked at me with genuine sympathy. “Bill, you need to understand something very important – we are on the same side as our customers, we are not out to beat them.”
This was nothing short of a revelation to me – surely selling was all about winning, being one step ahead of the customers? They had a big bag of money and we had a warehouse full of product. The objective was to manipulate them into giving us the money in exchange for the product. It was a war.
By this time Trevor had begun to see me as an interesting challenge, a bit like a one person sales remedial class. “Bill, what we want is for our customers to be successful and we really like it if they think that perhaps we might be just a little bit responsible for their success.”
This made sense: “So we have to pretend to care about their business?” I said.
Trevor knew how to accept small victories. “That will be a start, Bill. Let’s work with that for now”.
There are two ways to look at sales: one is to see it as a conflict where one side wins and the other loses and the other is where the sales person recognises that their job is to help a customer by facilitating the process that supports them in making the right decision. Ideally that decision will include buying from you – hopefully you have qualified the customer correctly in the first place. If it turns out that you can’t help the customer and it is you not them who says it first then you will probably have made the best investment in your sales career by telling the truth under pressure.
By: Bill Morrison
This article is an entrie for our Sales Story Contest