In 1995, I attended a conference of digital elites in Arizona called Agenda. Technology mavens like Gates, Ellison and McNealy were there, less to sell than to mingle through who was doing what and how they were doing it. Powerful VCs and Angels who could stroke checks faster than the GSA on a Vegas boondoggle sashayed the halls, casually measuring the “idea” guys with equal parts decorum and brutal honesty. Every time I turned around, there was yet another multi-billionaire techno-king or queen walking solemnly alone, not a trailing minion or staffer in sight.
Bright eyed and bushy-tailed at 30, I engaged many of these leaders in light conversation and each, to a man and woman, was pleasant, welcoming and quite humorous at times. It was a heady experience for a newbie like me to be bellying up to the bar with the head of PeopleSoft or chatting at dinner with the chief of Netscape. Each conversation was disarming, natural and easy – not because of my joie de vivre but despite it.
I soon figured out why. They, unlike me, weren’t trying to sell anything. They were in their element; I out of mine. Their conversations were simple, flowing and unstilted. Mine…not so much. I sought to sell my company’s value, its promise and future. They, listening politely, had heard it all before. I talked more than I inquired. I sold more than I listened. I did exactly what I now tell all my clients is pure hari kari – I tried to force-feed my “audience” with my own Kool-Aid, failing to realize they were neither thirsty nor in the mood to drink anything I might serve up. I spoke in a language that was off-key, an octave or three off from a perfect tone. But off I was nonetheless.
I got in tune the next day. As I walked into the main lobby hall, I was greeted by a dozen or more elderly women donned in T-Shirts with the faces of young-looking men and women plastered across the front. The elderly women, each a spitting image of the grandmother from The Waltons, were the mothers of the executives of Palm, a main conference sponsor. They approached attendees gingerly and, without fanfare or hype, presented us with a trial version of the new Palm device, pre-loaded with the conference schedule, attendees and other useful information. (Yes, I had access to the personal email addresses of hundreds of tech execs. No, I wasn’t smart enough to keep them.) Clipboards in hand, the Granny Brigade took our information, gave us the devices and chatted us up like any grandmother might. There was something incredibly poetic – and clearly memorable – about watching a grandmother show Bill Gates how to use a tech gadget. I half expected them to roll out cookies and milk at one point. It was, frankly, a genius tactic.
The Granny Brigade, like the billionaire mavens, had nothing to prove. To them, engaging was fun and easy. Who, after all, is going to straight-arm a cold-calling Grandma Walton? No one. Even the most hardened of souls, the most cynical of cynicals and the most cautious of cautious, could not resist Grandma. Their approach was natural. It was simple. They didn’t have to sell Palm, just put it in the palm of our hands – which they did with disarming skill.
What can tech execs today learn from this Granny story? Be a granny, not a newbie. Don’t sell, just engage. Don’t push, just ask questions. Don’t wed yourself to some arbitrary formula of purely quantitative measures, but demonstrate a genuine and authentic concern for the well being of prospects and customers. Speak the language of the audience, not the hodgepodge marketing speak that so often dominates conversations. Like the sports-inspired rallying cry of “Be the Ball!”…try to “Be the Granny.”
In the end, remember…people buy from people. If your sales team is full of Grannys who speak disarmingly and engage freely, they’ll be better at generating results than the aggressive hounds banging on quotas like used car salespersons. Empathy means connection. It means knowledge of issues, of challenges and of concerns. Be empathic like Granny.
Think about it: who is best qualified to sell to plumbers? A former plumber. Who can sell to accountants best? Another accountant. Who is best qualified to sell to anyone? Someone who has walked in those shoes previously. Someone who knows the daily ins and outs and can appreciate the business challenges intuitively. Why? Because the conversations are easy. They’re simple. They’re based on empathy, not sales.
So go ahead and hire a Granny. Hire that plumber. Hire someone who gets it, not someone whose job it is to get it. Imagine the types of conversations you’ll have, instead of the types of conversations you missed out on because you were selling.
Consultants often parade around as if they’re omniscient. We wish we were, but we’re not. We just know a fair amount, having endured the highs and lows as former CXO operating executives at tech firms. Yes, we have all walked in your shoes. Call or email if you’d like to chat. That’s our Granny pitch.