In the digital age, most entrepreneurs feel tied to their desks. There’s no way they can make time to go out and sell to customers face to face. And anyway, they have nothing offline to actually sell, right? Wrong.
Selling face to face gave thousands of top entrepreneurs their first taste of business. Highly successful individuals including John Mills of JML, John Paul DeJoria founder of John Paul Mitchell Systems, and even Richard Branson, all started out selling direct to customers face to face.
In fact, a surprisingly high number people who founded huge businesses seem to have started out selling direct as children or young people.
I think there are key three reasons by there might be a link between the two.
1. Selling face to face is a business bootcamp.
Getting close up and personal with potential customers, especially at a young age, helps you build a dizzying array of different business skills, and it makes you learn them very fast – because if you don’t then you’re likely to end up feeling foolish, embarrassed, or even making a loss.
The first thing you learn when you sell direct is that you need to make a connection with your customer. You need to make them like you. As a child entrepreneur you obviously have an advantage – people think it’s cute that you, a kid, is trying to sell them something. Warren Buffet famously sold chewing gum packs as a kid, amongst a wide range of other things, door to door, so he got his experience in early.
But when you get to your teens or early 20s, customers might not be so forgiving, so you have to learn more skills even quicker, and two of these key skills are creativity and problem solving. If a potential customer looks like they want to buy, but needs an extra reason to push them over the line, you need to analyse their barriers, find the solution that works around them, and calculate how to maximise your own profit – all in a couple of seconds.
On top of that you’ll automatically learn negotiating skills, time management, supply chain control, profit optimisation, active listening and a whole host of other skills that every single entrepreneur needs today. Selling is great training.
2. Selling direct gives entrepreneurs new confidence.
Every entrepreneur can get out of the office and do some selling; even if their product is a social app. Anyone can strike up a conversation with a stranger or a friend and see how well they can sell their product – even if it’s free. There are no excuses. But many will tell you that they don’t want to, and often it’s because they’re scared. They’re frightened of seeming pushy, or feeling embarrassed, drying up or getting stuck half way through their pitch.
But that’s one of the reasons why startup entrepreneurs should force themselves to get accustomed to selling. It’s not easy for everyone, especially if you’re an introvert personality type, but selling helps build the confidence you need to face down challenges later in life. After all, it’s estimated that there were up to 14m people employed in sales in the US in 2015, and not all of these can be outgoing extroverts.
One of the ways round your understandable lack of confidence at the start is to forget you’re selling at all. As Mark Cuban, one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs says: “Selling is not convincing. Selling is helping.” So remember: you are the expert, and you’re sharing an opportunity to discover an innovative new service or product that will change things for them; you’re doing them a favour.
3. You’re guaranteed to learn more about your customers’ needs.
The problem with not getting out and meeting your potential customers face to face, especially if you run an online startup, is that it’s hard to find the true reasons for any customer churn or lack of loyalty. You can email them or gather feedback on social media. But you’ll never be 100% sure what’s going on until you can speak to people face to face.
One of the ways that selling can help you is that you build a stronger relationship when you meet a person in real life. That gives you far more opportunities further down the line to gather high-quality, accurate feedback. For example, you could offer a new customer a free trial on condition they agree to you contacting them by phone in a few weeks for feedback. If you’ve already met them, they are much more likely to give you the balanced and honest truth.
The other reason is that when you try to sell something to people face to face you come away with a huge amount of insight from their point of view. It’s not unusual for this experience to throw up glaring problems with a product or service that were not captured during the design or testing phase. People talk round products and services in real life, asking many more questions than they do online. Selling can advance your knowledge of your customers’ needs and help you get exact product-market fit.
No matter how old you are, what kind of startup you run, or whether you’re online of offline, making time to get out of the office and do some face-to-face selling could be one of the smartest moves you make all year.
Sharon Fishburne is a freelance marketing consultant who specialises in helping SMEs take their businesses to the next level. An expert at marketing strategy, she previously worked at a number of the biggest global consultancies, including PwC, advising multinationals on their expansion strategy. Sharon saw the value that smaller local businesses could take from that process too.