The art of selling
There has always been a certain mystique about salesmen. Mostly, it relates to their eternal optimism. As Arthur Miller puts it in his classic Death Of A Salesman: “He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine.”
Subroto Bagchi, top IT executive, successful entrepreneur and now chairman of the Odisha Skill Development Authority (a full-time, pro-bono job), has his own song of the salesman in the preface to his new book, Sell: The Art, The Science, The Witchcraft, and it goes like this: “Buy my words even before you buy my wares.”
Miller, of course, knows little about selling though a bit more about writing, while Bagchi knows a lot about selling and not a little about writing either. Still in his 20s, and in the earliest stages of his career in the nascent IT industry of the 1980s, he was already a columnist. Years later, as he started his journey into entrepreneurship with IT services start-up Mindtree, he began writing books which dipped into his professional experiences but were clearly inspired by the creativity of his pen. Books like The High-Performance Entrepreneur and Go Kiss The World went on to become best-sellers before Bagchi hit a writer’s block, abandoning a book about India and Indians’ response to it after he was 70% through with the writing because he thought there was enough negativity around anyway.
Instead, he turned to the business of selling and has served up a treasure trove of insights into the DNA of the super salesmen who are the stuff of legend in company boardrooms.
It is the early 1980s and the first microprocessor-based personal computers have just hit the Indian market. So how does the intrepid salesman tasked with selling these identify his target buyers? The big companies won’t let you in. Bagchi figured that if you had more than one car in the driveway of your factory and a window air conditioner in your office room, you were fair game, and, with his scooter as faithful ally, he made his first sales calls in the industrial heartland of north India.
In a conversation to discuss his fifth book, Bagchi tells me that he has learnt his sales lessons from such near disasters and exhilarating wins on the road. All selling, he says, is nestled in the future. A salesperson needs to wake up with a smile on his lips and daisies blooming in his head.
From such poetic inspirations, the author goes on to detail the gamut of sales-related issues, where the practitioners go wrong, how they can prepare for a first pitch to a client, the pitfalls of misrepresentation in the eagerness to bag the business. The complexity of business transactions requires that everyone in an organization, from the CEO to the juniormost executive, familiarize himself with the basics of the laws that govern that business. Bagchi explains that in today’s overcrowded markets, you have to sell not as a hustler but as an informed co-creator, offering a differentiated value-added proposition.
The enterprising reader of the book will pick up some great tips on selling as well as develop a healthy respect for the women and men that do it. If nothing else, you are guaranteed a jolly good read, for Bagchi is the quintessential raconteur. The lessons, and that’s what they are in the strictest and most academic sense of the term, are imparted with wit and self-deprecatory humour.
Often, as in the part about the daily life of the Bengali bhadralok, Bagchi’s eloquence almost obscures the reason we are here in the first place. Sample this little passage: “No Bengali household begins its day without the lady of the house sending the bhadralok to the bajar—which is a marketplace, close to but not the same as a bazaar—with two cloth bags, both well past their expiry dates, one for fresh produce and the other for fish. There, the bhadralok must buy his fish, every day in small quantities according to the lady’s strict requirements.”
But don’t be beguiled by the racy style and the banter, for this is a serious book on business. Each tale, whether it is that of a street performer or an inspired barman at a hotel in North Bethesda, Maryland, is a vital piece in the jigsaw of creating a successful salesperson. And while you are at it, there’s a bit of effective parenting advice as well and it is to do with the vital difference between persuading and convincing an angsty teenager. For more, check the Latin antecedents of each.