Producing and engineering for London Records during the height of the British wave of music was a rush that has never left me. I’ve applied to business, leadership and team building the lessons I learned in the studio to bring out the best performance in any setting.
One dynamic in particular that occurred naturally when working with bands and groups was this: as rehearsed as I made sure band members were before they entered the studio (this was the pre-digital analog era and hourly studio costs prohibited wasting any time) I always allowed for natural, spontaneous creativity to emerge. While working through a part like a guitar solo or background harmonies, band members would give immediate feedback to one another as to how they heard or saw a particular part and the suggestion would be tried. No pre-thought was given to the exchange of feedback. It just happened. As invested in a musical part any band member was, they were open and creatively quick to listen to the suggestions of their mates and to try them.
To amp up our own creative juices we should condition ourselves to step back from the challenge at hand to “see” it and “hear” it as we would imagine others might; especially our targeted audience. What would they say or recommend at this stage of the process that might direct us in a more productive or unique way. When I’m working on a creative project of my own I sometimes get up from my desk chair and imaginatively “invite” someone else, often a specific person, to give feedback. I literally stand behind my chair, like I used to do in the recording studio during playbacks when I put my “commercial audience ears” on and assessed whether a song was a hit or not, and try to imagine others’ responses and suggestions. You can be involved in a solo endeavor like writing and still engage the recommendations of others. Think of it as conjuring the creative spirits of those you respect the most! You might surprised at the outcomes!
Anything American author Jane E. Brody writes never fails to capture my interest. For her to cover my favorite topic, reinvention, is a double treat. For her to reference Dorie Clark (who I’ve had the pleasure to interview on my radio program) as an “expert at self-reinvention and helping others make changes in their lives,” hits it out of the park for me.
In her New York Times article, Reinventing Yourself, Jane , a master of information and storytelling, provides inspiring examples of people who have “reinvented themselves, sometimes against considerable odds, other times in surprising ways.” I encourage everyone who is somewhere on the road from “not me” to being the “real me,” to read this article and give it an email folder so you can access it anytime and anywhere for a much needed dose of inspiration.
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:
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.
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.
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.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned beyond the shadow of a doubt in my lifetime it’s this: there’s not a single excuse anyone can come up with for not fulfilling their dream. Not one! For a guy who decades ago embarked on his business career with a crippling fear of public speaking, to be able to take a stand up comedy course with Stephen Rosenfield, described by the New York Times as “the best-known comedy teacher in America,” and then appear before an SRO crowd at the legendary Gotham Comedy Club was a life changer and testimony to just how far you can take your dreams.
As if facing the challenges of doing stand-up wouldn’t have made my dream cup runneth over enough, I decided that the experience was too unique not to capture on film and turn into a documentary. Funding? Director? Film Crew? The requirements would have been enough to turn anyone away from their dream. But, I heard that the Connecticut School of Broadcasting provided their graduates with access to equipment and editing suites free of charge. I presented my idea to CSB alumni and one of the graduates, an electrician by trade who couldn’t wait to trade in his cable cutters for a chance to hone his craft, jumped at the opportunity to do a documentary.
Talk about turning what could have been regarded as a roadblock around! Rorie Kelly, a brilliant singer-songwriter who had never done a sound track for a film, jumped at the chance to create the theme song. Her lyrics hit the nail on the head of what I was trying to convey and her production of the track was fabulous. We fed each other’s dreams and shared a common path to living our longing. Check out her “live” performance if she’s in your area.
My son, Chris, did the artwork. How wonderful having such graphic design talent in the family!!!!
When the documentary was done I called every TV station I could reach to air it. Much to my delightful surprise was the almost unanimous number of people I talked to who thought that what I had done was so cool and that they wished they could. I said, “Stop wishing. YOU CAN!” which has become my mantra to anyone and everyone I meet who has been dying to do something special that they’ve never done but have always wanted to. “Stop wishing. YOU CAN!”
And, what you’ll learn is that when you confront your excuses which you’ve sold yourself on as being insurmountable you find out just how achievable they are. At that moment when I took the microphone at the Gotham Comedy Club and the ‘fight or flight’ feeling hit me harder than it ever has, I actually listened to myself tell my first joke and hear the audience laughter in response. At that one moment I experienced a Superman-like rush of powers that was unlike anything I had ever known. And, I continue to draw on that mega-sized internal battery pack of motivation in everything I do in my life and career.
Had I listened to my own excuses I never would have hosted and produced a public television documentary (CPTV) on motorcycles and diners, presented to an audience of over 460+ people including the governor, produced legendary jazz pianist Erroll Garner, earned my PhD, led several major corporations to record-breaking sales, been featured in MotoStars: Celebrities and Motorcycles, produced and hosted a podcast radio show quickly approaching two million listens, published my first book and working on a 2nd with an Emmy Award-winning TV news anchor, performed at legendary CBGBs, been featured on ESPN 2′s “Extreme Magazine” and most recently filmed a demo in NYC for a reality TV series. Dreams are invitations to the greatest realities you’ve ever known.
The point is this: don’t put off making your dreams come true. Start now. Turn your excuses into opportunities to discover just how much you’re capable of achieving! The journey is incredible!
Oh, and a word about money and success: don’t define your success in terms of how much money you’ve made. That sets you up for failure from the get-go. Why? Because you end up comparing how well you’ve done to others and, guess what: they’ll always be someone who’s got more money that you. Define success on what YOU want for yourself. Set your target on being the best YOU can be at something. The recognition and money will come from that. Nobody anywhere can compete with how great YOU are! Go after life on YOUR terms and get out of the comparison trap.
"You've had such a varied and impressive career. It's awesome to read about your adventures and reinventions and how you're now helping others do the same," branding expert Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You, Stand Out and Entrepreneurial You