For most of my life up to this point, I was a construction worker. When I was in grade school I started going with my dad, a contractor, to job sites during the summer between school years. When I got older I spent a little time as a retail worker (shelf stocking, mostly) before going back into construction in my early twenties. After another year or two of that, I made the move to a surveying/civil engineering job where I stayed for the next ten years before finally figuring out that even though construction was what I knew, it wasn’t what I wanted. I quit my steady, well-paying job, put my future on the line, and spent the next couple of years letting my creativity flourish. During that time I published three books and a board game. It has been a tremendously rewarding experience, despite all the stress and frustration that came with it. But more to this blog’s point, it has afforded me the chance to observe and practice working in a field in which I had entered with little to no experience at all—sales.
You see, as I was going through the creative process of writing my books and designing Devil’s Playground, my board game, I didn’t really have much reason to consider the practical questions that would naturally arise, like “how in the hell am I going to get the world to see this stuff when it’s done,” and “how will I get people to pay for this?” First thing had to come first, after all. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself; I didn’t see much point in formulating a business model or working on my sales technique before I even had a finished product to sell. Eventually, though, the day came when we had our first run of Devil’s Playground made and ready to move. Now, despite what many people assume, our first thought was not to try and sell the idea to Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers, and it was not to try and get it on the shelves of stores. The first thing you need to understand about Devil’s Playground is that it is a ridiculously fun experience built on an equally fun concept and a lot of love. Based on the initial feedback we got during play testing and at a few events at which we pitched the concept, we never felt like it needed to find its way into stores in order to move copies. And the last thing we wanted was to sell our baby to a large company who would either bury the idea to avoid “oversaturation” or water it down and rebrand it to make it more palatable to the soccer mom demographic. No, we knew what we had was special, and that we could sell it ourselves.
And we were right. One of my favorite things to do now is to take this game to a show or convention and talk to people about it who show interest, and it never seems to have trouble finding its way home with new players. What I’m going to talk about today are a few observations I’ve made during my experience selling this game so far, and a few points of discussion that contradict what I’ve been told the “correct” way to go about making a sale is. Online sales are not the issue, here; here we’ll be discussing the face-to-face approach I’ve learned to take in the pursuit of a sale. Imagine that you’re in a large convention hall, stationed behind a table carrying merchandise that you intend to get people to buy. In my case it’s a board game, but I suspect that the fundamentals we lay out here could be applied to just about anything with a little tweaking to account for personalization. I’ve never attended a seminar on how to sell something, and I’ve never taken a single class on business management, so there are bound to be some ideas in here that go against conventional wisdom. That said, the following are what have worked for me…
Relax, take it easy.
For a lot of people, this is much easier said than done, especially if you feel as though your future is riding on the success of your product. This becomes doubly hard if you’re the sort of person who has trouble initiating conversation or otherwise engaging people due to shyness or a lack of confidence. The fact remains, though, that if people approach your table and your nerves are shot, they’ll pick up on it. They might not say anything about it, and they might not even notice on a conscious level, but your discomfort will find a way into your interactions with people, which may result in a negative lasting impression. I myself am a naturally nervous person—I avoid conflict, my hands are unsteady, and my mind has a tendency to go blank when a large number of people are staring at me—but for those first couple of shows I did I think I was pretty good at hiding that particular character flaw. I’d still describe myself as nervous now, but for some reason it became less of an issue at shows than it was at first. I don’t know if that’s because I got used to the environment, or because I was pitching something I believed in, or because of all the practice, but over time I just stopped feeling nervous about it and my natural talent for talking to people (which I have in abundance, it would seem) was able to shine through. I’m still nervous about a lot of things in life, but no longer when it comes to selling Devil’s Playground. For those of you who don’t think you have what it takes to talk to people in a “sales” capacity, my advice would be to try to fake it until you know for sure one way or the other, because if you’re comfortable, then the people you interact with will be, too. You might surprise yourself with what you can do after a little practice. In any case, a good first step toward figuring out how to talk to people is…
When it comes to interacting with people in the pursuit of a favorable outcome, I have the powerful advantage of genuinely caring about how they feel and how they’re doing. I don’t have to fake that. I’m an incredibly empathetic person, and I try to be nice to everyone I meet because I know that they are all in the midst of fighting a battle I’ll probably never know anything about. I can’t do a single thing that affects someone else without considering how I would feel about it if I were in their shoes first. That’s just a lifestyle, and I’m not sure what to tell you about how to get your mind to that place if it isn’t already there. What I can tell you is that I’m certain that it’s a great mentality to have when you’re trying to give people a good impression of yourself, and by extension, your product. If your speech and mannerisms are communicating to people that you care about them, then they are much more likely to care about you. Again, in my case this is not a contrivance—it’s a natural advantage that I was born with. The downside to this particular personality trait is that I find myself probably caring too much about what other people think (which almost definitely contributes to my nervousness, mentioned above), and I am often too eager to put other peoples’ needs and feelings ahead of my own. But within the context of making a sale, it accomplishes nothing but positive things. Speaking for myself, it’s almost paramount that whatever people decide to do, whether they buy a game or not, whether they like the idea or not, I want them to leave having had an overall good experience, no exceptions (we’ll talk more in depth about this in a moment). The benefits of this from a sales perspective can probably go without saying, and if you can bring yourself to truly care about people on the most basic and universal of levels, then you are much more likely to get them to have that good experience, most of the time without even trying. Since we’re on the subject…
Create a good experience.
When someone stops by to see what you have going on, whether or not they leave with a good impression should not depend on whether or not they’re interested in what you’re offering, or whether or not they even like the idea. One of the worst things you can do is take it personally when someone gives you the impression that they don’t think your project has any legs. I’ve had people turn and walk away from me while I was in mid-sentence, and that’s okay. First of all, we can’t know what’s going on in other peoples’ minds, and there are enough reasons something like that might happen that we shouldn’t assume the worst and get our feelings hurt by it. The important thing is, though, that even if the worst is true, and they were so turned off or offended by the very idea of your merchandise existing that they felt the only reasonable course of action was to vacate the premises at all costs and as quickly as possible, you have to take it like an adult. Keep it in perspective. Not everyone is going to like your stuff. I say this here and now because creating a good, genuine experience for people is about habit forming. If you let those who reject you dictate your frame of mind, then those who accept you suffer for it. I’ve found that the person who is visibly rude is rare. Most of the time people will hang around for a bit if the conversation is good, even if they have no interest at all in what you have at your table. They might leave, and you might not have made a sale, but they’re also not going to run into the next person they meet up with and talk about what a jerk weed you were. This is why it’s important to not be a jerk weed. I’ve heard it said that any press is good press, but I don’t think that I agree universally. If you put negativity out into the world, then negativity is what you’re likely to get back from it. Be friendly, be interested, and be considerate, because in the vast majority of cases, people are worth it.
Be accessible, but not pushy.
When stated this way, this item might seem like common sense. There must be more of an art to being considerate, though, because even though consideration for other people is a crucial element to a sale, I’ve seen a lot of people miss on this, and miss badly. For instance, a quick word association—when I say “salesman” what’s the first word into your head? For me, it’s “pushy.” Most, if not all, of them tend to be a little overbearing, don’t they? They circle like vultures when you drive onto a used car lot, it’s nearly impossible to get them off the phone without hanging up on them, and I think most people (myself included) generally try to avoid eye contact with them when they know they’re about to walk past one. Not many people want to enter into a conversation that they know going in will end with them saying, “no thanks,” sometimes repeatedly. I don’t doubt that “reaching out” and “casting a wide net” are well-worn bullet points in the average sales lecture, but too often I’ve seen that gung ho attitude end in awkwardness and I’m not convinced that the world at large applies those principles correctly. Awkwardness is most definitely not what I want people feeling when they walk away from my table. Maybe car salesmen and the like can get away with it because our society has resigned itself to that being standard when buying many things, and they know that no matter what car lot they drive onto they’ll be greeted with the same. Also, people need cars. I’m not selling something people need, though, and if you’re an artist, neither are you. So the rules are bound to change a bit. Now that we’ve established that we’re not selling insurance, let’s not act like insurance salesmen. My thinking on this issue is better defined in negative terms, detailing what I know I don’t want to do. For instance, it is not my mission to try to make people who are not interested in board games become interested in board games. I could spend hours trying and failing to do that, and in the process I would miss the chance to pitch this game to a lot of people who are naturally much more predisposed to hearing about it. People already have a pretty good idea of what they do and don’t like, and I don’t want to waste my time or theirs trying to convince them that if they would just give this game a chance, a whole new world might open up for them. So, you won’t hear me say things like, “Hey, that’s a really cool yoga mat you got there, you should come check out this board game!” That sentence makes no sense, but I’ve witnessed it (its equivalents, really) being spoken many times over. You’ll also never see me physically corral people over to my table. Some people like to pull that little stunt, but I think it just winds up annoying many more people than it interests. I also steadfastly avoid forcing conversation on people who don’t seem like they want it, even if they’re clearly interested in the game. A simple, friendly “how are you,” or some variation of it, is enough to let people know that you’re there and are not averse to speaking with them. The little things can have a ton of impact. Acknowledge their presence as they walk by with an easy, personable greeting that feels organic. Let your smile reach your eyes. Make eye contact with people long enough to let them know you can be approached, and then look somewhere else so they don’t feel as though you’re staring and might be desperate to make a sale. Put no pressure on people. Let the questions come to you. It’s best if you’re not following a script. Use some intuition to gauge how receptive they might be to information you want to volunteer. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut. Whatever you do, don’t put them in a position to decline. My feeling is that declining an offer, any offer, closes a door that is almost never reopened. For people in our position, being pushy accomplishes nothing that can’t be accomplished with a glance and a greeting. Sure, maybe someone walks past the table who loves board games and just doesn’t notice that there’s one they’ve never seen on the table right beside them. Just make your presence known. “How are you?” or some variation of it is enough to get them to look in your direction, and their love of board games will take care of the rest. They’ll notice what’s there, and all it took was an instant and a couple of words that could be said by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. They’ll either stop in their tracks and talk to you about it, or keep walking without feeling annoyed by you. Win-win.
Try to target the right people.
I think this is more a facet of not being pushy than a standalone item all by itself. Here’s a story: When it came time for me to get a new job, after the development of the game and the publishing of the books, I had an interview for a sales position at a very large company. Being from a construction background, I didn’t have much experience in customer service or sales at the time, but the interview went very well because I speak to people with a natural ease. The hiring rep acknowledged that I was “very easy to talk to,” and stated very clearly that she wasn’t overly concerned about my lack of experience in the field, because I sounded like a natural. It was all fine and good, and then it came time to “role play.” She wanted to see how I responded to a difficult person, which was not unreasonable; lots of people out there are difficult, after all, and it’s one thing to be nice to nice people, but being nice to everyone takes both talent and discipline, and the company considered everyone a potential sale. Understood. So, she had me initiate a hypothetical conversation in which she played the part of “difficult person” and I played the part of myself, trying not to lose the job I was in the process of interviewing for (at least, that’s what it felt like). I knew from speaking to her previously that for some reason she liked the idea of commenting on peoples’ shoes, so I started there. The dry run went as follows:
Me: Oh, my wife would love those shoes, can I ask where you found them? (Knowing damn well I would never, ever say that to an actual person and that my wife didn’t give a rat’s ass about shoes)
Her: “Found?” What do you mean, “found?”
Me: (A bit startled by the immediacy of her hostility) I was just wondering where you bought them.
Her: You could’ve said that before, you made it sound like I pulled them out of a dumpster or something.
Me: (Making an Oscar bid) Oh no, I’m sorry, I should’ve chosen my words more carefully. I can tell they’re way too nice for—
Her: (Cutting me off) Too nice for what? For me?
Me: Uh…no, too nice to throw away.
Her: Well, I was going to toss them out when I got home, are you saying I have bad taste?
Me: (Completely flustered and wondering how relevant this drill actually was to what I would be doing for this company) Uh…I’m sorry, that’s…not what I—
Her: (Cutting me off again) Well, bye!
I was expected to turn that exchange into a sale. What I suspected then, and what I know for certain now, is that there are about a dozen problems with using a conversation like that as a litmus test for someone’s sales acumen. One of the biggest is that the person who will actually engage you in a conversation like that, or respond to a polite question with that kind of hostility, is extremely rare. I was being tested on how I would handle a corner case that I was not, in all probability, ever going to encounter in the real world. But that’s not really the point. The point is that even if that person does walk past you in your quest for a sale, that person is not going to buy your stuff, no matter what it is. Plain and simple. A person who is more interested in being offended by an innocent question than showing you common human courtesy is a waste of your time and energy as a salesperson. Assuming you’re set up in a reasonably trafficked area, your time is much better spent on people who aren’t openly hostile. Not only because they won’t buy anything, but also because you don’t want other people seeing you involved in a hostile or otherwise awkward exchange. Those people are bad for business, and any corporate hack who suggests that you’ll be responsible for “losing” a sale under those circumstances isn’t playing by a set of rules that make any sense.
Now is probably a good time to mention the other strike I had against me during that little drill—I work much better without a script than with one. One thing I’ve learned in the time since this happened is that corporate sales offices love a damned script. I get it, I do. They’ve put some thought into how to maximize the reach of their product, and they’ve engineered a method that can be used by the lowest common denominator, and that makes good business sense. But it doesn’t work for me. I’m a firm believer in organic interactions, in no small part because they allow me to be sincere (see item #2). But when corporate tells me how to start, how to get my foot in the door by addressing the shoes, the shirt, the hat, the weather, whatever, I’m bound to wind up approaching people about things I have to fake interest in and telling them things that simply aren’t true. I don’t know the degree to which people register that falseness, but I believe that you can’t go wrong by treating people like people—with respect and honesty. I don’t much care about shoes, so I’m not going to pretend to. I’ll find some other common ground, because I know we have it, somewhere. And when I find it, you and I are going to have a really fun conversation. And even if you don’t buy anything, you’ll walk away having had a good experience. And if you’re the type of person who can’t act with a basic degree of civility, you’re free to move along and let me talk to the person who can.
It’s entirely possible that there are salespeople out there, much better at this than myself, who can tweak that script and turn those lemons into lemonade. But even if I could do that, I don’t think that I would. Maybe it’s because I have such a personal connection to the product I’m selling, or maybe it’s because of the nature of the product itself, but I believe that whatever the case, that product, and my business, is better off in the hands of people who are going to enjoy it and are not likely to experience buyer’s remorse.
Look like you know what the hell you’re doing.
It can be very tempting to say to yourself, as I did at first, “I know for a fact that what I have is awesome and people are going to love it. It’s so packed with substance that it doesn’t need any window dressing; people will see it for what it is.” That’s true, to a point. What I failed to consider, though, is that looking good amplifies your reach immeasurably. People will notice you from farther away, for instance—people who would not have otherwise known to stop and ask questions. They can’t see all the substance of it if they can’t see it at all. Perhaps even more importantly, a good, sharp look helps with consumer confidence. Let’s level the playing field and imagine that you’re looking at two guys selling the same thing. One guy is dressed up, and the other guy is in a ripped hoodie and has forgotten to zip up his fly. All other things being equal, which of those guys are you more likely to approach? Which are you more likely to give money to? Most importantly, which of them seems more likely to be carrying a product that is as advertised, with no defects or lazy assembly? That’s just one benefit of looking proper. And don’t focus on the extremes, here; we’re using extremes to illustrate that a difference exists, and if it exists at the extremes, then it certainly exists to lesser degrees the closer you get to the middle of the appearance spectrum. Another benefit of looking proper is that if you look like you know what you’re doing, then you’ll feel like you know what you’re doing, true story. It can help with your confidence. And when your confidence rises, so does everything else. Every other factor on this list is impacted by a good, sharp look. This doesn’t just extend to you as a salesperson; it also applies to your layout, whatever that might include. Keep a tidy office, so to speak. Make sure your “presentation,” whether you’re at a booth, a table, in an actual office, or at a lemonade stand doesn’t look like a disaster. It’s a good idea to minimize the dead space, but it’s also important that you don’t appear cluttered. In other words, try to use all the space you have, but don’t overwhelm people who stop to take a look. Your personal appearance, as well as the appearance of your operation, can say a lot to people before anyone actually speaks a word.
Try not to be disagreeable.
This can be a lot harder than it sounds. Obviously, you’ll want to steer clear of discussions with people that are of a political, religious, or otherwise controversial nature—that should go without saying. If you have your head about you, your exchanges with the general public should eventually drift toward what you’re selling. It’s when you get there that you have to struggle to keep this in mind, especially if you’re heavily and emotionally invested in the product in question and it’s something you want to see succeed.
My own personal struggles with this stem from the need people have to find a frame of reference for what they’re seeing at my table. This leads them to say all manner of things about Devil’s Playground that I completely disagree with, but at the same time I have to accept that this is a very difficult game to nutshell for someone and most people aren’t going to be able to process the entire thing quickly. For example, what the vast majority of people say when they first walk up to look at the game, in those first few seconds, is: “So, is this, like, another version of Clue?” The answer, of course, is no. No it is not. My impulse is to answer that question with a few questions of my own: “Would I have wasted all this time, money, and energy rehashing a game that has already been rehashed a hundred times? Would I have packed it up and driven it all the way down here just so people could see the one thousandth edition of Clue?! Would I have stressed out about this thing for years on end in order to bring the world yet another version of freaking Clue?! Did I wake up one morning inspired to create a new board game and say to myself, ‘you know what the world needs? One more version of $%&*@# Clue?!’ Do you think I’m here to waste your time??”
Of course, none of that gets said. Instead, I remind myself that people have no way of knowing what Devil’s Playground has been through, and I admit that the game board does, in fact, resemble a Clue board at a glance. I make it clear that that’s where the similarity ends, and that actually gives me a nice segue into my pitch. And then, sometimes, it gets even more difficult. After taking some time to rundown the game’s features for a new potential player, sometimes I hear, “Oh, like Monopoly.” Well, no. Devil’s Playground is nothing like Monopoly. I still haven’t figured out what it is that people are hearing in there that makes them think otherwise. Is it the fact that the game features money? Maybe, I don’t know. In any case, times like these are when this item needs to be observed. If you’re selling something the world has never seen, people are bound to try and find a frame of reference for it so they can more quickly understand what they’re looking at, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Remember items 1-4, and remember what your priorities are.
The fact is that there is no frame of reference for Devil’s Playground, but the game isn’t about getting all the facts straight; it’s about having fun and creating a good, memorable experience, and that should begin with the sales/purchase process. I suspect that this is true no matter what you’re selling. Some people won’t get it right away, and some are bound to innocently say a thing or two about what you have that you may not agree with and don’t like to hear. Let it slide, clarify for them the important points if necessary, and carry on.