A Sailboat on a Calm, Sunny Day

I was a couple, six months into my new job as a salesperson at Magic 96 radio and I had hit a slump.  Prospecting was still part of my regular routine but I clearly didn't have as much time to do it as when I was brand new.  My plan had become "work smarter not harder" and I was being rather selective about on whom I was making prospecting calls.

I don't know.  Maybe, I was just fooling myself into believing that there was such a thing as "smarter" work.  Perhaps, I should have just been working more hours so that after servicing my existing clients I could commit as much time to cold calling as I had done when I first started.  I looked around the sales floor and saw a variety of plans that people were working and I was having a hard time discerning which plan was responsible for which results because there didn't seem to be rhyme or reason.

With these doubts in my pocket, I trudged down the hall to meet with Dick.  My first and most influential manager in the radio business, Dick Harlow, seemed glad to see me.  I wondered why as I clearly wasn't performing at peak efficiency.  Shoot, I wasn't performing at all.

Dick took a look at my prospect list and asked me how it was going with Robinson Marina and Pasta Town and Burgess Carpet.  My answers followed a pattern:  I did a little research to qualify each and then I called, spoke to the decision maker and was granted an appointment.  After meeting with them, the process lost steam and now each was kind of dead in the water. 

I was a sailboat on a calm, sunny day - looking good but going nowhere.

Dick suggested that we go out and see my best three prospects together and figure out if there was something different that I could be doing.  So, I set it up and a couple of days later we headed out to see Pete Robinson at Robinson Marina.  On the way over, I told Dick about the prior meeting and then warned him that Pete wasn't much of a talker.

We introduced ourselves to the receptionist who said that Pete would be out in a minute and to make ourselves comfortable.  I sat down in a chair as Dick wandered over to look at a boat.  Pete came out and I jumped up to greet him and introduce him to Dick.  After handshakes all around, Pete asked us to come back to his office and I was two steps in that direction when Dick said,

"Pete, can I ask you a question?"

"Sure, of course," Pete replied.

"This Bayliner brings back some great memories for me.  I remember going out to my uncle's cabin on Lake Canandaigua in Upstate New York when I was ten or twelve and just having the best time tubing off the back of his boat.  I think my cousin even kissed me on that boat before either of us realized that it just wasn't going to work out."

Pete was smiling.  I had never seen Pete smile and, frankly, I thought it would crack his face. 

Dick smiled too and continued, "Anyway.  Are these among your best sellers?"

"What a dumb question," I thought to myself.  "Of course a Bayliner is a top seller.  I read a half a ream about Bayliners and SeaRays and MasterCrafts and could have answered that question on the way over."

But, Pete didn't think it was a dumb question at all and he answered, "Yes.  You know we like to say that you could walk across the lake on Bayliners there are so many of them out there."

"Well, it certainly is a nice looking boat but I wonder what makes it that much more popular than some other brand of boat," Dick said curiously.

Pete looked like Johnny Bench winding up to hit a 3-1 fastball out of the park.  "Really it's a combination of practicality, good looks and value pricing.  Bayliner has spent thousands of hours asking boaters exactly how they use their boats and have put all that research into the development of a boat that just flat out works great for families with about $20,000 to $30,000 to spend."

"You seem to know a lot about who would be interested in a Bayliner," Dick said thoughtfully.  "Could you describe the buyer of this type of boat in more detail?"

"Sure, it's a family - not just the husband but the wife, too.  Both are making the decision so we spend a lot of time talking directly to the woman and never make the mistake of directing all of our attention to the man.  Anyway, they often bring their kids - which is why we have that little video arcade room over there."

For the next half hour, it was as if Pete was making up for lost time he talked so much.  Dick asked the occasional question and Pete unloaded valuable information as I took notes.  As Pete began to slow down, Dick told him that based on everything we had learned he was confident that we could help Robinson Marina reach exactly the kind of folks that would love to own and could afford to own a Bayliner. 

To my amazement, Pete agreed and told Dick that I had done a very good job of presenting the value of our station and that if I could help him work out the co-op with Bayliner he would be happy to buy $5,000 worth of advertising in May.  We shook hands all around one more time and we left.

The next two calls went almost exactly the same way.  Dick was relaxed and casual and told stories that eased us into important conversations about marketing goals and business plans.  The prospects praised me for being a fountain of valuable product information but it always turned out they had a question or two they hadn't quite gotten around to asking me. 

The end of the day came and Dick took me for a beer. 

"What did you learn today, Timmy?" Dick asked as he waited for the three inch head of foam on his beer to subside.

"To take you on all my calls!  Dick, that was amazing.  None of those people ever had nearly as much to say when I was talking to them on my own.  You were like Spock - doing some sort of Vulcan mind trick on them," I gushed.

"Here's the thing.  All of those people and most everybody else who owns or runs a business wants to talk.  They mostly want to talk about their business, though and not ours.  You've probably been too focused on providing information instead of having a conversation."

"Okay," I said intently, "I'm going to go out there tomorrow and start making it happen.  I'll come up with relevant stories and interesting anecdotes and get some orders!"

"That's not the way it works," Dick said ernestly.  "It's obvious that you've been out there trying to make it happen and it's clear that you've been getting appointments and making presentation but what is not clear to you is that you can't 'make it happen' by trying harder and being more persistent."

I was crestfallen.  If persistence and determination weren't going to make it happen I really had no idea what to do.

"Timmy, let me tell you something.  The more you try to force people into having conversations with you and the more you try to make it happen by presenting the benefits of your product, the less likely success will be.  People want to grow their businesses and they know they need advertising as part of that process.  People know about and like our station and they want to buy it. You need to stop trying to make it happen and begin to let it happen."

In 1992, I wasn't quite sure what that meant but I did learn to relax a little more and I did begin to figure out that people have to be okay with you before they are willing to buy your product.  There was no question that it was an evolutionary change for me but the advice was dead-on 20 years ago and it applies as much today. 

Forget about making it happen and focus instead on letting it happen.


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  • 5/25/2012 11:25 AM Karen wrote:
    Just what I needed to read today! Thanks for sharing this story
    Reply to this
  • 5/26/2012 1:22 PM Doug Parsons wrote:
    Having known Dick Harlow since the mid 1980's (while working for Voyager Communications) and having worked for him at Clear Channel for the past 2 1/2 years, I can vouch for every word that you've written. That's just the kind of human being he is. The industry and indeed the world is a better place because of him.
    Reply to this
  • 6/1/2012 7:16 PM Walt Bennetti wrote:
    Great story and a good message. I met Mr. Harlow several times through the years and he was always friendly and interesting. Thanks for sharing.
    Reply to this
  • 6/11/2012 6:45 AM Jon Greener wrote:
    This post emphasizes what I was told early on in my sales career, "Most people's favorite subject is themselves." I've never been the smartest, most smooth salesman in the world, but I know how to get people talking about themselves and their company. If you listen carefully, people will tell you how they want to be sold.
    Reply to this
  • 8/19/2012 7:42 AM Susan wrote:
    Brilliant! I have just started my first advertising sales job. This was excellent advice.
    Reply to this
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