A Modern Take on Salesman's Samples

By: Neil Shorney

I love visiting old country houses. I enjoy seeing the art work. I enjoy the ambience. I enjoy imagining what life might have been like for the people who lived in these great houses in the past.

I also like looking at old items in the houses, and something that particularly interests me is the "salesman's sample." If you don't know what that is, then think back 200 years, before the telephone or the Internet, before travel was easy, and imagine what a salesperson's job must have been like. Pretty tough, huh? He couldn't just pick up the phone and arrange an appointment. Equally, the customers who lived in big English country houses couldn't easily pop into a showroom to select what furniture they wanted.

This is where the salesman's samples came in handy. A furniture salesman would carry around miniature copies of his stock, finished impeccably and to the same quality as the original. He could then call on his wealthy prospects and show them exactly what they'd get were they to buy from him—only smaller.

These days, many salespeople don't use samples that way, particularly if they sell a service. How can you give someone a miniature training course, for example? The truth is you can do it a little more easily than you might think. Salespeople or service professionals (if they're involved in selling) don't need physical samples to give customers a feeling for what they're buying because they can use words, phrases, and the buyer's imagination to exactly the same effect.

There are two ways you can describe your services.

  1. In the third person:
    "Well, Ms. Customer, this training course is three days long, and it teaches how to sell more effectively. It covers a full sale, from prospecting to close, and shows how best practice can make people more likely to close deals and hit their sales targets."
  2. In the first person:
    "Ms. Customer, during this three-day course you'll experience a sale first-hand from beginning to end. During the course, you'll interact with others in the group and listen to real-life examples from the instructor, and you'll see for yourself how your current methods compare with accepted best practice. You'll soon be selling much more effectively and hitting your targets."

Which do you prefer? Which paragraph makes you feel part of the training course and gives you a sense of what your experience will be like during the session? Which do you feel most attracted to?

I recently ran a training program for a meeting room provider. They have a fabulous range of room types available from corporate-looking high-tech rooms through to grand old-fashioned meeting rooms with chandeliers and leather furniture along the walls. It was the type of venue of which many competitors must have been envious. Yet their sales were flagging, and they had a lot of empty space. Why? Just listening to some of their phone calls told me that they weren't allowing their prospects to feel what the rooms were like. Sure, they were great at gathering requirements, discussing layouts, and adding value through the personal advice they were able to give. But their language was cold and business-like.

"Of course, Mr. Customer, we have a room to suit your needs. It will comfortably seat 30 people with a good view of the projector screen. We'll provide coffee and pastries during the breaks, and there's a two-course buffet lunch, etc., etc."

All of that is very good to demonstrate capability, but where's the passion that differentiates a great offering from the competition? How about saying this instead:

"Mr. Customer, we have rooms that meet all the requirements you've stated. Before I give you a solution, help me to understand a little more about what you're trying to achieve. Who will be attending the meeting? What impression are you trying to give?"

(Perhaps the answer is that they're important clients, and he'd like to give an impression of traditional values and quality.)

"Allow me to recommend our Princess Margaret room. Imagine welcoming your clients to the meeting in the morning and taking them to their comfortable leather chair around a highly polished oak table, a beautiful vintage chandelier suspended in the centre of the room.

They'll hang their coats on our traditional wooden coat stand and help themselves to a drink from one of the semi-circular antique side tables placed around the room. You'll be able to introduce the meeting and help them look forward to their delicious two-course buffet lunch served in our exclusive restaurant.

Does that sound like the impression you're trying to give to your clients? When are you available to come and view the room venue?"

Notice the difference. In the second version, the customer can visualize what it would be like if he held his meeting in that room—maybe even imagine the scent of the leather chairs and the smell of the freshly brewed coffee—and decide if that's an experience they want.

When you're selling a service, you need to decide whether your words will act as a talking marketing brochure or as a salesperson's sample. For me, it's the latter every time.

Neil Shorney leads a sales team at the world's largest project management training company. He also runs Naturally Sales Ltd, specialists in sales training and consultancy who help companies reach their true potential.