Which Shoe Salesman Is Right?

Two shoe salesmen are on a boat. The boat lands on an isolated island. The first shoe salesman sees lots of barefoot people and says, “Wow, what a great opportunity! I’m staying.” The second shoe salesman sees the same barefoot people and says, “No one wears shoes here. There’s no opportunity here. I’m leaving.”

Which shoe salesman is right? Which one is most likely to succeed? Which is most likely to make more money?

Most people are quick to see the barefoot people as a tremendous sales opportunity. At first glance, it seems promising. There’s no competition. You can name your own price. There will be no price war. You are the only expert in the field, and no one will challenge or twist your message.

The need is obvious and the benefits will be easy to convey: No more stubbed toes. No more pain from stepping on sea shells. No more ugly, calloused feet. You can introduce the concept of style and prestige. Your product ought to catch on like wild fire, and you will own the market.

That’s the upside. Now here’s the down side. The people are not wearing shoes for a reason. They have learned to live without them and have adapted well. You are introducing “change,” and people resist change. You have to educate the masses, and they are not as quick to learn as you’d hoped. They have other issues in their lives, and footwear has never been a priority. You have to work very hard at each sale – explaining the product from the ground up each and every time. Things are never as easy as they appear.

Being a resourceful shoe salesman, you decide a low price point would help offset the learning curve issues and encourage buyers to “jump in” more readily. You make your shoes affordable to virtually everyone. Unfortunately, your problems are compounded because they don’t really have a clue about the true value. Your bargain price just diminished the overall perceived value and painted yourself into a corner. Now you have to sell twice as much to keep profits at a healthy level.

It’s more of a perplexing situation than most people think, but there are solutions for selling to the “barefoot,” but first, let’s look at the other side of the equation.

“Going back” as the second shoe salesman does, takes the vast majority of us into very familiar waters – fiercely competitive markets. There’s a shoe salesman on every corner. Stores everywhere. Countless brands. Prospective shoe buyers have countless options. And then there is the Internet – Yikes! How do you compete with that? Ask a loan officer how they compete with Ditek.com. Ask an insurance salesman how they compete against Progressive. Ask a travel agent how they compete with Priceline.com.

The barefoot natives may be ambivalent about shoes, but the “big city crowd” is so jaded and numb to marketing, you may as well be talking to a brick wall. They too, have the attention span of a gnat, and can’t, or don’t care to, take a minute out of their busy day to hear what you have to say about your “wonderful” shoes.

So what do you do? Which type of prospects do you want to pursue – barefoot or shoe-wearing? Let’s first be clear about what the two types of prospect are. Barefoot prospects are people who are relatively new and uneducated about your product or service. Shoe-wearing prospects are people who have already bought it at least once, not necessarily from you.

Here’s why you need to categorize your prospects this way. There are proven techniques for selling to both barefoot and shoe-wearing prospects, but the tactics are different.

Selling to barefoot prospects requires some counter-intuitive thinking. While you may think competition is bad, it definitely is not. One of the biggest challenges is getting the word out about new products – educating the masses. It takes immense resources. Left to their own devices, a single player will have trouble making significant waves to create meaningful change. It’s why you see competitors form trade organizations and hold tradeshows – to educate prospects and promote an entire industry.

The proper pricing strategy is also critical. This is where a lot of people make a mistake. In the early stages of a product’s life cycle, it is imperative to price it high. Think of high definition TV. The price of the units is much higher than traditional TVs. The manufacturers need to make extra money to support the aggressive marketing required to educate the masses and build perceived value. The manufacturers are targeting “early adopters” who typically have to have the latest and greatest gadgets, and are willing to pay a premium price for it. It is upon the strength of their wallets that markets are built.

So the shoe salesman who stayed on the island should have invited help in the form of competition and priced his product high. He would also need to be patient and persistent, and have sufficient resources that allow him to survive through the initial start up phases of the product launch. 90% of new businesses fail, and 90% of the time it’s because of a lack of working capital necessary to keep its doors open through the challenging start-up phase.

And you thought selling shoes to barefoot people was a quick and easy path to success. Nothing is ever as easy as it appears.

When vying for shoe-wearing prospects in a mature market, gaining a competitive edge is the name of the game. Your competition is everywhere, but that’s OK because they will chase some business your way. That’s why you’ll find McDonalds, Burger King and Hardees all in close proximity to each other.

So what works in highly competitive markets? There’s a long list, and what would work in your market would depend on a number of factors, but here’s a collection of a few of the top tactics.

Woody Allen once said, “80 percent of success is showing up.” In other words, be there when your competition drops the ball, have a strong presence in your market and leverage your longevity. Shake hands and get to know as many people as possible. Return phone calls and e-mails promptly. Join trade organizations and be an active member of your business community. Advertise. Volunteer. Be a leader. Write articles. Basically, aspire to have a high profile in your industry and understand that it doesn’t happen overnight.

Study your competition closely. Being successful is like playing a game of chess, Every one of your moves is predicated by the position everyone else holds on the board. With every strength, there is a corresponding weakness that can be exploited. A strong brand is a powerful tool, but look what Suave did with its “Ours does what theirs does for a lot less” campaign. A large company may have tremendous financial resources, but are they nimble, responsive and can they provide the level of personal service a small company can? Calmar offers a vast array of products at low prices, but what level of expertise does it’s sales associates have on the products they sell? What kind of after-the-sale service do they provide?

When selling to shoe-wearing prospects, you have to differentiate your product in some way. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Pick one strength, one attribute, and claim it for yourself. Translate it into a slogan, and then adopt your slogan as a battle-cry. Live it, breathe it and eat it every day.

If you keep doing the same things, you’ll keep getting the same results. If you want better results, you have to use better/different tactics. If you aren’t sure what to do, and don’t want to waste time and money experimenting with something so important, get professional advice and counsel.

So which shoe salesman is more successful? In most cases, its the salesman that goes back and does battle in the competitive arena. Why? Basically, because it’s easier. They can get a sales job with a large company and rely on a professional support staff to do the marketing and strategic positioning of the company and its brand. The rewards may not be as high, but it’s where most people make their money.

Selling to barefoot prospects is best left to hard-core entrepreneurs that have the drive, determination and resources to breathe life into a business. Many successful entrepreneurs have a history of repeated failure before finally arriving at a successful business model. Nine out of ten new businesses fail within their first year. In most cases the failure is caused by not understanding what it takes to sell to barefoot prospects.

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