Whether it’s selling property, plastic, cars or charity, it takes more than smooth talk to seal the deal. So how do Australia’s top sellers get us to part with the cash? Alex Brooks finds out for Pinnacle magazine.
Seventy-nine-year-old Bill Bridges rises at 5am, seven days a week, to practise yoga and then sell homes to Sydney’s wealthy. Bridges, a prestige real estate agent, is neither smooth nor schmoozy. “People know I’m a bit rough but I say, ‘Do you want me to sell your house or do you want an elocution lesson?'”
Until March, Bridges held the record for selling the harbour city’s priciest property – the waterfront Altona for $28.5 million. “It won’t be a record for long,” says the pint-sized Bridges. “I will be busting to break it again.” Setting sales records – and collecting his 2 per cent plus GST commission – is a hunger that never wanes for Bridges. The thrice-married father of six says selling isn’t just about getting rich.
“Of course money motivates me. But so does winning. I like to win.”
Melbourne advertising bigwig Harold Mitchell, who has made a living nailing hard deals with media owners for more than 30 years, says his own selling technique is simple: go for the kill and crush the opposition. “For someone like me who doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble and doesn’t smoke, it can be exciting,” says the 66-year-old. “I like to play on people’s fear. I want them to be more scared of me than their boss. I want a deal that’s in my favour.”
John Lombard, the managing director of recruitment company Sales Staff Australia, says salespeople fall into two categories: the hunter or the farmer. “Farmers are the relationship managers. They are about solution selling and knowing that if they can give the customer what they want, they will get their sale. Hunters won’t stop until they get their kill. Farmers protect existing business; hunters get new business,” he says.
He says the farmer is typically a better team player than the “egomaniac hunter” but “all salespeople can be challenging to manage. They all say, ‘Yeah, I can sell and I meet my budgets,’ but we are dealing with chameleons. Salespeople put on a persona and their resume is 50 per cent crap.”
While money seems like an obvious motivator, a truly great salesperson wants more than just cash. Companies such as Tupperware rely on rewards – cars, jewellery and overseas holidays – to ensure salespeople, who are paid commission only, remain hungry enough to keep surpassing sales targets.
Jenny Collina, a 53-year-old mother of three from Essendon in Melbourne, began selling Tupperware in 1991 when she owned a kids’ clothing shop and needed income to “pay the bills that the shop was not paying”.
Within three months, she was achieving the required $17,500 of monthly sales to earn herself a Tupperware-paid-for car. Within another three months, Collina was promoted to manager.
Today, she is a “group leader in qualification”, overseeing a team of 25 demonstrators and earning a monthly performance-based bonus. As one of Victoria’s highest-ranked Tupperware sales performers, she attends three or four “parties” a week. “It’s not pyramid selling,” says the woman who customised her kitchen pantry to fit her own 160 Tupperware containers. “It’s recognition.”
Tupperware trains its sales force in positive selling techniques. “Explaining and demonstrating the benefits of Tupperware is what makes it different to a container you get from a supermarket shelf,” says Collina.
For example, she says, “The Modular Mates have a clear window and the benefit is you can stand back and look at what you have in the pantry before you go grocery shopping.”
Demonstrators handle customers with deft word choices. “Tupperware teaches you how to be assertive, not pushy. You overcome objections by using positive words,” says Collina. So if someone questions the cost, the demonstrator talks about quality. “Tupperware don’t tell you what to say,” she says. “It has to come from you.”
As Harold Mitchell often sits on the other side of the boardroom table from salespeople flogging him space on their television network or in their newspaper or magazine, he is qualified to comment on which sales techniques work and which don’t.
“Those deals where a large group of salespeople come into a room with a lot of charts don’t work. They usually forget to ask for an order.” He says swish PowerPoint presentations don’t sell; saying exactly what you want sells. “One single person intent on doing a deal is the only sales team you need.”
Lombard says good salespeople are hard to find. An average full-time salary is about $60,000 a year plus a car, superannuation and commission.
“Good operators demand $120,000 to $140,000 as a base. People selling in large global enterprises can basically write their own cheque,” he says. “We placed a guy selling data storage and he made nearly $900K last year, $780,000 of which would have been commission on $10 million deals.”
Banks typically pay high salaries to salespeople, as do software companies and professional consulting firms.
King-hitter Mitchell says his success “probably comes down to ego”. Says Lombard, “What drives that ego is the action, the recognition or the money. I’m here to tell you a salesperson’s drive is the No. 1 reason they are any good. You can put anyone through the most advanced, state-of-the-art sales training but if they have no drive, they will fail.”
Charity worker and socialite Skye Leckie doesn’t exactly fit the slick salesman stereotype: she has no wares to spruik and no need to earn a cent in sales commission. Make no mistake, though, the woman is a selling machine – last year, she raised more than $3 million for charity in one evening.
As the chair of the Sydney Children’s Hospital Gold Dinner Committee, Leckie co-organised the event that sold a private Silverchair concert to one bidder for $5000 and a private movie screening with critics David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz for $7500.
“The guests know they are there to spend up big,” explains the foundation’s chief executive, Elizabeth Crundall. “Companies want their tables to be the most active and lively.” Charities fall over themselves to recruit social high-flyers like Leckie to their cause, knowing these people become the sales agents for charity donations by bringing cachet and a little black book of connections.
Leckie spends months planning, scamming and roping in freebies from more than 700 businesses. “You do have to pitch all the time. [But] I would prefer to put knitting needles in my eyes than try to sell someone something,” says the 48-year-old wife of Seven Network chief David Leckie.
“You’re selling the cause of helping children, which is not like selling a product. I am always focused on what I am asking for,” she says. “I take a deep breath and hope they don’t run away from me but I am very blunt.”
Leckie sweet-talked former prime minister John Howard into donating time to have lunch with 10 guests, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Originally, his office offered her a signed photo of Howard. “I said, ‘That’s really sweet of you but it has to be a money-can’t-buy opportunity.'” The PM lunch at Machiavelli raised fierce bidding and $60,000.
Leckie even took off her clothes – figuratively – in the name of a sales pitch for charity, flashing a topless painting of herself on the big screen to auction a sitting with its artist, David Bromley. Leckie shrugs away any embarrassment and points out that the tactic worked – the commission was bought for $20,000.
Bill Bridges’s competitive streak may stem from his years working on the racetrack before becoming an estate agent in 1950. “I never wanted to be anything but a jockey. But then I fell in love with the knife and fork and ate myself out of the saddle,” he says.
Bridges has never read a book on sales techniques and poo-poos the real estate agents “who all hug each other and think they’re wonderful. The only skill that matters is S-O-L-D. Sold. Did you sell it? A house is never sold until the contract has exchanged and the 10 per cent deposit is in the bank.”
Marketing, databases and “relationship management” are the buzzwords of modern sales. Instead of slick websites, Bridges’s marketing tool is one sheet of paper with a list of 45 sales ranging from $1.8 million up to $28 million.
“Some of the agents are like greyhounds; they will hunt but not kill. They’re more interested in pictures of themselves,” he says. “I don’t put up any glossy pictures of me anywhere. I have a picture of my dog because he’s better looking.” And sure enough, there is a picture of a Jack Russell terrier on the sands of Bondi with the caption: “Bill Bridges’s spiritual guru – Quigley.”
“Salespeople know their customers are smarter – 20 or 30 years ago there was this arrogance that you could pull the wool over a customer’s eyes. There were shoddy tricks like the car dealers who would throw a customer’s keys on the roof while they kept them in a room trying to sell them a car,” says Lombard. “Now it’s about the win for the customer. The buyer is buying rather than being sold to.”
Melbourne car salesman Jason Smith, 36, works for Bib Stillwell BMW selling high-end vehicles such as the $364,000 6 Series. His dealership keeps customer records on a database, knowing the average BMW owner “holds” a car for two years and eight months before upgrading. During that period, Smith will contact the owner eight times, usually over the phone.
“People don’t like it when you call them up without a reason but I ask them, ‘How is the car?’ or ‘Has anyone admired your car recently?’ That’s a really good way to get referrals. If they say, ‘Oh yeah, John the neighbour liked it,’ then I ask them for John’s number and I’m on the phone to John,” he says.
Smith may invite a customer to a special VIP night where new models of Rolex watches and BMWs are on display. He may cold-call a customer to offer them a test drive of a new-model BMW. “When you have them face-to-face, you have to build a rapport. You have to be able to read people,” he says. “Eight out of 10 people that walk into a dealer will buy a car. There is a showmanship in selling. The people who aren’t successful fail because they only do things their way. They don’t tailor themselves to the customer.”
So who are the hardest customers to crack? “Accountants and real estate agents,” says Smith. “Accountants always try to get the price down. Those bloody land rats won’t stop negotiating and never give you a chance to close the sale. Salespeople – they can’t stop themselves.”
“What makes a person say yes is the value proposition – WIFM: ‘What’s in it for me?’ For ‘traditionalists’, it’s all about price, a deal, a discount, function, features and urgency. It doesn’t matter if the salesperson is on the phone, at the front door or behind a counter, those things will drive the sale for 8 million Australians. The ‘neo-consumer’ is more concerned with how it feels and whether the item has a sense of investment or will become more expensive or valuable later on. They are two entirely different sales cases.”
Ross Honeywill, consumer behaviourist and sales trainer, the Centre for Customer Strategy.