The extremes in sales: Can we learn from them?

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Canvassing in columbus
Canvassing in Columbus with a former hockey player -- a memorable experience. Undoubtedly, door-to-door sales (uninvited) is one of the most irritating strategies. Yes, it works for some businesses but how many would really want to do this routinely.

Yesterday, a guy knocked at our home’s door just before dinner. Luckily, I was upstairs and didn’t answer the door, because when the bell rings, I almost always am correct in my assumption that the person at the door is either trying to sell something, or raise funds for charity. (Or the deadly combination, to sell something with funds supporting the charity, although most of the cash actually goes to the business with the product to sell.)

I generally slam the door in anger at the outright salesperson; with the kids selling stuff, if I don’t know them personally, I try to be nicer, but still don’t buy anything. This is a story of continuing rejection and you really need to have a thick skin or very little sensitivity to rejection to continue. My wife was nicer, she gently brushed the guy off saying she would read literature but would absolutely not sign up for anything at the door. The old: “I’ll think about it” answer.

At the other end of the scale, I think of the deal that practically forced itself onto me. An association committee leader wanted us to start a new publication after I did some personal business with his own company (and obviously got it right). I declined initially, because the job was outside our then-scope of business. The leader persisted to the point that I knew that this wasn’t an ordinary request.

So I assembled a team with the required expertise, and we pitched the job as instructed. We won the contract to produce Ottawa Renovates magazine, which continues to generate significant annual revenue and where relationships have breathed new life into the rest of our business. Overall revenue is approaching the seven-figure level, and the margins on the work continue to be excellent.

Two extremes. One a door-pounding exercise by a stranger invading my personal space; the second, a request (even demand) that we sell to a client who knew us through solid and ongoing relationships and referral business. (And it is notable that I was able to win the job by assembling a partnership team by calling one person I knew through earlier association relationships, who was able to refer us to a second, and then third, key player in the story.)

The extreme here can be seen in the distinction between push and pull; between building the relationships and reputation first, and then practically turning down the business; and between banging on doors, cold. And the suggestion is that any sales representative or business developer will want to structure things so they move further to the right of the imaginary line here — and that really good marketing can indeed help the process along by building familiarity and trust before the selling process starts.

Many sales books advocate strategies to build this connection and avoid the “dialing for dollars” approach. Ashley Welch and Justin Jones suggest spending time with front line managers and customers and observing their interaction in their book: Naked Sales — How design thinking reveals customer motives and drives revenue.

As I’ve noted earlier, it is easier to get the client experience with high ticket consumer end-users who purchase frequently and in high volume than it is for most AEC businesses. (You can certainly get on a Greyhound bus, or visit a Starbucks or Hallmark Card store, but unless you have permission and security clearance, I doubt you’ll be invited into a school district office to be a hole in the wall and watch the operations over several weeks.)

That in part is why I really advocate for participation in client-focused associations and relevant community service projects, because generally you will be welcome to get involved and as you build relationships over time, you’ll burn down the trust barriers and gain real insights into the pain-points for your potential clients. And in some cases, like for me, the business will practically force its way into your door.

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