Steve Dewar: The Death of Spin

Steve Dewar isn’t the model of today’s typical sales superstar. Or is he? The hip 39-year-old makes no attempt to stifle a laugh when comparing his attire as president and CEO of Option-NFA Inc., a Vancouver snowboard equipment and clothing company, to the spiffy suit-and-tie look preferred by most high-powered executives.


Steve Dewar isn’t the model of today’s typical sales superstar. Or is he? The hip 39-year-old makes no attempt to stifle a laugh when comparing his attire as president and CEO of Option-NFA Inc., a Vancouver snowboard equipment and clothing company, to the spiffy suit-and-tie look preferred by most high-powered executives.

In 2005 the press release announcing his appointment trumpeted the fact that “being located in Vancouver will give Dewar quick access to both the office/factory as well as the local mountains for shred sessions.” Not a schedule conducive to wearing a pinstriped shirt.

The Telephone Pitch (target: retail) Mark Weisbrod, president of The Better Mousetrap People Ltd., helps inventors introduce new products into the hardware and crafts-and-hobby market, aiding them in manufacture, package design and marketing. With offices in Vancouver, Hong Kong and Dongguan, China, he represents more than 100 companies selling to the world’s largest retail chains. Here’s his advice: Preparation • Discover the name of the appropriate buyer. This might take some time and subterfuge. Ask. • Know where your product fits: understand the needs of the retailer, the competitive products it carries, its locations and demographics and, if you’re directly competing with an existing product, the benefits of your price and margins. • Be relevant. Presentation Once you are speaking to the appropriate buyer, understand the following: • This is not a time to chat. Buyers handle thousands of products and speak to many vendors daily. All they really want to do is hang up. • The only way your product is going to get into that chain is if that buyer cuts somebody else’s. It’s not a universe of ever-expanding shelf space. • Buyers are not risk takers. They’re overworked and their jobs are often precarious. Wrong choices can land them in the unemployment line. • Buyers are the gatekeepers. Once you have the entry point, treat that person courteously and professionally. • Your first call can literally be as short as a minute. Don’t try to convince a buyer over the phone about something he or she hasn’t seen and held. They’re not going to be interested. The view they form about your product will be based on what you send to them, not on your telephone salesmanship. • State your name and the name of your company. • Be crisp and concise. Describe the product(s) relevant to the buyer in terms of customer features, store benefits, prices and margins. Prepare a typewritten list and have it in front of you. • Never use superlatives. Products don’t “sell themselves” nor are they “the best in the world.” • Ask for permission to send information and samples. This is all you can expect on the first call. If the buyer says, “Send me the information,” that is your victory. • At the end of the call, propose a follow-up solution. “Excellent, the samples will be sent out tomorrow. If it’s all right with you, I’ll call in 14 days to ensure they’ve arrived.” • Say thank you. You earned the right to proceed. Make that your intention.

His company’s colourful website relies on such adjectives as “dope” and “sick” to describe its promotional events, and features at least one sponsored boarder naked to the waist, arm over head, revealing an enormous tattoo running the length of his torso. Dewar admits, “Right now I’m wearing jeans and a ripped T-shirt because I spent the morning in the factory.” But ask him about sales techniques in the 21st century and he’s all business. The company – which sells to 23 countries, has seven sales agents in the U.S. and six in Canada, and depends on endorsements from star-quality pro snowboarders – relies almost exclusively on the Internet, which is today’s norm. “We promote a great deal of what we are doing through the Internet,” says Dewar. “Our products, point-of-purchase materials and advertisements all drive consumers to our website.” Dewar reflects, “Ten years ago, it was all about reaching your target consumer through print media. Ten years ago, the fax machine would have been a source of communication. Today, our athletes have their own blogs and web pages on YouTube to promote themselves and us. BlackBerrys and laptops are a must for our sales agents to keep in constant contact with their customers and to support a home office for order updates, repeat sales, shipping concerns.” In the new millennium, making a sale requires the same speed, edge and precision that Option-NFA’s superstar boarders use on the slopes. Gone are the days of cold-calling, hard-selling, glad-handing and old-boy networking. In sales and service – the fastest growing sector of the Canadian economy, expected to generate a third of all new employment over the next five years – the new role model is not the person who can sell ice to the Inuit; it’s the one who helps them capitalize on a natural, abundant resource sitting right on their doorsteps – and who rakes in a handsome profit in the process. Following interviews with dozens of new-age sales pros such as Dewar, BCBusiness boiled down the recipe for success in the increasingly competitive world of 21st-century sales to five essential ingredients. Embrace technology Tina Osen, president and CEO of Hub International TOS Ltd., has 120 full-time salespeople working for her. Depending on the type of insurance they sell (home, auto, life, marine, to name a few), they use IBM ThinkPad T42 or T43 tablets or desktop computers, “and most of our commercial team has BlackBerrys.” Several years ago, Hub invested in proprietary software that allows its reps to research and quote rates and issue policies to potential customers with a single phone call. Access to vast databases with in-depth information on 200 industries, plus a “sales-asset-manager system” that gives teams an online link to 1,000 company sell sheets, brochures, presentations and other material, also streamlines the company’s dealings with its customers. “A successful salesperson was probably doing the same thing in our industry 10 years ago that a top salesperson does today,” Osen observes. “In other words, they’re consistently picking up the phone to make calls, constantly meeting with prospects, doing regular direct-mail campaigns, networking, asking for referrals.” The difference now is that Hub has adopted the latest technology “to, not only help us manage the sales process, but also as a predictor of how many calls or prospects we need to be working on at any point in time.” North Shore realtor Iain Edmonds is a fan of Terrasoft Titan, an after-market software program that automatically sends customized updates from real-estate bulletins directly to clients, sometimes up to 48 hours before the same information is uploaded onto public websites. “It streamlines the process so they don’t have to dig through a huge number of listings,” he explains. Edmonds has also invested in a new 8800 BlackBerry, along with another realtor-only program called Pocket Interface, which works with wireless devices to send listing updates and perform searches. “Some people would be fearful of their clients having too much information,” he says. But Edmonds reasons that technology in his industry is a help, not a hindrance, offering sellers more exposure and buyers more information. One of the harsh realities of modern selling identified by William Brooks in his 2005 book, Perfect Phrases for the Sales Call, is that buyers are getting younger and more technologically sophisticated. “They’ve learned to define relationships in terms of text messaging and Internet communications,” he writes. They also have an unmistakable air of superiority, Brooks notes. Paul Knickerbocker is director of corporate travel for Vision 2000 Travel Group Inc. The Toronto-based travel management group serves 5,000-plus corporate accounts across the country, acquiring enough new business annually to generate 200-per-cent growth year over year. It’s a noteworthy achievement in an industry where many believe the Internet is fast replacing human talent. “I congratulate the online travel companies for convincing consumers that Internet fares are the best, cheapest, only fares in the world,” he says. “The fact is, they’re not.” Vision 2000’s sales pitches have changed with the times. “The travel world is technology,” Knickerbocker points out. “Ten years ago, we’d spew all this wonderful stuff about what travel agents do.” Now, after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in new technologies, including laptops, cell phones and PDAs for account managers, client-contact software, comprehensive fare-searching tools and quality-control systems, “We’re more worried about the client than trying to sell our tricks and tools. If only 20 per cent is applicable to them, we don’t make them listen to the other 80 per cent.” Clearly, the ability to research a customer using the Internet and other digitally managed resources (such as RTS, or return-to-sample studies of your market, which are essentially customized questionnaires administered by research firms on your behalf) gives the modern sales rep a leg up when prospecting clients. “There’s no more dialing for dollars,” agrees News 1130’s general sales manager Kerry Greenly. “It’s not the shotgun approach, where you go through the phonebook” calling people out of the blue. “Before you ever get into an office, you know as much about a potential advertiser as you possibly can.” Greenly says the average business receives 16 to 23 sales calls every day. Thanks to voice mail and call screening, your chances of getting through to a decision-maker on a first attempt are usually slim. If you do get phone or face time, the last thing a busy buyer wants to do is explain how his company works to yet another poorly informed sales rep. Adopt a supporting role The notion of partnership selling is very hot at the moment. “There’s much more interaction,” Knickerbocker says. “It’s not just about the price of a ticket. We spend more time trying to understand the client’s goals and corporate culture. We create a history for them, establishing trends and looking at cost savings.” When Vision 2000 scooped a long-standing, lucrative government account from under the nose of its competition, Knickerbocker rejoiced in the win. He had beat out his former employer, and the victory reinforced his belief in the idea of a salesperson as a counsellor, not a clever talker who riffs endlessly on the features and benefits of his or her product. “We gave an effective presentation,” he agrees. But what sealed the deal was providing proof that a Vision 2000-managed travel plan would save a defined dollar amount in very specific areas. Helping customers, rather than hard-selling them, is what business coach Chris Flett calls “putting square pegs in square holes.” Currently wrapping up a 39-city U.S. speaking tour, during which he delivers such seminars as “How to sell without being a sleazebag” and “What men don’t tell women about business,” Flett calls from Florida on his cell phone with this advice: avoid the canned sales pitch altogether. Basic price, an explanation of how the product works and quantity discounts are all secondary considerations. “What should happen first is that you put yourself in their shoes. If you can’t see things from the customer’s point of view, you will never be able to communicate with them.” “You have to define a company’s expectations,” Kerry Greenly says. He recalls a lengthy negotiation that took place with a local mortgage company. “They were in all sorts of media: newspapers, the Yellow Pages, television. We live in a 300-channel universe now,” he explains, “and the competition for ad dollars from websites and print media is also intense.” When print advertising failed to produce results, the company agreed to shift more of its budget into radio. “We didn’t ever talk about the station. We concentrated on building trust,” Greenly says. “Over four years, they grew from a $5,000 account into a seven-figure account.” [pagebreak]

The Telephone Pitch Continued (target: retail) Sample What to send: • A sample. Send one even if the buyer said not to. • High-quality sell sheet or brochure. In colour, professionally designed, written and edited. • A personalized cover letter. Make sure you’ve spelled the buyer’s name correctly. (Call back to the switchboard and get the buyer’s correct title.) Mention in the letter that you spoke with the buyer and you are following up. • A vendor pricing sheet. Include your company name, mailing address, proposed prices and discounts, lead time and shipping methods. Date it. (People can often mix up pricing sheets.) Follow-up The follow-up call is crucial because, at least 10 to 15 per cent of the time, samples will not arrive on the desk of the buyer. They may have been intercepted. • Ask for feedback. • Listen carefully. Accept that rejection is normal. Respond only when it makes sense to do so. If the buyer’s response is encouraging, keep these next tips in mind. • Remember that every new product goes to committee. Don’t try to convince buyers of the merits of the product. Give them enough information for them to convince their colleagues of the merits of the product. • Ask about product reviews and store re-sets. “When do you review your door hardware? What is the calendar for changing the layout of stores and departments?” This tells you when buyers are looking at new products. • Ask for permission to call again. “I’ll re-call you in five months, and I’ll send you samples and information then. Is that all right with you?” • Develop good relationships. Be positive, consistent and courteous. Often a product gets on the shelf through another vendor’s stumble. The determining factor in the buyer’s mind is the positive impression you have created. The stand-up pitch (target: investors) Bob Chaworth-Musters, founder of the Angel Forum in Vancouver, has helped entrepreneurs raise more than $20 million from angel investors in the past 10 years. Chaworth-Musters and his colleagues present day-long seminars in advance of the forums to help start-ups become “investor ready” and entrepreneurs to become better salespeople. Here’s his advice: The elevator pitch Boil your pitch down to something so simple and straightforward that, if you had the opportunity, you could deliver it while riding in an elevator with an investor. You would: • Present the problem. “People are getting overwhelmed by all the spam in their email.” • Show the solution. “Our technology converts spam into electricity. You’ll never have to pay another hydro bill in your life.” • Avoid jargon and unnecessary detail. Do not say, “It has an ESP Adapt Function that metaphysically transcends third-dimensional understanding.” • Inspire. “The profit margin is about 600 per cent.” • Include a call to action. “May I spam you tomorrow?” • Make it no longer than 30 seconds. “Nice talking to you. This is my floor.” The boardroom presentation “I’m always surprised,” says Chaworth-Musters, “but at least once at every Angel Forum, investors buy into a company based on the sales presentation alone.” It’s also possible to be too slick and turn people off, but that’s not something most presenters have to worry about. The forum asks to see written presentations in advance and probably a third of presenters don’t have one. Or worse, 56 PowerPoint pages later, it’s still going on. Each company is given 15 minutes and Chaworth-Musters encourages people to practice their pitch to family and friends at least 25 times. Here’s what the best presenters do: • Speak succinctly. Every sales course says the same thing: script it. • Sell the need. Here’s where inventors in particular go wrong: they try to sell the technology rather than the solution. • Avoid jargon and acronyms. Jargon may be useful inside your industry as shorthand, and it serves to demonstrate that you are impressively informed, but, for the rest of us, it’s techno-babble. • Avoid too much detail. Focus on what investors want to see and hear, not on how brilliant it all is. • Show enthusiasm. Investors want rapport and honesty. They don’t mind if you stumble if they see the passion. They’re not there to be entertained; they’re there to be persuaded. • Come prepared. When the computer fails, do you have 25 printed copies of your PowerPoint presentation ready to hand out? • Leave time for the Q & A. Involve others. • Ask for the sale. Always include the call to action.

Not all customers want sales reps to become actively engaged in their businesses. But they’re tired of blithe assurances from pushy sales folk that such-and-such product is “the best on the market.” Tactics to try instead: free trial offers, which allow consumers to test drive what you’re selling with no one lurking over their shoulders. And this radical approach: advise clients to back out of a sale if it’s not in their best interests. Over time, you’ll earn a reputation for being a skilled problem solver, attentive to the unique needs of your customers. When the next opportunity to make a sale comes along, you’ll receive a much warmer reception. Become the genuine article Mat Wilcox runs a crisis-management company (Wilcox Group) that has put her one-on-one with hundreds of CEOs. “A CEO’s entire job is selling,” she says. “They’re selling their shareholders, their boards… They’re constantly selling something. And the best CEOs are charismatic salespeople.” “I had a ton of lunches,” Wilcox says about her first year of selling her business. “I knew a lot of people in our community who helped me because they wanted to see us succeed. I probably gained 300 pounds that year.” Selling, she says, is based on relationships, charisma and passion – a good thing if your business depends on spinning strikes, lockouts and environmental and business catastrophes. “If you’re half-hearted, they know it,” she says. “People who love what they do immediately establish a connection.” Sure it helps if, like Wilcox, you’re charming and have a talent for engaging discourse. But for Mark Weisbrod, president of The Better Mousetrap People Ltd. (BMP) and someone who has sold more hardware and hobby products than most of us ever knew existed (BMP represents 100-plus companies marketing to the largest big-box retailers in North America), a selling personality would not include gregariousness. It is important, he says, to “be social and disarming,” but he values discipline, brevity and an acute understanding of the marketplace above all when talking to buyers. “Ask permission,” he says about his classic sales call technique (see “The telephone pitch,” p.167). “Never use superlatives. And script it, if necessary.” “Humour,” he adds, “is best when it’s self-deprecating.” Small talk is fine if the prospect steers the conversation in that direction, but, as author William Brooks cautions, “For most salespeople, the transition from small talk to sales talk is about as smooth as shifting gears in a pre-owned car with a defective transmission.” Given the impatience, media savvy and general reluctance of today’s younger buyers to be aggressively pitched on anything, the successful salesperson should come to the point with warmth and directness and the desire to deliver more than what’s promised. Sell your professionalism, not the bells and whistles of your product. As U.S. sales-technique guru Darren Slaughter advises, “If you aren’t hitting the numbers you used to, now may be a good time to stop being a salesperson and just be a person again.” According to Jim Treliving, CEO of BP International Rights Holdings Inc. (Boston Pizza), the 270-chain eatery in Canada, which is now entering the U.S. market, “The first person you have to sell [to] is yourself.” In his case, he had to convince himself that if he opened a Boston Pizza (his first two were in the Okanagan), he wasn’t going to end up “pounding pizza” for the rest of his life. It was 1968 in Edmonton. Treliving was in the RCMP; his future was set, his pension secured. He didn’t want to transfer back east, so he found an Italian restaurant run by Greeks named for an American city that he thought he could format and franchise. But leaving the force for a pizza joint? “There was a lot of pride to do well on the outside, as we called it,” he says. He didn’t want to play dice with his life. After all, he admits, “95 per cent of all restaurants go broke.” After he sold the idea to himself, the next sale was even harder. He asked his parents to invest. “You don’t need a hand,” his father said. “You need a psychiatrist.” Treliving persisted and overcame his first objection – convincing his family that the future wasn’t in running a restaurant but in making a restaurant run and franchising it. Bob Chaworth-Musters, founder of the Vancouver Angel Forum (see “The stand-up pitch,” p.173), has encountered a lot of people like Treliving. Inventors and entrepreneurs have pitched their bright start-ups and innovative products to potential investors in the 19 Angel Forums he has overseen, securing more than $20 million in seed money, and each sale starts the same way – with personal commitment. Chaworth-Musters calls it “love money.” Investors (think of them as customers) need to see you’re committed, he says. They want to see that commitment expressed in hard money – a mortgage on your home, cashing in your RRSPs – but they want to see that you’ve made a commitment to the family and friends who also believe in you. Treliving agrees. He is now one of five expert investors on CBC TV’s Dragon’s Den, the reality business series, and he weekly faces down inventors pitching their ideas to him. A common mistake made by entrepreneurs, he says, is that they don’t understand if they want a loan or an investor. Too often they simply don’t offer enough of a company to attract an investment. In those cases, Treliving counsels entrepreneurs that they should approach friends and family for a loan and retain the assets of their company to sell to an investor later on. Presenters are often “quite shocked” by that advice. He says it’s about commitment, and, for Treliving, commitment is ongoing. About five years ago, he decided to franchise into the U.S., decades after opening his first restaurant. Treliving committed again, this time moving his wife and children to Texas so that they would live in the U.S. to demonstrate his commitment to potential American franchisees. Communicate instantly (and in colour) Realtor Iain Edmonds, who also runs his own real-estate-sales mentoring program, tells recruits to “treat your clients like gold.” The key? Swift, intelligent communication. He is industrious about circulating market reports, updating websites and responding to emails. Repeat and referral clients constitute 90 per cent of his business. Much as travel agents are losing business to do-it-yourself websites, realtors are facing the 21st-century reality of people turning to the Internet to buy and sell their homes (at a one- or two-per-cent commission), rather than hiring a real-world professional to do the job. Edmonds and his industry peers’ solution is to fight fire with fire. Whatever data the homeowner has at his or her fingertips, the realtors also have, and often it’s a single click away: new home-loan programs and breaks for first-time buyers, school ratings, interest rates, property taxes, average utility payments. In a booming real-estate market, it’s all about moving the client through a series of lightning-fast decisions. Edmonds cites an example where a dozen buyers bid above list price on a one-bedroom apartment, a situation that requires the kind of expertise and intuition a website cannot provide. In this new environment, Edmonds depends on wireless technology to stay one step ahead of his clients. His GN Netcom wireless headset rarely leaves his head (“I forget to take it off, it’s so comfortable,” he claims), and his Bluetooth-enabled car connects his cell phone to the car’s microphone and speakers for hands-free chatting while driving. “You come out of a two-hour appointment, you have 12 calls to return, and if you return those calls sitting on the side of the road, you’ll never get anywhere.” Rapid response time, often over multiple time zones, has rocked Michael Ho’s world. The managing sales director of Brian Jessel BMW, he oversees a team of 14 whose digital photography and email-sales-pitch skills are as supple as the steering on a 3 Series coupe. “We have customers all over Asia and Western Canada, and each salesperson is sending out a minimum 10 emails every day. We take photos of the interior and exterior of whatever car has just arrived in the showroom and send those out. Everyone knows how to download their photos.” One morning in early May, when a sleek 2007 BMW 760 purred onto the lot, Ho picked up the phone and alerted one of his best clients. “He said, ‘Okay, let’s take a look.’ I emailed him and it was done. Not even a minute. He drove his used BMW down here at lunch and we switched the plates.” Knickerbocker at Vision 2000 says that the mark of a service-oriented corporate travel agency 10 years ago was whether it would courier paper tickets to its business travellers at their home or office. “Now issuing and sending e-tickets literally takes seconds,” he says. Although face-to-face interaction with clients is declining, the emphasis on speedy responses to phone and email enquiries continues to grow. [pagebreak] Anticipate change One economic trend with implications for B.C. salespeople is competition from global markets. “Offshore manufacturing has definitely become a factor from a price perspective but also quality, as their products become more appealing to our consumers,” board-sports expert Steve Dewar affirms. Option-NFA’s sales are down from $10.6 million in 2005 to $7.2 million last year (due in part to a lack of snow in recent seasons). The company now sources its least-expensive gear from offshore manufacturers in order to stay competitive at all price points. It’s a departure from Option-NFA’s original selling point as a 100-per-cent made-in-Vancouver brand, but a necessary one. Tina Osen’s competition in the insurance field is closer to home. “We’re starting to see the emergence of online sales as well as financial institutions selling insurance products,” she explains. But she doesn’t feel threatened. “I don’t know if I’d label it as a more challenging [sales environment] but rather as interesting times. It forces you to stay sharp and to constantly be improving your game so that ultimately your clients receive a superior product and customer-service experience.” Chris Flett advises his clients to investigate niche markets as companies drill down to target smaller customer groups (Asian-Canadians on the West Coast, for example). With the commercialization of the Internet, the need for a mass-market approach to selling has diminished. Kerry Greenly at News 1130 is already preparing for one very notable technological advancement in the ratings system for Canadian broadcasters. In September 2008, the introduction of personal people meters (PPM) will replace the traditional means of recording what radio stations a typical household listens to throughout the day, at home, school, work and in the car. Instead of noting the station’s name in a special booklet, randomly selected participants will wear a small device that records whatever signal has been tuned in, even if the listener is a frenetic dial-flipper. The PPM slips into a holder at home, and the results are silently and automatically downloaded to a central data unit in the middle of night. News 1130’s all-news format has not, under the old quarter-hour monitoring system, garnered huge ratings; Bureau of Broadcast Measurement booklet holders often neglect to record the few minutes they listen to the station, even when they tune in frequently throughout the day. But 18 months from now, the station’s sales reps will have a new song to sing. “Stations like mine will grow in cumulative audience,” Greenly predicts. “Our overall reach will go up, and our weekends will go up.” Higher ratings, in return, will generate more advertising revenue. There is something about the game of selling that captures people. For Edmonds, the North Shore real-estate agent, the sale is “like an adrenaline rush. I admit it: it’s like an addiction.” The rush has brought Edmonds considerable success. After his first four years learning the business, he received his first Multiple Listing Service Medallion Club membership, which recognizes sales volume among the top 10 per cent of residential real-estate agents in British Columbia. He has repeated the distinction in each of the past 10 years, frequently rising into the top one per cent. For Treliving, his sales success has brought great wealth; control of a restaurant chain in Canada and the U.S; the fun of being a major player in a minor 18-team hockey league in Texas, Louisiana and the southern U.S.; and national recognition as a TV “Dragon.” For others, such as John Iacobucci, a former VP of sales at B.C.’s broadcasting behemoth, CKNW, a life in sales brings more mixed rewards. “The one smart thing I did,” he says, “was to sit down with a financial adviser. I was 48 years old. I said, ‘I’m making a lot of money right now, but I don’t know how long that will last.’” As it turned out, the notion was prophetic. Iacobucci remembers the day the station’s program director called him into his office and noted that the VP was making $50,000 more a year than he was. An axiom in sales is that you are loved for the business you bring in and resented for the commissions you make. He left CKNW not long after and now lives in Kimberley, where he owns “a big piece of property in the middle of town” and is involved in fundraising for the local hospita