"I look for passion for the product—and I don’t think that’s something that you can fake," says Selena Cuffe who, with her husband Khary, runs Heritage Link Brands. The Los Angeles, California business imports wine made by locally-owned vineyards in Africa. "As a salesperson, you are up against a lot of no's, a lot of reasons people can’t take the product, and you have to convince them. You can’t do that in a slimy way. You can’t fulfill that need if it’s just about the money or meeting the numbers. Passion is what creates the ability to meet your customers’ needs on the scene and get the sale."
"The people who are the most successful are the ones who listen most closely to the customer," says Enterprise Rent-A-Car CEO Andy Taylor. "We follow the two ears, one mouth rule here." For example, when the St. Louis, Missouri-based company considered implementing a carbon-offsets program in the US and Canada, Taylor and his sales staff had one major concern: would the customers like it? Concerned that renters would think the program was simply money in the company’s pockets, Enterprise will put its money where its mouth is by matching up to $1 million in donations.
Tan Le is no stranger to questioning what’s possible. When she was four, her family fled Vietnam with nothing; by 26, she was a leading Australian entrepreneur. But with Emotiv, her latest venture, she hopes to make science fiction into reality. The company hopes to develop a mind-reading device—something most people don’t believe really exists and aren’t too sure they want even if it does—into the next Nintendo Wii. For this sort of innovative product, the best salesperson is "one who understands the customer," Le says. "The reality for us is our customer profile will change as our product changes. The salesperson would need to understand the new and innovative nature of the product. It’s not a utility at this point, it’s an experience. It’s about fulfilling this fantasy of magic, controlling the universe with your mind. The initial market is a hard-core early adopter—but as the product changes, they will need to be able to adapt."
Rick Alden built Skullcandy, which sells hip headphones popular with action sports stars, on his core customers' devotion to a brand and the lifestyle it represents. His salespeople don’t have to be snowboarders, but he does expect them to embody the company's cultural DNA. The job demands equal enthusiasm for the product and for meeting clients' needs. "A good salesperson is passionate about the brand of Skullcandy and the uniqueness of the product," he says, "and then someone with perfect execution, who does what they say they will do and delivers what they say they will deliver. No buyer should ever be left hoping their salesperson will come through."
Jake Nickell, founder, and Jeffrey Kalmikoff, chief creative officer, are the corporate directors of Threadless, but it would be fair to say the customers are running the show. This T-shirt company is at the forefront of user innovation--a fancy term that means the site’s visitors submit shirt designs, community members vote on them, and Threadless produces and sells the winning entries. Who, in their view, is the ideal salesperson for their kind of company? "Somebody’s best friend," says Nickell. He's not kidding. "In a community-based business, people learn about you from their friends, not from a salesperson or an advertisement," Kalmikoff says.
Fred Franzia doesn’t believe in complicating either wine or business. Forget romance: the founder of the Bronco Wine Company and the creator of "Two Buck Chuck" hopes to offer his customers decent wine at a bargain price. "Number one is, can they get the order and collect the money? Number two is product knowledge and the ability to talk about it in terms that translate to normal people. People have a tendency to create too much mystery around wine."