Sydney Biddle Barrows is a speaker, consultant, writer and sales professional. Her first book was a take on her life story that ended up on the Fortune Top Ten Best Business Books of the Year list, and it eventually found its way onto a couple of reading lists for classes at Harvard University. From there her fame grew.

See, she already had notoriety, owing to the business she took from so-so to top-shelf. Oh, did I fail to mention her first book was called Mayflower Madam: The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows? That's right, Barrows is a former madam. The Mayflower Madam to be precise. She took the sales strategies she learned in high-end retail and applied them to her business in what she calls a sub-niche market. Those strategies were further honed and refined over the years and now fuel her various endeavors, including her latest book, Uncensored Sales Strategies: A Radical New Approach to Selling Your Customers What they Really Want--No Matter What Business You're In. Her biggest discovery was knowing what business she was in, really.

Barrows discovered that her call-girl service wasn't in the sex business; it was in the fantasy business. Men of means were willing to pay for the entire experience of an evening with a beautiful woman. It was that fresh perspective that allowed Barrows to elevate her business, and it is precisely that "fresh eyes" concept--the ability to pick out "incongruencies between the image a business is trying to project and the reality a customer actually encounters"--that drives her consulting business today. She sees things others miss.

Entrepreneur.com: Marketing and sales guru Dan Kennedy says you've addressed the hidden, overlooked, neglected aspects of selling. What are a couple of those big aspects and how do they end up falling through the cracks?

Sydney Biddle Barrows: I think that most people get caught up running the business. Fareed Zakaria, a couple of [months] ago in an article, said, "It's all too easy for the urgent to drive out the important." He's talking about politics, but I think that can be equally attributed to business. People are so busy with the day-to-day administrative stuff, putting out the fires, keeping everything together, that they neglect doing the things that could help their business grow, could improve the way their customers perceive their business. In Chapter 2, I talk about the broken bridge--that's actually an analogy that Dan came up with. And it's true, there are gaps. With the sales bridge, the customer is on one side and he has to traverse that bridge to get to the other side before you get his money. And there are so many broken slats and gaps in the bridge that the customer could fall through on his journey. A lot of people don't know what they are or they just don't pay any attention or they don't know how to fix them.

So you want a good sturdy bridge.
Yes. And the first thing is to understand what business you're really in. That's the first thing.

Why do so many business owners not know what they really offer or what business they're really in?
Well, they know what they offer but they don't know what business they are in. For instance, a [woman] came up to me and said, "I am an insurance broker. I sell homeowners' insurance and that kind of thing. What business am I really in?" And I thought about it for a minute and I said, "You are in the 'peace of mind' business, you are in the asset protection business and you are in the 'preserve my family heirlooms so I can pass them on to my children' business."

She thought about it and realized that's the business she's really in. She's not in the insurance business; those are the three businesses that she's really in. Now that she knows that, she can target her marketing to resonate with people who might not know it but that's the real reason that they're buying insurance. So instead of just pitching them, "Buy an insurance policy," she's saying to them, "Your home is an asset. The things in your home are an asset. Let us help you protect that. You know the things you want to pass along, they're very precious to you. Let us help you do that."

So you can't really target your marketing or get your marketing message right until you know what business you're truly in.
Exactly.

How can business owners figure that out?
They have to sit down and just think, "Why are my customers really buying whatever it is I'm selling?" A lot of times you can get it just from talking to them. Ask them, "What is it that you really want out of this service? What is your main goal? When you buy this product, what is it that you're hoping it will do for you or that you can do with it?" Listen to what they say. Or just ask yourself that question. A lot of times you can just ask yourself, which is hard. So ask your friends, "When you buy such and such a product, what do you hope to get from it? What do you hope it will do for you? What do you want to do with it?"

Do you find that too many business owners don't do that, don't partake in that self-analysis to come to those conclusions?
No, they don't. They're so busy doing what they do that they don't even sit down and think about it. There are a lot of people who get up in the morning and they turn on the TV, or they get in their car to go somewhere and they've got the radio on, and even if they go out running they've got their iPod with them. Their mind is constantly being assaulted by outside and extraneous noise. Even if it's great information, it's still noise. And people don't give themselves the time to think.

The common refrain is, "I'm too busy."
What business owners might want to consider doing is taking just an hour a week to sit down in a room where there is no phone--where there is no distraction at all--and just sit there and think about different aspects of their business.

What Customers Really Want

Is there anything else business owners can do to figure out what customers really want?
Yes. They want to ask themselves, "OK. What is it that's special about me?" Dan calls it your unique selling proposition, your USP. "What is it about my business that a prospect would choose to give me their business as opposed to everyone else who does what I do? What is it about me that's different, that's special? What is it that I do or I offer? What kind of experience do they have when they come onto my premises or they get my service?" So that's another thing. Because otherwise you're just a commodity.

And consumers can get a commodity anywhere.
Yes. Also, the experience--that's an added value. People will pay you more money for a memorable experience, something that they can remember with pleasure and happiness that they can talk about to other people. Something that validates who they are, who they think they are or who they would like to be. Something that gives them the opportunity to try something that they've never tried before. [It's about] the different services that you add. Let's say you have an unusual guarantee, or one of the things that you sell when somebody buys something is a 24-hour hotline that they can call and get help. Or if someone buys something, [the business] will install it for you. So services add value to a business and can be your USP. Like the Geek Squad at Best Buy.

I want to chat with you a little bit about the Sales Choreography chapter. You talk about sales choreography as a process. It does a couple of things. It influences customer perception of a business and--these are your words--"it all but eliminates competition in the hearts and minds of customers." What are the basic elements of a good sales choreography program and do you have an example of how it influences a first impression?
There are two different kinds of sales choreography. There is psychological and there is physical. So it depends. What it is--and I hate to use the word manipulate, although I do use it in the book--but in a way what it does is it manipulates the client or customers into thinking or feeling or responding to your business, your staff, your product, your services. It influences them to respond in a certain way and obviously in a way that you want them to respond, which is to buy from you. But it also influences the way they behave.

Let me give you an example of my own business. A lot of people look down on working girls and feel that because of what they do that they're not worthy or deserving of respect. So one of the things that I always did is I always referred to my girls as young ladies because I thought of them as young ladies and I wanted the clients to think of them and treat them that way, too--that's the most important thing. So from the very beginning we made it clear that these girls were young ladies, these were not, you know, your standard hooker. It made a huge difference. The clients really did treat them extremely well. I think that also had something to do with the kind of clients that we had.

Which had to have something to do with your presentation.
That's another thing about sales choreography: It attracts the kind of people that you do want and repels the kind of people that you don't want. That can be psychological or physical when you have to--the only way you can get into a store is to be let in, you know, the person has to come to the door and let you in. That intimidates a lot of people. It mostly intimidates people, though, that couldn't afford to spend money with you anyway.

The Harry Winston model you mention in the book.
They've got to make an appointment, yes.

I'm thinking of another example you gave of Frederic Fekkai, the hair salon. The difference you highlighted--the stylist approached you from the front and talked to you first; she didn't just come up behind you and tell you to put your head back into the wash basin--seems to be a small one.
Yes.

But it made an impression on you. So it seems like the difference between a company that does it well and a company that does it great is pretty small. That seems to be something anybody could do but nobody thinks about it.
Exactly, nobody thinks about it.

Go From Good to Great

What are some of the things a business owner, regardless of the size of his business, can do to cross over that threshold from doing it well to doing it great--choreographed, so to speak?
One of the things you can do is you can model other successful business owners. Whenever you experience something that makes you say, "Oh, wow," think about how you can apply that to your own business. What would make the experience more pleasurable, more meaningful to your customer? Look at Nordstrom. Another thing you want to do--and Danny Meyer the restaurateur is very big on this--you want to give customers experiences and do things for them that they can talk about.

Danny Meyer told the story in his book about a couple who came in for dinner for their anniversary, and all of a sudden they remembered they put some champagne in the freezer before they left. They asked the sommelier if he thought it was going to explode. He said, "Well, yeah, it is going to explode." And they said, "We've got to go back." [The restaurant employees] said, "No. We'll tell you what. You give us the keys and we will go over there and we will take it out for you." Not only did they go over and take it out for them, but they brought the couple chocolates and a gift and a card and the whole thing. Now that is a story that those people are going to tell everyone they know, forever. So you definitely want to create stories.

What are the aspects of the customer experience that a business owner or a salesperson adheres to without fail in the early days of business that are neglected over time and maybe forgotten completely?
I think that most people, when they first open up a business, they're very much attuned to wanting to give good customer service. That's one of the things people genuinely want to do to be known for and they're very sincere when they first start the business. But then things start to pop up. For instance, I got a story very recently from someone who told me that he was at this restaurant and he wanted to have whatever his drink was, to have half mango juice and half strawberry--just the for the sake of argument. They told him that they couldn't do that. He asked them why. They said, "Because that would throw off our count." In other words, they measure how many drinks they can get from a bottle of mango juice or strawberry juice, and if they gave him half it would throw off their count. Now what's more important?

Someone else was telling me they went to this ice cream place and they wanted one scoop of this and one scoop of that. They were told they weren't allowed to make it like that because they weren't allowed to use the same scoop in a row for different flavors of ice cream. My first question is, what happens if person A comes in and orders mint chip and then person B comes in and orders chocolate? What the hell difference does it make? Apparently they had a rule that you couldn't. It was nonsense. It was keeping them from giving customers what they wanted. I guess the moral of the story is a lot of businesses set up systems that supposedly make it easier for them or help them keep track of whatever it is they want to keep track of, but a lot of times those systems are not customer friendly and keep people from doing business with you.

So it becomes about the system and not about the customer experience after a while.
Exactly.

Anything else?
One of the things that I really do want to point out--and I mention this in the book, too--is when it comes to the sales presentation, when it comes to how you talk to the customer about buying your thing, business owners really, really have to do it themselves for a while. Because it's one thing to sit down and write a script, "This is the way you should do it." But until you have actually tested it and seen how the customer responds [you have no idea if it works]. One of my perfect examples was, in the very beginning, when I booked a call and the man would choose the young lady and I would say, "OK. What's your name?" And we would lose the call. So I figured out to ask, "What name are you registered under? What name is your phone listed under?" It's the same question, but when you ask it that way, it makes all the difference in the world.

Seems like such a little change.
Words are triggers. So that's why I think it's very important for the [business owner to be involved]. No one can sell your thing better than you. Obviously that's not practical. You can't sell everybody, but what you really need to do is you need to do it yourself. You can't sit down and write out the sales pitch. You've got to see and feel the reaction, the response from the customer, and see what works best. It's so important.

What are some other examples?
You never want to call it a contract; you want to call it an agreement. You never want to say, "Give me your signature here." You want to say something like, "Why don't you endorse or OK this?" You know what I mean? You don't want to say, "Sign here." Ask, "Can we get your approval?" So there are all kinds of things like that. You've got to learn or figure out the trigger words that are going to make a customer involuntarily say, "Whoops, should I be doing this?"