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My First Big Sale (…and the secret of how I did it)

2010 January 7
by Greg Satell

A very long time ago I was working in sales at a business journal.  While the newspaper itself just about broke even, the annual Book of Lists was enormously profitable.  I became a big hero when I not only broke the record for the biggest ad package ever sold, but shattered it.

What makes the story interesting though isn’t the event itself, but how I actually made it happen.

My co-workers were baffled by my success.  The package I sold in the annual Book of Lists was twice as big as anything anybody had even thought to offer.  They attempted to duplicate my triumphant sale, but never could.  Anxious to discover my secret, they postulated on how I accomplished such an amazing feat.

There was no shortage of theories…

How they thought I did it

Presentation: I had presented the client with a little booklet that I made in PowerPoint and printed out in color.  This was somewhat unusual in those days (the very misguided Sales Director at one point actually had the program removed from the desktop that the sales department shared).  My colleagues naturally assumed that the presentation must have been the secret of my success.

They responded by creating beautiful presentations of their own (it must be said here that my presentation wasn’t beautiful, it was kind of crappy).  While they spent an enormous amount of time and effort on their presentations, not one of their gorgeously crafted booklets sold a single ad.

A Big Client: The company that bought the ad package was a major multinational serviced by a global agency network.  Naturally my associates thought that they should pursue big clients regardless of what their needs were.  The idea was that companies with so much money would be sure to spend something.

Again – no dice.  My friends wasted a lot of time chasing after clients just because they were big.  They would have been more successful if spent more time approaching smaller companies that could actually benefit from advertising in our publication.

Relationship: Since their presentations didn’t work and their prospective “whale” client’s didn’t respond to their approaches, my co-workers naturally assumed that the “fix was in.”  Obviously, I must have had a fantastic relationship with the client and he was just doing his buddy a favor.

Wrong again!  The reality was that the first time I met the client was when I presented him the Book of Lists. Moreover, as anybody who knows me personally can attest, I’m really not very charming.  Even most of my friends don’t like me!

The Secret of my Secret

The secret was that there really was no secret, as I told my colleagues repeatedly.  However, they refused to believe me and continued to try to solve the mystery in vain.  In actuality, there just some simple principles at work that are easy to follow.

Luck: Fortune plays a part in every success (and most failures).  I just happened upon the right client at the right time with the right offer.  While averages can be improved through practice, the fact is that sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not.

I got the brief: The client had some ideas about what he wanted and I not only listened, but wrote them down.  I asked a few questions in order to clarify, but mostly I just paid attention.

It isn’t always this simple.  Often, you need to ask good briefing questions, clarify the brief several times and navigate the obstacle course of buyer idiosyncrasies.  However, these are skills that can be learned and improve with practice.

I followed directions: Most of all, I did what I was asked.  Although my presentation was lousy and I had no pre-existing relationship with the client, I was able to impress him just by trying my best to do what he wanted me to do.

It’s a simple rule; try to do add value by helping people achieve their goals.  Often, salespeople are so excited about their own ideas that they fail to take into account that client’s have needs of their own.

With all of the advice offered by sales gurus, 7 steps seminars and talk about proper presentation of “USP’s” there really is no substitute for listening and following directions.

– Greg

24 Responses leave one →
  1. Stuart Nicholson permalink
    January 7, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    A lot of truth in this.In the same vein, one piece of advice i got from somewhere about new business pitches stays with me.

    What people tend to do when they pitch agency credentials is to start of with some impressive facts and figures about the agency, how many big clients they handle, rankings, global headcount etc etc.In fact often this dominates the presentation.Right at the end you might get a few observations about the client and his business situation.

    What actually is better is to start the meeting talking about the clients own business and some observations and insights that you have.This doesnt have to be overbearing and arrogant, maybe just informing about maybe an opportunity that the client is not aware of and how this is a good fit with his portfolio.Its this part that should dominate the 20 minutes or so that is probably the allotted time for you to make an impression.The agency facts are either just in the book or are two or three key slides with brief bullets right at the end.This really does work better.I heartily agree…in any sales situation you get a better result talking about the other persons issues rather than your own capabilities.

  2. January 7, 2010


    As always, you make very good points.

    For the record, how many countries have you won new business pitches in?

    – Greg

  3. Stuart Nicholson permalink
    January 7, 2010

    Havent kept a count Greg, but i guess probably about 25-30 over the years

    Unfortunately this is dwarfed by the number of pitches that werent successful, but thats par for the course!

  4. January 7, 2010

    Good tips, great points…thank you both!

  5. January 7, 2010


    I’m glad it was helpful.

    Best of luck in the New Year!

    – Greg

  6. January 7, 2010

    Congratulations on the succes and thanx for the inspiration. As always a pleasure to read 🙂

  7. January 7, 2010

    Welcome back.

    Best of luck in the New Year!

    – Greg

  8. January 8, 2010

    Always good to hear other sales pitch advice and ideas – I agree 100% about listening to a client and doing your utmost to provide a service that adds value to their business, not yours (if you get the first bit right your business will work).

    Good luck for 2010.


  9. January 8, 2010

    Hi greg,
    Loved your story!
    Timing in life is everything – you had the right stuff at the right time in the right place and you listened!

  10. January 8, 2010


    Thanks. Good luck to you as well.

    – Greg

  11. January 8, 2010


    Thanks. How’s your business going?

    – Greg

  12. January 10, 2010

    Hi Greg,
    Thanks for asking. Business is hard. I am currently designing new products to add to the site. I know the successful are the ones who don’t give up on their dreams – so I am hanging on to that. I joined a network group here on Long Island where I live and I hope it will help. Most of what I do so far is by word-of-mouth, but I would like it to be more then that. The website I am linked with right now, a beer wholesaler – since I do have beer products, has grown to 5600 clicks in the month of December which has helped me a little.
    Based on your suggestion, I did update the opening sentence on my home page to reflect what I do- so thanks 🙂
    As always, I am always open to your suggestions. More then you realize, you have been a tremendous help.

  13. January 10, 2010


    Glad to hear it! Best of luck in the New Year!

    – Greg

  14. Mark Mulholland permalink
    January 11, 2010

    Luck is part of all competitive jobs and it is good to accept this and get back to work so you increase your chances for luck.

    As for your line “…I’m really not very charming. Even most of my friends don’t like me!
    The truth is that both of your only friends like you!
    Mark M

  15. January 11, 2010


    As usual, thanks for the confidence boost.

    – Greg

  16. Ashok permalink
    January 16, 2010

    Lisa, what is the name (URL) of your website?
    Would like to have a look.

  17. January 16, 2010

    Hi Ashok,
    Please don’t laugh, if the URL is the name of the website – then the name of my website is :
    Thanks – and please let me know what you think.

  18. January 28, 2010

    I really like your story, it’s very no nonsense and cut and dry. Most people in the sales and marketing world have a misconcept about the technical approach of dealing with consumers. However, it really is all about how you relate to people and if you can just follow simple directions of what the customer wants. Thanks for putting this out there, because I am so sick and tired of hearing about these stupid marketing techniques. And I do not believe in luck, sometimes it is all about simple economics of product supply and demand.

  19. January 28, 2010

    Dee Dee,

    Thanks for your comment, and I agree that marketing rules are useless. I even wrote a post about it🙂

    – Greg

  20. January 29, 2010


    Thanks. Same to you.

    – Greg

  21. Marama Castle-Brown permalink
    March 14, 2010

    Hi Gregg

    Wow! this brings back memories!

    I have been in media sales for over 10 years and have had the good fortune to work with some very exciting brands. When I first stepped in to sales, my sales manager told me to “make the client feel that you’re one of his employees, and the good new is, you’re not on his payroll” I laughed at the time, but the seed was sown and that’s exactly what I set out to do! New reps always got the ‘COLD LIST’ of clients. Mine was made up of the disgruntled and budget-less! I started calling on those clients. Some were rude and merciless and I thought well I would not want to be their employee anyway. Most of my clients could not work out why I was bothering when they did not advertise with me. Some decided that if I was prepared to do this much for nothing, what could she do for money? I managed to convert 40% of the list back to active, and 1 of my clients became a top 10 spender in the company. I still smile when I think of those days.

    No matter how far you’ve come, sometimes you need to be reminded of the simple basics of being good at what you do. Thanks Greg.


  22. March 15, 2010


    I never heard the “make your client feel that you’re one of the employees” one. It’s very good!


    – Greg

  23. frank permalink
    May 14, 2010

    I remember being pressured to present the “big package” to an account that clearly wasn’t as ambitious in their objectives as what my publisher wanted to sell to him (and was being pressured to sell by his boss)-so after doing this big dog/pony show presentation and being asked to put together a proposal by the client I asked my publisher if we should also put in a more modest “plan B” which was clearly what the client was looking for. I was told unequivocably “no” and as a result sent out the proposal he wanted me to send to the client, not the one the client wanted to buy, with the predictable result that the business went to our competitor…

    Moral of the story…LISTEN!

  24. May 14, 2010

    Good moral.

    Thanks, Frank.

    – Greg

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