Selling is hard. Sales impacts pretty much every area of business, and is one of the most difficult and important things you will need to master to achieve success. It doesn’t help that most of us are not natural sales people, which means we have to learn the skills necessary to get from open to close.
I discovered how difficult this learning processes can be, and how satisfying getting sales "right" can feel, while working with an early stage coffee roasting company in 2013. The company had started as an online subscription service, which was going ok but not great, and was looking to expand into the wholesale market, in hopes that would improve performance. We needed to land our first few wholesale clients, so we did all we could think of to do: We started making cold calls. Nothing. After many unanswered calls and unproductive meetings, I came upon a radically different approach toward getting to yes that actually worked! I stumbled on a simple but important truth: We needed to “buy the cookie”.
I went into the shops and bakeries that had ignored our calls and letters. In each one, I bought a cookie. And then, while at the counter I said, "Boy, it sure would be great to have some good coffee with this cookie." That would lead to a conversation with the storekeeper about coffee. Sometimes, that conversation allowed me to say, "You know, my friends have a wholesale coffee business right here in town and I'll bet they could make it super easy for you to offer coffee to your customers." Ka-ching! Even when that didn't happen, I learned a lot about how shops actually viewed coffee and how they bought goods and interacted with vendors.
I learned that in order to succeed, we needed to become a customer of the people we were selling to. Whether you are trying to sell a product or yourself, it is important to start the conversation from the standpoint of the other person. It isn't about what you have to sell; it is about what they need, and you can't know that unless you become part of their world. In our case, we would buy a cookie from each of the coffee shops that we were trying to sell to.
Your "cookie" might be something very different. But the principle can be applied broadly. Instead of just cold calling, research the company you are contacting and make sure you understand it. What do they sell, what does the culture feel like, where does your product fit into their offering? Then, buy something and actually become a customer. Experience how their prices work and check out the purchasing process.
Once you get an idea about the business and have internalized it, then you can start a genuine conversation. No one wants to be sold to point blank, but many people want their problems to be solved by someone who is genuinely invested in what they do. By becoming a customer first, you will not only gain better insight into the market you are trying to access, but you will also gain the respect naturally granted to a customer.
So, take the time to really understand the people and companies that you’re selling to: read their websites, sign up for any free trials and use their products. It is more impactful to be sold by someone who uses your product and has ideas for ways to help, than by being sold to by someone who spends the first 10 minutes of a meeting mining for information.
By "buying the cookie," I learned that it can be surprising just how little you know the first time you do something. But don’t kid yourself about how smart you are or waste anyone’s time dazzling with your radiant charm. If you want to make the sale: Do your homework, help your prospects identify their needs, and deliver solutions to them that will actually create value.