one million pencils


6 Things I Wish I Knew About Sales 5 Years Ago

If I ever had to watch a video of the first time I tried to sell a potential client on my pencils, my heart would probably shrivel up in embarrassment. I was what you might describe as a nervous salesgirl, which sometimes worked with the whole “eager student” persona, but more often than not left me breathless and having to repeat myself to confused clerks.

It’s gotten better--as my business has grown and I’ve settled in to Berkeley, I’ve felt more comfortable pitching my ideas to locals, who are usually enthusiastic and excited to, at the very least, see what I’ve been up to. And a few weeks ago I took my sister to San Francisco, where she made a few sales of her own, so I have at least some knowledge worth imparting.

If I could talk to 2014 Meg, here are a few of the things I would tell her. Each point below (and many more) was learned through trial and error, ultimately lessons from mistakes that I’ve made.  

  1. Just because someone is enthusiastic about your product doesn’t mean that they will buy it. I believe in in-person sales, because with a product like mine that touches people in every stage, it only seems right that I be there to present it. But what this means is that nine times out of ten I’ll be stuck talking with cashiers, because store managers are not usually present. And cashiers are usually great people--they’re my age and excited to talk about something new. But these people are not the decision makers, and at most can leave me with a business card for their buyer. From there it’s a 50/50 chance that the manager will get back to me, so when I do have the privilege of speaking with decision makers, I do my best to make it count.

  2. Language counts. I’m used to working in team environments where it’s conducive to use words like “probably” and “might”. But sales is a different game, and while those words might make the speaker feel like they’re accommodating, they don’t instill a lot of confidence. It’s okay to be persistent and bold; I’ve never been shut down for it, and at best I’ve been able to change buyer’s minds.

  3. People want to tell their stories. I’ve spent more time speaking with customers about their experiences in Ghana or talking about their own small businesses than I have actually selling my own idea. It can feel like a waste of time to not get directly to the point, but there are actually a lot of interesting things to be learned by hearing other people’s stories. I once spoke to a customer for ten minutes about their most recent trip--we didn’t even talk about One Million Pencils--and when they finished chatting I made my largest sale of the day, as well as learned about a type of bird that I later illustrated and sent to a school in Ghana.

  4. Take risks. One of my favorite clients was one that I only last minute decided to sell to, because I was nearby and had five minutes until my bus came. I couldn’t enter the exhibit without admission, the girl selling tickets seemed confused by my idea, and I had no idea if they even had a gift shop, but I left a sample with her and followed up anyways. I’m now producing 300 pencils for them (and the designs are some of my favorite yet), while some of the places that I was more confident about on that trip never even responded to my emails. Another time, a manager of a boutique that I stopped by on a whim was so taken by the idea that he put me in contact with a New York designer, who actually owned an entire chain of stores.

  5. Don’t be afraid to follow up, but also be patient. I’m still working on striking this balance. If I’ve ever frustrated a client by following up every other week when they are unresponsive, they haven’t mentioned it, but that doesn’t stop me from getting nervous over sending that email. But the people that I work with are busy, and oftentimes my emails get lost. They often will let me know that they didn’t see my earlier messages. A sales relationship isn’t like a personal one: it’s okay, and even necessary to use a little bit of force.

  6. Ask “why”. Even reluctant customers are willing to give feedback. If I can’t make a sale, asking why can provide important insight into future steps to take. By asking “why” I’ve learned a few important things: sometimes customers are confused by my idea, so it’s better to come with a few custom designs; other times they already have pencils, so I’ve developed a store display that highlights why mine are special; sometimes they’re simply busy, and if I ask politely, they’ll say that it’s fine to follow up at a later time.

I only learned these things in the last year or so. In high school, I made a few attempts to sell to bigger museums, but the silence that my emails were met with was intimidating. I know now that unresponsiveness and risk-taking is part of the selling process, and I’ve learned to work with it. And now that I know, I’m excited to keep making mistakes.

Meg Shriber