What is sales?
“Sell me this pen.” —Jordan Belfort
In Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, there is a minor motif in which Jordan Belfort, the main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, tests his friends’ understanding of sales by handing each of them his fountain pen and challenging them by saying, “Sell me this pen.”
Jordan is testing how well his new business associates understand what really drives sales. Most people in this situation think that in order to sell the pen they need to make the pen appealing or attractive. They think they need to sell the product, to pitch its features and attributes.
It’s his drug dealer friend Brad who sees the situation for what it really is. It’s not about the pen. It’s about the needs of the buyer. It’s about what motivates the buyer to action. So Brad does not try to describe the pen. Instead he says, “Write this down for me,” to which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character replies, “I don’t have a pen…”
That is sales.
How does sales differ from marketing?
Not to make an overly subtle point, but this extreme example illustrates that sales has the power to change conditions, to transform a situation through the skills of the salesperson. Marketing, however, generally does not possess such transformative power. Marketing needs to work with conditions as they are. One could simplify and say: Sales is persuasion. Marketing is understanding applied.
Scorsese’s motif is an illustration of my marketing mantra, “No one buys what you sell, they buy what is of value to them,” and a marketer’s ignorance of this first part, “No one buys what you sell,” often leads to the mistake of making marketing about the product. Marketers often try to push a product. They try to prop up the perceived value of the pen.
The reality of the situation is that people are actually always only buying what is of value to them.
Marketing should put forth an offer that meets the buyer’s needs right at the place and time of sales opportunity. The most effective marketing is therefore about communication, not manipulation.
The salesperson in the flesh has the immediacy and power to create an artificial need in the buyer: a missing pen. Brad is therefore able to transform the sale from an unnatural and ineffective one, in which the seller has to convince the buyer to do something he does not want to do, into a natural one, in which the buyer recognizes a problem that only the seller can easily solve—in one moment the buyer does not value the pen, in the next moment he does. Once this transformation has occurred, the sale only has to be negotiated on mutually acceptable terms.
In marketing, such a transformation is usually not possible, and if it is, it is very expensive (See demand creation). In marketing there should actually be no need to force the sale. Marketing should put forth an offer that meets the buyer’s needs at the right place and time, and in the language of her needs. The most effective marketing is therefore about communication, not manipulation.
Sales and marketing
What you ultimately want from a buyer is not a sale, but a relationship.
At their best, both sales and marketing are opportunities for the creation of mutual benefit. They should never be, as depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street, a means to “get one over” on hapless buyers. What you ultimately want from a buyer is not a sale, but a relationship. Relationships should be built on trust, and while the world of sales certainly allows for the possibility of convincing a buyer to buy something they know they do not need, this requires great skill and results in an asymmetrical transaction–one that is to the primary benefit of only one party. This does not foster the trust that is the foundation of any positive brand relationship. In marketing, Convincing someone of something is both extraordinarily difficult and generally a bad idea.
Jordan Belfort uses his understanding of sales to exploit people’s greed. His buyers are victims. In your world, you can use this same fundamental insight about the nature of such transactions to communicate the value your products actually deliver to those who truly need them. This process will make your buyers equal beneficiaries of the sale, and thus eventually make of them brand loyalists who will facilitate your cause.
The good of sales and marketing
People are not motivated exclusively by greed and fear … People are also motivated by a desire to do good, a desire to make positive change in their lives and the world.
People are not motivated exclusively by greed and fear, even though these emotions are indeed real and powerful drivers of behavior. People are also motivated by a desire to do good, a desire to be good, a desire to make positive change in their lives and the world. These brighter and more positive drivers of behavior are real too. If The Wolf of Wall Street shows the dark side of sales (and marketing), I would here like to point out that the same fundamental insights can and should be used for good. Marketing is a neutral medium. It can be used just as aggressively by those whose ends are to make the world a better place.
Do not sell. Instead, create sales opportunities from what your customers truly value.
I think it’s actually unfair to those people and organizations doing good in the world that they should suffer under any misapprehension about what actually drives human behavior. Use these insights to benefit your cause. Do not sell. Instead, create sales opportunities from what your customers truly value.
If you are not sure what your customers value, then it’s absolutely time to find out. If you, like many organizations, are trapped pitching the features and attributes of your products and services, then you have work to do. This is why your amazing products are not flying off the shelves. This is why you cannot raise the money or get the attendance figures you seek. This is part of why you are still the best-kept secret in town.
You are trying to convince instead of communicate. You are trying to make a pen (maybe a very good pen) desirable to someone who is not at that moment in need of a pen.
Photo: “Lincoln Park bear with wolf looking in” by the author