From the September 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

Most of us don't associate the word "creative" with "selling." For some, "creative" conjures up images of starving artists dressed in black, "trying to make a statement" with paint and old auto parts. "Creative" people wear berets and read The Village Voice. Salespeople wear ties and read The Wall Street Journal.

At least those are the popular stereotypes. But don't salespeople create things, too-like opportunity? Don't salespeople create demand for products and services? Customer satisfaction? Wealth?

The nature of the sales process is, in fact, creative. A good salesperson creates demand where it doesn't exist. He or she creates a message (the sales pitch) using various media (face calls, telephone calls, written presentations, slide shows) that influence an audience (the prospect). A salesperson explores new territories (cold calls), introduces new ways of thinking (persuades prospects) and makes the world a better place (provides customer satisfaction).

OK, maybe I'm overstating the case a bit. Lots of perfectly productive salespeople are nothing more than harvesters of existing business-they take orders, fill out paperwork, collect their commissions and go home. And they never break rules.

Those salespeople still play a role in our economy, although they're on their way to being replaced by order-processing technology. But I'm here to talk about creative selling, the favorite activity of wild, vibrant, risk-taking sales fanatics-the Michelangelos of sales. These people use the power of ideas to create customer satisfaction and wealth for themselves and their companies.

Think of Creative Ideas

Ideas are scarce. They don't exist until someone creates them. They can be copied, but only after the original hits the market. Because there's nothing to compare them to, the price of an original idea is determined solely by perceived value. There is no competitive bidding or price shaving for market share-just the seller's ability to create perceived value by presenting the idea as a solution to the buyer's needs.

And by offering ideas clients haven't seen before, creative sellers create another tactical advantage. Traditional sellers make presentations full of information about their own products or services. So what do prospects talk about? The seller's products, of course.

But when you talk about ideas unique to your prospects, they'll talk about how your idea applies to their businesses. This is all you want-to hear prospects talk about their needs. The more they talk about those needs, the better you'll be able to shape your ideas to meet them. And when you become identified as "the idea seller," prospects open their doors.

Motivate Your Customers

Now let's talk about motivation. Why do customers buy from you? Is it because your product or service is the best on the market? Is it because you have strong relationships with your clients? These things can't hurt, but you need more than just a good widget to sell to a customer. You need ideas, because ideas are motivators.

The first step in coming up with ideas to wow your clients is to find out as much as possible about their businesses. I like to build a file for each prospect that contains everything I can find that pertains to his or her business. That file doesn't only have to contain items related to your product or service; it should cover anything you can find about the prospect's business, market and customers. And the information should be gathered as if you were the prospect. Ideally, you'll learn to think like your client.

Use a little library or online research and a little common sense, and you'll be able to answer your questions pretty accurately. If you want to know the dollar volume of the prospect's market, for example, visit the U.S. Census Bureau's Web site. If you want to know how many locations the prospect operates, check the Yellow Pages. This kind of information is readily available at no cost to you.

Regardless of the type of business the prospect operates, ultimately he or she sells something. So find out who the prospect's customers are and why they buy this type of product or service.

Once you've learned about the basics of the client's business, you can develop a client goal to be reached or a need to be satisfied. Then it's time to get down to specifics on how to reach that goal. That's where ideas come in.

Creative sellers with open minds have an endless market for their ideas. But most people don't consider themselves creative enough. Some of us actually have lots of ideas but are hesitant to use them because we're afraid they won't be good enough. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it puts the onus of judgment on the wrong person. The salesperson or business owner shouldn't judge the merits of an idea-leave that to the prospect. If the customer thinks it's good-it's good! Put your idea in front of him or her using the best presentation skills you have, and let that prospect make the final judgment.

The Merits Of Brainstorming

To come up with ideas to sell, you need to continually practice brainstorming. The techniques I'm talking about are the same ones you use in a group meeting, only I explore their use on an individual level.

Here are the steps: Start by writing down your prospect's goal. On the page below the goal, make a list of ways your company's products or services can help the prospect reach that goal. Follow the ground rules of successful brainstorming while you're writing.

Next, review the ideas and combine or extend them, creating new ideas. Again, don't be judgmental. It's not time to throw out bad ideas. This combining and extending process should add ideas to your list, not remove them.

There are several ways to stimulate your brainstorm production. Look inside the company for internal solutions. Many companies package their products or create bundles of services designed to meet the needs of certain categories of customers.

Another good source of ideas that come out of brainstorming is free association with nonrelated concepts. This is a fancy term for taking an idea from someplace else. One of my associates monitors TV commercials and magazine ads to see if there's a slogan or concept he can use as an idea springboard. For example, he'll take a slogan like "You're in good hands with Allstate" and come up with "You're in good form with Diet Rite." He's not stealing ideas, just using them to spark his own.

Another way to start the process is by examining past sales to similar customers. See if you can determine why customers made those purchases. Talk to the salespeople. Pick their brains about the circumstances that led to those sales.

Choosing An Idea

The next step is to choose the one idea you feel most confident presenting. It should open a clear and direct path to the prospect's goal. Judge the idea by its ability to achieve that goal.

There is one final check to make before preparing the presentation of your idea: See if you can clearly express your idea in a sentence or two. Try to say it aloud without taking a breath. If you can't, re-examine the idea to see if it's too complicated. Overwhelming a prospect with a proposal that you can't explain in simple terms is a sure way to lose a follow-up call

Now that you've come up with the ideas, pick one and pitch it. That's right, pick one-any one. It doesn't matter which idea you choose as long as you know your company can deliver it. You can't choose one based on your knowledge of the customer's likes and dislikes because you haven't met the prospect-so just pick one and go with it.

That's when you'll learn the secret to creative selling: Your real goal on the first call is not necessarily to sell that first idea-it's to gather as much information about the prospect as you can so subsequent ideas hit the mark.

As you gather information, you're accomplishing several other things. You make a strong first impression by showing a willingness to invest your time in a study of the prospect's needs. You establish yourself as an idea resource. If you bring prospects something of value, they are likely to see you again. Above all, your idea will provoke a discussion about the prospect's needs. It's through such discussions that you learn what they will buy from you.

Brainstorming 101

You don't remember brainstorming basics from B-school? Here's a quick refresher:

1. There's no such thing as a bad idea. Write it down even if it's impossible. Make sure to write it down if anyone in the room says, "We've never done that before." Reserve judgment until later.

2. See how outrageous you can be. Associate freely and write it down. The wilder the idea, the better. Crazy ideas spark more ideas-mundane ones are dead ends.

3. Fill the page-then start another one. Quantity is your goal because the more ideas you list, the better the odds of finding a good one.

4. Don't stop when you come to the "right" idea. There could well be a better one waiting to come out.

Engineering A Sale

My friend Matt is both a salesperson and an engineer-a very unusual combination. Matt had a prospect who was responsible for the public structures owned by a county government, everything from playground equipment to bridges.

Matt specializes in the structural analysis of communications towers. This prospect sent out a request for proposals (RFP) for inspection of the county's communications towers, which are used for two-way radios and other communications systems.

Matt looked beyond the RFP at the entire assortment of structures his prospect managed. Instead of just submitting a proposal for the towers, Matt also pointed out that the county bridges were subject to the same stresses (weather, materials deterioration) as the towers. These stresses were potentially dangerous, so Matt proposed an inspection of the bridges using the same rigorous professional methods his firm applied to the towers.

This wasn't covered in the RFP, but Matt made the sale by creating an opportunity to study a potential problem that hadn't existed in the prospect's mind. He then created a solution to the need by designing a service that his firm didn't normally provide (bridge engineering). My friend's mind was open to the possibilities and he used creative selling techniques to create an opportunity.

This excerpt was reprinted from Dave Donelson's Creative Selling: The Foolproof System To Unleash Your Sales Potential(Entrepreneur Press). To obtain a copy, visit your local or online bookstore, or Entrepreneur.com.


Dave Donelson, president of Sales Development Associates, has a long career in entrepreneurship. His most recent endeavor is the Enterprise Learning Center, a Web site devoted to sales and management training.