From Sales, A Marketing Lesson

Sunrise on the Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, C...

Santa Barbara. A great place to figure out how little you really know about life. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my favorite marketing thought leaders doesn’t have a background in advertising, or PR or social media.

 Jill Konrath is a salesperson deluxe. You may know her as an author, blogger, strategist or as a featured guest on HubSpot’s blogs and webinars. I love her strategic approach to sales.

In this post, she writes about how she learned to ask questions. For her it was a social tool, as in how-to-date-boys social. (Cute post!) 

As marketers, we must constantly ask questions. Curiosity about your customer and your community drives you to understand who they are, how they think and feel, how you can bring them value and how you might develop meaningful relationships.

Jill reminded me of an incident that made me see sales in a new light.


It was July, 22 years ago.

My friend Jack from New York had been visiting me in San Francisco for an extended vacation. It was his first West Coast visit, and he was having a blast.

But suddenly, I had a new job, and an entire month before it began. We decided to take my convertible on a road trip – up and down the West Coast from Monterey to Big Sur to San Diego to Yosemite to the Northern California redwood coast to Portland. And back again. It lasted all month, and it was amazing.

Along the way we camped, stayed in cheap hotels, and crashed with friends and relatives. One such friend was Bill, a high school acquaintance from Virginia.


Turns out, the things I didn’t know about this guy could fill a book.

Which was too bad for me, because he was more interesting than I had ever imagined. But I had never thought to ask.

Friends told me that Bill had moved to California to sell airplanes and I should look him up. Jack and I spent a day in Santa Barbara and the night at Bill’s apartment across the street from the beach. Bill was friendly, easy to spend time with, and a great host.

The next morning, as we set out for L.A.,  Jack started to tell me things I didn’t know about Bill.

“I really like him,” Jack started.

“Me too!”

“No, I really liked him.”

“Huh?”

Jack proceeded to tell me about Bill’s life, including nuggets about his family, his girlfriend, a love affair that went wrong, the disappointment, the decision to put a continent between him and his heartbreak, and the ups and downs of aircraft sales.

“Huh?”

“We talked when you went to the store last night,” Jack said.

“But I was only gone 15, maybe 20 minutes!”

“I’m a salesman,” Jack said. “I ask people questions. I listen. I get to know them. It’s my job.”

I was stunned. All I could think about was how little I really knew about my friends, my family and my professional relationships… because I had never asked! I wondered how much of the story I was actually missing, and if I was really as self-centered as I suddenly felt. 

It was a life lesson and a business lesson, all rolled up in one, from my friend who until recently sold janitor supplies.

To this day, I get embarrassed and disappointed when I realize I’ve done more talking than listening in any conversation. It happens way too often, but I try to keep it in check. 


There’s so much you’ll never learn from people if you don’t let them talk.

Natural curiosity is a gift. But I believe you can develop your curiosity, as well as your questioning and listening skills. Put another way, you can train yourself to care more about other people’s experiences, feelings, opinions and well being. 

Maybe it’s a bit idealistic, but I think that’s what business ought to be about.  

What do you think?

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19 thoughts on “From Sales, A Marketing Lesson

  1. I think business and relationships should be other-centered. I try my best to be other-centered, but I have a way of becoming self-centered. I think it’s one of those things you have to check daily, if not hourly.

    I sold shoes several years ago. Asking questions was the name of the game. How was I to make recommendations if I didn’t know why the person was at the shoe store?

    Did reading your post aloud help?
    Erin Feldman recently posted..Money is Not a Vision

  2. I have a similar approach to the business card swap meet networking mixers – let others do the talking. I’ll mention that I’m a solo PR, communications consultant, then listen to what they do. Maybe ask a few questions or talk about other interests. I think it helps when I follow up with the obligatory ‘nice to meet you’ email, that I can add a more personal ‘fun talking football’ or ‘hope you made it home in time to watch a favorite show.’ Shows I was listening, paying attention and hopefully, makes me more memorable too. FWIW.
    Davina K. Brewer recently posted..Real Time, Words with Friends and the Death of Patience

  3. Davina, for me it seems like Erin’s suggestion to read your writing out loud. It’s something I have to remind myself to do. It’s always rewarding to learn what’s special about other people.

    My dad is actually very good at this. He has a real appreciation for what other people do. You can mention any relative or church member and Dad will say something like – “Did you know she ran that business for ten years?” He’s always looking for the best in people, I hope this has rubbed off on me.
    barrett recently posted..Taking Social Media By The Horns, Where You Live

  4. Hey Barrett

    I always try to listen as much as possible and ask as many questions as I can. Like Erin mentioned though it can be difficult not to start talking about yourself and becoming self-centred.

    Something I need to work a little more maybe.
    Tim Bonner recently posted..I Love Italian Ice Cream

  5. I think some of us are more predisposed to share our own stories. I know I love to do it. It is amazing what we can learn when we stop, shut up, and ask questions. Just today, no lie, my husband asked my uncle questions about his business and I had. No. Idea. None.

    So I get where you’re coming from when you realize later you did all the talking. I learned to stop judging people by their cover and learn to find out more. But always have an escape plan. 🙂

    • Thanks Lisa. I love that you had this conversation with your husband and uncle just today. And that you don’t judge people by their cover. (Is that like a book’s cover, or their cover story?)

  6. Hi Barrett,

    It is more than just asking questions. It is figuring how to make people comfortable enough to answer them.

    I have worked as a writer/reporter/marketer/salesman and learned that when I am most effective is when I establish a rapport that makes the person(s) I am with feel comfortable enough to just talk.

    But there is also an art to asking questions that draw out more information about the person you are speaking with.
    Josh recently posted..Plan To Fail Or Fail To Plan

    • That’s a great point Josh. (And it sounds like an idea for a great post. You should expand on that idea in a blog post.)

      I’m blown away by people who can put you at ease in any situation and make it easy for to peel through the small talk. The worst thing is when you start out with great intentions, and somehow alienate the person you’re talking with. That doesn’t happen to me a lot. But it has happened.

  7. Listening is a skill. Much like understanding the rules of comma use, I’ve worked for years to be a better listener. It is a challenge for me, because I’m a story teller. I love telling a tale.

    The problem is that I have such a wide and varied scope of things that are interesting to me, that EVERYTHING reminds me of a story. I’m usually just dying to tell it to you, too.

    So, sometimes I need to remind myself that other people have stories and they probably enjoy sharing them also.

    Of course, when some tells me a great story, I add it to the long list of things I want to share with the next person.

    I do enjoy mingling.
    Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg) recently posted..Bits of Time…Not Wasted

  8. Ho, ho! Now I get to spread some love over here.

    You know, the Spanish were good at asking questions. So were the Germans and they had “vays of making you tauk.”

    Nice lesson Barrett.

    What do we know about our colleagues and friends? Huh? Only what we ask. You know, we spend a lot of time talking about the weather and rarely broach personal subjects because of the sensitivity of privacy. When I have known someone well enough I usually feel comfortable asking about their life but not really out of the gate.

    It takes a unique talent to make that a comfortable conversation. That is something I could get a lot better at.

    So, how’s life Barrett?
    Ralph recently posted..Does Design Matter when you are buying a Toaster?

  9. “When I have known someone well enough I usually feel comfortable asking about their life but not really out of the gate.”– Ralph, that’s the beauty of what my friend Jack told me. He had/has a way of getting to the important stuff without stepping over the line.

    I agree it takes talent. Or maybe it’s a skill that can be worked on.

    Thanks for coming by!
    barrett recently posted..Why We Don’t Plagiarize

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    • Marc, thanks for finding this blog and for your great comment. To your point, I’ve been trying to be a better listener for years! It’s something I have to constantly work on. And this is with me being 100% aware of the need to improve. What if no one had ever told me which way is up?

      Thanks again and please come back often.
      barrett recently posted..A Marketing Lesson From Farmer Fred

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