Cold reading and selling

In one way or another, I have been involved in selling for over twenty years. For many moons I earned a living writing and producing sales and marketing material for numerous different companies, ranging from small 'two men and a dog' outfits to large multi-nationals. My clients spanned most industry sectors -from heavy engineering to lingerie, Pharmaceuticals to banking, information technology to shoes. Just to add further variety, these assignments covered many different media - print, audio, video, web and live presentations. Although much of this work was undeniably pedestrian, it taught me a great deal about corporate selling, and in particular about honing a sales message and finding effective ways to deliver it. In several cases, I was also involved in training professional sales personnel.

Of course, there is no substitute for first-hand sales experience, and I've had plenty - either selling my own services or those of companies I've worked for. For a brief time, I was even the UK Sales & Marketing Manager for a multi-national web technologies company, which sounds far grander than it actually was. If you want really serious credentials, I've been in several shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival - possibly the most fiercely competitive market in the world. If you can hype and sell a show there, you can sell anything anywhere!

I've also had the privilege of working with some really first-rate sales and marketing professionals, two of whom helped me with this section.

Two types of selling

There are essentially two kinds of sales situations.

1. Business-to-business selling. Typically abbreviated to 'B2B sales'. This involves one person in a natty suit selling expensive things and services to another person in a natty suit while they sip coffee in an air-conditioned office. It often involves nauseating buzzwords like 'interface optimization'.

2. Retail selling. This involves some poor under-paid soul dealing with infuriating customers who want what they can't describe, can describe what doesn't exist and want nothing they can afford.

In this section I am primarily concerned with business-to-business selling, although at the end I have included a brief note about retail selling. I am going to refer to my hypothetical sales person as male, which provides a change from the female pronoun used throughout the rest of this book.

Digression: men .v. women

To digress for a moment (by all means skip ahead to the next heading) the two or three best sales people I've ever known were male, but I think that's a fluke. I'd say that on average women are better at selling than men, for at least three reasons.

(1) All sales jobs involve a lot of time on the phone, and women use this tool more effectively than men. I once ran a small telesales team which included a young woman, Swiss by birth but very much a citizen of the world, whom I regard as the greatest telesales talent I'll ever hear (and not just because she could sell in five languages). She could open companies like a can-opener, and it was a joy and an education to listen to her in action.

(2) Without question, women are infinitely superior when it comes to self-presentation and grooming. There are still far too many salesmen who go to see clients looking like they get dressed in the dark.

(3) Women are more competitive. Naturally, every man who reads this will disagree, and that's because men often confuse 'aggressive' with 'competitive'. I concede the average salesman may be more aggressive (a contentious point), but in my experience women really are more competitive. For one thing, they have to be (just to overcome prejudice and sexism). For another, they know how to be. In the words of Rudyard Kipling's excellent poem, 'the female of the species is more deadly than the male'. In fact there are two pieces of good advice I'd give to anyone setting up a sales team. First: hire a woman. Second: hire two, and tell them they're in competition! End of digression.

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