A few weeks ago I identified the most important skill in business as the ability to read. The second most important is the ability to count (work in numbers). I’ve also talked about this before. Now what is the third? It’s the ability to sell!

This is a huge topic and one of my favorites: Every entrepreneur must be a good salesperson. You must never stop selling, even if you’re the richest man in the world.

I remember listening to Bill Gates one day talking passionately about one of the products from Microsoft. I thought to myself, “Wow, he is the richest man in the world, but he’s still interested in selling his products!”

And it’s not just Bill Gates.

Every great entrepreneur has this skill: the ability to sell.

Let’s talk. First things first:

When I was about eight years old, my mother gave me a packet of sweets to take to school. I sold the sweets one by one over the lunch break! After that, I bought my own sweets and sold them to my friends using my profits. Before long I had a little business.

But it almost became a disaster when I took to the streets and got lost, whilst trying to sell my sweets. Then my mother intervened! She stopped me selling sweets on the street and channeled my energy into more creative things, and helped me sell them from her shop. She did not kill my entrepreneurial zeal.

There are a lot of people who dream of getting into business, but they think it’s beneath them to be seen trying to sell something.

Never look down on a street vendor, because from their ranks will come more great entrepreneurs than from most business schools!

Whatever it is you’re trying to do, whether it’s a product or a service, you must know how to sell. There are millions of people who work for organizations, even in very senior management positions, who could not even sell an alcoholic beverage to an alcoholic. This is bad.

There’s an old adage amongst military planners which says, “A battle plan is only as good as your first contact with the enemy.” In business we say, “A business plan is only as good as your ability to sell to a customer.”

The ability to sell is a skill you need, beyond selling something to a customer. It includes “making a proper pitch” to investors and bankers. It also includes “selling your vision” to potential and current employers, and partners.

It’s all about the ability to sell!

I want you to become conscious about what it really takes to sell something. Once you become conscious of selling at its most basic level, we can move on to things like marketing.

Let me close by saying this: Some of the greatest salespeople I’ve ever known are Americans. I have such admiration for the practice of sales and marketing in the United States.

See Also: Franchising Might Be a Solution For Your Business – A Powerful Model to Consider

Imagine for a moment the guy who invented Coca-Cola… How on earth did he persuade people they could overcome thirst by drinking a “black” liquid?! I imagine people would have recoiled at the idea of drinking something that looked dirty, and there were no fridges in those days.

From now on, I want you to think consciously about how a product or service is being sold!

One last thing: It doesn’t matter how good you are in sales, if the product or service is bad, you will not last. Let’s talk about how you can become the greatest salesperson, even to the point of selling ice to Eskimos!

Presentation is extremely important

In July 1997 I learned about a public tender for a GSM cellular license taking place in the southern African country of Botswana. I decided that we must submit a bid, even though I knew the competition would be fierce.

Having purchased the bid documents, I sat down with my team and carefully went through each page, line by line. We must have spent three days, working over 20 hours a day, reviewing this document which was not more than 50 pages long.

You must understand fully what is asked for. Seemingly small details make the difference between success and failure!

I had a staff of 35 people and I divided them into teams, working on different sections of our response. None of us had ever submitted an international bid before, and we didn’t yet even have experience operating a cell phone business.

We knew there were 20 other bidders, and most of them were well established international operators like MTN, Vodacom, Bharti and France Telecom (Orange).

There was really no Internet in those days, so we couldn’t just “go on the Net to do research.” We called friends in the industry and asked them to share with us information on how such bids were put together. We kept calling and sending “faxes” back and forth because that was the technology available to us at the time. Of course, there was no “email”!

Don’t let anyone say to you that “hard work can kill you.” There’s no such thing. We worked up to 20 hours every day. We ate pizzas, and slept in the office.

Once we had completed the substance of our response, we turned our attention to the presentation.

“Our presentation must solicit a ‘wow’ when it is opened,” I told my staff.

I brought in a friend from an advertising agency to help us with the design of the presentation. (I promised to pay him by giving him the advertising contract when we won!)

Color printers had just come on the market, and I went to a guy who had one, and asked him to print everything in color. Our presentation was bound by a professional printer, who worked all night to get it done. The presentation was thematic and told a story about the people of Botswana. We designed a logo for our new company: Mascom Wireless.

On the day of submission, we delivered our bid documents: 10 x 900 pages! And it had taken just two weeks to put together! All the bidders were present, as was the media, and government officials. We made sure we were the last to arrive.

There was a collective gasp! “Wow!”

Three weeks after our submissions were presented, we were invited to make oral presentations before a panel of experts hired from Sweden, as well as the Botswana regulator led by a formidable lawyer (the best regulator I ever met in my life), Moses Lekaukau.

We knew this would be part of the process for the selected final bidders: Mascom Wireless, MTN, Vodacom, France Telecom (Orange) and Bharti. Each bidder was given a day to make their presentations and answer questions.

We were ready: I had drilled my team like commandos. This was our moment. I left nothing to chance. We even agreed how each member would dress, and we entered the room and greeted the panel members in the Botswana language!

We knew our document, and we knew the numbers! Although we were facing such tough and experienced competition from around the world, and we were unknown, I had deep faith that we would win.

Three weeks later, the government of Botswana announced that Mascom had come first! France Telecom was second, and Vodacom came third. Two licenses were granted.

All the skills I had honed in SELLING ever since I first sold sweets to my friends at eight years old were needed. I had come a long way!

If you’re going to play in the big leagues you must go the extra mile. Don’t settle for mediocrity!

Always present your work with passion and excellence.

One day a few years later, a senior executive at a big Swedish company said to me that one of the consultants involved in the bidding process had told him after he retired that he’d been totally shaken by the quality of our presentation, describing it as “out of this world, and beyond anything he saw in Europe.” The executive then asked to see a copy of the presentation, so I gave him a copy and it was taken to their headquarters for display.

The company we established in Botswana in 1998 is there to this day. This was actually my first cell phone license, not Zimbabwe. It is called Mascom Wireless, and it’s not only the biggest operator in the country, it’s a world-class business, run mostly by Botswana people. And why not?

Study to show yourself approved

There is more to sales and marketing than simply putting an advert in a newspaper or on social media. Sales and marketing is a professional discipline just like engineering or accounting.

You must be conscious of the need to acquire some deeper academic understanding of this subject if you want to run a successful business or be a top executive.

You know by now that I don’t believe in experience which is not supported by continuous study and scholarship.

Although I had a passion for selling, my own professional training was in electrical engineering which I studied at university. I also majored in economics. When I decided to go into business, I focused my studies in finance and accounting, as well as in sales and marketing.

These days if you have a degree you can study things like an MBA if you want to get into finance, accounting, sales and marketing. But even if you didn’t get to university, there are diplomas you can study in these subjects, even through night school, and online.

It’s up to you to do your own research. One good online place to start looking is coursera.org which I’ve mentioned here before. If you go to this website just type in any business subject you want to study, like accounting, finance, economics, sales and marketing. They also offer financial aid.

The things I teach you here are not enough to ground you in these areas. This should just be enough to get you started after realizing the importance…

Accounting, finance, economics, sales and marketing: These are the bedrock for any entrepreneur, irrespective of your choice of business. You might be a farmer, or a doctor planning to set up clinics. Maybe you’re in real estate, or retail. It doesn’t matter.

Thanks to technology, no matter where you live, if you have a Smartphone, computer and internet connection, it is possible for you to study at the best universities in the world online. Check it out and tell me what you find.

Accounting, finance, economics, sales and marketing: These are foundational skills. Take economics, for example: What does economics have to do with your life? Everything! The role of the government in your economy, private markets, consumer choice, production decisions, market structures, monetary and fiscal policies, unemployment, inflation, international trade and exchange rates… These are not just academic topics for professors. They impact you and your life, one way or another, every single day

I’ll say it one more time: Accounting, finance, econ4omics, sales and marketing! Yes, you’ll go on to hire experts in some of these areas as your business grows, but you must have a basic grounding yourself to be able to deploy and manage your teams effectively

The ability to sell to a customer – Seize the moment when it’s offered

Every entrepreneur must be a good salesperson!

Some of you have pointed out that if an entrepreneur doesn’t have the ability to sell and market, no matter what other skills he or she might have, the business will sooner or later be doomed. Sadly, it’s really true. You must never be fearful or shy or apologetic about selling.

A young real estate agent was showing a couple around a house.

“Why don’t we start in the main lounge,” he said.

As soon as they entered the room, the woman exclaimed in delight, “I really love this room! Wow, it’s amazing!”

“Let’s buy this house,” the woman said to her husband. “This is what I’m looking for!”

Excited, the young agent said, “Come, I’ll show you the rest of the house.”

Then he added, “I have houses even better than this to show you!”

He hurried them to see the rest of the house. After that he drove them to see some other houses, and encouraged them to call him the next day.

They didn’t call him, and he did not get the sale.

Explaining his disappointment to an older more experienced sales agent, he was totally surprised when the other man laughed at him:

“You should have closed the deal on the first house. When she said ‘I love this room,’ that’s the point where you start working to close a deal!”

Many people just don’t know how to close a sale. I see it all the time. I’m always watching the sales techniques of people I meet every day, even in shops.

You must know when you have made a sale, and move quickly to close. Don’t keep going in circles!

The customer is the one who is choosing, not the seller. So there was no point in telling them he had other better houses.

There’s a story told about a businessman who was negotiating a multimillion dollar deal in a restaurant. As the negotiations proceeded late into the night, and got to a crucial stage, the waiter came to them and said, “We are about to close, sir.” The man looked around and realised that they were the only people left in the restaurant.

He got up and said to the waiter, “I want to see the manager immediately.”

Seeing the manager he asked, “How much do you make in one night?”

“$2000, sir.”

“Okay, I will give you $25,000, and one week’s wages for each of your staff if you keep things open.”

They shook hands. The man went back to the table and continued the negotiations, until he closed the sale.

Close the deal! Tomorrow it may not be there. There are always things that can happen that can completely change the trajectory of a deal.

A good salesperson knows when to seize the moment, and move to close.

You and your brand

When I launched my first business in 1986, I didn’t really know that much about marketing. As I mentioned in my first post in this series, I first learnt to “sell” when I was only eight years old. Remember my story about selling sweets to my school friends? People bought from me because they knew me and, of course, I was selling something I knew that they wanted!

See Also: Personal Branding – You and Your Words

It’s possible to run a very successful business short-term, even if you don’t know anything about marketing. You can sell, sell, and sell. But if you want to run a really profitable business, you must understand the importance of marketing, which involves many steps.

Confused? It only means I have gained your attention. Now let’s talk!

  1. Sales and marketing are not the same thing, but they go hand in hand.
  2. Advertising and marketing are not the same thing. Advertising is simply one of the tools we use in marketing.
  3. It’s important to develop a brand. In the end, the most valuable part of your business must be its brand. Branding is what I want to talk to you about today.

A brand is not just a cool logo. It’s a kind of promise, an identity, a vision, even a mission that goes beyond the product or service to be sold. Think of the message communicated by Nike’s “Just do it.” No mention of sports gear at all! What do you think they mean by “Just do it”?

The Nike “Swoosh” is one of the world’s most iconic logos. Designed in 1971, the creator was a young graphic design student in Oregon, in the USA. An accounting teacher at her school had heard she needed some extra money for oil painting lessons, and asked her if she wanted to help design a logo “that showed movement and speed and would look good on a shoe.” He and another guy were planning to start a company. He told the her the design mustn’t look too much like the main competitor’s logo, (Adidas’ stripes).

“What else you got?” was the response of Nike’s co-founder (the accounting teacher) when she presented him the Swoosh design. He was not very impressed.

So she designed a few more ideas, but he chose the initial design saying, “Well, I don’t love it, but maybe it will grow on me.” At the time, she was paid only a whopping $35 ($2/hour) for her work.

45 years later, the Swoosh is still around, nearly unchanged. The company is now worth billions, employing tens of thousands of people globally.

But it’s not the “Swoosh” visual symbol alone that’s important! Or the Apple logo. Branding goes beyond the graphic image.

Although admirable in simplicity, and amongst the most powerful brands on earth, if Nike or Apple made bad shoes or computers, it wouldn’t matter how memorable their logos. A brand has to do with perceived values, and building trust.

Now think about Walt Disney which for decades has produced family films. Walt Disney was a pioneer of innovation in entertainment. What Disney wanted to do was “create happiness through magical experiences.” Not “create films,” but create happiness!

Bringing a brand like Disney’s to life over the years is not easy. It means continually listening, to understand what your customers really care about. It means consistent delivery of value and quality, true to the brand you’ve created. It means keeping your promises as a person and a company.

How do people learn about your brand? I’ll talk more about other aspects of marketing in my next post.

Your marketing strategy

When I first got started, I sure knew how to sell, but I didn’t know how to market… I must have been in business for about five years when I first really got into marketing. It happened during a particularly difficult time in our economy, when things were really down and business wasn’t really moving.

See Also: Using the Internet to Drive Your Business Growth: The Most Valuable “Real Estate”

I tried to run some adverts in a local newspaper to create awareness of the things I did, but things did not really move as I had hoped. And when people did call, I seemed to get the wrong type of customers to the ones I wanted.

“I really need to teach you about marketing,” my friend Enoch Hwande said to me.

“Oh, you mean I should advertise more?” He was the Creative Director of a major international advertising agency.

“No I’m not talking about advertising. I am talking about marketing.”

“What’s the difference?”

“There is a huge difference, and you will not get very far in developing your business, if you don’t learn the importance marketing plays in a successful business. Right now, you think all you must do is go out and sell, or bid for tenders. If you want to build a really big business, you must really evaluate what your understanding of marketing is all about.”

“Teach me, please!” I begged him.

“Look, if you really want to learn, then maybe you should consider a course. Why don’t you let me whet your appetite by allowing you to come and see a campaign we’re developing for one of our big clients.”

Over the next few weeks, he opened my mind to what goes on behind the scenes. I listened to highly-skilled marketing executives discussing and debating every aspect of their “marketing strategy.”

It was as sophisticated as discussions with my engineers on a product. I was almost in awe. It opened my eyes.

I remember how I would go home and sit with magazines looking at adverts, and not the articles! I’d sit watching television so I could discuss the adverts with my friend.

Then I started to buy books and magazines until there were more books on my shelf on marketing than any other subject.

“Did you see the latest campaign from Coca-Cola? Can we get together this evening and watch it together? I need to understand what they’re trying to say.”

I was fascinated by both the art and science of marketing. I learned that to develop a really successful marketing plan meant thinking “big picture” while also doing detailed research.

Today there’s a whole new world of information available to you in your market analysis. It’s possible to find online DATA and research information, and also online advertising you can study. That’s a huge advantage I didn’t have back then. Overall, your marketing plan should at least discuss the basics:

# Your target market (Who and where are your customers… past, present and future? Be precise.)

# Your customers (What matters to them most? Price, quality, prestige, etc.?)

# Your competitors (Who are they, and why are your products better/different? Remember the role of perception).

# Sales strategy (What’s the best way to reach out to different customers in your specific target market? Who do your customers trust?).

# Advertising (By now, can you tell me the difference between sales, advertising and marketing?).

# Customer support (Listening is so important. The value of your brand depends on it).

Once I start a new business, I start to think of who is going to drive our marketing. It’s as important as who is going to head the finance.

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