Under The Big Top

P.T. Barnum was more than master of the show; he may very well have been the greatest salesman on earth.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the December 1999 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Quick: Name your favorite sales guru. Zig Ziglar? Tom Hopkins? How about P.T. Barnum? Well, Barnum wouldn't be my first choice either, but Houston consultant Joe Vitale says he should be on the top of any serious businessperson's list. "He was a master showman, for sure," says Vitale, who teaches a sales and marketing course based on the 19th century entrepreneur's business philosophy. "But he was also a really great salesman."

Vitale, author of There's a Customer Born Every Minute (Amacom), says that once you get past the image of Barnum as a well-dressed carny, you'll likely find a salesperson who was far ahead of his time. "Barnum had great respect for the customer," says Vitale. "Long before it was popular, he believed it was a key to being successful."

Notes Vitale, Barnum had other ideas on how to sell that are as important today as they were more than 100 years ago. Among them:

  • Don't play it safe. Too many salespeople are conservative, says Vitale, something Barnum clearly wasn't. Be original. Say something daring, and back it up. "Everybody says they guarantee their product. So what?," says Vitale. "Instead, issue a challenge. Say something like `Not only do we guarantee it, but if it does break, we'll also fix it or get you a new one within 72 hours and install it for free.' That's going out on a limb, but it's also saying something."
  • It doesn't hurt to be a showman. For example, says Vitale, Barnum used an elephant to plow the yard of his Connecticut house, which was situated near railroad tracks. Every time a train passed by on its way to New York, passengers saw an ad for Barnum.
  • Give people more than their money's worth. Barnum traveled the globe to find exotic acts, yet he kept his prices reasonable. His six-story show in New York housed more than half a million exhibits, and a 25-cent ticket allowed people to stay there all day. (This was in the mid-1850s, when weekly salaries were commonly $4 to $5.)
  • Don't accept rejection. This doesn't mean that you should keep bothering someone who has decided not to buy from you; rather, you should reevaluate the customer's needs, your product and your sales pitch. Devise a new reason for the prospect to make the purchase. "Every setback Barnum had in life he viewed as a challenge he would overcome," says Vitale.
  • Give customers the information they need. It sounds like an obvious point to make, but it's worth repeating: Don't just pitch your product to prospects; instead, tell them how you can solve their problems or fulfill their needs. Salespeople spend too much time talking without giving customers the kind of information they really want.
  • Look for customers everywhere. Think of new applications, look for new territories or just make more cold calls to expand your business. "Barnum thought the planet earth was his customer base," says Vitale. "He never thought there was a limit to who could buy from him."
  • Cross-sell. Always think of ways to team up what you're selling with another product or service. Similarly, look to cross-promote with noncompeting businesses. Once, says Vitale, Barnum convinced a hat manufacturer to bid for a ticket for a new act. The bid reached hundreds of dollars and resulted in more publicity than either one of them could buy.
  • Make customers feel good about themselves. It's not enough to get the sale; you have to make the customer feel good to get repeat business and ensure word-of-mouth recommendations.

Bill Kelley is an Arcadia, California, business writer and former editor of Sales and Marketing Management magazine.

Web Site


By Robert McGarvey

Think the Web could be your gateway to selling internationally? Maybe so--thousands of small businesses are finding success abroad. A good place to gather pointers on using the Net to cross international borders is InternationalWorkz, which promises to deliver "a global eBusiness toolkit," including pointers on how to customize your site to serve foreign markets. You'll also find information on currency conversion, security and fraud, taxes and duties, and more.

Contact Source

Joe Vitale, fax: (281) 999-1313, joe@mrfire.com

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