Think like a salesman: How to bond when you have nothing in common
I walked into the crowded office. I threw my backpack onto a seat and did a quick survey of the room. Not a single familiar face stared back. Everyone seemed to know each other, but no one knew me. I was the youngest person in the room — by a margin of at least 20 years. And I was the only person who wasn’t white. Here goes nothing. I swallowed my nerves, turned to my right, and introduced myself with a smile.
It was 2013. I had just graduated from college and was attending a workshop in Houston, Texas focused on oil drilling safety. I was surrounded by a hundred veterans of the industry — men who had spent their entire lives in the oil field hauling pipe and sweating in the hot sun.
I was at this meeting with a clear mission: to sell. In college I had done research on the BP Oil Spill and realized that poor training played a major role in the incident. I had started a company bringing animated online training to oil and gas. As founder, CEO, and sole employee, these former rig workers were all prospective clients.
As I looked around the room, a tough looking guy in the back stood out. His nametag said “Kenny”, and his shirt said in huge letters: “Give me my God, my Gun, and my Oil”.
Gulp. What in the world was I doing here? Over the next four years surrounded by blue collar oil and gas workers, I would meet many more folks like Kenny — folks who, at first glance, I had absolutely nothing in common with.
Kenny was Republican — not a business friendly “New England Republican” like my Dad, but a definitely-voted-for-Trump-in-2016 Republican. I was from Rhode Island — one of the most liberal states in the country. We weren’t going to bond watching the presidential debates.
Kenny loved barbecue. I grew up vegetarian. Vegan restaurants wouldn’t go over well.
Kenny loved beer. I didn’t drink. Hanging out at a bar with my Shirley Temple could get awkward real fast.
Kenny spent years working hard manual labor. I didn’t know how to change a tire. (I still don’t.)
If you don’t know anything else about sales, know this: look for similarity. People buy from people they trust, and people trust those they can relate to. Every single day, I had to find common ground with folks like Kenny.
Here are three stories when similarities let me connect with people very different from me.
1. Laughter is the great equalizer
At one conference I attended, I was bored: sick of networking and falling asleep in stuffy speaker sessions. So, I walked to one of the couches and sat down next to a guy who seemed just as overwhelmed. I started a conversation about how the speakers were boring, and we laughed making fun of them together. Then I started trash talking one of our competitors. We were laughing and hanging out in the back while everyone else was serious and focused; we suddenly made the conference fun! That small interaction made him into one of my longest and happiest clients.
Everyone loves to laugh. Especially in serious settings, being goofy and irreverent breaks the ice and builds a true, meaningful connection.
2. When in doubt, eat.
Another time, there was an important industry leader I had long struggled to get close to. We had a superficial relationship, but I wanted to build a much stronger one. I invited him to lunch and offered to pay. He agreed, and we started an amazing tradition of grabbing food monthly all over the city. We slowly became better and better friends over Houston’s ethnic cuisine.
The greatest bonding happened in the messiest restaurants; bonding value is directly proportional to how many napkins are used. He ended up becoming my first friend in the industry and a truly valuable contact in the years to come.
Even if you’re international, vegetarian, or have more dietary restrictions than a diabetic bear, there’s always some sort of food you can share. Time and time again, I have broken through awkwardness by simply sharing a meal.
3. Family, Family, Family
One of my most important business contacts was a friendly man I had found it difficult to connect with. We had so little in common that I was unsure how to bring the relationship closer.
My grandfather worked in sales for many years, and he was visiting Houston. He suggested inviting the client and his family over for dinner with our family. At the time, I thought this was the craziest thing in the world! My family was Indian with a culture that would seem so different, and probably pretty weird, to a Texan. Maybe a double date would have worked to bond with him and his wife, but I didn’t have a girlfriend. Why would this guy want to meet my parents, let alone my grandparents?
But I listened to my grandfather, and dinner ended up being super fun and a huge success. We built so much trust by meeting each other’s families. The differences in culture, cuisine, and background were way outnumbered by the similarities of family bonding. After that dinner, our relationship was closer than it had ever been before. Even now, he still asks about my grandfather.
If you’ve met someone’s family, you automatically trust them just a little bit more.
At Stanford, it often feels like we’re in a huge bubble. There’s diversity but, in other ways everyone is the same. On Election Day last year, my Facebook feed — full of GSB friends — was in mourning. But my LinkedIn feed — full of oil and gas friends — was overjoyed. Sometimes, it feels like neither of these groups really understand the other.
What my experience in sales taught me is that we all have things in common; we all have a lot that we share. And if we focus on what we share rather than what divides us, we can connect with more and more diverse people.
Sometime after graduation you’ll go and meet someone who is completely different. Someone you don’t think you would like and who doesn’t seem like they would like you. Someone you would typically ignore or even avoid.
Have a conversation. Pretend you are a salesman, and figure out what you have in common. You’ll build a genuine human connection and maybe even a lifelong friend.