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Selling Ice to an Eskimo…

My column in the January 2014 issue of the Entrepreneur magazine: 

 

Let us assume that the two of us are wannabe entrepreneurs and have invented a revolutionary ‘ice-making machine’. What’s revolutionary about it? Well, we still don’t know, but we have some fancy ‘concepts and ideas’. Above all, we desperately want to be entrepreneurs! 

So, we get this once in a lifetime meeting with Vinod Khosla – the greatest VC in the Universe. How we got this meeting is a secret and cannot be revealed in public. Actually it can’t be revealed at all, because that (How to Get a meeting with Vinod Khosla) will be our next startup business anyway! 

Vinod is very kind and patient; he gives us exactly half an elevator ride to pitch our idea to him. When have ridden to the 34th floor (he is going to the 68th floor), he smiles and tells us, “Guys, I like your passion. Go and sell your ice-making contraption to some real Eskimo – show me pictures plus their intent; and then maybe I can then give you a few hundred million dollars in angel funding….” 

So Hum!! That’s the mission. You and I have to sell an Ice-Making Machine to some real Eskimos. 

After weeks of begging and borrowing some money, we board a plane to Alaska on this mission! 

Any successful entrepreneur will tell you that the toughest part of any startup is Sales. And boy, if you are selling something that has never been invented before, or been consumed by someone before, then selling that ‘thing’ is nearly impossible. Therefore, the mission of this exercise is to sell and figure out how to make the impossible possible! 

Before reaching, I have done lots of homework for us. The first lesson in sales is to do thorough research about your customer, market, competitors and social sensitivities. I can tell you that selling an ice-making machine to Eskimos ain’t gonna be easy… 

After reaching our cold Igloo hotel, a rush of nostalgia hits me. Many years back, when I had started an online contesting portal called contests2win.com, I had undertaken a very similar journey. I had flown to Bangalore, checked into a shady 2 star hotel and then using the Bangalore Telephone directory (no Google, ask me or LinkedIn around then) started calling random clients. Selling online contests in 1998 to Indian brand owners was akin to selling ice to Eskimos. 

For this mission, I am going to lean on all the valuable sales lessons I have learnt in the past 15 years and prove to Vinod Khosla that real entrepreneurs can sell anything, to anyone!

Eskimos don’t really need Ice Machines. They are kind of surrounded by ice if you still didn’t figure! But then, real need has nothing to do with sales. As long as we can ‘create’ a need for our products in the minds of our consumers, they will buy. Consider for example the bookshelf in your house. Over half the books sitting there have probably never been read by you. But you bought them because you felt you needed them. 

As my partner, you have agreed to let me take the lead in this sales drive and give me feedback post our meetings. Just remember to make adequate notes…!

Our first meeting is with Koda – A 35 year old Eskimo who has a wife and a young daughter. He invites us in his house for a demonstration of our machine. I have brought a baby pink machine with me, knowing very well that girls like pink! I can see his wife looking very lovingly at the machine… 

Koda says, “Tunngasugit” (‘Welcome’ in Inuktitut) 

I say, “Hello! It’s an honor meeting a real resident Eskimo. I really respect your way of life and the hardships you suffer.”

Koda acknowledges, and asks about the Ice Machine. 

I say, “Koda, you are a successful man. You need to have this Ice Machine at home to make your wife happy and for your relatives to realize that you can afford to buy what they could never imagine. If you buy my machine, I promise I will not sell this machine to any of them.” 

Koda smiles. I have just used the first and basic trick of sales: ‘Sell vanity & status, not the product. The image-hungry consumer will buy.’ 

Koda promises to call us back soon. We move on to our next meeting with Atka which means ‘Guardian Spirit’. Atka is in his early 50’s and lives with his extended tribe members. 

I greet Atka with a researched phrase that goes as, “Inuusiqatsiaq”. It means “Good Health”. Atka smiles and greets us affectionately. 

I have with me just a nice brochure of our Ice Machine that has complex charts of the safety aspects of the ice it makes vis-a-vis regular ice makers. With a strong and compelling voice, I tell Atka, “Sir, you are the guardian … as your name says… And this Ice Machine of ours makes sure that any crystal of ice your tribe eats, is safe and absolutely disease-free. A person like you will never take a chance when you know that a safer alternative is available. The tribe and its health comes before everything else…” 

Atka has a serious look and nods at me. He promises to get back to us very soon. In his eyes I know that the second law of sales has worked – ‘If required, sell FEAR to sell your product.’ 

Our third meeting is with Hiti. He is a young man who has just started a restaurant and is very busy. It’s been difficult to arrange a meeting with him. 

Inside his rather cold, blue colored restaurant called ‘Tihi’ (his name reversed), Hiti barely smiles and asks us to come straight to the point. I request for a glass of water and he beckons the bartender to serve us. 

The moment I get my glass, I quickly slip my hand in my jacket and place what I have been carrying inside my pocket, safely, into the glass. These are real ice carvings, fashioned in the name ‘Tihi’. I had got the ‘Tihi’ name mould prepared before our trip and had frozen some ice in them before the meeting. 

Hiti is stunned when he sees pretty delicate ice carvings, carrying the name of his restaurant, floating in our glasses. He smiles very reluctantly and says, “Interesting. I see this is not an ordinary Ice Machine. I will call you gentlemen soon.” 

I know I have made a deep impact with not just my Ice Machine but also with my third mantra of sales: ‘Sell innovation, innovation and innovation.’

Over the next few days we meet countless Eskimos and their families. I pitch colored ice cubes to housewives, animal & alphabet shaped ice cubes to school teachers, ice that just doesn’t melt to some ice cream shop owners and most interestingly, ‘ice-jewelry’ to local jewelry shops who seem fascinated by the concept! 

On the last day of our trip, I take a count and figure that we have pitched our Ice Machine to over 25 individual Eskimos. This makes me feel satisfied that we have pavement pounded and carpet bombed the available market for selling what we have. 

Just three hours remain for us to head back to the airport. As we go down to the lobby to clear our hotel bills and hire a cab, I notice a small crowd downstairs. There are over 10 of the Eskimos we have met! They quickly gather around us, shake our hands, smile and say, “Yes, we want to buy your machine…!!” 

We have won. Our mission is accomplished. We take down their names, addresses and then take a group snap.

In the long flight back home, I smile and write this for you, “Always remember that sales is not a process or a science. It is an Art. It is a dedication, a meditation, and a journey that is unique every time you embark on it. When you really want to sell something, just dive into your buyers’ souls and they will tell you how to sell to them….”

*****

 

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22 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Ashwin Roy Choudhary

    Couldn’t have asked for a better article to begin my Sales in 2014. Have shared it with my Sales Team

    Thank You – Alok ! Brillant

  2. Profile photo of Pritesh Chothani

    Wow! It’s amazing how you give away so much knowledge for free. I trust these good deeds do come back to you in some way. Jay Gurudev. 

  3. Profile photo of Jitin Pillai

    Thank you Alok for this wonderful article. Its the best I have read on sales from a long long time. What a fantastic start to 2014 🙂

  4. Profile photo of vaibhav more

    __/__

  5. Profile photo of Aravind Gogineni

    Alok, you nailed it again. All my career, i was just listening to the question on selling to Eskimos. But, you answered and put it in a brilliant way for us.

    Hats off Boss. Shared it with my team too.

  6. Profile photo of Divyesh Panchal

    This is one of the best articles I read over sales. 

    Thank you! 

    OBO. JGD. 

  7. Profile photo of Harmanjit Singh

    Thanks for the valuable insights!

  8. Profile photo of Devendra Agrawal

    Alok you are a Gawd!!. Its easy to lecture but difficult to demonstrate and you just did it super awesome way

  9. Profile photo of Sidharth Udani

    I am in sales basically. I would love to get answers on the following questions that arise in my mind after reading this article.

    1. The first eskimo you sold vanity & status. And also promised that you wont be selling an ice machine to another one in the locality. Then this is only applicable when you have a niche product and not targeting masses. Would you justify/elaborate this proposition when at the end you sell 10 of the similar products and not which you promised.

    2. The ice machine purity and free of germs indicate you have a product that is superior to those existing. In this case, you have produced latent demand/superior demand. What if your machine was comparable/less superior than others?

    3. You had something different to offer to everyone i.e. teachers, housewives etc. Isn’t that because you had extra features of your product and not because of your targeting(I mean to say, the different great features of the product helped in selling the product, not alone your clever targeting)

    In short, your ice machine was an innovative product with many unique features that matched the (latent)demand of the consumers already. What if your product is of the same type/on the same lines as that of your competitor? Giving insight and value creation example on such products would be more useful to sales guys like me. 

    A great article, btw. I was anxious the whole time I was reading this post. Hope you take my queries in the right spirit and make me learn more about ‘sales’

  10. Profile photo of Divyesh Panchal

    Hi Sidharth, 

    Allow me to reply you not on behalf of Alok but my interpretation of Alok’s article. 

    As correctly mentioned by Alok, sales is an Art and not a process. Is when it becomes an Art it becomes immaterial of the kind of the products you are trying to sell or the features it has. Let me give you examples through the products that I sell. I am a food entrepreneur running a company by the name of Just Unjunk! and Salads is what we specialize in. Now let me first describe how differently we make the Salads (its features): we do not serve the western salads (Russian, Greek, Ceaser etc) instead we have our own innovative recipes and get them Indianized by using Indian flavors and serve it the way Indians like it (more saucy and not dry). Infact we dont even use lettuce leaves in our Salads. 

    Now I have three ways of selling the salad. 

    1) Ideally considering the innovative salads we have designed, we should be shouting out loud about being an “Innovative Salad Company” (third mantra of Alok). We do shout about innovation but we focus more on the “making it the way Indians like it” bit since an Indian consumer will be seduced more if I offer already acceptable flavors (known to his palate) than giving innovative flavors to a product like Salad which is not so easily acceptable within the masses of India as compared to other food categories

    2) I can sell it as a “Health Food” by conveying hard facts about excessive consumption of junk food leading to lifestyle diseases etc (second mantra of Alok). Now Salads in India are already perceived as health food. And hence all the food players into health food quintessentially serve Salads to a niche market (upper class of the society). Now my company operates in corporate cafeteria where most of the people are working class i.e middle class and upper middle class. For them Health food is a taboo considering their perception of it being boring, bland, expensive and lack value for taste. So we avoid selling Salads as health food or convey the health aspect very subtly in our marketing communication. And as per our co’s name – Just Unjunk!, we are bound to sell non-junk items anyways. 

    3) Selling Salads as a status symbol. (first mantra of Alok). We all know (including my customers) that Salad is a western food. Now when we move up the economic ladder, we tend to adopt all possible western trends to flaunt our rise in economic pyramid right from joining gyms, to wearing international brands to listening to western music and what not. We become aspirants to adopt western culture with that extra spending power. In short we try to buy the west through the extra money earned in east.                                                         This form of selling works the most in our case because in a office environment, when most of my customer’s colleagues eat regular junk food in the cafe, my customer flauntswithin his group saying “aaj maine lunch mein salaaaaaad khaya” (yes, that’s how we pronounce Salad in India. Salad = Western, Salaaaaaaad = Indian). 

    Hope this helps. 

    Divyesh Panchal. 

  11. Profile photo of Hitesh Bhatia

    Very interesting! I am a firm believer that if you are not a consumer of the product then don’t sell it! I need to have a chat with my newspaper vendor though as to how the article gets online here before I get my hands on the copy.

    So here’s my challenge, I have been in B2B sales for over a decade now and have used most of the above and many more. In fact something I always used for objection handling was a technique called Feel-Felt-Found! Now all of this doesn’t seem to be helping much in a B2C kind of environment.

    How do you sell to a number of individual users and what are the techniques there.

  12. Profile photo of Aravind Gogineni

    Hitesh, can you explain that “Feel-Felt-Found” which was working for you. Kind of interesting 🙂

  13. Profile photo of Hitesh Bhatia

    Arvind,

    Its an objection handling technique, I’ve been told its by Zig Zaglar, never looked it up though. I excelled it and it always worked for me. This is how it goes:

    On receiving a client objection during a sales call:

    Feel: Oh ya Arvind, I fully understand how you feel, budgets are tight this year.
    Felt: Interestingly Arvind, you’ll be surprised to know almost 85% of my clients felt the same way. They too felt the pinch towards the end of the year.
    Found: Surprisingly they found that by investing in my product the returns surpassed expectations and though there was a pull on their budgets they were able to justify it with the better results they got.

    What we’re doing here is not a hard sell but first agreeing with the client and then telling him that he’s not alone a lot of people feel like him and my clients too felt like him. So he’s not wrong but we’re also subtly saying that people who feel like that, end up as my clients.

  14. Profile photo of Aravind Gogineni

    Hitesh…THANKS A LOT for taking time to reply with explanation.

    Somewhere i read if we instantly agree to whatever client says, they feel at comfort. Now you have described it with a scenario and a way to get things done.

    Thank You.

  15. Profile photo of Guna Kakulapati

    Alok, great article. Thanks for sharing. 

  16. Profile photo of Suresh Mansharamani

    Brilliant. 

  17. Profile photo of Pawan Naulakha

    Oops you just forgot to mention what was reaction of Mr. Khosla.
    Did that half pitch won a few hundred million dollars?

  18. Profile photo of kiran n. bolantkodi

    Hi Divyesh,

    Nice analysis. I am also into food- Icecream manufacturing. I need some help from your analytical mind regarding marketing of my icecream. If you can give me ideas i will be grateful. Please give me your mail id or send me a mail to cremefraiche2008@yahoo.co.in or kiranbolantkodi@yahoo.co.in

    Regards,

    Kiran N.Bolantkodi

  19. Profile photo of Sanchit Goel

    Haah! Wonderful. It creeps through you and tells ‘Now go sell your stuff’.

  20. Profile photo of Pranav Chopra

    Wow,a delightful article which has inspired me in my daily sales role..:)

    Cheers!!!!!!

  21. Profile photo of vikas chandra shah

    Create Need to sell :- 

    I can recollect the illusion of having books and not reading them by my own experience.

    I set on to create my own venture and hence formed a pvt ltd co 7 yrs ago , yet i am working for somebody else in my day job and the company is just alive on papers.I should have realized that forming pvt ltd company is not necessary to start.

  22. Profile photo of Vaibhav

    Thanks Alok for sharing gems again!

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