Updated: Jun 10
There is a wonderful clarity to street markets. Amid the hustle and bustle, the brown paper bags and the downtrodden vegetables, the crockery seconds and the dodgy CDs, you can see commerce being transacted in its most naked form. You could call it ‘Business Unplugged’; no PowerPoint presentations, no glossy brochures, no excuses of ‘couldn’t get past the secretary’ – street traders have had to perfect the sales cycle and compress it into a real-time transaction. The man who sold me my most recent set of ‘brush-free paint applicators’ (I am a sucker for this stuff) has been in my thoughts a lot this week. In the past seven days, four different people have said they were worried about the lack of sales awareness in their businesses. ‘It’s not our sales people; it’s everyone else.” They mean the finance director raising investment, who can’t sell; the professional services consultant in front of customers every day, who can’t sell; the engineering director creating technology, who can’t sell. Selling is Life At least, they think they can’t sell, or they think it’s someone else’s responsibility. Well, if you are one of these people, I have some good news and some bad news. The good is that you can sell; the bad is that you must. Because, whatever your function or discipline, selling is life. This post is a non-sales introduction to the sales cycle – the principle steps that ALL sales go through, some in minutes, some in months. Whether you’re launching a complex software product or selling an idea to an investor, follow them. Even if you don’t win – and you won’t every time - the steps will help you identify what you need to change. And the reason I think we all have so much to learn from street vendors is that their business is pure theatre, and a sale is a 5-act drama: Act 1 – The Hook (aka ‘the bar stool test’ or ‘the elevator speech’. Timeframe: minutes) For street vendors, the Hook is their advertising. They know they have to break through your indifference and, in a few moments, open a crack of interest in your mind. Think that your business is more complex, more sophisticated, than selling tea towels or camcorders (last year’s model)? ‘Probably is – but you still need to grab the attention of your customers. And not just any attention; it must be relevant attention. In those first few moments, you set the stage for everything that’s to follow. You have to be relevant, timely and specific to your business. You have to make it quick, memorable and utterly compelling. Test it, and keep testing it, to see what combination of words gets heads nodding and pupils dilating. Get a positive response now, and you’re half way to the sale Act 2 – The Pitch (aka ‘the presentation’ or ‘the lunch’. Timeframe: hours) The pitch is when you begin to set out your stall, describing the problem you solve, the way you solve it and the benefits you deliver. Think about that for a moment. That’s three slides. Everything else is just padding. Beware of a major pitfall here. Make sure that the problems you outline are not too generic. I learned this the hard way. A few years ago I pitched to the editor of a major publication. My first slide began with a list of MAJOR INDUSTRY ISSUES. “Hold it right there. Let me guess. Your next slide says X, the one after says Y, and the one after that says Z.” Er, yes. How did you know? “Because every vendor in the space says exactly the same thing.” The answer? To frame the problem in terms unique to your solution. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the purpose of the pitch is to take the customer further down the path towards your solution, not a solution. One of the mantras of professional selling is ABC – always be closing. You should be thinking about how to get to the close when you’re on your first slide. Act 3 – The Paper (aka ‘the business plan’ or ‘the proposal’. Timeframe: days) Yes - street vendors do go through this step. “Look darlin’; this is pukka. It’ll cost you FORTY FIVE paaahnds in Selfridges.” He’s not asking for money yet – just putting a stake in the ground to set expectations. In B2B this isn’t the final proposal, but it is when you document how you’ll fulfil the expectations you set in the pitch. Outline your processes, numbers, activities, list prices, and all variables. Move in from the generic to the specific, marrying the two sides of the equation: the parameters of the customer’s pain, and value you expect for resolving his/her problem. When there are a lot of opportunities coming your way, it’s tempting to cut and paste from other proposals. Don’t do it. Customers have in-built antennae that spot generic text at a hundred paces. At each paragraph, keep asking yourself: Does this reinforce my Hook and Pitch? Does this take the customer further down my path? Does this offer greater value than anyone else? Act 4 – The Proof (aka ‘due diligence’, ‘free trial’, ‘product evaluation’, ‘2nd opinion’. Timeframe: weeks) There is only one purpose to this stage of the cycle. Make the customer comfortable. De-risk the risk. Every purchase is a gamble – your product may not work, your business may not survive, the tea towel pattern might run in the wash. You have to prove that you can deliver what you’ve promised in the first three acts. Show proof, don’t tell. Show, show and show again. B2B buying is a team event; you’ll have to show multiple actors. Have it ready and lined up before you take your Hook to market. You’d be amazed by how many businesses aren’t ready to show Proof when it’s asked for. Do you have your happy customers lined up? Your live product demo? Endorsements from third-parties? Evaluation copy and licence ready to be signed? Act 5 – The Deal (aka ‘term sheet’, ‘order’ or ‘contract’. Timeframe: months) There aren’t many variables when you’re buying tea towels. It’s different in B2B, so it takes longer. But street basics still apply; you have to ASK FOR THE ORDER. And as you’ve come this far in the drama, it’s time to haggle how not if.
Professional sales people hone their craft over many years. They are the leading lights of the 5-act drama, and deserve their ovations when they bring in a full house. Your stage may not be so visible. You may be playing a ‘supporting’ role. But for the good of your career and the success of your ‘company’, take a couple of hours to watch the sales workshop at a street theatre near you.
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