Jacqui Harper MBE is one of Britain's most experienced and respected broadcasters and corporate trainers. She has anchored news and current affairs programmes for BBC TV, Sky News and GMTV...
Selling is involved in a great deal of human activity, and we often don’t realise it. Karan Bilimoria knows all about that, as chief executive of Cobra Beer, a company that must rank as one of the catering trade’s greatest triumphs.
Bilimoria rates it highly enough to say: “One of the most important skills in life is the ability to sell.”
The importance of selling was thrown into sharp relief for him when he was at university standing in the Cambridge Union elections. Campaigning was a selling job. “We were not allowed to send out leaflets or address big meetings,” says Bilimoria. “We went around the colleges and we had to make a sale.”
The experience was a valuable introduction to selling, and Bilimoria learnt a basic principle – that the hard work and the striving to convince people had to be preceded by serious preparation.
Some years later Bilimoria was doing the rounds again, but this time he was selling for a living. He started Cobra with a colleague at digs in west London in 1990 and did the rounds of Indian restaurants to sell the lager from a battered old car.
Selling beer to Indian restaurants can be more difficult than it seems. Most of the owners of curry houses are teetotal Muslims and cannot sample alcoholic drinks. So Bilimoria used to leave samples for the restaurants to offer their customers, and his policy usually worked.
The preparation consisted of deciding first what the objective of the exercise was. The aim was obviously to sell the product, so what do you do when the recipient cannot even sip the wares? That is when Bilimoria had to decide he would need to give away a few bottles to clinch sales.
He knew too that the fine art of selling lay to a large extent in listening. For Bilimoria aggressive tactics were out. Instead, he would want to know what was in his customer’s mind.
He had chosen his approach to encourage beer sales in the restaurants where everybody was a non–drinking Muslim, but there would be other forms of resistance.
Money always concerns the customer. “What’s the price?” he asks. When he hears the price he may say: “Bring down the price and I’ll buy it.”
Bilimoria’s response: “You have to be able to stick to your price and explain why your product is more expensive. You have to emphasise the benefits. Cobra is smooth and non–gassy. The benefit is that diners can eat more food with it and this means more sales for the restaurant.”
It’s a good sales pitch but it’s also honest and can be delivered in a civilised fashion. The good, straight, reasonable presentation then yields benefits for the salesman. “Customers appreciate integrity,” says Bilimoria. “They prefer to buy from people they trust and like.”
This reaction is a pleasing one to the salesman who is always thinking ahead to sell some more. You always want to go back and do it again. “Show that you are somebody who is interested in a long–term business relationship,” says Bilimoria. “With Cobra we got a re–order rate of almost 100 per cent from day one.”
Part of the preparation is deciding what to do when you bash into a brick wall. The salesperson must always be ready to hear no for an answer, but not necessarily accept it.
“If somebody is unreceptive it could be for a variety of reasons,” says Bilimoria. “Don’t get disheartened because you know he is going to turn you down. This is where being flexible comes in. Listen to him. If you don’t know why he is saying no you can’t convert the answer into a yes.”
The advice is not as obvious as it seems. Some salespeople become irritable or indignant when they are rebuffed. Some become pushy in an ugly way. Others sigh and give up if they fall at the first fence.
The salesperson who understands the reasons for the rejection has the best chance of overcoming the obstacles. The objection could be an irrational one. Perhaps the restaurateur does not want to sell your beer because he has never sold it before. The salesperson can then weigh in with all the benefits to be gained from it.
Bilimoria has a few thoughts on persistence. With so many interests and contacts he is often asked to attend functions and to address organisations. He recalls the man who extended an invitation that he could not accept. He was simply unavailable, not unwilling. The intending host issued three more invitations on dates that the busy Bilimoria could not make.
However, he struck lucky with the fifth invitation and Bilimoria went to the function.
The lesson, he says, is to be persistent but to plug away in a socially acceptable manner.
Then there’s the bad news. Every business person has to deal with the unpalatable at some time. Bilimoria’s approach, whether in the workplace, in a board meeting or at a shareholders’ gathering, is to let people know where they stand.
“You must say whether you are happy or unhappy with something,” he says. “Always be open.”
Having introduced the problem, however, the bearer of bad news needs to show a positive attitude with a firm statement of what must be done to counter it. “People have to realise leadership is there,” says Bilimoria. “At the same time show that you care and understand.”
Your plans for a smooth ride at any meeting, however, may be threatened by a one–man awkward squad. Bilimoria’s democratic attitude is to let all who attend his meetings have their say, but there can be one difficult customer whose constant questioning is disruptive. What do you do?
Again, Bilimoria suggests building a bridge across to the troublesome questioner. He recommends: “You say that the meeting has a lot of business to get through and that it might be better to discuss the problems being raised afterwards.”
It usually works because the questioner is satisfied that grouses will be listened to, and Bilimoria advises: “Try to understand why the questions are being asked.”
Is the conciliatory, non–aggressive approach to presentation successful? Bilimoria would no doubt remind you that he supplies more than 5,000 Indian restaurants plus the main supermarkets, and that in most years his company grows by at least 50 per cent.