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?

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.


We Are Teabags

This was the subject line of an email I recently wrote to a colleague. The email was about why it is a good idea for people from completely different departments in a business to exchange ideas and share information – because, like tea, their ideas about best practices can diffuse throughout the company.

But that is not the point of this post.

The point is, it started an email chain. The subject line “Re: We are teabags” has hit my in-box a few times today, and every time, I’ve opened that email first because the subject line is so weird that it jumps out at me.

I’m not recommending you write subject lines that are completely different from the subject matter. This is disingenuous, and while it may get higher open rates, it will also annoy the recipients.

My point is that a little creativity in subject line crafting goes a long way towards attracting extra attention in your recipients’ in-box.

This works whether you’re crafting a marketing email that will go out to a large audience, or whether you’re simply asking a colleague for a meeting.

What are your favorite subject lines? What’s your pet peeve with subject lines?


The All-Caps Crowd

Don’t send me connection requests on LinkedIn if we haven’t worked together. It’s not what LinkedIn is for. Oh and I would also super appreciate it if folks quit sending me “introductory sales emails” via LinkedIn messages.

It’s like when the “all-capsers” hit Craigslist . . . You are ruining the “neighborhood.”

If I wanted that stuff I’d still be checking my Myspace page.

K thanks.

Sometimes Marketing — I mean, Everything — is Typing

KeysRecently I received an email from a male colleague. He asked me to type (or, on a second reading, “get”) several names from business cards into our database. A red mist invaded my brain and I began scribbling notes for a blog post to be titled “Is Typing a Feminist Issue?”

Once upon a time, women were afraid to admit we had typing skills because we feared our employers would not be able to see beyond them. I have always typed fast. At the peak of my part-time jobs in college I was hitting around 105 words per minute. Although I took perverse pleasure in scaring co-workers with my noisy keyboard, I left my typing speed off my resume.

I once met the legendary Sylvia K. Burack, editor and publisher of The Writer magazine – a friend of my mother’s had arranged an informational interview because I wanted to be a writer. One of Ms. Burack’s first pieces of advice was to list my typing speed on my resume. “But I don’t want to spend my life typing,” I mewled.

Why were so many women asked to type? It’s not because people thought women could not do more than type; it’s because, in those days, men couldn’t type – and it needed to get done.

Years later, I noticed one of my junior designers was spending a lot of her time struggling with purchase orders and simple data entry when she had to send a job to press. She invited me to her graduation ceremony, where one of her professors asked me how I felt about the way the school had prepared her for a career in design.

“Well, she can’t type,” I began. The professor’s reaction was huffy, like mine to Ms. Burack: “Well, we don’t want our students to spend their life typing. We’ve trained them to be creative!”

“Congratulations,” I said. “You have ensured that your students do spend their life typing. It takes me five minutes to type out a purchase order, and it takes your prize student 30 minutes. This means I have 25 minutes more than she does to be creative.”

One of my colleagues was reminiscing about the secretary he had when he was a CEO back in the early 90’s. “I wish I had a ‘Martha’ now,” he said. I had no doubt — watching him painfully hunt-and-peck his way through an email made my teeth hurt.

In an age where so many things are automated, avoiding unnecessary work has been made into such a virtue that it seems to be confused with avoiding work, period.

The guy with the business cards didn’t see the value in spending an extra five minutes per card to add new prospective customers to our database. The funny thing is he actually scanned the cards in using a flatbed scanner, which would have taken me a lot longer than typing them.

The mistake I made was thinking he was asking for my help out of sexism. This isn’t true. He respects me; in fact he believes that I have a magical way of transforming the cards into data. (It’s called a business card scanner, but someone still has to make sure the data are correct).

My son’s high school does not teach typing — it teaches Microsoft Office, but not keyboarding. (I hope they’re not supposed to copy-paste their papers.)

Marketers and salespeople don’t want to spend time processing “Alice doesn’t live here anymore” emails because it’s tedious work. “Someone else” or “An intern” should be doing this, the thinking goes.

Performance reviews and other professional rewards don’t reward behavior that contributes invisibly to productivity or quality. No one posts “Mavis Beacon” on his LinkedIn profile under “Harvard Business School.” But the brilliant marketing email you write today may have a lower-than-expected open rate because you didn’t capture the names of the last 200 high-value contacts and you didn’t spend time cleaning your data for the last 24 months.

Just because you can type out fifty emails before your first coffee doesn’t mean you should. That said, it makes sense to pay attention to the skills you need to get all of your job done, or all of your life done, not just the fun parts.