I think the best sales people do not think they are being pushy at all. Great brands are built on great stories.
As a part of my series about how to be great at closing sales without seeming pushy, obnoxious, or salesy, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paige Arnof-Fenn.
Paige is the founder & CEO of global marketing and digital branding firm Mavens & Moguls based in Cambridge, MA. Her clients include Microsoft, Virgin, venture-backed startups as well as non profit organizations. She graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Business School. She is a popular speaker and columnist who has written for Entrepreneur and Forbes.
Thank you for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this career path?
I did not plan on starting a company. I always wanted to go work for a large multi-national business and be a Fortune 500 CEO. When I was a student I looked at leaders like Meg Whitman & Ursula Burns as my role models. I started my career on Wall Street in the 80s and had a successful career in Corporate America at companies like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola and worked at 3 different startups as the head of marketing. I took the leap right after 9/11 when the company I worked for cut their marketing. I had nothing to lose. Being an entrepreneur provides me a platform to do work I truly enjoy with and for people I respect. I get to set my priorities, I have time to travel and hang out with my inner circle, and work out every day. It has been a journey to get here but I am lucky to have found it. I love the autonomy, flexibility and the fact that I know every day the impact that I have on my business. When I worked at big companies I always felt the ball would roll with or without me, that if I got hit by a bus someone new would be in my office right away. Now my DNA is in everything we do and I can trace every decision and sale to something I did or a decision I made and that is incredibly gratifying and fulfilling. Like most entrepreneurs, I am working harder and longer than ever and I have never been happier. Working for yourself and building a business you started in incredibly rewarding and gratifying. It has been a lot of fun, I joke that I am the accidental entrepreneur. I knew I had made it as an entrepreneur when Harvard wrote 2 case studies on my business a few years after I started it, we were very early to pioneer sharing resources on the marketing front (before my company it was really only done with HR, legal and accounting/finance).
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occured to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
There have been so many I started the business 18 years ago! In the first few years of my business I had pitched a CEO about a month before I ran into her at a networking event where she was the keynote speaker and her topic was about being a woman leader in a traditionally male-dominated business. I had followed up after sending my proposal several times via e-mail and voice mail but the CEO never returned any of my messages or even acknowledged receipt of the proposal requested. You can imagine my shock when she announced at this event as part of her speech that she believes it is important to put your money where your mouth is and for women CEOs to support other respected & well-run women’s businesses and that is why she has hired my firm to handle all her company’s marketing & PR! Everyone congratulated me after, it was a better endorsement than the New York Times because she was very well known and had the reputation of being very tough with high standards so I got a LOT of business from people in the room that night because they thought if I was able to impress her I must be very good ;-) It was a great lesson in the power of persistence, networking and follow through to build a strong reputation. To think I almost did not even show up maybe seeing me there is what prompted her to pull the trigger and hire us?
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I think every project is exciting! That is the beauty of running your own business, if you are not genuinely excited by the work then you can pass on it. I only take on work that I find interesting and worthwhile. Finding the right words and pictures to tell great stories that attract more customers to our clients’ products and services is incredibly fulfilling.
Current projects include market research for a B2B tech company, new websites for several B2B and B2C companies, creative development for a nonprofit, public relations and marketing communications for several tech start ups. We do anything a marketing department, ad agency, market research shop or PR agency does on an outsourced basis. We have resources in 14 cities in the US and major metro areas overseas. Everyone in the group comes out of industry so our heads and hearts are much more aligned with our clients than a typical agency or consulting firm. We are not professional PowerPoint makers, we have actually done the job as marketing and communication leaders so our recommendations come from having been in our clients’ seats before. We are an extension of their team and spend their money the way they do, not as a vendor so I think that is a compelling angle when they hire us. We do not see marketing as a necessary evil, we believe in the power of great brands and think all organizations regardless of size or budget deserve great marketing advice. Our passion comes through in our tag line and everything we do.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have been so fortunate to have great mentors, champions and role models throughout my career including former bosses, my father, senior women in organizations where I worked but the person who has always encouraged and supported me as an entrepreneur and has my back every day is my husband. He started a company too so understands the journey of an entrepreneur and has been my sanity check and thinking partner every step of the way. He is both a cheerleader and butt kicker depending on the situation and I trust his judgment and advice because I know he always has my best interests in mind. I am very fortunate to have him in my corner.
For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority on the topic of sales?
I started my marketing career at Procter & Gamble (P&G) in 1990. P&G required sales and marketing people to do a month of training working in the other department before you could get promoted into a management position. I thought that was a great idea and allowed me to see how our marketing programs are executed at the store level and my sales counterpart to understand the strategy and plan behind our initiatives. It also built better lines of communication through the relationships we developed working together directly during that period. I learned that communication is key to both employee and customer engagement so ever since then I try to set the tone upfront with one rule, when in doubt over-communicate. At the beginning of the project do not make assumptions of what people from different groups want or know, just ask or send an e-mail. It will save you a lot of time, money and frustration down the road. Trust me. This comes from experience. Be a good listener and make sure you hear the others, their hopes, frustrations and intentions. If the lines of communication are open and everyone makes an effort to listen and be heard then collaboration will happen naturally and the information will flow. This has given me a great foundation in sales throughout my career.
Let’s shift a bit to what is happening today in the broader world. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the COVID-19 pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty and loneliness. From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our families and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
We are all very concerned about the spread of this virus and the short and long term impact it will have on the economy. Between the pandemic and the possible recession, we have an opportunity to further connect with anxious audiences and focus on the true relevance of the situation. We have to acknowledge that now things are different so we need to communicate in a way that will give our audiences better focus, helping them to create a bridge from today to the future. We need to communicate in a way that combines information and need, synthesizing feeling and facts. I feel we have a tremendous responsibility because never before has communications had the power to help society in the way that it does right now. Words are part of the healing process and we can see which leaders and brands are doing the best job every day with messages that touch not only the mind, but also the heart and soul. There has never been a more important time to provide accurate, empathetic communication with transparency, truthfulness and timeliness. It is inappropriate now for content to appear tone deaf in any way to this crisis. Everyone is struggling right now to find a new normal so the key is to show your humanity and compassion while we look out for one another.
Ok. Thanks for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. As you know, nearly any business a person will enter, will involve some form of sales. At the same time, most people have never received any formal education about how to be effective at selling. Why do you think our education system teaches nearly every other arcane subject, but sales, one of the most useful and versalite topics, is totally ignored?
I completely agree we are all in sales after all. Whether you are trying to get funding, a promotion, a recruit to join, etc. you are selling. I think sales has a bad reputation but it is definitely a skill that can be learned. I think it should be part of the MBA curriculum for sure.
This discussion, entitled, “How To Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesey”, is making an assumption that seeming salesy or pushy is something to be avoided. Do you agree with this assumption? Whether yes, or no, can you articulate why you feel the way you do?
I think the best sales people do not think they are being pushy at all. Great brands are built on great stories. In early days of mankind, stories were a great way to communicate around the campfire, they are critical to the Bible and they are still effective today in attracting the best employees and customers People do not remember facts and figures but if you tell them a story that touches them emotionally you get their attention and they want to hear more. People need to be educated, informed and/or entertained so figure out how best to tell your story in a way that makes them pay attention and breaks through the noise. Focus on the benefits to them not the features of your product or service. Stories create fans who will help you sell! My best tip is to stop selling and start sharing. If you share what you know — your passion, your war stories, the good, bad and ugly — the content will flow and pour out of you. The stories will be interesting and the lessons will be real, people will remember you and come back for more. Once your employees internalize your brand story they will share it with your customers in authentic ways that are relevant to them which absolutely builds a strong culture and makes for a unique and memorable customer experience.
The seven stages of a sales cycle are usually broken down to versions of Prospecting, Preparation, Approach, Presentation, Handling objections, Closing, and Follow-up. Which stage do you feel that you are best at? What is your unique approach, your “secret sauce”, to that particular skill? Can you explain or give a story?
For me it is prospecting. It does not matter what career path you choose but you need to learn to love networking. Networking may sound old fashioned in these high tech days but it still works. Whether your business is B2B or B2C everything is really P2P person to person. Most of my business comes from networking. My rule is that you should network in person during the business day and do it online after hours. People do business with people they know, like and trust so you have to get out there to build your reputation online and off. Prospective customers and jobs can come from anyone anywhere anytime so you should always be on your best behavior & make a great lasting impression. Be nice to everyone & make friends before you need them, you never know who is in or will be in a position to help! Learn to love it or find a buddy to go to events with and tag team, you have to get out there! I think what makes someone effective at networking happens to coincide with things that just come more naturally to them. I have been told I am good at networking. I grew up in the South so maybe it is both nature and nurture in my case. The traits that work in my favor include: being naturally curious so you ask a lot of question, people love talking about themselves; being a good listener so you can ask them more as follow up; being warm and friendly, smile, be the first to introduce yourself; sending a hand written thank you note or e-mail referencing something you discussed or including an article you think they might enjoy right after you first meet; and making an introduction for them to meet someone in your network who they would find interesting. When you stop trying to sell and just share what you know and love networking is fun! People put too much emphasis on trying to be interesting instead of being interested in the other person.
Lead generation, or prospecting, is one of the basic steps of the sales cycle. Obviously every industry will be different, but can you share some of the fundamental strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
I am a big fan of Content Marketing which is a great way to build your brand, increase your visibility more broadly, raise your profile and ultimately attract more clients and customers. I regularly share quality content based on my experience personally and professionally. To qualify it must be timely and relevant. To generate ideas I look at the calendar to see if there are any natural opportunities based on the season or activities, keep a running list of topics I get asked about by my clients and other business owners and note when I read or hear about something new I want to explore further, a trend, theme or idea that catches my attention. If it is an issue that affects me or my business then it is likely to be a topic that impacts others too. Once I decide on an idea to write about I may do research on the topic, talk to people for input and just start typing. If I have a unique perspective to share or any advice I think may help others I get it out there via social media or whatever distribution vehicle makes the most sense. It should look and sound like you and the brand you have built. Whether yours is polished or more informal, chatty or academic, humorous or snarky, it is a way for your personality to come through. Everyone is not going to like you or hire you but for the ones who would be a great fit for you make sure they feel and keep a connection and give them a reason to remember you so that when they need your help they think of you first. To make content more attractive and drive conversion it is important to understand not just what or how to purchase a product, experience or service but you must also be able to inspire audiences by identifying the underlying motivation. The key to becoming influential is when you can answer why they do what they do and connect with people on an emotional level.
In my experience, I think the final stages of Handling Objections, Closing, and Follow-up, are the most difficult parts for many people. Why do you think ‘Handling Objections’ is so hard for people? What would you recommend for one to do, to be better at ‘Handling Objections’?
My favorite definition of great service is related to the quote “people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” it has been attributed to many people including Teddy Roosevelt. I like it and find it helpful because it is a simple reminder to listen more than talk, show empathy and try to look at the situation from another perspective. The goal is not to wear them down or impress them with your smarts. The goal is to connect, communicate clearly, address any concerns and move on.
For me, the brands that offer the best customer service share a few qualities:
* Timely response — they act quickly to address the issue in a genuine way not with a script but with sincerity, it is rarely too proactive and often too late once social media kicks in
* Take responsibility — they do not make excuses or place blame they take ownership of the issue and do not pass you around or use threats and jargon, the customer feels heard and respected
* Professional and honest, polite to deal with
In my experience even if you cannot address their objections as long as they feel respected and heard then at least you can say you tried. Some problems cannot be fixed but everyone can be treated fairly and with dignity. Exceptional service means you leave with a good taste feeling better than when you arrived. It is a lot harder and more expensive to find new customers than to keep the ones you have happy and loyal so it is an important part of your strategy to get customer service right.
‘Closing’ is of course the proverbial Holy Grail. Can you suggest 5 things one can do to successfully close a sale without being perceived as pushy? If you can, please share a story or example, ideally from your experience, for each.
* Give before you get, send a link, article, referral, make an introduction, etc. before you ask them for anything, it sets you up as a kind and generous person and in my experience it makes people remember you and look forward to staying in touch.
* Disconnect from technology periodically and focus on cultivating human, face to face relationships. Meeting for coffee or lunch even virtually can accomplish so much more than e-mail exchanges, social media posts, etc. and it is a great way to get to know people better, their interests, hobbies, and dreams. I have found that building relationships is what drives my business and technology supports them once they are solidified. Technology helps advance the conversation but it will never replace the human interaction that builds trust over time.
* Exhibit kindness and good manners — I have seen that minding your Ps and Qs really does make a difference in business. To illustrate: a client who hired us early on told me that he had spoken with a number of potential firms and that while every one of them could do the job, in the end, they picked us because our team was so kind and had the best manners online and off by far. He added, and I quote, “We choose to work with nice people and always hire for manners because everything else can be learned on the job.” It’s an interesting hiring strategy, to be sure. Wouldn’t your mother be thrilled?
* Be responsive — Responding quickly to voice and e-mails, putting down your phone and giving people your undivided attention in meetings, writing thank you notes to show appreciation, apologizing for being late or making a mistake, it is amazing how low the bar actually is today.
* Ask for the order — sometimes we get so caught up in the selling process we forget to stop talking and see if they are ready to buy.
Finally, what are your thoughts about ‘Follow up’? Many businesses get leads who might be interested but things never seem to close. What are some good tips for a business leader to successfully follow up and bring things to a conclusion, without appearing overly pushy or overeager?
To follow up and follow through, keep your promises. If you tell someone you will send a proposal by end of the week, call or send a time to grab coffee then do it. I think it was Woody Allen who said 90% of success is showing up so keep your word!
As you know there are so many modes of communication today. For example, In-person, phone calls, video calls, emails, and text messages. In your opinion, which of these communication methods should be avoided when attempting to close a sale or follow up? Which are the best ones? Can you explain or give a story?
In general I prefer and recommend in-person whenever possible but at times like these for example when social distancing is required you have to be flexible. I think the more personal the better so for me video calls over phone calls and e-mail over text for sure.
Ok, we are nearly done. Here is our final “meaty” question. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Especially now I’d try to start a formal kindness movement, we have all been through so much these past few months. Crises like this bring out some of the best in humanity but I would try to create way during normal life that neighbors look after each other, we recognize and appreciate doctors, nurses, teachers, police, firemen, the elderly, sick, etc. I grew up in the South and people were generally nice, respectful, kind, and friendly. I do not believe life or business is a zero sum game. We do not have to divide up the pie we can work together to bake more pies so there is enough to go around. I think the people around the world want good health, peace, clean water and we need find ways to band together but it is going to take people from all walks of life to make it happen. There really is more in common across cultures when you realize everyone wants the best for their family and community so we should all be putting our energy into building stronger foundations and ecosystems that will help us all.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success!