Startup Sales Lessons From TLC’s “Say Yes To The Dress”

This article originally appeared on Forbes HERE

If you have your eyes and ears open, you can discover sales lessons in unexpected places, including the cable TV show, Say Yes To The Dress.

I do not consume much TV content, other than cable news. However, my wife is a major fan of fashion oriented “reality” TV shows, including Say Yes To The Dress (Say Yes). In my ongoing quest to be a wonderful husband, I have watched some of these shows with my lovely bride (sorry, I draw the line at Project Runway).

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Reality Selling

The show’s format is fairly straightforward. The wedding dress selection odyssey of several women is explored, with the usual doses of contrived reality TV conflict, such as the overbearing mother-in-law, the cheap dad, the indecisive bride and the obtrusive groom who has outrageously bad taste. The show takes place in two upscale bridal shops, one in New York and the other in Atlanta.

There are a number of solid sales techniques on display by the Say Yes team. Most of them are directly applicable to selling virtually anything to anyone. These techniques include:

Actively Listen – The most important selling skill is effective listening. The show refers to the salespeople as “consultants,” which reinforces each store’s problem solving approach to selling. The Say Yes consultants ask a number of questions before a bride tries on her first dress. Throughout the sales process, they continually probe and modify their sales approach, based on the bride’s feedback.

Active listening leads to empathy, which in turn enhances your ability to persuade and influence your prospect. Steven Covey’s oft-quoted insight holds true when selling, “Seek first to understand, then seek to be understood.” Such pro active communications allows startups to be more responsive than their larger, resource-rich competitors.

Assess Budget – The Say Yes salespeople are straightforward about determining the bride’s budget at the outset of the sales process. They are also careful to not show a bride dresses that greatly exceed their budget because they know it can jeopardize the sale. Once someone tries on an expensive dress which is outside of their price range, it is often difficult for them to be satisfied with dresses that conform to their budget.

Startup sales require high velocity. You typically cannot afford to spend time with prospects that are not ready to buy. An efficient way to qualify a potential customer is to determine the size and availability of their budget.

Once this is known, a successful salesperson crafts an affordable solution that solves the prospect’s problems. If a prospect’s budget does not allow for a near-term purchase, reduce the cadence of your communications with the prospect, while maintaining a relationship you can leverage once the prospect’s budgetary constraints are resolved.

Woo Influencers – In nearly every instance, the Say Yes brides bring an entourage of friends and relatives with them. The salespeople must assess the bride’s posse and determine who will have the most impact on the bride’s purchase.

Effective salespeople must also properly identify the respective roles and relative influence of the individuals involved in the sales process. Whenever I pitch a group of people, I always take the time at the outset to learn a bit about each participant.

This information helps me determine who will an impact the buying process and who is just along for the ride. I treat everyone with an equal level of respect and deference, while ensuring I fulfill the needs of those with the most influence.

Bolster The Champion – The Say Yes sales consultants often provide emotional support for brides who are overly chided by the influencers in their entourage. In many instances, the sales folks have to shut down the influencers by reminding them that the bride’s opinion is ultimately what matters. This becomes a delicate balancing act when the influencer is also bankrolling the purchase.

In non-reality TV sales situations, it is frequently difficult to identify your true champion. In some instances, a well-meaning champion does not have the social and political capital to close the sale. This requires you to support your would-be champion, as you do not want them working against you, while you continue to seek a true champion who can help you get the deal done.

Sell What You Have – The Say Yes sales team’s priority is to get customers to select “the perfect dress” from whatever they have on the racks. Startups must follow a similar philosophy. Selling the future can be effective, as long as it does not result in a prospect postponing their purchase, waiting for the promised features to be created and vetted by the market.

o Keep It Fun – Every sales process involves a degree of mixed emotions. When buying a wedding dress, the emotional aspects of the transaction can overwhelm the buyer’s ability to make a rational decision. The Say Yes team reduces the risk of an emotional meltdown by maintaining a lighthearted atmosphere and ensuring that the buying process is entertaining.

Sales professionals must similarly maintain an emotional balance during the sales process. If a prospect is pushed too hard, they might seek relief by breaking off the sales discussions. Thus, you risk eliciting a “No” from your prospect if you create an overwhelming sense of urgency. Effective selling requires you to push the sale to a close while respecting the pace of the prospect’s decision process.

Check Your Ego – The Say Yes bridal consultants dress uniformly in nondescript black outfits so as to not draw attention away from the bride. They know that their role is to act as problem solvers who do not overly interject their opinions or personalities into the decision process.

Successful salespeople know that prospects buy from people they like. Thus, establishing a strong rapport is vital. However, it is likewise important to keep the focus on problem solving and avoid making the sale all about the salesperson.

Call In The Closer – Each store has its resident closer. In New York it is Randy (pictured above). In Atlanta, Monte (at left)  and Lori (the store’s owner) are the rainmakers. Each closer uses their tactics of choice to ring the cash register, including “blinging” / “jacking up” the bride with jewelry and a veil (the veil’s effectiveness bewilders me).

They also use many of the same closing phrases, such as “Are you saying ‘Yes to the dress?’ ” “Is this your dress?” and, “Can you see yourself walking down the aisle in this dress?” These direct questions often consummate the sale.

Startups should deploy a similar tag team approach. When I headed up sales at Expertcity (creator of GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, sold to Citrix), I would often interject myself into the sales process to push a sale to its conclusion. Not because my sales team was incapable of closing. On the contrary, they were some of the most talented salespeople I have ever met. However, many prospects (especially big companies) want to meet senior members of the startup team to gain adequate comfort that the company is not going to evaporate shortly after their check is cashed.

Sales Training With Benefits

Effective techniques that encourage a buyer to say “Yes” are applicable to every sales process. Even if you are not in the market for a wedding dress, you might be surprised by how much you can learn about selling by watching Monte, Lori, Randy and their teams in action. Guys, besides honing your sales skills, you will get an added benefit in the form of mega spousal brownie points.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet you about beautiful wedding dressesor tell you about that killer burrito I just ate.

Image Sources: Randy – Copyright © 2012 Discovery Communications, LLC, Monte – ©2012Tribune Media Services, Inc.

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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