“How do you do it?” asked a branch manager of a regional bank I worked for. As a commercial field lender, we were to make joint calls with business clients the managers had drummed up. We had just finished visiting with a business owner who was planning to move his accounts to our bank.
“Do what?” I asked.
“How do you talk so naturally to business people and get them to tell you everything you want and more? You also get them to want to move their business,” she asked.
My mind flashed back several years to my wife who made a comment that she sometimes will cringe at a social event because of the questions I was asking. “They seem so personal, but for some reason, he gets answers and even more of what he has asked. He is kind of like a financial priest.”
Now I am nowhere near that good, but I do have the ability to get folks to open up and talk about their business. I began to wonder where I learned these skills. It was not until a trip back to my home town in Missouri, that I realized where I began to learn sales skills and leadership.
It was on the front porch!
I had several relatives who had large front porches, back decks, or flat areas outside of their house where they would gather to visit. My folks would often take me out in the country to one of my kinfolks’ houses in the summer. We would pick beans or corn from the garden, go inside for supper, and retire outside to snap beans or shuck corn. We would plop down in some of the finest metal and mesh lawn chairs known to man. If you were lucky, you could get on the porch swing and play with the dogs. Cold iced tea and homemade ice cream were usually present. We would watch the lightening bugs come up and share life together. As I grew older, I added fine BBQ and other beverages to these events.
The lessons I learned on the front porch formed the basis for all my leadership training. I just never realized it at the time.
As we sat outside on the porch or the cool grass surrounding it, we would often have neighbors drive up and stop to visit. In those days, we would also have traveling salesmen who would come over to sell gasoline for the tractors, crop insurance, cleaning products, Girl Scout cookies, and Boy Scout popcorn. The majority of the time, with the exception of the kids, the salesmen walked away empty handed after they had used their entire lung capacity to fill our ears with the benefits of their product for a half hour or so.
There was one salesman who stood out among the rest, Jim. Jim sold encyclopedias. This was a very expensive investment, but an important one to my aunt, the school teacher, who had a very smart son. I remember the day he pulled up his car into Uncle Allen’s driveway and sauntered up to the porch where we were working through a big batch of peas and green beans. Jim came up with nothing in his hands, something rare for a salesman. “Mind if I help?” he asked.
“Sure,” my aunt Barbara replied, “plop down in that chair.” And from the rest of the afternoon till darkness set in he helped the rest of us with our vegetables, enjoyed some tea and ice cream, and listened. We also learned that Jim was new to the area, what his family was like, and how he was out to meet folks and make some new friends. It was a good hour or more into the conversation when Allen asked Jim what he did for a living and we learned Jim sold books and encyclopedias. Jim gave enough information to answer the question and then skillfully served the discussion back up to the others on the porch. After three hours or so, when it was getting dark, Jim excused himself and drove off. He never once got out one of the volumes of the encyclopedias or discussed features and prices. He just came up on the porch and shared life.
He continued to do that off and on. It was not until the 3rd or 4th meeting that Aunt Barbara asked to see the encyclopedias. Jim continued to stop by the porch and visit. Eventually at the end of the summer, my cousin Ken had a big set of encyclopedias with a ten-year subscription to the annual update. Not only that, but several other neighbors purchased sets for their kids as well. These were other people who had dropped by the porch from time to time or people who my aunt and uncle had recommended their friend Jim to drop by and see.
So what was Jim’s keys to success? He took a genuine interest in people. His questions were not just aimed at figuring out the hot button the prospect had and then just pushing it. He asked questions and then listened. My wife always tells our kids, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Jim also made friends and not just for the sake of the sale. He continued to drop by occasionally and would receive introductions into other folks and recommendations for his product. He built a network of friends over time. Jeffrey Gitomer says, “Your ability to build a successful network is tied to your determination and dedication to take whatever time is necessary to build quality relationships. And you’re lucky—the outcome of your success if totally self-determined.”
Jim also followed the Golden Rule, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” One time, way after the initial sale was made, he was asked why he was different than the high pressured salesman we so typically saw. “I just stopped and thought how I would want to be treated if I were the buyer. Then I treat folks that way,” he replied.
This was one of the basis of leadership and sales, which involve the same skill of influencing someone. So if you want to learn more, come up to the front porch with me.