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When you ask people to describe the archetypal salesperson, the rug seller comes near the top of many lists. The pushy souk merchants tugging at every passing tourist begging, charming and then bullying customers to buy.
Abdelmajid Rais El Fenni, known as Majid, is different. He runs one of the most successful boutiques in the kasbah of Tangiers, selling rugs, lamps, silverware and embroidery to clients from all over the world.
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He used to claw for business like his neighbours, who sell identical trinkets and rugs. But he soon realised that the way to succeed was not by haggling but by creating value around his products, telling stories and selling the very best things he could find.
“You are like a beggar in sales, asking again and again all day,” he explains. “My father used to say that the salesman should have loose robes; you never get upset. Of course, sometimes you have customers and you want to kill them. But you’re not allowed to.”
Businesspeople often talk about the importance of humility, of serving your customers and acknowledging the fickleness of the markets. For salespeople, humility is not an option but something that can be turned to their advantage. “You look at everyone,” he says. “You pay attention. Often customers don’t even look at salespeople. They treat them like dirt. But if you stand there and watch and listen, you can learn a lot about a customer. I tend to leave people alone to look at things. I turn the lights on, pay attention to what they’re looking at, but I don’t hassle them. The salesman who interrupts and waves his hands about has another 20 years of learning to do.”
Majid is a master at categorising sales leads (the people who walk through his door) and tailoring his approach. Sometimes you need to be patient. At other times, you must treat the customer as a king, to make them feel powerful and inclined to exercise that power by buying. Sometimes you need to teach, to establish your authority with customers who take you for a mere peddler. He compares the different modes of selling to gears in a car. “You change because the gear needs changing,” he says.
Time and again, he sees customers come into his store, as he puts it, like wild horses. He lets them go to other stores to compare prices and products. He does not compromise or grovel. And five out of 10 come back. “When they come back, they’re not the wild horse any more,” he says.
As Majid says this, he rises from his seat, bends his knees a little and settles into the posture of a man riding a horse, one hand out front gripping the reins, the other tapping gently with a whip. “Now you just ride them in.”
A world away in San Francisco, the technology business Salesforce.com, arguably the most advanced sales organisation there is, has much in common with Majid. Its sells cloud-based sales software and customer management services in all kinds of ways. You can buy its product online with a credit card, but it also has platoons of salespeople cold-calling on the telephone and in person, as well as senior salespeople who manage its largest accounts. It is proof that for all that technology enables us to do, it cannot eliminate the human aspect of selling.
In fact, by applying new technology to old-fashioned sales problems and not forgetting that this remains a human activity, Salesforce represents a new kind of sales culture. Neither hard nor soft, it that relies on transparent information and co-operation.
During its early years, in the late 1990s, its founder and chief executive Marc Benioff would sell by any means possible. He would go to several parties every night and collect business cards. The next morning he would turn them over to his sales team. “They hated it,” he says. “They tried to hide as they saw me walk down the hallway, but luckily the office was a big open space, and there was nowhere for them to go.
“I also encouraged the team to call everyone they knew and to routinely ask friends of friends for referrals.”
Mr Benioff also used telesales and cold-calling, other old techniques looked down on by most tech companies which prefer either no-touch online sales or high-touch teams which spend weeks at clients’ offices. He found that he could hire energetic college graduates, train them for a few weeks and in relatively short order have them pounding the phones for business the way companies sell cable television or life insurance.
He streamlined the process of selling, stripping away aspects that would allow a salesperson’s individuality to affect the process. For instance, he insisted that the product be priced low and there be no discounts, so that salespeople couldn’t slash prices to generate volume. The pricing never changed, whether you were selling one subscription licence or a thousand. You closed now at this price, or you did not close at all.
Jim Steele, Salesforce’s chief customer officer, cut his teeth as an IBM salesman. He represents traditional corporate America in the world of Silicon Valley and says that there is no magic to sales, whether you are in the souk, at IBM or at the apex of a modern tech company. But there are two absolute requirements, wherever you are: work hard and be a good listener. “What motivates salespeople is the thrill, the rush, the living on the edge, the idea that they’re going to close the big one. It’s a hero mentality.”
As a manager, Mr Steele has to keep that hero mentality alive for his people. “If they feel too confident that they can do the job, or they start to not like where they’re working, they’ll disengage. The best salesmen in the world are like five-year-old kids chasing a soccer ball. They’re all running to exactly the same place. They’ll always choose the hot company, so your job is to remain that company.”
No business represents this marriage between the traditional and modern selling as well as Apple. When it was planning its first stores in 2000–01, it emphasised the importance of putting them in urban locations to attract passersby, and letting visitors use the products. The company’s intention was to increase the number of “switchers”, people ready to abandon their PCs to become Apple users. This demanded soaring spaces, latter-day cathedrals like Apple’s glass cube on Fifth Avenue, and a selling method akin to missionary work.
The stores were laid out with the new products up front, so customers who had never owned an Apple product could try them out. Next was a Red Zone, abuzz with staff and energy, where the conversion could take place in the form of a sale, And then a Family Room, where customers would be called by name and helped with service, support, and lessons.
At a time when its rivals were trying to sell $2,000 computers in soulless big-box stores using cut-throat sales tactics, Apple went in the opposite direction. Ron Johnson, the former Apple executive charged with coming up with the its retail offering, says that while others were hiring sharks to sell PCs, Apple sought “not sharks, but . . . teachers, photographers and filmmakers”. In other words, converts themselves who sold out of enthusiasm, not just for commission.
Technology creates transparency and gives us more information. It should lead to better prospecting and franker negotiating. But so far it hasn’t eliminated the ghost in the machine, which remains the human interaction.
The writer is the author of ‘Life’s a Pitch: What the world’s best salespeople can teach us all’ (US title: ‘The Art of The Sale: Learning from the masters about the business of life
This is the final part of a two-part series. To read the first part, click here.