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Zen and the Art of Selling

Zen and the Art of Selling



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On the importance of selling your ideas, by Robert Metcalfe. From Technology Review May/June 1992. Posted with permission of Robert Metcalfe, Polaris Venture Partners
On the importance of selling your ideas, by Robert Metcalfe. From Technology Review May/June 1992. Posted with permission of Robert Metcalfe, Polaris Venture Partners

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en and the Art of 
May/June 1992www.technologyreview.com
A Better MousetrapSelling ConsciousnessSelling versus EngineeringSelling Curriculum
wenty-eight years ago I was anMIT reshman, and I wish some-one had sold me then what I plan tosell you now—the idea that selling is anart to practice no matter what your calling.Ater decades o painul on-the-job salestraining, I am sad to nd that the MIT cul-ture, at all levels, is still permeated withthe notion that proessional salespeopleare properly placed in the ood chain justbelow green slime.That attitude relegates too many MITstudents to bleak Saturday nights alone,because they think it unseemly to dothe bit o selling conducive to lining upa date. But there are also serious proes-sional and institutional eects as well aspersonal ones: Too many MIT proessorsare marginalized and their ideas ignored,not in technical journals or academics orscience, but where they are most needed:in the corridors o power. Too many MITadministrators, paralyzed by alse notionso academic dignity, ail to put MIT’s besteet aggressively orward to win the IvyLeague endowments that MIT deserves.And too many MIT entrepreneurs launchcompanies that give no thought to sellingand so promptly crash and burn.I can tell you rsthand that selling isone o the highest arts in entrepreneur-ship. Most companies, even successulhigh-tech companies in Silicon Valley,spend 10 times more on selling than onengineering. And i it’s proo you need,then read “How to Succeed in Business:An Interview with Edward B. Roberts,”in the February/March 1992
Thnoogy Rviw
. Roberts shows the strong correla-tion between the success o startups andthe marketing orientation—the sales con-sciousness—o their ounders.In short, nothing happens until some-thing gets sold.So now let me tell you about a anta-sy o mine to which I think MIT gradswill relate.
A Better Mousetrap
It began with my attending a meetingabout better ways to catch mice. Themeeting opened with a supercial dis-cussion o mousetraps, to which I per-unctorily listened. Having settled onone o several ideas that occurred to meduring the discussion, I spoke.The meeting ell silent as I sketchedmy concept or a better mousetrap andthen sat back. A moment o suspensepassed, and then the meeting came alivewith enumerations o the many advan-tages o the mousetrap I had proposed—all in what seemed to me like slow mo-tion. As enthusiasm built, and ater onlymy occasional corrective interjection,a consensus ormed around what wasthereater reerred to, on every occasion,as “Bob’s mousetrap idea.”For years ater the meeting, my long,contemplative weekends were too oteninterrupted by ceremonies at which Igraciously accepted prestigious awardsor my mousetrap idea and its many de-rivatives, all o which, no matter how re-mote, were scrupulously traced back andcredited to me. I was invited to posh par-ties by the most hip and happening mouseexterminators and was approached otenwith outrageous propositions rom beau-tiul strangers.Among the many checks I receivedspontaneously in the mail, I cashed onlythose rom companies whose commercialapplications o my mousetrap idea weresocially responsible, environmentally sen-sitive, and politically correct. My antasticwealth grew, and all but the modest rac-tion required to support my ascetic ex-istence in various hideaways around theworld went to support the selfess teachersand researchers at MIT’s Robert MetcaleLaboratory or Mousetrap Technology.
Selling Consciousness
I have been waking up rom this antasyor 28 years. In reality, inventors who be-lieve that better mousetraps automaticallybring the world to their door are in thelowest o the our states o selling con-sciousness: the unappreciated state. Andthey are probably alone in the bushes.I moved up to the next higher state o selling consciousness when I venturedout to hit people over the head with actsthey were too lazy or stupid to nd outor themselves—that they should havebeen beating a path to my door, buy-ing my mousetraps. In this state o con-sciousness—the argumentative state—I
people to buy my mousetraps. Theyargued with me, I snickered at their igno-rance, and I expected that my clever anddecisive counterarguments would orcethem to buy. This occasionally worked,but only up to an unsatisying point.In our ree-market system, o course,people are not compelled, even byoverbearing cleverness, to buy a bettermousetrap. And so, with experience anddesire to succeed, I moved up to the thirdstate o selling consciousness: sueringools gladly. I quietly listened to con-cerns about buying my mousetraps andwas careul not to call them stupid. I ex-plained in single-syllable words why mymousetraps were superior. I ound thatpeople respond positively to politenessand simplicity. Increased sales resulted.I have observed, however, that peoplestuck in the ool-suering state o sell-ing consciousness are twisted by theirown insincerity and soon stoop to thekind o overselling and underdeliverythat have given sales its poor reputa-tion. What ultimately separates thesheep rom the goats in this eld isunderstanding that prospective buyerso mousetraps are not ools. I learnedthat they are in act experts—in know-ing what they need. When they did notbuy my mousetraps, it was either be-cause they didn’t need them or becauseI ailed to sell them competently.Now, in this ourth and highest stateo selling consciousness, I learned to
en and the Art of Selling
ost o our rutn tos oms rom r tht i wsk or th ordr w wi  tod “NO.”
by Robert M. Metcale
listen to prospective buyers to nd themaximum overlap between their mouse-elimination needs and the mousetraps Ihad to oer. I worked hard to understandmy buyer. I learned to communicate thebenets o my mousetraps, rst estab-lishing my credibility and always keep-ing in mind that it is not mousetraps thatbuyers need, but ewer mice.I learned to ask buyers or their order,to listen or their objections, to handleobjections creatively, and to ask ortheir order again … and again. I deliv-ered my mousetraps when needed andensured that buyers were satised.This was selling as a high calling,and I learned to revel in the subtletieso its practice.
Selling versus Engineering
Let me fash a ew numbers by you aboutthe relative importance o selling and en-gineering. Let’s say a buyer spends $181on a Metcale Mousetrap. Right o thetop, $81 goes to distribution—the out-side people responsible or locally sell-ing and delivering our product. Believeme, they earn it.O the $100 ater distribution, about$50 goes to manuacture the mouse-traps, including $40 to buy the parts, $9or overhead, and $1 or the direct laborto actually assemble the device. Admin-istrative expenses absorb $5, taxes take$7, and shareholders receive $10 or theuse o their capital.That leaves $18 or my company’s owneld sales and actory marketing activi-ties and, nally, a mere $10 or what MITteaches best: engineering. (O course, thislast $10 is also spent on engineering sup-port and management, not strictly on en-gineering, but let’s not split hairs.)Almost all o the $81 spent on distri-bution is selling, and o course the $18or eld sales and actory marketing isselling. That pattern—spending about 10times more on selling than on engineer-ing, $99 versus $10—is true o 3Com,the $400 million company that I ound-ed. 3Com is not atypical o a successulhigh-tech company.Perhaps instead o using the old mathto make my point, I should use the new.The set o all potential buyers or mouse-traps is useully divided into three dis- joint subsets: the set o buyers (includ-ing my mother) who will automaticallybuy mine, the set o all mousetrap buy-ers who will never buy mine (parents o my competitors and the like), and the seto mousetrap buyers who will buy mineonly when competently sold.Clearly the sizes o these sets varyboth absolutely and relatively, but thethird set is much larger than many MITpeople think. Selling matters.
Selling Curriculum
Let’s say I am successul in selling theMIT aculty on the importance o sell-ing. What would be covered in a curricu-lum designed to teach it?Certainly there would be the basics o talking—and, especially, listening—topeople. Students would learn that one o the nicest things they can do or a personis to ask or advice. They would be taughthow to identiy prospects or mouse-traps, and how to “qualiy” them—to de-termine whether they need mousetrapsand have the means to buy them.There would be some instruction onmaking presentations that build credibil-ity and translate the eatures o mouse-traps into benets or buyers. Studentswould learn—this is critical—that it israrely the purpose o a presentation toshow how smart you are.Students would learn about spotting“buying signs,” asking or the order,and handling the inevitable objections.Toward the end they would learn thedierence between sales and market-ing. It would be hard to cram all thisinto the existing our-year programs,but selling, like engineering, requireslielong learning.So now, while I work on getting MITto establish the new InterdisciplinaryProgram in Selling, perecting your salesskills is something that each o you hasto do on your own. Start with the mostintimidating part o selling—asking orthe order. Most o our reluctance to sellcomes rom our ear that i we ask orthe order, we will be told no.I there is one trick to selling, it is get-ting over the ear o rejection, and I cansuggest a strategy or doing it.Decide that you are going to sell some-thing today. Start with something simple,like selling the idea o going to a partic-ular restaurant or lunch. Find a coupleo people with whom you would like tohave lunch and ask them to go with youto this restaurant. Then orce yoursel tostop talking so you can listen to the an-swer. I they say yes, you can move on tomore challenging sales situations.But what i your worst ears are real-ized, and your associates say no? This isit, the moment o truth. Smile and justask why. Listen to the objections and tryto deal with them. The way to overcomethat paralyzing ear o rejection—thewhole trick o selling—is to hear “no” asa learning opportunity. That’s the distil-lation o years o learning about selling.So, I urge you, sell something today.And i you are not convinced aboutwhy you should sell, I want to hearyour objections. Or i your rst ewselling attempts go awry, I want to hearhow. So, sell already.
 RObeRT M. MeTcalfe 
received bachelor’sdegrees rom MIT in electrical engineering andmanagement, and a PhD in computer sciencerom Harvard. He invented the Ethernet local-areanetworking system and ounded 3Com in SantaClara, CA, to commercialize it. This article wasdeveloped rom a lecture at the MIT Laboratoryor Computer Science.Reprinted with permission o 
Thnoogy Rviw
,published by MIT, Copyright © 1992.
May/June 1992
ing is high ing, nd  I rnd to rvin th suttiso its prti.”
Technology Review

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