Sell people problems

At a painful business networking breakfast a while ago the chosen speaker gave us his definitive guide to killer marketing emails (( it was probably a five point plan, they tend to be ))

This five point plan (( told you )) took us through empathy

Are you a terribly important and interesting person? (( it may have been more subtle than this ))

He proposed we ask.

Why yes, yes I am

Our reader would find themselves subconsciously thinking.

Are you in the business of making and selling widgets? (( a friend recently mocked my for my constant use of the term widget in this context. I invited him to find an alternative. I continue to use the term widgets. ))


Why yes I am

They would think.

At this point we have hooked them and we can move on to the next, crucial stage.

Your business is about to go bankrupt. Because of the:

– scary IT thing you do not understand

– terrifying tax thing you do not understand

– stupefying legal thing you do not understand (( delete as appropriate. obv ))

By this point our reader is panicking.

What will I do?

they fret

I’m about to go bankrupt because I don’t understand the scary IT / tax / legal thing

And then you strike

I represent the foremost expert in the field of IT / tax / law and we are prepared, for an appropriate fee, to stop you going bankrupt.

The sense of relief in our reader is palpable.

Call us now (( there’s got to be a call to action otherwise people drift off elsewhere, they’re like sheep you see, successful business people ))


There is a problem with the five point plan to writing a marketing newsletter and it is this: most people will scan it and think

Oh that’s just a thing about IT / tax / some legal mumbo jumbo

And chuck it away.

Because they don’t know that they have a problem.

People don’t buy problems.

If your business relies on convincing people they have a problem so that you can sell them the solution (even if they do have a solution) then you don’t have a business.

Welcome to the club (( try selling social media risk management when everyone else was just trying to sell social media. No don’t )).


Sell people problems

See that guy over there, the one running the bike shop ((push bikes or bicycles not motorbikes, that’s the shop round the corner, don’t mess with him, he’s got some very tough friends)). He’s working hard, trying to keep his customers happy, keep his staff motivated, keep his cash flowing. He’s a busy guy, too busy for the likes of you.

And yet, you need him to pay attention. You have needs yourself, an accountant to feed, kids to send to the cinema, food to buy, a car to tax. You need him to stop for a moment and take seriously what you’re trying to sell him.

You know what you should do?

You should scare him ((I seriously dare you to dress up in a Halloween costume and jump out at him)).

Because scaring people ALWAYS makes them more likely to buy your product ((if you agree with this you are TOTALLY missing the point of this blog)).

So sit down and draft a marketing email ((or maybe a cold calling script: see “Cold calling is a waste of time and people will be mean to you”))

Dear customer, did you know that 25% of bike shops go bust because they don’t have

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets (delete as appropriate ((obv)).

Your shop will be next unless you buy my

really great insurance / accreditation scheme / training programme / really truly awesome widgets

Call me now ((this is a call to action. Don’t use these if you want to fail at freelancing)) to save your business

But he doesn’t call.

Reason? He’s not scared enough.

Off to Mailchimp again ((other email packages are available but they lack the cutesy messages about bananas))

Dear customer

I was recently volunteering at a prison where I ran into Dave. Dave used to run a bike shop like you but he didn’t take my advice with regards to

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets / city zoning ((I know nothing about this but it comes up a lot in American drama series and I’m trying to broaden my appeal. Howdy American freelancers))

And it cost him his business, his marriage, his family and eventually his freedom.

This is REALLY IMPORTANT you should be quaking in fear right now.

Call me now and I might consider selling you

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets / advice on city zoning stuff

But he still doesn’t call

Now across the street you see one of your competitors (you know, the idiots ((see “Your competitors are idiots))) nipping in to the bakery.


they say ((once again after the American audience, next week this blog will be in French, then German))

I was just wondering how business is going”.


says the baker

but I am a bit worried about

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets / city zoning / the new boulangerie tax” ((let’s reach out to France shall we?))


says your idiot competitor

I can help you with that

The secret of success

The secret of success in business is simple:

  1. Understand the market.
  2. Spot the gap in the market.
  3. Sell people what they need

Did you spot the deliberate mistake there?

Surprisingly many of us can’t see the error ((I imagine that this could form part of a sort of Rorschach test for potential freelancers, what do you think when you see this apparently normal group of management-speak statements)). If you are screaming the answer in your head then you may be in the wrong place: this is how to fail at freelancing ((if you are screaming the answer out loud, it may be time to take a break)).

Of course selling people what they need is a sure-fire way to fail at freelancing.

I sense your caution ((it’s possible I’m projecting here, you’ll be reading this some time after I’ve written it, in order to, in fact, sense your caution we would need to believe in both ESP and time travel)). After all, I am a self-confessed freelance failure.  

It sounds sensible: sell people what they need.

The truth of course is that people don’t buy what they need, they buy what they want.

You may be a plumber of 20 years standing but if I want the toilet over there and the shower over here the only question I want answering is “can you do that for me?”

It’s no different for you professional services people. Maybe bosses should have effective HR policies in order to make it safe and easy to hire and fire people but what they want is someone to come and sort it out for them when it all goes pear-shaped. Small businesses may need an integrated digital marketing approach but what they want is a website, like the last one, on WordPress ((next week, and for £2.50)).

If you are smart you can sell people what they want and make sure you deliver what they need.

If you sell them what they need you’re going to end up gazing into space pressing f5 every three seconds to see if someone has sent you an email yet while the dog gazes sadly at you from a safe distance in the hall ((not that I speak from experience here)).

Your customers are idiots

Clearly MY customers are not idiots. My customers are people of discernment, refinement and good taste.


Unfortunately I may not always have treated them that way.

Have you ever found yourself in this situation?

A potential new customer calls ((or emails, it not being 1953)). They are looking for some help with a new digital marketing project. You have been recommended by someone at their business networking club. Can you help them set up a Facebook campaign?

Why yes, yes I can.

Of course setting up a Facebook campaign is a stupid idea for this company. They are an accountancy firm. They need to be on LinkedIn. I tell them so. After all they called me because of my expertise in digital marketing. There is a pause.

Well this is awkward.

They become breezy. Could you send some details of your rates and so on? they say. We’ll be in touch they say. We part on good terms

Though it sounds a bit like they suddenly wanted to get me off the phone ((or the Hangout)).

It took me a long time to realise that when someone contacts you and asks you if you can do a particular job if your response is

You don’t want to do that.

That sounds an awful lot like

You sir, are an idiot ((or you, sir, are and idiot for the 4chan amongst us)).

Customers are not idiots ((even the ones who are idiots)). They do not, in general, want to hire an expert. They do not want advice. They want what they want ((“Customers don’t want a choice. They want what they want” is possibly my favourite business aphorism (it’s from Joe Pine, management guru), maybe run close by “All the mistakes I made in business started with the words ‘I assumed that'”))

Successful people listen to customers and really, really understand what it is that they want. Then they sell them that.

I find this oddly difficult to do. I watch other, successful, people who make it look effortless.

It seems like it should be effortless.

I worry what it says about me that I find it the opposite of effortless.

Repeat after me.

Customers are not idiots ((a Google search for this term is a scary insight into the human experience)).

Customers are not idiots.

Lessons from a double glazing salesman

A long, long time ago I had a summer job doing home removals ((not really I just put this stuff in to give me some blue collar credentials)). It was hard work but better than catching chickens ((a real alternative)). We were at the more expensive end of the removals business and tended to work for very wealthy people.

There was a particular job that sticks in my mind. It was, even by our high standards, a gorgeous house. The couple that owned it were ridiculously young and friendly. Not only did they provide copious tea and biscuits they sat and chatted with us on our breaks. She did not work. He sold double glazing.

You don’t seem much like a salesman

said the foreman

You seem, well, like a really nice guy. But you must be a really good salesman.

He looked around the house for emphasis.

It’s is easy

said the very successful salesman

you just ask people what they want and then sell them that