When I was in college, I started working as a sales rep for a graphic design and print agency. I didn't have a car or a driver's license, so my job entailed walking to every shop and business in the neighbourhood to introduce myself and sell our services. You know, manual labour.
Looking back now, I have to acknowledge my bravery. An eighteen-year-old, striding into a business, seeking out a decision maker and trying to sell them something. Who does that?
A hawker, that's who!
My sales technique was not overly different from that of anyone who's ever tried to sell you a fake Gucci bag on holiday –– minus the sleaze. But don't judge me too harshly because there are plenty of salespeople who still use this approach today; they may, however, fancy themselves far more sophisticated because they don't physically visit their leads. Instead, they call, send generic LinkedIn messages, or appear in people's inboxes unannounced.
While I did manage to generate a number of clients, I can't say I was wildly successful. I did, however, gain a lot of experience and confidence –– starting a meaningful conversation with a complete stranger is an art and a lifelong skill worth developing.
There are, of course, obvious reasons for my poor conversion rates. Let's take a look at...
4 Reasons why I sucked at selling
1. My boss spent a lot of time educating me about what we did as a business. Boy, oh boy, can I tell you a thing or two about paper grades, ink, and colour modes. But he never really taught me how to sell our products and services. What value would a local deli get from having flyers and business cards designed and printed?
- 2. Once I had exhausted my local stomping ground, I was physically unable to access more new leads. While I was working hard to get my driver's license, buying a car was out of my budget, so I wouldn't be expanding my "network" any time soon.
- 3. My follow-up game was quite restricted. I either had to walk to a business to "check in" after my initial visit or make a call and hope that the right person would answer –– email was still a bit fresh for small South African businesses in those days.
- 4. The area we operated in was mostly dominated by small businesses and shops with owners who always tried to negotiate on pricing.
I don't think my success in sales was impacted by a lack of consistency. I was (and still am) ambitious, motivated and unafraid to knock on doors. I walked up and down those streets with my notebook and samples like the good little hawker that I was!
But, even your most resilient and persistent salespeople can't sell without a good understanding of their buyer persona and what's important to them.
Knowing your products and speaking with authority about them is fantastic –– it's Sales 101! But I had no idea how to make that matter to the local hairdresser. Sure, he'd want the glossy paper, but was it cheaper than the matte paper? That's what he really cared about in the moment.
If the price was an issue, I needed the tools (and content) to convince the prospect that they would get better outcomes by investing in a better-quality print. I needed to sell them the extra business they would generate by investing in branded marketing materials, not the marketing materials themselves.
And if they couldn't afford them at our price?
Rather than cutting our margins, I should have been able to make suggestions for other, less expensive services in our catalogue that could help them generate the necessary revenue to invest more with us in the future.
And if that didn't work?
Well, I should have known the difference between a right-fit customer and someone who simply wasn't worth the energy or resources because those types either never buy...or they'll always be that customer who expects a discount, rapid rate delivery, additional support services and freebies.
What’s changed from selling in the 00s to selling in the 20s?
It's been quite a few years since my short-lived career as a sales rep. Nowadays, the internet offers so much free educational content on sales and marketing that I'm sure I could have filled many of my skill gaps through pure self-starter initiative.
Also, let's not forget the obvious: almost everyone is now using some or other digital channel to search for and learn about a product or service they're interested in, making the use of marketing automation tools essential for sales growth.
It's an entirely different world for the "modern" salesperson.
So why are so many salespeople still having their performance evaluated based on cold calls and outreach?
Grown-up me may have some answers:
- Your company hasn't built a structured sales process that supports your daily sales activities.
- Everyone on your team has their own definition of each stage in the sales pipeline.
- You target almost anyone who's a likely candidate for your product or service, but there isn't a documented buyer persona that you are actively pursuing.
- You either don't have a dedicated marketing department, or you simply prefer not to talk to each other –– it happens... a lot.
- You have some sales enablement and marketing technology, but you skipped the onboarding stage and now have no interest in poking that bear again.
- You have NO sales enablement and marketing technology.
- Your business isn't big on continuous learning and upskilling –– it's written somewhere in your company values but rarely applied.
I bet that little business failed...
The good news is that the little graphic design and print agency I started out at is still up and running. They don't have a website, just a Facebook page with sub-500 followers, but they're clearly active and operational.
So, you may be thinking, "Ha! For all the fancy sales and marketing tools now available, they seem to be doing just fine! You can keep your HubSpot!"
Well, yes. The business is clearly surviving; there's no argument there. And for many business owners, that's enough –– that's a happy life!
Evidently, they've found a way to keep serving their small community of clients, and I have a feeling that they're hugely reliant on word of mouth and established relationships –– perhaps even relationships that I planted the seeds for many years ago.
But I guess what matters is, what do you want for your business?
Do you want your company to grow beyond the confines of a small community?
Can you afford a "getting by" mentality in the midst of a recession, or do you want to thrive despite the challenges?
The sad reality is, someday soon, the South African market will fully embrace online print services, just like we do in the UK, and the little guys will struggle to keep up with pricing and speed.
Maybe by then, it won't matter to my ex-boss. Perhaps he's not building a legacy and has no intention of growing his team and gaining more business. We are all motivated by different things.
But if you have ambitions to grow, expand and reinforce your business, I have to ask you this:
"How certain are you that your big growth goals aren't restricted by small-scale thinking?"
In other words, are you rinsing and repeating old methods or using outdated technology and processes and wondering why nothing is changing and improving?
Selling (and thinking) bigger
Some of what I've discussed here is super obvious –– I know. If you want to grow your business, you have to apply strategy and embrace the tools that serve the market you operate in, as well as the market you want to tap into. The problem is that so many business leaders are scared to take the plunge and make the investment or dedicate themselves to a strategy that may challenge old processes and ask the hard but necessary questions.
If there's one thing you take away from reading this blog, it's that you should thoroughly audit your sales process –– is it even documented? Is that sales process aligned with your marketing activities? Is it targeted at a specific buyer persona?
Yes, holding on to repeat customers is a key factor for business longevity, but if you're working without a clear (and updated) strategy and without the tools to reach a wider audience effectively, you'll always be that small-town business whose survival is more of a fluke, and less of a concerted effort to grow and succeed. What's more, your hardest-working salespeople will be so miffed by your lack of support that they'll go on to become content writers who try to create the very materials they originally lacked.