Using Fido to Clinch the Sale

Try talking to prospective customers about their pets. It can be a great way to make a quick connection

Long ago it was a common practice for salespeople, in their quest to build connections, to ask potential customers if they were married or had children. These days, with half of all marriages ending in divorce and a variety of living arrangements, those questions are downright dangerous.

A safer line of patter? Ask your customers about their pets. There are now more pets than people in the U.S—about 380 million, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn. That includes 88 million cats, 74 million dogs, 24 million small animals, 16 million birds, 13 million reptiles, and 142 million freshwater fish. While many customers keep their personal lives private, they are often happy to tell a salesperson all about their beloved "Mr. Kitty" or their new Dalmatian puppy.

After brainstorming with my friend, Joan Stewart, founder of the public relations consulting firm Publicity Hound, I have some advice on working pet-related material into your next sales call or selling opportunity.

1. The Icebreaker. Early on in the conversation, simply ask prospects if they have pets. It's a great icebreaker question because it gets them talking and it also gives you some insight into their personality. If they have cats, they are probably independent thinkers. If they have dogs, they are probably social. If they only have reptiles, they probably like unusual ideas. If they don't have any type of pet, they probably don't like commitments and don't want to be tied down. Take this guessing about a prospect's personality with a grain of salt— I'm just going with my gut here.

Still, what's great about this question is that no matter how they answer, you've got something to comment on. You can tell them about your pet. You can also ask them for advice on training or selecting a pet. If they don't have any pets, you might ask them what kind of pet they grew up with.

You can use their replies to segue into their business problems. For example: "So you're having trouble training your dog to sit. How about at work—do you have trouble training your employees to get their work done on time?"

2. The Introduction. When I am introduced to speak at sales events, my host starts with my professional credits, then adds: "She is a wife, mother of three children, two dogs, two frogs, and a pet turtle named James Pond." It always gets a laugh. Afterward, audience members sometimes ask me about my pets and want to talk about their pets, too. Try working it into how you introduce yourself.

3. Extras and Events. When you get to know a customer, you might ask him his pet's birthday. I guarantee if you send the pet a card from you and your pet, you will stand out from your competitors. You could also have pet-oriented contests—think about holding one for customers who look the most like their pets. You could hold "Bring Your (Friendly) Pet to Work" Fridays, and your customers could come to your store or offices and meet your pets.

If your customers are too far away, it might be fun to post photos of employees with their pets on your Web site. That sure beats the boring corporate headshots found on many sites. I know one appliance store that runs a photo of its store dog wearing a Santa hat with the slogan: "Happy Howlidays and a Happy New Year" every December. Their customers love it.

If you're looking for a great holiday gift for your customers, how about leashes for their pets? Maybe even with their pet's names embroidered on them. That beats a coffee mug by a mile.

If you ship products, you might include a shrink-wrapped gourmet dog or cat treat in your packages. Likewise, you could hand them out when you go on sales calls. "Who would like a gourmet treat for their pet?" is almost irresistible to the most hardened of gatekeepers.

Some business owners go so far as to name the company after their pets. Joan told me about Barbara Florio Graham, who named her company after her cat, Simon Teakettle. Other companies have named products and product lines after cherished pets.

4. Showing Up with Your Pet. Janet Huey, owner of Pet Stuff Resale in Houston, often drives around with a dog in her car as a conversation starter. All the employees at the drive-through bank know Janet. They usually have a biscuit for her dog and sometimes a referral for Janet. She often uses a dog to draw attraction to her booth at trade fairs. She once brought a very unusual breed of dog, but that backfired because prospects asked about the dog all day and were too distracted to ask about her business.

If you need a new way to connect to your customers, find out about their pets. You can use your customers' love of pets—or lack of it—to connect with them, differentiate yourself, and build trust. Happy selling!

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