Everything About Selling I Learned in a Diner

I’ve been in sales since August 1983. From the first telemarketing call I made pitching long-distance telephone service for MCI Telecommunications during the height of divestiture to fueling multi-million dollar revenue pipelines as a senior leader for such notable corporations as MCI, DSL.net and Grand Circle Travel, the business of selling has provided me with a career ladder taller than I would have been able to climb in any other discipline.

But, for much of my career, selling has been on auto-pilot; so much a part of my DNA that I’ve found myself naturally doing well what so many salespersons spend weeks and even lifetimes trying to learn in workshops, seminars and strategic soul-searching.  When I do reflect on my career success in selling and look for the roots of what I do well I don’t find the kernels of enlightenment in any of the books, tapes and seminar binders that have filled my bookshelves over the decades. In fact, I find the ingredients of great selling where you might least expect to find them yet where they simmer and percolate each and every day: a diner.

As a species that has added multiple levels of complexity to the simplest of so many behaviors, selling cries out the loudest to be kept free of complication in the face of overwhelming salesperson insistence that the process be as front-loaded as possible. Growing up as an army brat, my life was about as complicated as it could be with my father continuously getting reassigned and relocated and my having to perpetually go to new schools, make new friends and never feel roots growing under my feet. That is, until my father retired from the military, bought our first house and our sense of family, togetherness and community grew out of Sunday morning breakfasts at the College Diner. What I learned from those early outings stayed with me in childhood, in high school, in college, in my own family life and throughout my career in selling:

  1. If you’re not selling with passion find another career. Selling is not for the faint of heart. Every classic diner owner and operator I met researching and writing my book, Classic Diners of Connecticut wanted nothing short of living the American dream, giving their children a life better than their own and becoming successful at serving others. Compromise was not on the menu and they’d often work 7-days a week making their dream happen. If you’re not prepared to put in the time to live your dream then your dream needs to be bigger or you need to find the real one.
  2. Emotion has as much a place in selling as product knowledge. Prospects learn about what you’re selling intellectually but they buy emotionally. And, the fastest path to emotion is telling great stories about what your product or service has done to change the lives, bottom-lines and experiences of your customers. Sit at a diner counter when all the stools are taken and listen…really listen…to the stories being told and the responses to them. Storytelling is in our DNA as a species since the first campfires were the stage lights for the day’s hunting adventures. Know what your own story is and share it. What challenges have your customers faced that your product or service resolved? What was the struggle of change that took place the culmination of which brought your customers to a higher place because of your product or service? Customers won’t buy unless they’re emotionally engaged. No customer leaves a diner counter in the middle of a great story. Your prospect shouldn’t either.
  3. Marketers everywhere are incorporating the word “trust” into their product and sales literature. We use it so much that I don’t trust its sincerity as much as I see it as a well-worn word of habit. Yet, no prospect is going to buy your product or service unless they trust it and, more importantly, unless they trust you. Sales training programs talk about trust as the end result of building rapport. But, if you have to build it as opposed to it being a natural part of the selling process, it will not be embraced by any prospect with even the most elementary perception skills. Trust is as natural an ingredient of the classic diner experience as conversation and community. A diner is one of those rare eateries in which you can see a judge, a construction worker, a CEO and a down-on-his-luck executive sitting shoulder to shoulder at the counter being what everyone simply wants to be in life: himself or herself. Judgement is not served in a classic diner. Only acceptance and heaping servings of it. Be real in presenting yourself to prospects. It’s the comfort food that satiates sales success.

4. Many classic diners hold true to being ALWAYS OPEN. But, never be afraid of CLOSING a sale. If you are, you’re in the wrong occupation. Prospects expect you to ask them to buy so don’t be afraid of fulfilling their expectations. Burgers and fries wouldn’t be on the menu if they weren’t being served so place your order…ask.

5. Many patrons have long-term relationships with the owners of the classic diners they frequent. The wait staff know the “regulars” by first names and what they like to order. They also know about their families, their jobs and what’s going on in their lives. Relationships develop and solidify over many years because service staff takes a genuine interest in their customers’ culinary as well as human needs. A diner counter is the prototype for creating business relationships built on a solid ground of knowing your customer, servicing their needs and being there without trepidation whenever the encounter presents itself. Salespersons exist to service their customers. Asking for the check only comes after their needs have been satisfied. A waitperson would never give you a check before you ordered your food yet so many people trying to sell read everything on their menu of offerings without ever listening than ask for the close never knowing or even acknowledging what the customer came to the counter hungry for. A generous tip is the acknowledgement that the customer has had a beneficial and trusted experience and will return again.

6. Classic diners are an endangered species. Fast food restaurants have crowded them out of the restaurant marketplace replacing home-cooking served and at reasonable prices by a waitperson who knows your name by never having to converse with anyone other than through a metal speaker under the outdoor menu then having your food served in a bag that you can eat in your car all by yourself. Some call it progress. Others call it the exigencies of the modern world. Undeniably, it tragically heralds the loss of true conversation, asking questions to engage others, telling stories, serving others, entrepreneurism, being yourself and welcoming differences…all elements of successful selling.

The diner has been a symbol of American ingenuity ever since 17-year old Walter Scott first started selling food from a horse-drawn wagon back in 1858. Scott’s wagon became a cultural icon as well as an entire industry that would shape the way that Americans eat out. Classic diners also became symbols of prosperity and venues for the American dream to become a reality. They are the holdouts of values and behaviors fundamental to our communication with others so central to successful selling as it should be done.

© 2016 Garrison Leykam

Listen to my interview with Dan Lovallo, Host of WDRC radio’s “Front & Center,” on “Everything About Selling I Learned in a Diner.”

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