Salespeople Who Need People

It's not what you know, it's who you know. Yes, you've heard that old saw before, but it remains one of selling's most overlooked truths

By Michelle Nichols

We've all heard people say that success is a matter of who you know, but that's only a half-truth. The real pearl of wisdom is this: It's what you do with who you know. Face, it, meeting prospective customers can be daunting, no matter whether it be by cold calling, going to networking events, using direct mail, or any other means you might care to mention. One way to grow your business without having to throw yourself into meeting a lot of strangers is to start with your own Rolodex (or, these days, its electronic equivalent).

You know more people than you think you do -- and they know more people than you think they do. Multiply those two ideas and you can see that you have access to more potential customers than you might have thought possible.


  Remember how, a few years ago, everyone was talking about "six degrees of separation," not just the hit Broadway play of that name and the movie it inspired, but the realization that everyone in the whole world is connected, in one way or another, via friends of classmates of relatives of workmates. Pick any individual in the world, the theory maintains, and that person is only half a dozen links along the human chain from some other person you might pick.

Successful selling is probably the best demonstration of the six-degrees notion: When trying to reach Mr. Big, you just need to know someone who knows someone who knows him. The extra benefit is all the other good contacts you make along the way.

Selling to friends can be tricky -- and if your manner tends to be aggressive, I might even caution against trying it at all. Who will come to your outfit's ten-year anniversary party if you've alienated everyone you met along the way? But if, as is the case with most people, working with friends is a pleasure, then it's an excellent way to grow.


  Before you flick through your Rolodex and start dialing, do some homework. Start by identifying your target customer. To do this, write down a list of the benefits your products or services can provide. For example, if you sell financial planning, focus on retirement, paying for college, or your customers' charitable dreams. Who needs those things? Similarly, who do you know who knows someone else who needs those things?

Remember, the key isn't what you think about the advantages of the product or service you're selling, it's which customers think they or their contacts need it the most. For example, if you sell nonslip floor coverings, you may be inclined to assume that any equally sensible person will be aware of the fact that it makes good sense to invest a little money in order to avoid costly -- and potentially catastrophic -- accidents in the home. The sad truth, however, is that most folks aren't moved to spend money on safety until it's too late. (Trust me on this, I've owned a safety-products company.) However, senior citizens might represent a good target group. It may be that they have taken a tumble themselves or, if they haven't, they probably will have friends -- or friends of friends -- who may been hurt. Can your contacts direct you to the potential clients who will be most receptive to what you are offering?

At this point, put your Rolodex to work. Flick through it and make a list of neighbors, clubs, associations, alumni, friends, church acquaintances, business associates, relatives, parents of your children's sports teams. The list could go on for pages, but you get the general idea.


  Draw 12 columns, one for each month of the year. Next, enter the people from each of the groups -- the neighbours, Little League parents, etc., -- who fit the profile of your target customer. And don't be afraid to reach back. Having moved several times, I have a long list of former neighbors I can tap for contacts. Beside your Rolodex, you should also dig in places like the membership directories of the clubs to which you belong.

Your objective is to meet with each of the folks you've listed, and to do so in the month you've designated. In my case, if we're going to meet in person, I ask for 45 minutes over coffee. If we're located far apart, I'll reach out by phone -- but no matter the method, it's very much a two-way process. First, ask what they've been up to, renew the ties of friendship, and then see if there is any way your product can help them. This is the opportunity to lay out the advantages of the solution you are offering. If the person you're meeting with becomes a customer, terrific. If the contact is a source of referrals, that can be even better. Remember the six-degrees-of-separation thing I mentioned earlier?

I also like to bring something to show my friend, like a one-page flier and testimonials from happy customers. But don't arrive loaded down with big binders full of clippings and brochures. This is a friend you're dealing with, so the last thing you want to do is scare them.


  Also, don't overstay your welcome. When your 45 minutes is up, and even if you've uncovered a need, simply ask if they are ready to make a decision now. If not, arrange to come back later.

As I mentioned, I have moved several times. I used to be jealous of competitors who had lived in my new town all their lives and seemed to know everyone. When I learned to tap the power of my Rolodex, however, I saw how quickly that advantage gap closed. True, old-timers had the contacts. But people also went out of their way to meet and help the "new gal in town." With surprising speed, my web of contacts grew.

So, no matter if you're a long-term resident or a new face, when you want to add new customers and get referrals, start with the people you already know. Happy Selling!

Michelle Nichols is a Sales consultant, trainer, and speaker based in Houston. She welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at

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