So You Think You’re Not A Salesperson? (For Every Small Business Owner, Ever)

If you own your own business, there’s a good chance you got into it because you love doing the job. But how do you define “doing the job”? Are you a graphic designer who loves to spend hours making sure there’s a cool underlying grid to your work? (Guilty.) Are you a baker whose passion is making the ganache come out just right? Or an accountant who sees the beauty in a spreadsheet with no question marks? Congratulations — you are great at executing, once you’ve made the sale.

I’m sure you know that a business owner is also a bookkeeper, a strategist, an advertiser, an HR person, a janitor, and a salesperson as well. Perhaps you just don’t spend much time thinking about each of these roles, or perhaps you wait until someone is standing in front of your cash register with a wallet before you think of yourself as a “salesperson.” That was me, for sure. I never did things like ask for a referral or “ask for the sale” or push for a “no.” I just went by instinct. The problem was, I was never going to grow my business unless I spent some time actually selling. If you’re in that situation, here are a few hints to get started.

A good salesperson has a good system

In any of my customer-facing roles, I’ve learned that you need a plan for each interaction. If you have a meeting with a customer, you should know ahead of time what you might have to offer the customer, and make sure you offer it. If you don’t know, then the meeting should be aimed at discovering what the customer needs and whether you can help the customer.

In a lengthy, complex sales process, this could be a systematic “steps of sale” plan that you follow with each customer. A simpler sales process occurs every time you’re in a restaurant and the server offers you the dessert menu. The main thing is not to forget it! If you’re in a complex sales process that has a next step, schedule the next step in your calendar or CRM system. If your shoe store has a special on socks, put a picture of socks next to the cash register so the check-out person remembers to offer them. Train yourself to say “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Get rid of things that keep you or your people from getting paid

Last time I got a haircut, the salon owner told me that I couldn’t put a tip on my credit card. The haircut was $150. Did I have $30 in my wallet? That salon owner needs to fix his system immediately so his people can get paid.

Don’t abuse your customers’ trust — A tale of two chiropractors

A long time ago, I hurt my back and went to a chiropractor. Soon I was having sessions three times a week, because that was the chiropractor’s recommended practice. The next time, I ended up going to a different chiropractor. “When should I come back?” I asked on my way out. “Come back if your back hurts,” was his answer.

Guess which chiropractor got my business the next time?

Don’t sell people things they don’t need. If they ask you for your recommendation, honor it as a sign of trust. Don’t do things to your customers that would make you mad if someone did them to your mother.

Don’t over-rehearse or beat yourself up

Many selling situations can feel awkward or even combative. If a customer is “just browsing” in a retail store, they might not want to be asked, “May I help you?” In a complex B to B selling process, you might feel as if you’re in a battle with the customer’s reluctance (or the customer’s boss or budget situation). You won’t always succeed, and if you over-rehearse a conversation, you’ll get nervous. Accept that only a percentage of conversations will have a favorable outcome. Just set your intention ahead of time and do your best.

Don’t fail to sell

Sales should never be about selling people things they don’t want or need. If you believe in what you’re selling, you are actually hurting your customers if you fail to sell. Think of buying from you as the first step in your customer’s journey towards a better life — and sell with honor and joy.



Is Your Customer Your Hero?

Do you admire your customers? Years ago, I was visiting a friend who owned a small business. Our conversation was interrupted by a customer. After the customer left, my friend muttered under his breath: “Cheapskate.”

Many of my friend’s customers were looking for a bargain – in fact, his business marketed itself as friendly to bargain-hunters – and yet, at bottom, my friend didn’t like working with his customers.

I recently had a chance to visit Finland, where I produced* a video showing how one of our company’s customers is bringing clean energy to the north of Finland. I’m a fan of renewable energy, but my heroes are the people who are building and operating wind parks.

Our customer treated me like family during the long day of work on the video. One of the technicians told me proudly about his wife, who also works in the wind industry. They took me on an elevator ride up to the top of one of their wind turbines (the turbine is so tall that it took around 5 minutes to get to the top!)

I don’t know if there is any quantitative evidence connecting success with admiring your customers. Certainly I didn’t have to pretend to be enthusiastic – it came across as sincere because it is. The most successful business owners I know treat their customers like kings and queens because that’s how they view them.

Are you honored to be helping your customers achieve their goals? Is your customer your hero?

*By “produced” I mean: I hired the production company that did most of the great work, and generally got in their way while they were filming.

The Power of Kind Words

Do you ever find yourself scanning subject lines of YOUR OWN emails so you can remember what you told someone else? Yeah, me too.

Today I was looking for information I’d given to one of our best vendors. A scan of the subject lines pulled up things like “YOU GUYS ROCK,” “LIKING IT,” “ALL GOOD SO FAR,” and my favorite: “AWESOME!”

Obviously I’ve been lavish with praise to this vendor (who richly deserves it). During a complex project, I also took time to reassure him – IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS – that things are going well.

And you know what? This vendor always goes overboard for me – cutting prices when he knows my budget is tight, doing extra work to make jobs perfect, and sometimes throwing in extra services that haven’t been asked for. Once, he even sent someone to Paris on his own dime to help me supervise a complicated project, because he knew it was my first time doing so.

A lot of us try to “Beat the Vendor” – always asking for more work, faster deadlines, a better price. Doubtless this approach can be effective.

But I like the “kind words” approach better. What about you?

Naming Your Business for SEO

Today, someone asked me: “Is the name of my business important for SEO?”
Increasingly, search engines are being designed to try to think the way humans would. They want a search to bring up answers that would be relevant to a person searching. (Otherwise, no one would use search engines).
So, if you name your business something that would make sense to a person, you should do fine with search engines. At the same time, you don’t want the company to sound like one of those names you see painted on the side of a dirty white panel truck.
Here’s a fictional example to illustrate – Three women are opening a music store and they decide that they want to call it “Harmony Stones.” It’s evocative, it has a musical term in the title, and the word “Stones” brings up all sorts of cool, musical, cultural connotations. The only problem is, the name is so nonspecific that it could be a music store, a spa, a rock band, or any other of a number of businesses. Neither Google nor a person would know that this business is a music store.
They settle on “HS Music Store” but now the name is so unmemorable that people end up calling it “the music store across from the donut place, no the big one, but the small one.”  A good compromise would be something like “H. Stones Music,” “Harmony Musical Gear,” or something similar.

Trump’s Weight Problem

I am a “Morning Joe” addict – a fan of Mika’s because she just rocks, and a fan of Joe’s because, even though I disagree with most of his positions, he makes some great television.

Today I’m enjoying a long morning – breakfast in bed, picking at email, Morning Joe in the background. They’ve been talking about Donald J. Trump’s comments about the former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, who he insulted as “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping” because of her 12-pound weight gain and her Latina ethnicity. I’m not even going to talk about the racism here, because the weight issue hits home so hard.

Early in the show I think* Joe Scarborough referred to Alicia Machado having had a “weight problem,” before Katty Kay correctly said that beauty pageant participants were expected to be unhealthily thin, and that Ms. Machado had gotten back to a “healthy, strong” weight when Trump criticized her. Thank you, Katty Kay.

Trump’s weight problem is really America’s weight problem. For me, his comments bring up a painful history of my own struggle, not with my own weight or body image, but with – there is no polite or politically correct way to say this – men insulting women about their weight. To be clear, women do this too, but the preponderance of the emotional impact on me, and I daresay most women, comes from men.

I have personally been insulted about my weight, which is always 10 pounds more than I would like it to be, because of a disease that could be called XX-America (two X chromosomes, living in USA). Not once or twice, but countless times. A boyfriend once told me I was “really heavy” as if it were an objective fact that needed addressing immediately. I addressed the hell out of his objective fact – I broke up with him immediately.

When someone wants to tell me I look nice (often due to a haircut or an outfit or my stunning smile) they often tell me I’ve lost weight. (I’ve been the same weight for the past 15 years, possibly with varying levels of fitness). I’ve been guilty of this myself.

When a friend makes a casual comment saying such-and-such a singer looks terrible or such-and-such a newscaster should stop eating pasta, or refers to women as “heifers,” I feel personally insulted, and have begun saying so.

I’m going to stop with the personal litany here, because this is a blog post, not a book. However, on to the point.

Trump’s comments about Alicia Machado’s weight do not represent Alicia Machado’s “weight problem.” Any weight problem Alicia Machado had – she reported a long struggle with eating disorders after her involvement with the Miss Universe pageant – seems to have been caused by Trump’s comments and others like them (and our general climate around weight).

I believe that Trump’s comments will remind many women of the times they have been insulted about their weight. If you listened to Morning Joe this morning, you’d believe that his comments will cause a drop in the polls, will stick to him, etc. But here’s the thing. Trump’s sin is that he made these comments in public, and in a professional context. Honestly, to me, he sounds like a lot of men do in the privacy of their own living rooms and locker rooms.

“Fat-shaming” is still acceptable in many social circles, and the belief that it’s not okay for a woman to be larger than a size 4 is still embedded in our subconscious. Many of the men who excoriate Trump in public will still go into the locker room and joke about women’s weight. And they will go into their dark little voting booths and vote for the man who victimized Miss Universe.

Because Trump’s weight problem is America’s weight problem.


Are Free Tools Really Free?

I just read a great blog post on HubSpot about using Trello’s free tools to manage your relationships with contacts. While I don’t think that this is a substitute for a full-featured CRM like Salesforce, it’s a great example of how free tools can be hot-rodded to do the same things as “big business” users are doing with their expensive systems.

While I’m a big fan of free tools, there are some cautions to consider before using one.

Sometimes the free or cheap tools actually perform better than their costly counterparts – but aren’t scalable, or lack key functionality. Website builders like Squarespace and Wix make absolutely fantastic websites, but if you decide to abandon that platform (or the platform fails, as some do) you are stuck with some really hard-to-work-with HTML code. Excel creates great charts, but you can’t make them into EPS’s, and if you want to make beautiful graphs in a professional tool like Illustrator you need to jump through hoops.

These kinds of drawbacks are extremely frustrating to a freelancer who might use a more standard, professional set of tools, because it’s hard to explain the risks to someone who just wants a “really cool website, fast.”

There’s also a danger in using too many free tools. If you own your own small business, you’ll be tempted to adopt a free tool ‘because it’s there.’ But then, you either need to become an expert in using the tool yourself, or you need to find an expert in using it. Suddenly, you’re spending time on the tool or on a problem caused by having adopted the tool, instead of on running your business.

One freelancer reported that to succeed with one client, she needed to be an expert in MailChimp, Wix, and WordPress, Unbounce, and integrations between Unbounce, eBay and Amazon. Doubtless a large agency could have done this, but my client was exactly the type of client that these ‘free tools’ appeal to – a small client with a low budget, so by definition they weren’t hiring a large agency. She said, “I used to be concerned about scope creep – now I’m concerned about tool creep.”

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you hop on board with a new free tool:

  • What’s my plan for integrating this tool with the others I already use?
  • If it’s a design tool, how will I keep my branding on-point if my current designer can’t or won’t use it?
  • How much time is it going to take me to learn to use the tool?
  • Is it really going to solve my business problem or am I adopting it for the gee-whiz factor?
  • What is the risk of the tool “going away” in a few years or months, and if it does, how will that affect my business?
  • What happens when I exceed the terms of “free” – can I afford to pay for the tool?

A few of my favorite free tools are Box (I use it to store professional certificates, study materials, downloaded eBooks, etc.), Evernote (Recipes!) and Brainscape (I’ve been using its free flashcards to learn Finnish). What are yours, and what are the risks you think about when committing to a free tool? Please add your thoughts in the comments.


Thoughts on Plagiarism

When I was in college, the administration took plagiarism extremely seriously. Any student who was proved to have copied another’s work was severely penalized. I don’t remember for sure, but I think the penalty was being “expunged” – worse than “expelled,” being “expunged” meant that the offender’s admission was revoked and all records of his having attended the school were destroyed. Being “expunged” sounded to me like being pulled out of a drain with a toilet plunger – you were the crappiest crap, so crappy that the college did not want you mixed in with their sewage.

In other words, plagiarism was such a gaspingly horrible sin that during  four years of college I never heard of a single person daring to plagiarize an academic paper.

There was one incident, relating to our student newspaper, that has stayed burned into my mind.

A student copied a piece word for word from the current edition of a popular weekly magazine  . . . and our student newspaper published the review. The offense was only talked about in hushed tones because it was considered so grave and was so embarrassing – primarily for the nature of the offense, but, as a footnote, how stupid it had been to copy something that could be so easily discovered. Rumor had it that only a personal connection between one of our paper’s editors and the publisher of the magazine had saved the student newspaper from being sued. The editor who had allowed the piece to be published walked around for weeks in a depressed fog and no one dared mention the student’s name, the incident, or the word “plagiarism” in his hearing.

As commentators here in the United States struggle either to be the cleverest in excoriating the Trump campaign for its error, or, on the other hand, to excuse or minimize the nature of the offense, we would do well to consider the impact of the public dialog on our younger generation.

Do we want students of today and tomorrow to feel it’s okay to plagiarize? Or do we want to retain the sense of shame and horror that my generation had, before a scandal was something that was erased in the next news cycle?