Grizzly Bear

If you speak to the founders of tech companies, you’ll find that many of us of a certain age had a similar experience in our youth. As the digital dawn broke over our generation, we spent our time tinkering on the early iterations of home PCs and studying the pages of computer magazines.

My first machine was a rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum 48k, accompanied by copies of Sinclair User or Amiga Format magazine, all purchased from the local newsagent near my home in Skipton.

James and his original ZX Spectrum
James and his original ZX Spectrum

It wasn’t long before my penchant for these magazines and various new computer add-ons saw my piggy bank run empty and I was faced with the prospect of having to get a job. I began by doing a paper round and then washing dishes at a local gastropub in the evenings. I washed cars and even coached some of my school teachers in computing (on the proviso that I vowed not to tell the other staff).

Then, one summer, I added another job, selling tourist trinkets in a gift shop.

The owner – a huge grizzly bear of a man from an Irish travelling family – set me a simple challenge, laid down in no uncertain terms and liberally peppered with cursing. The upshot was that if he ever saw me on the shop floor and I wasn’t engaged in trying to sell to customers, I would instantly lose my job and earn a clout around the head.

On my first day I would “learn from the best” by observing and digesting everything he did. On my second he would watch everything I did. On the third I was set free as a solo salesman, walking a tightrope between gainful employment and a thick ear.

And so, as a shy 13-year-old, I began a crash course in the fundamentals of selling – a set of skills which are useful in many aspects of business and absolutely essential if you are going to become an effective leader.

What is selling, really?

Before we begin discussing some of the fundamental rules I learned during that high pressure summer, let’s dispel some myths about what selling actually is.

First, selling is not just for salespeople…

Whenever you have a point of view you want to articulate to another person you are engaged in the act of selling. You are trying to influence their belief about the world or persuade them to try something new or different. Engaging a team member in a new vision of the future? Congratulations – you are engaged in selling as a function of your leadership.

Second, selling is NOT a dirty word

Talk of salespeople will often conjure the image of door-to-door selling or cold callers. There is a prejudice that selling is usually vexatious and, at worst, dishonest. The truth, for those of us who are interested in creating things of real value, is actually very different.

It depends, of course, on what you are selling. If your product or service is genuinely going to make the world better, then you actually have a moral imperative to sell it and sell it well. If you believe in something then you should sell it with enthusiasm and pride.

At its best, selling is the exact opposite of misleading people; it is getting someone excited about something they want to do, even if they haven’t yet realised it. You do it by telling the truth and articulating new possibilities in a way that resonates with someone and meets their needs.

As a leader, your job is to sell a vision of the future to your team which inspires them to follow you towards a goal. At the start of any new adventure it is critical to make your people believe in it and want to be a part of it. Not only will it make the world a better place but it will make their lives better as well.

The fundamentals of selling

Build rapport:

To watch the owner of the Skipton gift shop at work was quite remarkable.

As soon as anybody came across the threshold he would assail them with questions, giving them almost no choice but to engage in conversation.

“Hello ladies. Now, what brought you here today? What are you going to be doing today? Are you visiting our famous castle? What did you think of the castle? Where did you come from? I guess you must have family back home do you? What are their names? What do you think they’d most like about this place? Have you been before? Will you come again?”

Depending on which parts of this inquisition got the best response he would then look to forge a connection. 

“So you’ve been to the castle? Yes, I’ve been there too, I love the castle. Isn’t it beautiful? My family came here to visit as well but we decided to stay because it’s so lovely. Isn’t it a great place? Are you enjoying yourselves here? So are we, we love it here. You know kids love the castle, do you have kids or grandkids?”

Despite themselves, it was very hard for the customers not to feel some level of connection and even begin to like him, if for nothing else than his sheer commitment and energy.

This rapport building is the first principle of selling.

To sell effectively it is essential to build rapport
To sell effectively it is essential to build rapport

Of course, it doesn’t always need to happen at breakneck speed. Rapport can be developed over years of drinking coffee, lunches, dinners and social occasions, walking up mountains with people, or fostered in focused discussions.

There are lots of ways to develop rapport and we’re all different, but the key point is that to sell to someone effectively they need to develop a level of trust for you as a person. They need to get to know you, for real, and they need to like what they find – for real.

As a leader, this takes the form of spending time with people in your organisation, building a relationship, finding any reasons they may want to resist the change you’re trying to put in place and trying to resolve them. It means listening to what people have to say.

If you are feeling resistance to the change you’re trying to bring about, one of the first things you should do is spend time with the people who are resisting and understand the reasons why.

You also need to be aware that the first reason someone gives you for not wanting to do something is rarely true. That’s because it takes a huge amount of trust for anyone to disclose what they are really thinking and feeling. However, over time you can nurture a level of understanding and rapport where everyone can speak their mind freely.

Once you hear what people have to say you can subtly adapt your message to bring them along. It may even be that once you hear their true thoughts you realise your original plan has to change in some way. If this is the case, embrace it. Nothing stifles progress in a venture more than a leader’s pride and inability to admit there might be a different or better way.

Articulate the benefits

Once my grizzly bear boss had done his best to establish a basic connection with the customers he then set about trying to sell them items based on what he had learned.

“So, you mentioned you had an ice cream? Well, what about this lovely porcelain ice cream cone we have here with the town’s name emblazoned on it? Wouldn’t it make the most wonderful gift for your little granddaughter? Does she like ice cream? I’m sure she’d love this.”

If the ice cream cone didn’t pique their interest then he would rapidly move onto another item, constantly trying to adapt his sales pitch to resonate with something the person had said. It was interesting to observe not only how often this worked, but also how much people’s reasons for buying the same items varied. It was unbelievable to me that he could sell anything in that shop, but sell he did. And I learned to as well.

When you are selling, it is vital to know your subject inside out. But this is only part of it. The real skill is knowing which elements to discuss with different people. You need to present the benefits that are most resonant with the people you are engaged with at that moment in time. You also have to remember that what appeals to them may be very different from what excites you.

As a leader of a business, this is usually a case of creating a better vision of the future for the people who work there. This could involve your employees having a better time through increased earnings, a more satisfying career or achieving something that makes the world better for other people. Ideally, it may even involve all three and the message has to be tailored to the particular people you are delivering it to. Find out what your people really want out of life, and if you can, find a way to align their ambitions with yours.

Let’s talk about emotional resonance

During his jovial chat with the customers, the shopkeeper – who it became clear was much softer than initial impressions might suggest – would invariably come back to the theme of family.

“So, what are your family back home doing today? Well, family is the most important thing isn’t it? My family and I moved here 10 years ago and we’ve never looked back. You should move here! My wife runs the cafe at the back of the shop and this is my little livelihood here, you know? It’s not much, but we just about get by and what a beautiful place it is to live.”

What the boss understood was that human beings don’t communicate and make decisions purely based on logic. He was constantly trying to appeal to one of the most primal and universal human drivers: our love for our families. It wasn’t a pretence. He believed in family. He was a family man.

To open someone up to the idea of buying something, you have to gain their trust, find what they are genuinely interested in and clearly articulate benefits they can identify with. However, to get somebody to act they have to feel something. Very, very few people will act upon information alone.

As a leader, the greater the emotional response you can create in somebody about your vision of the future, the more likely people are going to buy into it. To achieve this it is often necessary to do something which can be very difficult for those trying to fulfil the classic alpha leader role; namely, express your true feelings and show some vulnerability.

If you can honestly stand up and tell people your hopes and fears of what change may bring and show that you really, truly care, then you are going a long way to creating emotional resonance. Be open about the fact it’s not going to be easy, admit you can’t do it without your team, embrace the reality that you don’t have all the answers and you need help, be proud of your capacity to be wrong and to learn from your mistakes.

As well as appealing to people’s emotions, this will also build trust, for the simple reason that people will recognise what you’re saying as the truth. Who amongst us, afterall, can really say we have all the answers?

The power of the story

Encapsulating rapport building, articulating benefits and emotional resonance into a neat pitch is undeniably challenging.

Luckily, humankind has already invented a medium which can parcel all of them up in an extremely powerful way: The story.

Stories are powerful tools when it comes to selling
Stories are powerful tools when it comes to selling

Humans are natural consumers and tellers of stories. We understand the world through stories, we use them to express our emotions, thoughts and feelings. Our stories are what make us. Effective selling must make use of this essential fabric of human experience to stir emotion and create action.

My own company, Alertacall, is based on a story. It’s the story of my staunchly independent gran Eveline, 86, who had to go to hospital after breaking her arm in an incident involving a strong gust of wind and a car door.

When she finally came out of hospital she refused to wear a panic button, telling me to “get stuffed, I’m only 86”. This drove me to create the OKEachDay process, allowing her to press a button every morning to tell us she was all right. If she didn’t press it I’d give her a quick call to check how she was doing. It is this concept that Alertacall is based on. (If you want to hear the full story get in touch and we can go for a coffee to talk about it some time.)

Eveline’s story resonates emotionally with those who want to try and keep older people safe. It also resonates with older people who want to feel independent. Its appealing aspects can be adapted depending on which audience I am talking to. It involves comedy (Eveline’s outright refusal to wear an alarm because she was “only 86”), fear (the risk of her being left to suffer, undiscovered after a fall) and happiness (the eventual resolution that enabled her to lead a full life in her old age).

However, perhaps the most powerful thing about this story is that it is true.

Eveline’s story, combined with my vision of what we should do to help change the lives of thousands of older people, helped me recruit my very first team member, and is still what we use to recruit and motivate our team members now.

There is a real need for authenticity

People have a natural instinct for what the Americans politely call BS.

We are very good at telling when someone isn’t being genuine. Thankfully, most of us find it difficult to be deliberately misleading. We might be able to do it, but it doesn’t leave a very good taste in our mouths.

This is why it is much easier to sell something when you actually believe in it.

To build rapport you cannot just pretend to be interested in people. You must actually enjoy learning about their needs and getting to know them. You cannot just pretend to believe in the benefits of what you’re selling. You must truly believe it will make people’s lives better. You cannot pretend to have emotions and feelings that don’t exist.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to sell something you don’t believe in but it will certainly be harder. You will be a less effective seller and it may also slowly eat away at you from the inside. We are happier, better, more productive people when we are leading a genuine life and doing what we believe in.

Not everyone will want what your selling, but that’s OK

The last lesson I learned from watching my boss at work was one of the most important.

If it became clear his pitch was having no effect after a couple of minutes he would always wrap things up with the same phrase: “Well folks, it’s been lovely chatting, but I’ll leave you to it – you come and find me over there if you want anything at all, it’s been great talking.”

He knew there were some people who may come into a gift shop but still didn’t want to buy anything. These people were welcome but it was simply a waste of his time to persevere when there were more people elsewhere on the shop floor.

The fact is that not everybody wants every product. Not everyone is going to buy into your vision.

Actually, the more perfect something is for one person, the less appealing it may be to another. As a salesperson and as a leader you sometimes have to call it quits and accept someone is never going to bite.

When you’re running a venture this can lead to some difficult decisions. At thousands of companies around the world right now there are fantastically capable and talented people who are diametrically opposed in their view of how things should be done.

Irresolvable issues like this are a sign that one of the two parties is in the wrong place. It doesn’t matter how beautifully decorated a jigsaw piece may be. If it is not the right shape then it just won’t fit. This shouldn’t be anything to be scared of for either party. Finding a better place to work and a new direction which is more authentic to your true self is an act of progression, not failure.

A final, unexpected lesson

I only worked at the gift shop for one summer. The next year the family closed it down and turned the whole premises into a cafe. Perhaps they were chasing a greater return on investment. Or perhaps it is a good example of people realising you cannot sustain a hunger for selling something you do not believe in. Who knows.

However, my experience there forced me to break out of my monosyllabic teenaged shyness and learn the fundamentals of selling. Within two weeks I could talk about chincy teapots and porcelain ice cream cones to anybody. If a nerdy kid who spent all his time fiddling on computers can do it, then so can you. Some people may be naturally better at selling than others, but it is a skill which we can all learn and improve.

I soon got my first, and arguably only, ‘proper job’ working at a local financial institution. However, despite my confidence gained speaking to people face to face, I remember sitting petrified at the prospect of answering a phone. This is a good reminder that often the skills we learn are context specific. It is up to us to keep changing things up and challenging ourselves in new environments. It is amazing what you can learn about yourself when you do. 

Watch the video

A video of this blog is available at the excellent Leader Connect website at
Check it out here 


Stay in touch by doing 2 things now...

  • Sign up to my newsletter
  • Follow me on LinkedIn