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The Art of Selling

‘A salesman is somebody way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoe shine,’ delcares Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s elegy to the expiring art of the travelling peddler. Loman cuts a fairly desperate figure, clinging to the idea that he is a face-to-face businessman and, poignantly, the notion that it’s the best thing he can possibly be. Almost 60 years since Miller’s play, a career in selling is still more likely to be seen as venerable and lucrative in the States, while over here the very word is tarnished with a grubby image and its practitioners occasionally viewed as something of an underclass.

Whichever way you cut it, selling can be tough. As a design consultancy or architectural practice, how much product sales material – printed or otherwise – do you immediately dismiss and discard? Or as a product supplier, how many sales leads turn to cold trails following an unreceptive snub? It’s no surprise given the sheer volume of commercial messages we’re bombarded with every day, that most sales advances are seen as nuisance intrusions. And yet, the whole system is symbiotic and everyone’s in it. Selling a concept, a process, a scheme, a team, a product or a service; whatever stage you’re at, you are flogging something to somebody to get a project completed and a pay cheque in the bank. What, then, is the art of selling?

With the power to strike fear into the heart of even the most seasoned of hawks, cold calling is synonymous with the sales trade, but it is almost universally seen as a desperate and unproductive route to cracking a deal. ‘Cold calling is very difficult and there’s no point in us doing telesales,’ says James Mair, managing director of contract furniture and lighting company Viaduct. ‘We have to pre-promote ourselves before we call and then it’s no skin off our nose if people say we’re selling rubbish that they don’t want. That way we don’t waste anyone’s time.’ This is perhaps an unrealistically philosophical response to the old cold-shoulder, but it illustrates the need to pick your targets well and not flog the dead horse, as Mair adds: ‘Doing the hard sell won’t work. We’re trying to persuade people that what we’re offering will fit their scheme, which is one person’s opinion against another. If you try to hard sell that then the client will just dig their toes in.’

For product suppliers and manufacturers at least, it seems a degree of wastage in the sales process may be inevitable. Gianni Botsford, founder of Gianni Botsford Architects, says that around 80 per cent of the catalogues received at his practice go ‘straight in the bin’. Sales calls, meanwhile, are screened. So what does get through? ‘In the first instance I ask whether I am ever going to like [the product] and if not, it goes. Then I think you slowly get to know who you want to work with,’ says Botsford. And, as always, achieving a degree of stand-out amongst the noise is helpful. ‘There is a lighting company in the Middle East which has been sending me interesting little fliers and leaflets for a while, but no calls. Then, about a year later, they called to say they’re going to be in the country and would I like to meet, so I’ve agreed,’ adds Botsford. Building these kinds of relationships is hard, but probably essentially. ‘Sometimes we hit lucky [with a call], but mostly it involves nurturing. This is a pretty personal business,’ adds Mair.

But are there perception barriers to break down before these relationships can form? Designers are not necessarily accommodating and receptive when it comes to sales calls. ‘It’s much better with suppliers if you call them. You’re on guard the moment they cold call you, because you think they might not believe in [what they’re selling],’ says Yasser Al-Saheal, director of architectural practice SLAM. The group has recently been selling its own product concept for a £53,000 pre-fabricated house. Having done the door to door pitch routine, would Al-Saheal want prospective investors to think he didn’t believe in the future house concept? ‘I hadn’t really thought of it like that, but no, I wouldn’t want people to think I didn’t believe in it at all,’ he says. And therein lies the rub.

Preconceptions seem to suggest that as a professional salesman you’re more untrustworthy than if you’re doing a sales pitch as an add-on to a broader creative endeavour. Or, as Laurie Chetwood, director of architectural practice Chetwoods, puts it: ‘There’s an intellectual snobbery in architecture and design’. But while there are certainly differences between the two camps, are they as distinct as people may like to believe?

Gill Parker is joint managing director of workplace design consultancy BDGworkfutures and previously worked in senior management at contract furniture group Herman Miller. Parker believes that everyone is continually selling, even though the approach taken maybe depend on the form of the product or service. ‘People don’t like to think of themselves as salesmen, but we’re all doing it at different times of the day – presenting, projecting, negotiating. It’s only when you put a label on it that people get stage fright. If you mention sales in a design environment people start to recoil, but it’s inherent in every business,’ she says.

The keys to success appear to be passion and enthusiasm and, crucially, an ability to communicate them. Unlike product suppliers, designers often find themselves in the position of having to sell a rather abstract set of ideas and abilities. The belief, from some quarters, is that any verve they display in a presentation will stem from an ingenuous excitement about their creative inspiration. But, of course, they may just be good salesmen. Conversely, there are poor salesmen who may well believe wholeheartedly in what they’re doing, but can’t convey it.

‘Architects are never trained as salespeople and I’m always amazed that clients are happy that we’re at the forefront of selling what might be multimillion pound projects,’ says Chetwood. ‘People who sell Hoovers are trained, but a mistake by architects can cost hundreds of thousands. Yet often clients don’t take much notice of who they send to sell a project.’

What designers repeatedly pick up here, is that academic training almost never provides a component on how to sell design ideas. ‘In architecture academia there’s no training. No one ever asks how you might have landed the project you’re proposing or how you’re going to sell it. And when it comes to figures, costs and finances, we’re not necessarily any good at it,’ says Al-Saheal. But not everyone is so doubting of designers’ abilities. Peter Lintott, director of sales for workspace furniture group Ahrend, believes that designers make very good salespeople indeed. ‘Often specifiers and clients are relieved when they get to talk to a designer because they are one step removed [from selling] and can focus on what the clients want to talk about. I think the salesman’s role is becoming more of a facilitator, bringing things together,’ he says.

Selling design is an ongoing process of convincing clients that each change and development to their project is creatively correct, as well as worth the financial and time investment. But it’s at the early pitch stage that the difficulty of selling abstract ideas is most acute. ‘When selling a product, you can see and touch it and know exactly what you’re getting. With a creative design you’re really selling an understanding of a process, taking the client on a journey and trying to build up a level of confidence. This can be especially hard if you don’t even have a brief,’ says Parker.

Botsford concurs: ‘More and more, people want to see the finished product first. It’s happening that unless clients like the building first they won’t choose you. So we have to bring the design process earlier and earlier. Really to sell a blank page and the whole collaborative process is the ideal, although it’s getting harder and harder. It’s amazing how important it is for architects to be able to do this.’

Mair agrees that being on the specifier side does not necessarily make life easier when it comes to plying your wares. ‘I worked as a rouge architect myself, having not done the seven years, and the one thing that pissed me off was that you’re always only as good as your last project. Then you’re drumming up business from scratch every time until you’re really established. I was more interested in doing something [with Viaduct] that is hopefully snowballing, with a range of good products that we’re building on.’

What’s clear, is that in some capacity or other, practically everyone has to sell. But the way the word is defined and the approaches taken can really affect people’s reactions and language used. For example, designers are ‘awarded contracts’, while suppliers typically ‘make a sale’. But as Dieneke Ferguson, chief executive of designer-maker support organisation Hidden Art says, ‘there are many different ways of selling and routes to market’.

But aside from the cold call or unsolicited advance, in essence everyone is pretty much left with the same tools: a belief in your product and an ability to communicate and connect with others. Crack that and you can probably the drop shoeshine. Maybe spare a thought when the dirty boot’s on the other foot though.

This article was written for FX, August 2007.