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Timeless Sales Tips From P.T. Barnum

Lessons from possibly the greatest salesman on earth

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Nineteenth-century entrepreneur P.T. Barnum, of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus fame, was more than a master showman. 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. Along with a great respect for the customer, 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, something Barnum clearly wasn't. Be original. Say something daring, and back it up.

It doesn't hurt to be a showman. 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 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 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.

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; 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 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.

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