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Old School Sales

October 6, 2010

This past weekend I was visiting family in Iowa. It was a great trip, and I always enjoy getting back to my roots and spending time with family. While I was there my parents went through the exhilarating process of purchasing windows. As a fairly recent homeowner who does things like shop around for window trim, I don’t underestimate the importance of these types of things!

As a part of this process I encountered a seemingly extinct profession that I occasionally see on Turner Classic Movies or recall from my earliest youth, but have no recollection of within the past two decades – the door-to-door salesman. To make this experience even more amazing, the guy showed up with not just a laptop or an informational DVD, but an actual FAX MACHINE which he proceeded to plug into my parents phone jack in order to get updated pricing reports.

As someone who has worked for the government I’m no stranger to being decades behind the times, but this really took me back. Does anyone really expect to show up at someone’s house with a portable fax machine and be taken seriously? Apparently so.

The salesman himself seemed like a fine guy – personable, knowledgeable and probably competent. But he was clearly inhibited by a corporate structure that required procedures and processes that only produce frustration in most consumers. One couldn’t help but feel sorry for someone who clearly has a competitive product to sell but whose corporate practices aren’t flexible enough to allow him to adjust.

The window salesman with the portable fax machine and two-hour window pitch might seem like an extreme example, but you see the same issues in a variety of companies, and they come down to a few points:

1. Empower your employees. I saw this challenge very distinctly in my years working with the government. There are way too many managers out there who aren’t willing to give their employees the flexibility they need to succeed. In sales or customer service, you need to empower your staff as much as possible. If you can’t trust them to make the right choices, then it’s time to hire someone else.

2. Keep your pitch flexible enough to adjust. In doing a lot of public speaking I have the joy and sometimes agony of watching a lot of different public speakers. And my biggest pet peeve is the speaker who seems to have a complete disconnect with the audience. No matter how big or small your audience if you’re looking to truly communicate and convey a message it’s going to need to adjust depending on who you’re speaking with. Don’t take it to a politician’s extreme and make promises you can’t keep, but do be in tune to what your audience needs. If you don’t know how to do this, ask a spouse or friend to help you out (and be humble in getting their advice!) – chances are you probably need to start with listening more and asking questions.

3. Keep up with the times. Walking in with your own fax machine is an extreme example, but no matter how un-technical your trade if you appear behind the times it does reflect on your business. Think about the visual image you bring to the table. This comes up frequently in conversations I have with young people just entering the work force. We can’t all afford an expensive corporate wardrobe but there’s something to be said for investing in a quality professional wardrobe. Showing you’re mentally and physically up to the challenge sometimes comes down to the details – like who shows up to the meeting with a pen and paper, looking the part.

As my advice generally is, none of this is rocket science. It’s just common sense, whether you’re selling windows or social media solutions.

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