The Two Sides of a Sale

Stacy Innerst The Two Sides of a Sale
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I can’t decide which is more awkward, selling to someone or being sold to. I’ve been on both sides, and when the sale is right, there’s nothing better. An opportunity is identified, a plan is hatched, and both parties benefit. But as a small business owner, I spend a lot of time trying to extricate myself from the sales equivalent of a “bad date.” How can both sides increase the odds of a happy relationship?

Selling to small businesses has plenty of pitfalls. First, there’s a lot of bad data out there. I receive countless solicitations addressed to the old owner who hasn’t been involved in almost a decade; these get a one-​way ticket to the trash bin. Or a sales pitch assumes we’re in a completely different industry — why would a bakery need medical equipment? When I was in sales, I used purchased lists, but I invested in higher quality lists that supposedly had been tested, and even then I always tested at least a few of the entries myself. You’d be shocked at the error rate, and more than once, I demanded my money back.

I also know that many sales folks will tell you “it’s a numbers game” — you have to pound the pavement and hit a large number of potential customers if you want to make your goal. While I agree that a good salesperson has to persevere in the face of copious rejections, a high volume of inaccurate, scattershot marketing is going to wear out the sales rep and anger the targets. If there’s one thing a small business owner doesn’t have, it’s time to explain why a sales rep should stop hounding them.

Nor do they have a ton of time to explain how their business works, yet that understanding is sorely lacking when sales strategy lumps all “small business” together for marketing purposes. Do a day care, an architecture firm and a bakery really have the same payment processing needs? Show me a clear return on investment, especially one that I can achieve incrementally with little downside risk, and I’ll sign up today. But if you don’t understand my business model well enough to understand why yours won’t work for me, please don’t ask me to invest my time explaining it.

Of course small business owners are part of the problem. We are so busy surviving to fight another day that we can’t always articulate or prioritize what our biggest problems are. My business partner and I like to do an annual SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and then take a closer look at our top three priorities. We keep our eyes and ears open for anything related to that short list and ignore most everything else. We can also be naïve, falling for nefarious vendors who break our hearts by not delivering. Then we distrust the next vendor who comes along.

That’s why it’s important to ask for references, but it’s more important to find some on your own (what salesperson is going to give you the name of a bad reference?). This is also why sales referrals are so valuable. If I know someone who uses your product and will speak candidly about how it works in his or her business, I’m much more likely to invest, even if it’s only an 80 percent solution. When I’m speaking with that fellow business owner, I’m not only looking for evidence of a return on my money, but a gauge of the time commitment involved.

No vendor is psychic, and none knows your business as well as you do. If you aren’t in a position to make the time investment in the partnership, postpone the financial one until you are. The same could be said about any first date!


Lara Bruhn

Lara Bruhn is the owner of Prantl’s Bakery in Pittsburgh and contributes to Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine with Op-​Ed articles of varying subject matters.

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