The best sales advice I ever got was from a surfer dude

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I have always loved the outdoors. Hiking, camping, rafting, the ocean sports, all of it, I’m in. I see a Bass Pro Shop or REI and can’t help stopping to check things out. One day I did just that and ended up relearning a crucial lesson on selling and the art of persuasion in general.

My local REI store is in Manhattan Beach, California and on this particular day I did my usual and stopped in to “look around.” The problem with me and “looking around,” is that I’m like a kid in a candy store and always end up buying something. So there I am, looking at an entire wall of backpacks and thinking about my last experience hiking, when I hear a voice behind me ask “Looking at backpacks?” I gave a slightly snide answer of “Why yes, I am.” Mr. Eager Beaver sales associate then said “Well, let me show you what we got,” he then pointed out a beautiful external frame pack and began to explain its features; Several cubic feet of storage, incredibly light exoskeleton, waterproof compartment, lumbar pad, self-tightening shoulder straps, and on and on. As my eyes glazed over I realized I did not want to listen to this guy anymore and cut him short with a “let me look around a bit,” then left. No purchase, no sale.

A few days later I stop into a much smaller specialty-hiking store in Redondo Beach. I stood looking at the wall of 6 or 7 models of packs when I heard a voice from behind, “Looking at backpacks huh?” Truth is, I smelled him coming before he got there. Ocean, patchouli, a clear hint of marijuana; his scent announced him before he got there. I was about to send Mr. Obvious on his way when he said “dude, I love to hike, you too?” The voice called me dude. I was 40 years old at the time so it gave me a chuckle. So I turn around to see a youngish, quintessential California surfer guy. “Where do you go?” he asked. “Well,” I told him, “my last trip was to Yosemite.” I told him how beautiful I thought it was and about the bears I saw, and the story about the night I left my beef jerky in my backpack. “Dude, I love Yosemite, they have some gnarly hikes.” So he asked me what I liked, where I went, how my equipment fared and, finally, why I was in his store. “My backpack shifted all over the place when we were bouldering. I could never get comfortable when I was using my hands and feet to climb” I explained. “Dude, I get it. You have an external frame right?” he asked. “Yep,” I said. Then he said “check this out” and took out a backpack that was shaped like a taco and didn’t appear to have a frame. “This is the s**t, fits like a glove and moves with you when you boulder” he explained. He was right and before you knew it I had dropped a cool $250 on a new pack.

As I was checking out I said to the surfer dude “you’re good at this.” “Good at what?” he asked. “Selling!” I said. “I have been selling for years and you are really good.” He looked confused, “I don’t sell” he said, “I just took my fathers advice and find out what people want. What they love about hiking or the outdoors, what their interests are, then I show’em things that work for what they want.”

Boom, there it is. I realized, in that moment, that I had forgotten one of the oldest and most important tenets of sales, persuasion and even of leadership. How could I, a man who owned two businesses that relied on client sales have forgotten something so elemental? It freaked me out honestly. What we think, feel or say about our idea, product, or anything is largely irrelevant. We do not convince people to buy an idea or thing, but rather we simply uncover and relate to their needs only. What I had forgotten is that, whether you’re selling backpacks, advice or fractional ownership of a jet, people buy emotionally, then use facts and data to back up the decision to buy. I never forgot it again.

— Kevin Catlin

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