When I was in high school, I took Latin for two years as my foreign language elective. “What a waste,” I thought, until a few weeks ago, when I took my family to Italy. The trip was actually a business trip to brainstorm with colleagues in Florence. Time away from my office to work on my business with extremely intelligent, successful lawyers is always beneficial. But I had no idea how much I would learn about business and sales just by walking the streets. Based on the questions my children asked, they too learned valuable lessons.
First, the canals in Venice were lined shop after shop with uniquely blown glass of jewelry, animals, tableware, and anything else imaginable. On each Florence corner, and between each corner, were gelato (ice cream) stores. The plazas in Rome were bordered by restaurants, shoulder to shoulder, each with virtually identical menus. Nothing stood out. How did any of them get business? Why were some packed while others were bare?
On our last night in Italy, we wanted a place to eat that was close and easy. We had already eaten 18 meals of pasta and had at least 12 gelato treats. We stopped at the first restaurant on the corner of the big plaza near our hotel to review its posted menu. An employee, specifically stationed in the street in front of the outdoor seating, walked over to us and immediately began to share that they have only the freshest ingredients and no microwave or freezer on the premises. He understood that his menu was like everyone else’s, but he focused on how their food was better. He then got personal and asked my son, “What would you want to eat if you were here? … We can do that.” Naturally my son was sold. After sitting down, I began listening and watching our salesman and noticed the following:
- He started with something small – “Would you like to sit and have a special drink” – without presuming a person was hungry for a full meal.
- He walked toward the table and said, “Table for four right here for you,” confidently, as if the sale had already been made.
- When asked by another prospective customer, “What is the best place after yours?” he replied, “You are already here, why would you want to keep walking only to find the second-best place?”
- They filled the tables closest to the walkway first, then behind, to provide social proof of those walking by that the restaurant was desirable.
Since gelato is an impulse buy or a “treat,” the menu was not as important. But since there was a gelato stand on just about every corner, I looked for what made one more attractive than another. For starters, the shops where you could see the gelato from the street through windows were eye-catchers, versus having to go into the shop. Second, a clearly visible sign that said gelato and pictures of gelato were helpful. Shops that only sold gelato and not other items (sandwiches, water, souvenirs) attracted more business. Thus, the takeaway points were:
- Be visible and use visuals;
- Specialize and don’t confuse the market by selling too many products.
Not all sales strategies I observed were effective. In fact, some were quite offensive. First, after we climbed next to the Spanish steps (the actual steps were under construction), a rose peddler approached and I said, “No, thank you,” then, “No, grazie.” He persisted and said, “It is a gift for you to give to Saint Mary (in the church at the top of the steps).” He handed me three roses as a “gift.” I turned away and he then pulled my arm and held out his hand for money. I reluctantly put in two Euros and he asked for more based on the value of three roses. Jennifer was not as considerate as I was: She took two roses from my hand, thrust them back at the guy and said, “Take your roses and leave us alone.” There was no way I was getting the third rose out of my daughter’s hands.
Similarly, while walking through a plaza toward a merry-go-round, a balloon artist handed my daughter a balloon and said, “This is for you.” Naturally, Katherine took it, said, “Thank you,” smiled real big, and began skipping. The balloonist looked to Jennifer for the money (who had none). Jennifer had to take the balloon out of Katherine’s hands, to a crumbling face, and ask her, “Do you want the balloon or the merry-go-round?” A good lesson for Katherine about choices and priority, but an ill-attempted sales strategy by the balloonist.
Two other lessons we picked up based on questions or observations from my son. First, in all three cities we visited, we saw panhandlers, many of whom presented as homeless. Then, on the plazas we enjoyed individuals showing off their talents (juggling, singing, magic, etc.) to earn money thrown into a pan or hat. Christopher asked, “Do only homeless people do tricks for money?” I replied, “No, honey, only the hungry.” That is a generalization, of course. The meaning behind my response was, “Those willing to put themselves out there to earn a living for their needs will do what it takes to earn money.” Satisfied with that response, when we stumbled upon the Roma Gay Pride celebration near the Colosseum, both children were dancing and really enjoying themselves. Christopher said without any hesitation, “Mommy, can I have a can so people can put money into it for our dancing?” I laughed and told him no, but the real lesson was that he was willing to unabashedly “entertain” and make money while I, on the other hand, was too embarrassed to let him. How many people engage in marketing strategies that work very well, but that you refuse to do based on your own limiting beliefs or pride?
The second lesson my son pointed out was at the Trevi Fountain. The legend is that if you throw a coin in the fountain, then you will return to Rome. My son aptly pointed out, “That is just a trick to get you to give them money.” True. Nonetheless, how many people throw the coin? It’s not about throwing the coin or not, it’s about the experience of throwing the coin. How can you be a fountain to your clients, where they are willing to throw coins just for the ongoing relationship or experience (e.g. maintenance plan)?
When you are out of your office, pay attention to the sales strategies of other businesses. If you were in Rome, would you do as the Romans do? Can you incorporate any of the lessons in your own office?
Victoria L. Collier, Co-Founder, Lawyers with Purpose, LLC, www.LawyersWithPurpose.com; Certified Elder Law Attorney through the National Elder Law Foundation; Fellow of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys; Founder and Managing Attorney of The Elder & Disability Law Firm of Victoria L. Collier, PC, www.ElderLawGeorgia.com; Co-Founder of Veterans Advocates Group of America; Entrepreneur; Author; and nationally renowned Presenter.