Sooner or later in business, everybody has to sell something to somebody. Even if you're not "in sales," you've got to know how to sell — a product, a service, an idea, yourself. But what does it take to be an excellent salesperson? Is it all about building relationships? About being a good listener? Or about knowing your prospects so well that you understand what they want even better than they do? We asked 12 successful salespeople to answer these and other related questions. Here's their advice on the art of selling. Are you buying?
I'm 93 years old, and I've been in retail since I was a kid. I worked in my father's store as a messenger boy, a stock boy, a junior salesperson — and on up. The one thing I've learned from my experience is that no matter what you sell, you've got to sell satisfaction. That's the one thing that brings people back. My father wanted people to be happy. He knew that a customer wouldn't be happy if she bought the wrong item. For that reason, he would always take things back — even if they had been worn or abused. In the long run, this approach helped us build a clientele that is second to none in customer loyalty.
Early in my career, I was working in the fur department. We had a large investment in fur stock, so my father supervised me carefully, coming down to the floor a few times a day. One day, he pointed to a black broadtail coat that cost $6,000. That fragile little fur wasn't getting any better with age, he told me. He wanted me to find a customer for it. A week later, he stopped by and saw me having a woman fitted for the coat. He quickly pulled me aside and asked me what I was doing. I happily reported that I had just sold it to this woman. He told me that I'd made a big mistake and that now I had to unsell the fur. I had found a customer for the coat, but it was the wrong customer.
He explained that this woman sold life insurance and that he often saw her walking through our store (which she used as a shortcut), carrying a large leather shoulder bag that was filled with heavy policies. He knew that if she purchased that coat, she would quickly ruin it by wearing out the fur on the shoulder. I assured him that I had already warned her that it was a fragile fur; she understood that it couldn't take much abuse, I said. He told me that she might understand that point now but that she wouldn't be so understanding on the day the coat started coming apart.
That little black broadtail coat was the most difficult fur I've ever had to sell, and certainly the only one that I've ever had to unsell. But I realized that you can't sell satisfaction if you give people the wrong advice. Give people the wrong advice, and they'll never forgive you.
Stanley Marcus's earliest memories of his father's store, Neiman Marcus, are of crawling on the floor and picking up pins. Today Marcus is considered one of the country's greatest salespeople.
SVP, Worldwide Marketing
Redwood CITY, California
Selling is a lot like seduction. That's especially true in the computer industry — where often you're selling a vision rather than a product. It requires passion and emotion. When I'm in the selling zone, every cell in my body is working toward the same goal. I give myself instant feedback: If I'm emotionally drained after trying to make a sale, I know that I've done a good job.
I always use humor in the selling process. I make sure that the person across the table from me is having more fun than I am. There's nothing like a joke to disarm a group — to relax people and get them on your side. I've also learned a lot about selling by watching Larry Ellison, our CEO. Larry is king of the one-liner. He's taught me that communication is most effective when it translates a complex idea in a simple way.
When I prepare for a sales presentation, I try to think like my client and like my competitor. I try to pinpoint every objection that either of them could make to my presentation. I write these objections down, and then I figure out a way to respond to each one in three lines or less. I've given these "scripts" to sales reps, who then used them in their presentations. It's staggering how even the most boring sales rep can become a great salesperson simply by learning to convey a few simple points. If you can move a customer so that he or she can't argue against your point, then you've won.
Mark Jarvis spearheaded the launch and rollout of several Oracle products, including Oracle8, Oracle 7.3, and Network Computing Architecture. Jarvis also serves on Oracle's Product-Development Management Committee under CEO Larry Ellison.
Cofounder and CEO
I've met people who can sell anything to anybody. I'm not one of those people. I'm a bad faker. I'm also highly skeptical — which actually works to my advantage. It makes me my own toughest customer. If I can sell myself on something, then I know I won't have a problem with trying to sell someone else on it.
This approach to selling stems largely from having started a business on a small island. Nantucket is a tight-knit community. The people who live there are inclined to be critical of businesses. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing, so you've got to deliver quality products and services. If I make a mistake on Nantucket, or try to sell a lousy product or service, everybody will know about it.
More than selling a product, we're selling the process through which the product is made. This process manifests itself in what goes into our product, in how we present it, and in the story that emerges about our company. Our personality is also part of that process: My partner and I are just a couple of regular idiots who happen to run a company. People often ask me, "How do you sell to Generation X?" I don't know what Generation X is, but I assume that it includes people around my age (32). The best way to sell to anyone is to tell it like it is — which sounds simple but which apparently isn't. For instance, look at the boys in Detroit. I'm always amazed by how they sell cars. Instead of grounding their sales pitch in the benefits of their cars, they talk about lifestyle and being cool — or about limited-slip differential and rack-and-pinion steering. No one knows what those things mean! People know when they're being duped. So the best way to sell to them is not to try to dupe them.
Tom Scott (email@example.com) and his partner, Tom First, started Nantucket Nectars in 1989. The company has grown from a 2,000-bottle operation into a $45 million company. Scott's favorite nectars are Pressed Apple and Authentic Lemonade.
Marilyn Carlson Nelson
Vice Chair, President, and CEO
Carlson Companies Inc.
Anyone who views a sale as a transaction is going to be toast down the line. Selling is not about peddling a product. It's about wrapping that product in a service — and about selling both the product and the service as an experience. That approach to selling helps create a vital element of the process: a relationship. In a world where things move at hyperspeed, what was relevant yesterday may not be relevant tomorrow. But one thing that endures is a dynamic relationship that is grounded in an experience that you've provided. That principle applies to any level of selling, down to selling your skills on the talent market.
To define "selling," the dictionary uses words like "influence," "induce," "impose," "dispose." The slang of selling even includes the word "dupe." But selling is really about proving that you're a good match for your customer and then backing up your claim with facts. You may be able to make a one-time sale because you care, or because you're persuasive, or because you're enthusiastic and persistent. But you can't build a long-term relationship that way.
Marilyn Carlson Nelson heads one of the largest privately held companies in the world. Carlson Companies owns a diversified group of service companies, including the Regent and Radisson hotel chains, Carlson Wagonlit, Radisson Seven Seas Cruise Lines, and T.G.I. Friday's. Together, these operations bring in more than $20 billion in revenues and employ more than 147,000 people.
CEO and Chairman
Palo Alto, California
It's simple: Sell to people who want your product; ignore those who don't. I spent years trying to get people to buy into Macintosh. We were selling a dream of how the world might become a better place. That kind of selling requires a different mind-set from that of trying to meet a quota. Some people got it in 30 seconds. Others didn't get it and never would. It took me a while to learn that you can't convert atheists. You can't sell oil to Arabs, or refrigerators to Eskimos. Don't even try.
Guy Kawasaki (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Apple's former chief evangelist. Garage.com gets startups off the ground by matching entrepreneurs with investors. Kawasaki is also the author (with Michele Moreno) of "Rules for Revolutionaries: The Capitalist Manifesto for Creating and Marketing New Products and Services" (HarperBusiness, forthcoming in February 1999).
San Francisco, California
I've always considered myself a lousy salesman. But I've spent enough time in sales to learn a valuable lesson: If you try to sell what you have — whether it's a product, an idea, or a strategy — you'll have a tough sell. When I was younger, my approach to selling was entirely about my product, my company, my pricing. But it doesn't take long to realize — and it's always worth remembering — that clients don't really care about your stuff. They care about their stuff.
You have to be able to put your finger on what motivates your customer. That requires one thing: effective communication. The best salespeople are also the best communicators. They know what questions to ask. They know how to probe an issue. And they know that "no" never means "no" — it just means "not now."
I remember one of my first sales calls. My job was to sell retailers more bottles of wine than I had sold them the month before — Paul Masson, Sterling Vineyards, Mumm's champagne. I walked into one account, and I could tell immediately that the owner was having a bad day. With something like 60,000 items in his store, he had more than 200 vendors vying for his attention. This guy looked at me and said, "As far as I'm concerned, your stuff doesn't sell, and I'd just as soon not have it on my shelf." Standing there, I had three thoughts: I need an immediate career change; I'm never going to make it as a salesman; and I have to figure out a way to make this sale.
I went to where my products were displayed and — not knowing that this was illegal (I was nonunion) — started to rearrange the bottles on the shelves. After an hour, I brought him over to show him what I had done. He screamed at me for fiddling with his shelf space, but he finally agreed that my arrangement looked much better than the previous one. I sketched out the fundamentals of merchandising and told him that we should see how this new arrangement worked. In short, it worked exceptionally well, he ended up becoming one of my best customers, and two years later, I was in his wedding. Does that have anything to do with sales technique? You tell me.
Mark Bozzini joined LinkExchange, the largest advertising network on the web, in 1998. Previously he was the CEO of Pete's Brewing Co. Under Bozzini's leadership, Pete's increased its sales from $130,000 to $80 million — and thus became the second-largest microbrewery in the United States.
Founder and CEO
Domain Home Fashions
Selling is like trading — it's a give-and-take. I learned this truth from my father, who was Lebanese and owned his own business. The Lebanese are great traders, and my father would never ask for something without giving something in return. Whether I'm trying to sell an idea or a couch, I always try to leave an imprint on the person I'm dealing with — because if I don't make an impact, it's unlikely that I will have moved that person to take action. It's also unlikely that I will get a second chance. To make an impact, I create a bond of intimacy. I find out as much as I can about the other person. I use that person's name throughout the conversation. I speak slowly. I listen. I make him or her feel like the most important person in the world at that moment.
To start my business, I raised $28 million. The three VCs to whom I sold my idea were Harvard Business School graduates. Before our meeting, I learned everything I could about them. I went to Harvard and I talked to their professors. I researched their interests and hobbies. I studied their track records to learn how they looked at companies and what might attract their support. This preparation enabled me to understand where they were coming from. But I also made sure that they understood something about me — something that I hoped would compel them to take action on my behalf.
I train my sales consultants and managers in this approach to selling — in getting in touch with each customer. I sell home furnishings — that is, things. But what people really come into my store to buy is "style." A lot of customers worry that they have no style — which creates a certain amount of fear in the buying process. I don't resort to the Martha Stewart or Ralph Lauren selling proposition: You have no style, and therefore you must buy mine. Rather, I sell by taking the time to figure out what the customer really wants. I've taught my employees to diffuse the customer's fear by asking the right questions. By asking very specific questions, salespeople can give the customer a deeper understanding of what he or she truly wants.
Judy George leads the fast-growing, $50 million chain of Domain stores. Her goal for the next five years is to add 65 stores to the 23 now in operation. George is also the author of "The Domain Book of Intuitive Home Design: How to Decorate Using Your Personality Type" (Clarkson Potter, 1998).
Vice President, Global Sales
At Nike, we've made a big change in how we sell. For us, selling is no longer about throwing shoe samples into a big bag, sitting across from a buyer, and waiting while he selects the products that he wants to have in his stock. Those days are over. For Nike, selling is now about planning. That's one reason why we don't call the people in our sales force "sales reps." We call them "account executives" or "account managers." Changing titles in that way might seem like a small semantic twist, but it makes a big difference. Planning works on two levels. On one level, it means knowing our customers' (that is, the retailers') business from top to bottom. It means anticipating the issues that they will face in the next sales period — even before they do. It means planning their assortment of products and envisioning what their store should look like. On another level, sales planning involves bringing those insights back to Nike and then playing a central role in the design and marketing of the company's new products.
We have a pretty stable and set customer base. That can be both a blessing and a potential curse. We constantly have to guard against slipping into a rote-transaction, order-taking mode. And we must resist the temptation to think that just because we're Nike, all we have to do is show up. One way to guard against complacency is to assume an active role in helping our retailers manage their businesses. Anyone can sell to someone. But it takes a different set of skills to be able to plan for someone.
Tim Joyce joined Nike in 1980 and has held various positions at the company, including Memphis regional sales manager, director of U.S. footwear sales, and director of European sales.
I sell ideas and visions. That kind of selling requires a different set of muscles from those that you need to sell products. The challenge is to help people see things that they may not be able to see for themselves. Now, I'm not a visionary from the blinding-flash-of-light school. Instead, I base my ideas on intuition, on facts, and on specific opportunities. The greatest resistance that I encounter from people whom I'm trying to sell to is grounded in discomfort — which really comes from a lack of understanding. So a great salesperson, in effect, knows how to sell understanding.
One of my first jobs was with Benton & Bowles, an advertising agency in New York City. It was around the time of the birth of cable television, and I knew that cable was going to be a key element in the architecture of advertising. I was trying to persuade two of my clients to take an early position that would be slightly risky but that would have tremendously beneficial pricing opportunities. I succeeded with one client, but I failed to sell the other client on my vision. While making a sale with the first client was great, I learned more about selling from my failure with the second one.
No matter what I did, I could not convince my other client that people would watch anything other than the four standard networks. And that was my fault: I didn't factor in his reservations about trying something new. I was so enthusiastic about making his company a charter sponsor of a major cable-television network that I didn't spend enough time dealing with his concerns. Big mistake. I needed to help him understand that, while this was a potentially risky endeavor, he had protection on the downside. The job of the promulgator of an idea is to help people develop both an understanding of that idea and an appropriate comfort level.
Phil Guarascio joined General Motors in 1985. As general manager of marketing and advertising for GM's North American operations, he was instrumental in developing the GM Card and in coordinating GM sponsorships with the Olympics and the WNBA. Guarascio's division is responsible for the largest media budget in the United States, spending $2.3 billion a year on advertising and promotions.
Chairman and CEO
Sewell Motor Co.
Selling should be like theater: one of the secrets of selling is knowing how to stage a great show. I routinely scan other dealerships and businesses to study their selling "sets." If I see a great one, I steal ideas from it. For instance, we've modeled our sales incentives after the AAdvantage program at American Airlines. When it comes to entertainment, we want our facility to be Disney-like. We researched the durable floor tiles that McDonald's uses, and we put them in our service departments. Anyone can teach you a thing or two about setting the selling stage — even your competitor.
Carl Sewell's family auto dealership was started in 1911. Sewell began working there as a salesman in 1967. The business has grown to include nine franchises, with more than $500 million in annual sales. Sewell is also the author of the best-selling "Customers for Life" (Doubleday, 1990).
Stuart S. Snyder
President and COO
Feld Entertainment Inc.
Great salespeople are masters of the art of persuasion. P.T. Barnum, master salesman and a founder of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, used to say that "every crowd has a silver lining." Great salespeople can see that silver lining — both for themselves and for their customers. They know their product, they're trustworthy, and they can instill confidence in their customers. Combine these qualities with an ability to listen, to sense through all of the clutter what a customer's hot buttons are; add a passionate determination to put all the pieces of the puzzle together for the benefit of the customer; and you've got yourself a great salesperson.
In a lot of ways, the Greatest Show on Earth is an easy sell. Everyone loves the circus, and everyone loves to be entertained. But we sell more than just shows: We sell memories. We think of ourselves as being in the wonderment business, and we take seriously the responsibility of selling wonderment to more than 25 million people a year. At the same time, that responsibility makes the selling proposition very exciting.
Feld Entertainment is the world's largest producer of live family entertainment. Feld Entertainment's shows include the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 19 Disney On Ice presentations, and Siegfried & Roy at the Mirage in Las Vegas.
Peter J. Solomon Co.
New York, New York
I started working at Neiman Marcus when I was 12 years old: I ran electric trains during the holiday season. Over time, I learned a lot from my experience there — especially from my father, Stanley Marcus. He has always stressed that selling is about more than a single transaction between a salesperson and a customer. It includes everything that piques a customer's interest — everything that informs, excites, and motivates customers before they come to the table.
My father also understands the value of a good story — the way it can reach both customers and employees. For him, storytelling is part of our tribal lore. While I was growing up, I found it all too easy to roll my eyes and think, "Oh, I've heard this one before." But it's amazing to witness the power that a simple story has to inspire the selling effort.
Richard Marcus (email@example.com) served as CEO of Neiman Marcus from 1979 to 1988. Since 1997, he has served as a senior adviser at Peter J. Solomon, which provides investment-banking services to companies.
A version of this article appeared in the November 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.