Any sales professional who understands the game can tell you that faking it will only take you so far with customers. You have to intimately understand your product in order to sell it effectively. The last thing you ever want to do is fabricate or lie to a customer about your product. People can sense when you’re making things up or fabricating answers on the spot.
I’ve known some really amazingly talented sales people in my career who have failed to close deals simply by not knowing their product and thinking they can win business with bravado and a really nice suit. Both of these things are an important part of the game, but they don’t close the deal or win business. There’s a value proposition that comes with understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your product. That value proposition creates a tipping point that allows a sales person to take the customer on a journey that ends with a decision. To buy or not to buy… that is question.
When a customer asks you a question about your product you need to know the answers on the spot, off the top of your head, without hesitating. Answers should be a commodity you trade in everyday and providing them should be a reflex. The ability to perform at this level comes after putting in the hours in research, training, and presenting your product to multiple clients. The problem I faced when I first came on board at Woolly Mammoth was a complete absence of product guides, sells sheets, or price sheets. For many of the products I was responsible for selling there was no defined product to sell… nothing.
This was a wholly unique position that I’d never been in before as a sales professional. What would you do if you were given that kind of freedom? I took it as a challenge… I decided to start a business at a non-profit theatre company. I know what you’re thinking… but I wouldn’t be writing this if it didn’t work out.
There were three unique sales channels that I was given the opportunity to develop. Venue rentals, group sales, and program advertising. I put a lot of thought into how I was going to split my time against each of these wildly different channels. After a great deal of consideration I realized that I wouldn’t be able to succeed at all three simultaneously without a lot of help. That was when I sat down and started to really consider the product I was going to be selling.
Woolly Mammoth already had a fully functional and effective ticketing system in place that allowed the Box Office staff to sell subscriptions and individual tickets to patrons. Group Sales was already functionally in place and required only a modicum of time investment to setup new processes with the box office staff for how to handle in-bound group sales requests. Because this channel was effectively running in a passive capacity I decided that it could wait until I’d had the opportunity to review the other two channels.
Program advertising is a valuable commodity sold by many theatre companies. It is a simple product that has a good return for the company with a small initial investment. Each production at a theatre inevitably has a program. Selling ad space only requires a limited number of additional pages in each program and the cost of those additional pages can be off-set by the advertising that is sold to fill them. The problem with program advertising is that it has a limited financial return. In a best case scenario your total revenue potential is limited to how many ads your willing to include in your program for each production. Rationally speaking you would max out your revenue potential fairly quickly and run out of product to sell without generating significant dollars for the organization. To support the organization’s ability to sell this product I created rates sheets and an ad-tracker to monitor when placements were sold. Having a limited amount of time in the day, and no support staff, meant I had to be really picky about how I used my time. Given all these circumstances I decided early on that this channel would also have to wait.
After that decision was made I turned my attention to venue rentals. I walked the building, considered the various spaces, looked at the existing contracts we had on file from the handful of previous rentals the theatre had hosted… and I started scheming.
The value of a product can be judged against other similar products already available in the marketplace. I needed to know who our competition was and how much they were billing for similar space rentals and services. In this case that required a survey of the nearby venues in downtown Washington DC. I quickly learned that the Woolly Mammoth space had a fairly high rental revenue potential based on other area venue rates. Based on Woolly’s layout, location, and potential services the venue had the unique ability to generate a significant financial return for the organization if it was properly leveraged.
I now had a product to sell… but I still had no effective price sheets, product guides, customer engagement processes, sales practices, or policies in place. There was little to no internal event staff to draw from, and no experienced event managers or coordinators associated with the venue. To date the only person who had invested any time in developing the rental business for the theatre was an intern who had left the organization. No one within the organization had taken true ownership of the channel or invested any time in courting new customers…
All of that was about to change.