3 Things I Learnt After High School About Selling

In between high school and university, I sold my first commercial software, a billing application I wrote back then in Pascal for a banquet organizer in the neighbourhood. Those were probably the most satisfying $10 I had earned. It taught the programmer in me some simple yet invaluable lessons in selling.

1. Know your customers – Before I approached the banquet organizer, I came to know from a nearby shop owner that they were having trouble with the taxman because of improper bookkeeping. I sold the software to them on the very premise that it will relatively improve their billing and reporting capability, and it did.

Here’s a story: A disappointed salesman of a cola company returns from his Middle East assignment. A friend asked, “Why weren’t you successful with the Arabs?” The salesman explained, “When I got posted in the Middle East, I was very confident that I would make a good sales pitch as cola is virtually unknown there. But, I had a problem. I didn’t know the Arabic language. So, I planned to convey the message visually through a poster with three pictures..

First picture: A man lying in the hot desert sand, totally exhausted and fainting.

Second picture: The man is drinking our cola.

Third picture: Our man is now totally refreshed.

And this poster was pasted all over the place. “Then that should have worked!” said the friend. “The hell it should have!?”, said the salesman. “I didn’t realize that Arabs read from right to left.”

2. Price it high – In hindsight, I think I should have priced my billing software higher, much higher. $10 barely covered the development costs, but I didn’t pay much attention to this critical component at age 18. Now I know, it’s easier to lower the price if you’re too high than higher if you are too low. Everyone wants a deal so when you have high prices it’s easy to discount. A high price communicates value. It also helps sustain a higher quality of service.

Here’s a story: We went into Triple A, CSAA in San Francisco. It was going to be our first multi-million dollar customer. I went in with Gina. They loved our stuff, it really was going to do them a world of good. They said, how much is it?

And I was about to go, “$75,000…” And Gina goes, “Shut up I’m the salesperson.” She said, “A million dollars.”

And I went “…” Gina’s going, “Shut up. I’m the salesperson.”

And the guy looks at Gina and said, “Gina you’re out of your mind. We don’t pay more than $675,000.”

And Gina said, “All right. We’ll let you have it for $675,000.”

So, here was this software. I was about to let it go for $75,000, my first professional software salesperson had just gotten $675,000 and she did the same thing. And she said, instead of per year, she said, “But that’s for the base module. What other ones would you like?”

By the time we walked out, we got an enterprise software order for about $1.2 million. The point about pricing is, particularly if you are an engineer, it’s very easy to under price your product. Because you tend to value it on cost or need or competitive or whatever.

3. Personality of the product – My billing app only had 2-3 screens but it did what it was supposed to do. It was quick, it validated all data entry and it had decent exception handling. But it lacked a personalilty. Just like us humans, a product cannot make everyone happy, so it’s important for it to have an opinion and take a side. None of it mattered then, because I was just selling to one customer. But it matters with products now, because there are a few thousand of any sort in the market trying to get the customers attention. So, how do you get the customers attention? Underdo your competitionand make the choice insanely simple for the customers. (Update 26 Oct 2011: Jason Shen has written a nice article about How to Give Your Product Personality.)

Here’s a story: “Professor” Sheridan Simove has “produced” a 200 page book entitled “What Every Man Thinks About Apart From Sex”. This Worldwide Best-Seller is currently sold out online on Amazon. “Author” Sheridan Simove said, “This book is the result of 39 years of painstaking research and practical study into the subject. I left nothing to chance and really threw myself into my work.” The twist — all 200 pages of the paperback book are blank.

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