What Little I know About Sales

Posted by: David Schwedel on Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Boat show photo

A friend of mine has three sons, two of which just entered college.  One of them called to ask my advice regarding which area of finance he should “break into to get the most experience”?  My answer to him was none just yet.  What I suggested was that he first gain some experience in sales.  With that in mind, I told him that the best sales training is to work in an organization where he is passionate about the product or service the company offers.  

Looking back, my very first sales effort began at the age of 11 walking door to door in the waterfront areas around Miami Beach asking to wash and wax people’s boats.  A few months later, my mother printed up a set of business cards for me, and I wore out my sneakers knocking on doors.  I was passionate about boats, and studied everything I could about them (back then, we actually had to go to a library to get data, or visit a boat builder or boat yard to “speak to people”).

One Saturday morning several years later, I was making my rounds when a woman asked me to wait right there on the front step so that she could call her husband to the door.  He was a tall man with a very stern expression.  He asked me to come around back, and take a look at his boat.  He pointed out several issues with his vessel, and kept referring to it as a Mako brand.  While the boat had no manufacturer’s logo on the side, I could tell by her lines that she was in fact a Robalo.  I learned a great deal on the history of most of the local boat builders.  First-hand knowledge was gained by taking the bus, and visiting nearly every boat builder in Miami that I could find.

The man turned to ask me what I would charge to wash and detail his boat.  I said, “Sir, I would first like to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to provide you with a quote.”  His stern expression gave way to a beamy grin.  I went on further to point out the Hull ID Number found molded into the transom of the boat. “Do you see this?” I asked him.  “This is the information that every boat builder uses to indicate the manufacturer, the hull number, and the date she was built.” 

I proceeded to walk him through his boat, and began to point out some of the most interesting parts of her.  The reason why the strakes on her hull were set up to provide lift and stability underway.  The location of the chines, and approximate deadrise of the hull; each of these things create the way a boat’s hull has “entry”, and rides through a breaking or following sea.  Each boat builder has a specific variation on their own hull and deck designs.  He could see how much I cared about boats, and how much I truly loved what I was doing. 

He not only became one of my better monthly customers, but referred me to the dockmaster of a large marina in Coconut Grove, FL.  Through this turn of good fortune, I eventually gained more than 100 monthly customer accounts which provided recurring revenue for me all through my middle and high school years.  The passion I felt for what I was doing was expressed through my work.  This was my first lesson in sales which became engrained in my DNA – If you are knowledgeable and passionate about what you are doing, you will never have to sell anything to anyone; they will intuitively know that you are only giving them an opportunity to buy something from you, as long as they are knowledgeable themselves.  Your knowledge of your product or service in relation to your competitors, establishes your credibility, and gains a person’s respect and trust.

In the next few years that passed by, the money I was making was very good for a teenager, but more than that I had gained a favorable reputation with people in the small Miami boat building community.  The builders themselves started to send work my way, and I hired kids older than I was for two key reasons: a) labor, and b) they had a driver’s license, and for a period of time, I was too young to drive!  I even started to take classes in marine mechanics to understand engines, generators, electronics, and all the other detailed components that make boats run.

The next valuable lesson I learned was realizing that I could not be all things to all people.  While working at the marina in Coconut Grove, a customer asked if I could “strip the teak off his sailboat’s handrails, and re-varnish them”.  This is hard painstaking, detail work, and something I had never done before.  I did not have it in me to say no to the business.  In my mind, I believed that I was capable of doing any type of detail work on a boat – after all, I had labored over more than 3,500 boats by that time.  What’s a varnish job, but a little sandpaper and some brush work?

Not only did I not know how to do the job, but I could not find anyone to do it for me.  I could have easily gone to the owner, and stated the facts.  Instead, I bought the supplies, and attempted to do the job myself.  I failed miserably.  This individual made it a point to make sure I would never work on another boat in that marina again.  To his credit, I didn’t.  That experience was a scar on my reputation, and it served me well as a life lesson.  If you do not know something, it is OK to admit it, and ask for help.  Your own ego can be a tough hurdle, but the sooner you realize everyone needs help at some point in time – the better.

Many years later I was fortunate to work with some of America’s premier boat builders such as Avance, Bertram, Cary, Cigarette, Donzi, Intrepid, Hatteras, Magnum, and many, many others.  During my University years, I  went to work at a Miami venture capital firm which increased my skill set in finance and management.  I was then versed in all aspects of Marketing, Sales, Advertising, Management, Finance, Construction, and Operations.  It eventually led to my creating a company which I started literally in a garage, and grew into a $550 Million publicly traded company, with a great deal of help from a lot of people.

This only happened due to my passion for boats, and surrounding myself with people that had skill sets that I did not have.  It also came from recognizing clearly, what I do, and do not know.  The last lesson I shared with my friend’s son was this.  God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.  It is more important to listen, than it is to talk.  You can only help other people, and yourself, when you become a better listener than a “talker”.

One of my favorite times of year in Miami is in February.  The weather is great, and it marks when the largest boat show in the world takes place: The Miami International Boat Show.  From the time I was in my early teens and beyond, I would work the boat show alongside of other “much older” sales people.  Some years I would be working with center console / fishing boats, high performance power boats, and eventually motoryachts. 

I noticed that when a “prospect” approached our display, the sales people would get them to fill out card information, and start to “chat them up”.  Then, they would narrow down the size of boat, and then walk them through each boat one at a time.  I would watch them fawn over these people, and move quickly to see if they could “get them to commit to a purchase”.  They spent 98% of their time talking “at” these people, and the 2% they would listen was to hear if their “prospect” wanted to “write a deposit check” or not. 

 I cannot say that I was better than any of those sales people.  All of them had responsibilities that far outweighed my own, and they were highly motivated to get their mortgage payment made that month.  However, I can tell you that the product I would represent was only the best of that particular model of boat.  So, I knew that there were basically three types of people that would come to see our boats: a) a buyer; or b) a seeker; or c) a tourist.

A “buyer” would be someone that was an experienced boater.  Someone that has already owned several similar “types” of boats, but finally understood the difference in quality and performance our brand offered.  So, I would simply ask the individual, “what type of boat do you own now?”  Based on their response, I would elect to either spend more time with them, or refer them to one of the other salespeople.  I saw fewer people, but I produced better results.

I also enjoyed spending time with a “seeker”.  These were people that were perhaps in a boat that in looks were similar to ours, but they knew that we were a better quality boat or yacht.  While they were not necessarily in the market for the boat at this year’s boat show, I invested my time with them to educate them.  I never spent time with a “tourist”.  These were people who were gawkers, and boat shows are full of them.  They would come aboard a boat, and not know the difference between the bow, stern, stringer, or bulkhead.

By listening to people, and appreciating their experiences you gain a sense of understanding.  From there, everything else just takes shape.  I believe the same applies in any business setting where you have to sell a product, service, or an idea. 

Today, working in the energy technology industry, the same basic concepts always apply.  I am passionate about what I do, and am surrounded with wonderful people each with an amazing skill set.  Together, we are building something we are all proud of, and we love what we do.  Our projects reflect that.

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