Once upon a time, I sold for a Fortune 200 company. After success as a territory account representative, I received a promotion to handle major accounts within the retail division. My newly designated account territory included large national and international hotel and restaurant chains headquartered in a metropolitan city. For me, the toughest part of the job has always been making initial contact when a new senior executive is introduced to one of my accounts.
I tried all of the standard approaches that I learned in my sales training. I tried the “I am Steve representing XYZ Company and I would like the opportunity to talk with you about an exciting new product that has just become available” approach. It didn’t work very often. I tried, “I have helped many customers similar to your organization, and would like the opportunity to show you how I can help your company.” That resulted in “Thank you very much, but I am really busy, please call me again next year”-type responses.
I had a quota to make. I had never missed quota prior to this appointment. I needed something that could get me in the door. Better yet, I needed something that could close business with my new, much larger accounts (and subsequently a much larger quota). I decided to start by assessing my personal strengths. One advantage I had was that my college degree was in Hotel and Restaurant Management, so I knew my customers’ business issues very well. I thought about how I could leverage that knowledge, and in the middle of a cold, sleepless February night, I got a crazy idea.
Imagine this. A van from ABC Florists pulls up outside a corporate office. Out of the van appears a delivery person carrying a beautiful bouquet. As the bouquet is transported throughout the office, everyone notices. The delivery person finds Ms. Smith’s receptionist and explains that she has a personal delivery. Ms. Smith sees the bouquet and exclaims, “Oh, what a surprise! Oh, how nice! Who could have sent this beautiful bouquet?” With building anticipation, she delicately unwraps the beautiful paper and her eyes widen as she discovers a beautiful glass vase full of…potatoes. “What is this? What is going on? Is this a mistake?” The delivery person shrugs his shoulders and gives no details. Ms. Smith, seeking to figure out the mysterious delivery, opens the attached note and reads, “Ms. Smith: Inventory losses are no small potatoes. Steve”.
(You see, I’m Steve.)
After each delivery, I waited two days. I knew there was a lot of discussion in the office about the strange delivery. I knew the executive wouldn’t know what to think of, or even do with the potatoes. I knew there would be hallway conversations and lunchroom gossip about the potatoes.
Two days later, I phoned Ms. Smith. As expected, I got the receptionist. When asked to identify myself, I simply said, “This is the potato guy.” There was a pause, then, “One moment, please.” I could just imagine the receptionist giggling as she called Ms. Smith to tell her that “the potato guy was on the line.” (Did I always get through to the executive? No. Did “Ms. Smith” almost always take my call? Yes, she just had to know what this was all about.)
When I had Ms. Smith on the line, I knew I had her attention, but now I needed to get her interest and get it quick. My goal was to get an appointment to see her. I said, “Ms. Smith, inventory control at the store level is critical and vital for you to determine your monthly food costs. And yet, it is almost impossible for your store managers to do this accurately without hours of tedious work. Inventory losses really are no small potatoes. I understand that. If you can free up 15 minutes on your schedule, you will see how you can know exactly what your on-hand inventory should be, so you have the ability to track and monitor your food costs. You can do this in minutes, not hours and be nearly 100% accurate. Can you free up 15 minutes to see how you will be able to do that?”
(Did I always get the appointment? No. Did I vastly increase the number of times that the “Ms. Smiths” in my territory would grant me the first meeting? Absolutely!)
When I walked into my appointment, I carried a potato with me. I placed the potato on the desk and said, “Ms. Smith, that potato is very difficult for your managers to track in their restaurants. You see, sometimes it gets cut up and put into a potato salad; at breakfast, it becomes hash browns; and in the evening, the potato is baked and placed next to one of your eight ounce fillet mignons. At the end of the month your managers need to calculate an accurate food cost. You need to know how many potatoes you are supposed to have and compare that with how many you have in actuality. It is nearly an impossible task, isn’t it?”
(Now I had the executive’s attention. They knew I understood their business. It’s time to create Pain.) I looked directly at her, with a very long, deliberate pause and said, “Ms. Smith, potatoes aren’t very expensive and it would be ok for one, or two, of these to go unaccounted for, but what about that eight-ounce fillet mignon, what about that bottle of 1991 Silver Oak cabernet?” (Within five seconds, I knew if I had a prospect.) She had just been confronted with an issue that was critical to the success of her business, and yet almost impossible to do. I already knew that Ms. Smith would ask me how it could be done, and very often that fifteen minute appointment turned into an hour-long discovery session, resulting in a very interested prospect (obviously, I knew where I wanted this conversation to go, as I had the best inventory management system on the market, with many unique capabilities).
I never missed quota in my new assignment. The potato helped to launch my career in ways I never dreamed of.
Here is why I believe the potato worked. Initial suspense was created. My Prop (the potato-filled vase and the single potato I carried to appointments) lead the way and created an environment of curiosity. It got me in the door. Once in the door, that potato was positioned to represent an important and yet impossible task of keeping inventory. I knew this was a critical problem for anyone trying to manage an individual restaurant, let alone and entire chain. Once the problem was established, the potato created a foundation for establishing real Pain. When Ms. Smith was asked about losing a fillet mignon, or a very expensive bottle of wine, significant losses became real to her. Now the problem was huge, it was real, and she was ready to listen to a potential solution.
Everyday, customers are bombarded by great companies, with great products, and incredibly talented salespeople. They don’t really care about that. What they care about is finding individuals who understand their business, identify real business issues, and create solid solutions. They want individuals that are committed to helping them save time, money, and increase their opportunity for success. It certainly is not about using a potato, but about finding something that can help your customer see and feel the Pain that exists in their work world, and about creating anticipation around how this Pain can be eliminated.
Be creative. Look at your strengths. Don’t be afraid to try something different. Many of your customers will appreciate something other than “Hello, Ms. Prospect, I am from XYZ Company and I have a really exciting product to show you.” Focus on your customer, on their issues, and on their problems, if appropriate, find a prop that makes it come alive for them.
By the way, it has been many years, but I am willing to bet that my previous customers still remember “the potato guy.”
By Steve Hub, Consultant, Corporate Visions Inc.