The Meat and Potatoes of Selling

Tasty patties and sizzling fries don't explain the success of hamburger honchos Ray Kroc and Dave Thomas. Above all, they were salesmen

By Michelle Nichols

Most successful entrepreneurs are great salespeople at heart. Looking for sales ideas and inspiration, I recently read the autobiographies of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc and Dave Thomas, the man behind Wendy's. While both outfits sell fast food, each man's wisdom can be applied to selling any product or service -- no matter if it's hamburgers, advertising, or trucks. You don't need to attend McDonald's Hamburger University -- here are a few of my favorite sales lessons drawn from both books.

Just Do It. In Dave's Way: A New Approach to Old-Fashioned Success, Thomas says that restaurants "are an execution business, pure and simple." Both Thomas and Kroc knew the competition could copy their systems, but each man was confident no rival could replicate the results. Why? Because it's the repetitive execution of that system that leads to success. The same is true in sales -­ it's not your terrific selling plan that makes you a star, it's the daily execution of that plan sees you meet and beat your goals.

In a similar vein, Ray Kroc says in Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald's: "Work is the meat in the hamburger of life." Likewise in sales, except it's cold-calling, presenting, closing, and servicing customers. Sure, bigger sales means larger commissions, promotions, and trophies at awards banquets. But look beyond the glittering prizes and the fact remains that successful salespeople spend most of their time in the trenches, selling and servicing customers.

Focus on the Customer. For Thomas, the most important marketing lesson grew out of thinking about the people he really wanted as customers and then going after them. This is especially true for salespeople, too. Think about it: We can drive ourselves crazy trying to please every potential customer. It's better to target those who would benefit most from what you have to offer.

Customer focus extends to sales contracts. One day, when Kroc was speaking to a lawyer about a contract, he said: "Listen, you can hog-tie these guys with all the ifs, buts, and whereases you like, but it's not going to help the business one bit. There will be just one great motivator in developing loyalty in this operation. That is, if I've got a fair, square deal, and the [other guy] makes money." Likewise, if salespeople keep the focus on helping customers achieve success, everyone wins.

You're Never Finished. Ray Kroc said, "Business is not like painting a picture. You can't put a final brush stroke on it and then hang it on the wall and admire it." The same is true in sales because the work you put into a client is never finished, either. You have to keep working with customers if they are to continue buying from you. Thomas adds that you never win a customer for life -- you have to win the business all over again at every visit. Don't assume, just that because clients bought from you once, they will do so again.

Less Choice = Less Trouble. Both Kroc and Thomas recommend keeping choices to a minimum. Thomas pointed out that by offering eight condiments on a hamburger, there are 256 combinations. This means there are 255 ways for the order to be wrong. In sales, it's the same: The more customization you offer, the more painstaking you will have to be when fulfilling the order.

Keep Trying. Like all good salespeople looking for new customers, Kroc and Thomas were searching for new products. Many didn't work out, but that didn't stop either man trying again. Kroc invented the Hulaburger ­- two slices of cheese with a piece of grilled pineapple on a toasted bun. It was a flop. One customer said, "I like the hula, but where's the burger?" If you're selling to a new customer, or using a new selling strategy and hasn't panned out, you're in good company. Just keep trying.

Stress-Free Sleep. All entrepreneurs and salespeople live with stress, it comes with the territory -- particularly when things aren't going smoothly. This can interfere with your sleep, which can keep you from being at your best for your customers. Kroc taught himself self-hypnosis. He pictured in his mind a blackboard with all of his worries and problems written on it. Then he imagined erasing all the writing. Then he would relax his body, from head to toe. He said he could operate on less sleep than most people because he extracted maximum benefit from every minute of slumber.

Find the Benefit. In 1922, Kroc sold paper cups and bowls for a living. It was tough going because most restaurants already had plenty of glassware. Then Kroc realized that ice-cream parlors had a problem his products could solve because the sterilizing steam left the dishes so hot the ice-cream would melt. The moral: To succeed in selling, find a benefit your products or services offers.

Try It, You'll Like It. Kroc believed in sampling. When he sold paper cups, he believed that one customer, a store in a large chain, could sell more milkshakes if it used paper instead of traditional glass, which ruled out any take-out business. To prove his point, Kroc gave his customer a month's supply of paper cups. The trial was a big success. Not only did that store become a customer, all the stores in the chain bought his paper cups, too. It was a huge win for Kroc. The lesson: If you've got reluctant customers, find a way for them to sample the benefits of what you're selling.

Perfect Timing. In all businesses, there are natural lulls, like in a restaurant between the lunch and dinner crowds, or in a tax-preparation business between May and December. Thomas saw those moments as the times to hustle. When it's slow and the phone rings or you are meeting with a customer, be extra sharp and really shine. Then, when business picks up again, you'll be remembered as a salesperson who really hustles for the client.

On the other hand, if this is your peak season, focus on doing a great job for every single customer. Whining that you're just too busy to provide superior service earns no sympathy from those on whom your success depends. When time is tight, make a point to demonstrate that, even in adversity, you are your customer's greatest ally.

Think Big. Kroc warned that thinking small means staying small. Therefore, think big. So, if you only plan to call on 10 customers today, bring enough sales supplies for 15. This will encourage you to make more calls and see more customers.

Share the Wealth. Have a reason to sell that's bigger than yourself -- that is, give to a charity whose goals mean something to you. Both men support many fine causes, including Thomas's support of adoption and Kroc's donations to the Ronald McDonald Houses.

While both Dave Thomas and Ray Kroc took different paths to grow their companies, their hard work, persistence, and appetite for risk paid off. Although Thomas died this year and Kroc passed away in 1984, they left behind major corporations. Their lessons of sales and business success apply to every salesperson, regardless of what they sell. 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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