Blog Rebroadcast: Never Make the “Soft Sell”; Make the Smart Sell

(NOTE: This post originally appeared on 8.27.12.)

The “Touchdown Jesus” mural at Notre Dame. How could I get Him to bless our deal?

I like to think of myself as a darn good salesman. I really do think I could sell an ice cube to an Eskimo. Heck, I think I could throw a couple of A/C units into the deal, and get him to open a line of credit!

Those of us in sales need that kind of confidence. There’s no other way to be successful at it.

But sales is also about knowing your customers’ needs, and sometimes the confidence that makes a good salesperson can also make them a blind one.

I’d like to tell you the following anecdote, from one of the biggest deals Steiner Sports has ever closed, to illustrate what I mean. The following is adapted from my new book, You Gotta Have Balls.

In 2005, after we finalized our Yankees-Steiner Collectibles partnership, I began looking for the next big alliance we could form. Ideally, we would join up with a brand that was comparable in stature to the New York Yankees. We needed a partner that had history. That brought out emotion in people.

The only other “team” I could think of that had these qualities on a Yankees-level was Notre Dame Football. Like the Yankees, that college football program has a long, rich history, deep renown, and a stadium held sacred by many.

The only problem in adding Notre Dame collectibles to the business was that Notre Dame said no to everything. They’re Notre Dame and they’re doing just fine. Sure, they’re aggressive with their brand; they want to be on top. But they can afford to be very, very picky….

Nonetheless, I figured Notre Dame might have seen that the Yankees had partnered with Steiner Sports, and having just inked that deal, it was a good time to go after them. We were hot.

But there was another problem: I’ve never been a Notre Dame fan. I watch them, and I respect them, but I bleed Syracuse orange, not Notre Dame green. I’d be lying if I pitched to Notre Dame and claimed to be passionate about the school (as opposed to the brand). And no matter how confident a salesman I could be, they’d see right through me. How many times a year does Notre Dame get proposals from people coldly looking to capitalize on that brand? This couldn’t be a business deal that added up only on paper. It had to add up in the hearts and minds of the organization as well. I had to find a way to earn their trust.

And it would all begin with the initial contact. I had to make sure that from the get-go, we showed Notre Dame the proper amount of reverence and respect. Some people might consider this a “soft sell” strategy, but I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. We had to execute a “smart sell” strategy.

My VP of Sales at the time was Pete Kelly. He was a Notre Dame lunatic — passionate about the team and the school. I knew he was going to be important here.

“Better to have a guy named Kelly call Notre Dame,” I told Pete, “than a guy named Steiner.”

Pete did some good legwork; eventually we got ourselves in front of the right people at Notre Dame. And after that, we engaged in a months-long pitch, which involved several other sales strategies (which you can read about in the book!). In the end, we got the deal done: Notre Dame Collectibles by Steiner.

But I’ll always feel strongly that it was all predicated on that initial call – on having Pete make that first contact, instead of me. Like I said, I’m a confident sales guy. But for the first overture, I was not the right sales guy. By speaking to Notre Dame in the right language – through our in-house authentic Notre Dame fan – we set the tone for the rest of the sale.

What about you? Do you use the same tactics to sell everyone? Or do you adjust your strategy based on the particular needs – and language – of each client?

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