For the past 20 years, I’ve worked with product companies on how to better connect with the people who matter most. “Connect” meaning to help, sell, understand or win hearts with “people” meaning customers like you and me.
When teams ask about how to create value for customers, some of the best “what not to do” examples come from my experience working in sales at a ski store when I was 17.
This job was my first job, and although I didn’t know it then, this would be the job that taught me just about everything I needed to know for the future.
First day, first fail
On the first day, of my first job, I was asked to help a customer get geared up with some ski clothing. Practical is what she asked for, luxurious is what I gave her.
Jackets with furry hoods, glamorous one-piece ski suits, gorgeous part cashmere pullover sweaters and soft lamb fur lined after-ski boots. I was drooling!
I remember looking at my first customer thinking “she looks so pleased” when she spun around with this funny look on her face and said “You are kidding, right? A fur hooded jacket and a one-piece suit? This is about as practical as wearing a prom dress to kick a field goal. I’ve got a 4-month-old baby in my arms and a burp rag on my shoulder. I asked for something practical.”
Me (thinking): Ugh, Wait. What? Did she really just say that? I don’t see burp rags… oh wait. The fog is clearing… in fact, there is a burp rag. And a four-month-old baby, too. Oooooh. But, omg, did she really need to be so blunt and rude? It’s my first day.
I began to apologize and she said something like: “A friend recommended this store as ‘the best‘ on the peninsula. Honestly, I have no idea why. You are as useful as a car with no wheels.”
Ugh. And with that, she took her baby, her baby bags, her baby buggy and everything else ‘baby’ in my line of vision, and walked out the door.
Within a matter of minutes, the sale was blown and my ego deflated. Worse was that for me was that she called the friend who recommended our store, who was a friend of the owner, who in return called the owner, who then called me over to the ski area and ask what happened.
I trudged over to the boot fitting bench and told him what happened. He pulled a pen from the drawer, grabbed an old packing slip, noted six things on the back of it and told me to read them aloud. As I did, he explained what each meant.
Here’s what he shared:
1. We service skis, not people. We service skis in our ski shop, but we care for people. How we care for people is what keeps them coming back.
2. Sales = people skills. We know that 95% of the time someone walks in, they are here because they have an interest or intent to purchase, that is why they get out of the car and walk in our store. (The other 5% need directions or just want to say hi.)
To make a sale means you’ve earned trust. To earn trust, a customer needs to get to know you.
Our greatest sales skill is our ability to connect with people. Listen, ask questions, and then modify and deliver the knowledge you have based on what you have learned from listening.
3. Be nice. Not every customer will be a customer for life. They may just be passing by, or need a quick pick-up item, and that’s okay. A smile and professional service go a long way.
It’s the smallest gestures in daily life are the ones that people take home to share at the dinner table.
4. Be selective. Have a smile and helpful attitude to everyone that comes into the store, but know which customers are the right customers to invest longer time and knowledge in.
5. Don’t sell, story-tell. The majority of people who will walk through our doors will be interested in how a product can help them, not about the side-cut of a ski or the technical specs. Don’t bore them with product details unless they ask for it.
Use the combination of your knowledge and skills to find the best fit for your customer. And if you can do that with a splash of passion, even better.
6. Don’t be afraid to say No. There may be a time when we can’t meet the price of our competitor or we don’t have the right equipment for them. If we don’t have a product or a price point that fits, recommend them to a store that does.
People will remember you as much for the product they didn’t purchase, as the one they did.
Back to the future
Fast forward 30 years and Larry’s words are still relevant today as they were in 1983. Everything has changed since then, and yet nothing has changed at all. The rules of doing good business still take front and center.
Put people before product and everybody wins.
What are your favorite value stories for connecting (or not!) with the people who matter most to you? I’d love to hear them.