Selling Your Vision

with Melissa Bernstein

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Listening is your sales secret weapon

Melissa Bernstein

Co-Founder of Melissa & Doug Toys, Sales Expert, Toy Inventor

Lessons Learned

Doing sales is how you get genuine feedback on your product from the front lines.

The person closest to the product should be selling it for as long as possible.

If you are doing something completely new, be prepared for sales to be a slow build.


Lesson: Selling Your Vision with Melissa Bernstein

Step #4 Customer-centric: Listening is your sales secret weapon

We believe in really listening to the customer and really responding to their objections in a very direct and honest way. I think showing them that there's a need for our products and to operate in a way that they may not have before. It's a very slow build. It doesn't happen over night. We were asking them to establish this direct relationship with us, to not go through reps, which they thought was sacrilegious. They literally felt that we were doing something that wasn't allowed. To also buy products that they really hadn't carried before.

I think when you're trying to get someone to do something they don't want to do, you're going to have to put all the onus on yourself to deal with the bad ramifications, if they happen. For us, it was about guaranteeing it. I think a guarantee, and some companies can't afford to do this, but if you can guarantee what you're giving them, that's the only way you can truly stand behind what you're doing. You're basically saying to them, "I'm so passionate about what I'm offering you and giving you, that if it doesn't work I'm going to stand behind it and take it back."

That's really the only way you can offer a true validation of what you're doing. If you're saying, "I'm so, so, passionate about it, but if it doesn't work, sorry, you have to pay me," then you're sort of stopping short. You can still say that, "I'm so, so, confident that I will help you to make it a success." I mean there are ways you can couch it, without truly having to take it back, but I think you have to stand behind it any way you can and make sure it works and support it. If it's a new food you're bringing to market, then if I were the company, I would start extremely small. I'd start with one venue. I'd be at that venue every single day, giving out samples, listening to the customer, and doing whatever it took to make that one venue a success. Taking all my data, and if it's not a success, then going back to the drawing board before I'm out with too many venues. Tweaking my product, making it better, going back to that venue and honing exactly what I have in my model, before bringing it to the full marketplace.

The most important thing in sales is to have the person closest to the product selling it for as long as possible. I always talk to young companies and I say, "Who's doing sales?" And they'll say, "Well, I am now, but I really want to hire someone and get that sort of off my plate." That's the last thing you want to do. It's like fund-raising. I always got chosen as the person to collect all the donations for everything my kids were involved in because nobody else would do it. I was the last person that should have done it.

It's the same with sales. Nobody wants to really sell. It's so hard. It's so much easier to be behind the scenes, create the product, do the marketing, and do the events. The first thing is the person closest to the product has to be selling for as long as possible. That is where you learn everything, and most important, you learn if your product is good or not. One of the reasons we have been so successful is we establish this direct relationship and because of that, and because we weren't going through a third party selling our product, we heard everything. Most of it was bad. For many years we heard why our product wasn't selling, why our competitors were winning, why they wouldn't take our call. I heard it because I sold for over ten years. That's all I did, full-time. It was painful, because it's a lot of rejection. It's a lot of hearing that your product's not working. But if you really open your ears and listen and take in that advice, it will truly change your product to something that will sell. These people aren't trying to hurt you. They want what's best for them, but in that they're going to tell you what's wrong with you and why you're not achieving that for them.

Selling yourself for as long as you humanly can, and then when you can't or when you need additional resources, finding people as passionate and compelling as you are, if not more, to do it, is so important. Our first sales people were our customers. There was one woman, and again I was very weak. I'd be in these trade shows. I'd be out there in the aisle, but I wasn't hawking. There was one of our customers. She was so cute. She would come back with me and it was hysterical. She'd say "Get up. Get out of my way." And she'd take our product and she'd be like, "Come on. It's guaranteed. It's great. Suddenly she'd have a crowd around her and people would be throwing their money at her to buy our product. I was so fascinated by that. She had this gift that I didn't have, to just get people. She was so strong in her conviction and people believed her. It was just this magnetism. She was one of the very first, when we were fortunate enough to be able to say, "We need sales people. We're hiring people." She was one of the first people. She's been here like 15 years. She was behind the booth with me as one of our customers helping, very early on.

Having relevant examples. If you're selling to a department store and you have an example of the best in class. If you have the Nordstrom example and you're selling to department stores and Nordstrom has been successful with selling your product, you'd better be using that for all it's worth. Everybody wants to know they're not taking a chance. It's very difficult, unfortunately. Twenty years ago, to be honest, it was a lot easier. People took more chances. The economy was, I guess they say, booming. Although it's never seemed that way to us. People might have been more willing to take a chance.

These days it's a lot harder. The stakes are a lot higher to be successful. Most people, I think, if it's taking a big risk, they don't want to do it. They have no interest in it. They want to know that it's been proven and tested by someone and worked really well. And it's tricky, you don't want to say to someone, "Everyone's doing it. You're the only one who's not." Everyone wants to feel unique, yet validated. It's a very fine line. It's using an example of someone they want to aspire to, but not so many that they feel like, "Well, if everyone's doing it, I don't want to be doing it, because then I'm not special." So I think the relevant examples are really important to compel them to change their mind.

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