Stop selling and start listening: one simple rule for sales success

I was 11 when I first was asked to sell something. It was a Christmas wreath fundraiser for my Boy Scout troop. I was terrible at it, for a few reasons.

The first was that I had no courage.

The thought of knocking on the doors of the many houses in my neighborhood and actually engaging adults in a conversation left me weak-kneed.

The second was that I thought it was decidedly uncool, and when I was 11, I yearned to be cool.

I knew instinctively that selling wreaths wouldn’t get me there.

Lastly, I didn’t sell many wreaths because I didn’t care about wreath sales.

You sold wreaths to defer the cost of going to summer camp. I knew that I was going to camp every summer, regardless of the number of wreaths I sold.

My dad was the Scoutmaster, and my presence at camp was a foregone conclusion. So there was little tangible incentive to get out there and pound the pavement spreading evergreen-based holiday cheer.

The whole experience soured me on selling things.

There were Boy Scouts who would tally huge numbers, and be greedily thrilled with their success. I hated those kids. I viewed their enthusiasm with a quiet, simmering cynicism. They were losers for trying hard. I was cool because I didn’t try.

And for a long time after, I viewed all people that embraced sales as shallow hucksters.

In my view, these were people who were, at best, fooled into thinking that what they did was important, and at worst, couldn’t be trusted.

To me, they were all Harold Hill from The Music Man. Charming maybe, but definitely hiding ulterior, selfish motives. I knew in my heart I would never be one those people.

Changing his tune

Today, I sell something almost every day, over the phone, to people I’ve never met.

So, what changed? In the 22 years since my pimply-faced era of detached indifference, I’ve figured something out about myself.

I’ve learned that I love to hear people tell stories about themselves.

I like to know where people are from, how many siblings they have and whether or not they like what they do for a living. I like to know what’s missing from their lives.

I’m interested in people. And it’s that affinity, more than any other, that’s drawn me to the work that I do.

I sell cremation urns. Custom cremation urns, in fact.

I’m the guy who talks with the families when they call in and ask about our product. That also makes me the guy who has to ask about who died, what they meant to those they left behind, and why we’re making whatever custom memorial they’ve asked us to make.

There are a lot of tears. There are a lot of long silences. There are also a lot of amazing stories.

The easiest part of what I do is listening to all those stories.

They never fail to fascinate and touch me. I’ve heard tragedies about young children. I’ve laughed with people about their deceased relative’s weird obsessions.

I’ve been told about the big things in life: amazing athletic accomplishments, important family vacations and career milestones. I’ve spent just as much time reliving the smaller moments: a memorable evening, a final conversation. It turns out that what we all hope is true actually is true: everybody’s story matters.

Finding the right moment

The hardest part of what I do is to, at just the right moment, turn that story from a reminiscence into a buying decision. From a conversation to a transaction. Doing that takes some finesse, and I’m still not always great at it. It helps that I believe in the product I’m selling.

I’ve seen how emotionally powerful one of our urns can be for a family. That helps settle my nerves. But I’m always on the lookout for the right moment to ease them into a buying frame of mind.

Others may have 10, five or even three easy steps to share about sales strategy and success, but I only have one and it’s quite simple:

Listen to what your customers actually say about what they need, and then fill the need.

It works if you sell promotional products, laptop computers or custom cremation urns. Pay attention to your customer’s story, and when the moment is right, turn their storytelling into buying.

Sales isn’t about the product you’re selling; rather, it’s about the person who is buying.

That may sound like a slogan for a bad sales training offered in an airport hotel conference room, but it is true.

If you listen to your customers, and really care about the problem they need to solve, you’ll achieve greater success and satisfaction. Eleven year-old me would be shaking his head in disgust, but today’s me is just proud to be one of the club.

Contact:  Grant Dawson is director of communication for Foreverence, an Eden Prairie manufacturer of cremation memorials:  888.730.6111; grant.dawson@foreverence.com; www.foreverence.com.

Grant Dawson

Director of Communications