When you try to explain the entrepreneurial life to people who haven't taken the plunge, it sometimes helps to refer to pop culture.
If you're talking about why it's so important to set up a business succession plan, for example, you might reference "Downton Abbey." If you're trying to describe the craziness that comes with running a small business, you might call up a scene from "Mad Men."
Now you can add the film American Hustle--which won a Golden Globe for Best Picture and picked up 10 Academy Award nominations this week--to the list, especially if you want to explain how really great salespeople find leads, draw customers, and make deals.
The film is loosely based on the ABSCAM investigation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which the FBI got several members of Congress on videotape agreeing to accept bribes from a man they thought was a wealthy Arab sheik.
In this heavily fictionalized version, a con man named Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend (Amy Adams) are manipulated into working for a rogue FBI agent (Bradley Cooper). Everybody in the film is, shall we say, morally complex.
Throughout the film, the characters played by Bale, Adams, and others have to convince, sell, trust, and entrap one mark after the next. Although they don't use the jargon you've probably heard in a sales seminar, they employ one smart technique after another to close the deals.
With that in mind, I asked a group of entrepreneurs and salespeople for their best sales advice and found almost all of it portrayed in the movie. Here are a few examples.
Make Them Think it Was Their Idea
Much to the chagrin of the FBI agent, Rosenfeld insists on reeling in the marks slowly, to the point of making it seem as if the plan was their idea. For example, Rosenfeld recruits a friend to dress up as an Arab sheik and walk around with him so targets will beg him to let them do business with his wealthy friend.
A milder version of this plays out in the real world, too. Peter Njongwe, who runs a business in Canada selling African-Canadian inspired art and accessories, gave me the example of a customer who is "just looking." Instead of turning her attention toward a specific item, he'll reply, "I like looking at nice things, too." That kind of comment can turn an encounter into a conversation, rather than a situation that puts a customer on edge.
"Customers are apprehensive of salespeople," Njongew says. "The trick here is ... to be their counselor ... and break past barriers by using humor and empathy. That way you can truly understand who they are and what they want or need."
Create a Need in Your Customer
Is the enamel wearing off your teeth? Does the car you drive say you're not the man you wish you were? Spend a few minutes watching TV and you'll find ad after ad trying to get you to buy over-priced toothpaste, high-end cars, and a million other things.
In the film, Bale's character learns this lesson at a young age. When his father's glass business struggles, Bale drums up demand by throwing rocks at window storefronts. It's not the most ethical example, I suppose, but it's a good lesson: Sometimes customers don't need your business until you prove there's a need.
Repeat Customers Are the Best Customers
The movie takes place in the late 1970s, long before the Internet and uniquely evil tactic of signing up customers for credit cards without their knowledge came into being. Much in the way the latter service is hard to cancel, Rosenfeld understands recurring revenue can work like magic.
Before dealing in fake art and other illicit hustles, he owns and operates a small chain of dry cleaners, one of the best bricks-and-mortar recurring revenue models there is. The whole point is that it's usually easier (and cheaper) to retain a customer than find a new one.
For entrepreneurs whose clients aren't on a repeating business schedule, Calvin Harris Jr., a consultant and CPA in Columbia, Maryland, says simply making an effort to reach out to clients at unusual times can lead to more business.
"For the holiday season, we sent out Happy New Year cards," Harris says, adding that he waited to send them on January 6, when the holidays ended. "That little timing adjustment lead to a flurry of meetings and catch-up requests that have already filled our calendar for January."
It's a new year and I'm in a new city. Now this column needs a new name. Want to help me choose? Vote here!