Turning Fool’s Gold into Gold: Sales Tips for Small Business Owners and Entrepreneurs


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At a recent Chamber of Commerce social gathering, I ran into my website manager, John, whose company also offers services such as website redesign and pay-per-click management.

“Kevin,” he said, “how do I sell to some of these people I’m talking to? I’ve met two people tonight, both of whom own successful small businesses and could benefit from my services.”

I asked him to tell me about his experiences.

“They ask me what I do, and I start talking about my company,” he replied. “I can literally see their eyes glaze over. But I can tell from what they say that they could use my services. It’s very frustrating.”

John is obviously very enthusiastic about what he does. Being enthusiastic is surely an important asset for a small business owner. But becoming better at selling is even more important.

The key, I told John, is that he has to understand more about how customers buy. Even salespeople with a lot of training make the mistake of focusing more on what they want to accomplish than on what the customer needs to know to make a buying decision.

The only thing you’re selling at first is the idea of a 20-minute meeting focused around exploring their needs.

Explaining the intricacies of customer buying was beyond the scope of a short conversation at a social gathering (John needs to read my new book), but I did explain to John that his prospects first have to appreciate that they have a need to make a change. They will then invest in learning about their requirements and options before deciding to shop and buy.

What happened with John—and happens a lot with the small business owners and entrepreneurs I’ve met—is that he is an expert in his field. In the conversations with the two prospects he’d met that evening, he assumed he knew their needs, and they both showed some interest in what he did. So he eagerly launched into talking about his services.

“That curiosity about your services is fool’s gold,” I told John. “It is not a request for more information, let alone an implied need for your services. You were selling too fast.”

“What does that mean? How can someone sell too fast?” asked John.

Studying features and benefits is something customers do in their learning phase, I explained. But John was talking to people who likely had not even recognized they had a need. They just went to a cocktail party.

“When you pitch the specifics of your services too soon, while people are in the need phase,” I explained, “you are out of sync with the customer’s buying process. You’re moving faster through the steps of selling than they are moving through the steps of buying.

“Plus,” I added, “when you make that mistake early on with a prospect, you’re trying to make them jump to the middle of their buying process. Worse—you forfeit the opportunity to help them diagnose their needs.” Once the customer knows about your services they don’t need to talk to you anymore, there’s nothing more for them to learn.

In short, I told John, do not try to sell your services in a social situation like this. Or, in fact, whenever you talk to a prospective customer for the first time.

“What you want to do is get the person to agree to a follow-up 20-minute meeting with you. Getting that agreement is Step 1,” I said.

I reinforced that idea: No talking about all your services. No mentioning of results or impacts or success stories from other clients. No asking for their business. The only thing you’re selling at first is the idea of a 20-minute meeting focused around exploring their needs.

“And then I talk about my services in that meeting?” asked John.

“No, not yet,” I answered. “Assume that the prospect may not even be in the need stage of buying. The people you meet at a party or social business event may not recognize they have a problem that can be solved. Or, they may recognize they have a problem but not be willing to spend thousands of dollars to solve it.”

So Step 2 is to hold the 20-minute meeting, preferably in the prospect’s office. The purpose is to sit down with him or her, talk about their business, and analyze their current website.

I told him he should ask about their overall business concerns, what’s changing in their market and so on. Then dig more into their website issues: What’s working? What’s not working? What concerns does the prospect have about it? What would they like to be able to do with the website that they can’t do now?

I suggested he discuss with the prospect what they consider to be the top 10 “opportunities for improvement” with their website. “Talk about each of these problems, and help the prospect to more fully appreciate the significance of each one,” I advised John.

I asked John to tell me about one of the problems he hears frequently.

“They complain that their website doesn’t generate good sales leads,” he answered.

“Is that a problem that your web management services can solve?,” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “It’s one of the main benefits of what I do.”

“Great,” I said. “The key, though, is not to talk about it as a benefit, but get the customer to think about the value of having that problem solved. That way, once you do talk about that capability, they will have assigned it a value on their own.”

“How do I do that?,” he asked.

“It’s simple,” I said. “Just ask them, ‘What is the value of a good sales lead to your business?'”

John asked, “Then do I finally get to tell him about what I do?”

My answer surprised him. It was another “no.”

“Not yet,” I said. “Schedule another appointment to come back and meet with the prospect again to discuss your capabilities and deliver a proposal.”

“By the way,” I asked John, “how do you usually deliver your proposals?” He said he e-mails them.

“That’s a bad idea,” I told him. “If you are in the same town as your prospect, why would you miss an opportunity to meet again, and ask for the business face-to- face?”

His proposal delivery, I continued, is as much about building trust as it is about providing solution information and pricing. In today’s tough market it’s harder and harder to differentiate what you sell.

“Focus on differentiating how you sell,” I advised. “Build more trust by slowing down your sales process. When you do that, you can speed up your customer’s buying process. And that’s why when you sell slower your customer buys faster!”

© 2010 Kevin Davis

Kevin Davis
Kevin Davis is the president of TopLine Leadership, which provides sales training and sales management leadership training programs to companies from diverse sectors. Kevin is the author of "Slow Down, Sell Faster! : Understand Your Customer's Buying Process & Maximize Your Sales". For more information visit www.toplineleadership.com


  1. Great article and story! I think that when a small business owner pushes to hard for the sale, they come across as desperate, which makes me question the real value of their business. The idea of the 20-minute meeting seems to say, “what I have to say will help YOU… so let’s talk later”. Thanks again!

  2. Hi John,

    Glad you liked it. Your comment about sellers who, when they push too hard it “makes me question the real value of their business.” Great point! I would add… that value is determined by the value of the customer’s need, not the seller’s small business. Customer need is the only value of interest to the customer.

    Let’s face it – customers are self-focused…..so to get more business you need to focus on them.

    The process of buying is out of sync with how most small business owners sell. Understand your customer’s buying process, and match how you sell to how a customer buys. When you do that you realize you need to slow down the sales conversation – which results in your customers buying faster. That’s why I wrote my new book, “Slow Down, Sell Faster!” It’s counterintuitive, but in today’s challenging economy we’ve got to try something different. Good selling!


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