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You can write good grant applications, but can you close a deal?

Robert AshtonI’m taking some time off work. We all need to do that from time to time. But rather than head for a foreign beach I’m holidaying at home this summer. We’ve moved our bed into a different room and have a builder working in the bedroom. This means we wake up somewhere different so it feels like a holiday. It also means we can afford to give our bedroom a long overdue re-fit.

An unforeseen consequence of this investment in home improvements has been a day out with my wife looking at new floor coverings. As you may know, it’s no longer as simple as carpet, lino or tiles. There’s a bewildering choice and countless pattern books stacked in cavernous retail warehouses.

And so to take my mind off the horror of this unexpected shopping experience, I’ve been focusing my attention on making an assessment of the selling skills of the salespeople we’ve encountered. I was fortunate enough to be taught to sell many years ago, when working for a large corporate. I’ve also written a book called ‘How to Sell’. This makes me a very picky buyer!

You see only one person I met in a succession of retail outlets made any real attempt to sell to me. Nowhere we visited was busy. Usually there were more sales people on the floor than potential customers. But few took an interest in our arrival and only two took the trouble to ask us any questions.

Things improved when we walked into the final shop on our list. A lady in her 60s greeted us and opened the conversation. She found out what we’d been thinking about and then said, ‘I think you’ll like this, come and have a look.’ She was right. It represented an acceptable compromise and after some internet research, we phoned to place an order. It really is that simple.

So what’s this got to do with social enterprise? Lots! You see of all the shops we visited, some were well known, and some small independents. The place we bought from was not in a prime location. Nor did not it have the benefit of a national brand. Instead they asked the right questions, understood what we wanted and suggested how they could meet our need. In short, this lady was the only person who actually sold to us.

The message for those running social enterprises is clear. If you want to grow your income from commercial activity, all you have to do is learn to sell. Your passion for positive social change, or enthusiasm for the work you do will carry you a long way. But what will really turn visitors into regular customers is the ability to sell. Your corporate rivals might have brand on their side, but don’t underestimate their ability to sell.

Ah, I hear you say, ‘but I run a furniture project and my customers can’t afford to go elsewhere?’ Well even if you have a captive customer base, please, please still sell to them. You see being sold to professionally is a pleasure. And if you’re torn between that scruffy sofa or the tatty table but can only afford one, you actually need help to choose. And remember that when people can’t decide which to buy, they walk out empty handed.

Go on, take some time out to brush up on your selling skills. Put some enterprise into your social venture!

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