Sales lessons out of the mouths of babes

‘Out of the mouths of babes’ is one of those expressions you hear adults utter occasionally. Often amazed at the remarkable or insightful things children say, I think we do children an injustice by thinking this is an infrequent or rare occurrence.

The many children I have met over the years are very perceptive, smart and able to see through weak arguments and call people on them, even if the children, themselves, have not acquired the worldly experiences we accumulate as adults.

You may recall that I wrote an article a couple of years ago titled, ‘Where is your inner 6-year old-when you need them?‘ In that article I pointed out that the very qualities we want in effective salespeople are those we often see in young children. The wonderful thing about most children is that they are persistent, focused, determined, creative, curious and uninhibited. They often stand their ground to get what they want – many of them are unyielding… at least for a while until society in some way, shape or form knocks these qualities out of many of them.

Sadly, too many times we inadvertently shut down these very qualities we want to encourage in later life. So it was with great pleasure and curiosity that Peter Finkelstein and I recently attended a business presentation pitch prepared by two young boys from The Melbourne Montessori School*.

A couple of months ago, one of the teachers informed us that as part of their end of year project Max (aged 11) and Spencer (aged 12) wanted to do a business pitch and were wanting honest feedback on their idea and a chance to present in front of experienced business professionals.

Peter Finkelstein, our head of sales strategy, and I jumped at the chance to see how well these young boys would stand up and deliver in this space. The result was amazing; far better than we hoped for and far better than many adults we have seen perform in similar conditions.

So what was it that made these boys special? Well, let’s set the scene with some background information. Firstly the boys were allowed and encouraged to do this assignment as a part of their school education. This was seen as normal (and so it should be).

The business of their business: Max and Spencer’s business specialises in creating new innovative products and ideas. They then look for viable business partners who can manufacture and distribute these products in various markets, showing them how they could grow new markets, make more sales and, yes, more money.

The purpose of their presentation: To present an exciting concept that could open new markets for Lego. (It was our job as the adults to be Lego executives in this instance.) Post the presentation we were able to ask questions and the boys would do their best to respond.

The boys had invested many hours in researching their markets, coming up with ideas and concepts, preparing a detailed presentation with the WIIFM (what’s in it for me, the customer), product designs, target market information, projected earnings, partnership and IP arrangements, etc. It was impressive.

After the hour long presentation and Q&A session, Peter and I were walking back to our office discussing what we had just participated in.

Peter says the analogy is simple. “As young minds, we are free spirits, less inhibited, and prepared to ask questions. As we grow into adulthood we become reluctant to ask, more conscious of our egos and more willing to guess at the answers.”

Peter went on to say, “Well, this week I learned another valuable lesson that all salespeople – myself included – can learn from. And you guessed it – it was from two elfin-like boys.”

“Asked to do a business presentation as part of a school project, these two boys researched the facts, had a clear view of what they wanted to say and knew what they wanted to get out of the presentation. And here’s the rub – they stuck to their guns.

“Quizzed after their presentation by five adults – two of whom were total strangers – these boys were prepared to answer the questions, courteously refute and counter argue with adults, without displaying any disrespect. But the big thing is that unlike many salespeople, when pushed, they didn’t back off and offer discounts or rebates, special deals or off the table discussions. They presented cogent arguments for why their proposition was valid and in the best interests of the customer.

“Here were two youngsters demonstrating that if you are confident in yourself and in your presentation, if you truly believe that you are offering value that the buyer wants, there is no reason to resort to needless discounting.

“There were many other lessons to be gained from the exercise, but for me watching the two boys perform, I couldn’t help but think of the many excuses I have heard from salespeople over the last 40 years about why they didn’t get the sale. What came to mind was the counter-arguments put forward in the many coaching sessions I have had, when I tried to point out that the salesperson backed off too early, or failed to fully grasp the value of his or her proposition. When challenged, these youngsters relied on facts to support their argument. They had researched their argument and had hard, irrefutable data to back up their claims.

“Now, if salespeople took the trouble to do the same thing, rather than relying on someone else to produce a brochure, sales would be that much better.”

I agree with everything Peter said.

But what I also love is that these children wanted and were allowed to do this project in the first place. I know there are other schools encouraging similar projects and it is a testament to a teacher’s ability to see the valuable lessons at every level of this project. Here are just a few examples the teacher gleaned as being educational and relevant to school and business:

  • Maths: working out percentages, averages, values, distribution, pricing, margins
  • Language and communication: written and verbal; getting your message across and making yourself understood; asking and responding to questions
  • Research: finding and gathering information; making sense of it and putting it into sensible charts that can make effective cases
  • Design and spatial awareness: creating specifications and plans, mapping country distributions
  • Interpersonal skills: presentation skills, questioning and listening, thinking on your feet, etc
  • IT: using PowerPoint, the internet, computers, etc, for all sorts of things
  • Confidence and resilience

I do not know if Max and Spencer truly understand the feat they achieved that day and in this project. They may think that they could have done better and, of course, we all can.

But Spencer and Max, Peter and I want you to know that you did an amazing job; you were outstanding and no doubt this experience will be a bedrock in your foundation of life if you want it to be. The courage, confidence, consideration and determination you displayed will take you far. We are indeed very proud to have attended your pitch presentation.

So as the school year comes to a close I think we can all take heart that some of our future leaders, business entrepreneurs and innovators are already planning their and our futures.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

*Some of you may be aware that my children are Montessori educated. A Montessori education is characterised by an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits and respect for a child’s natural psychological development, as well as technological advancements in society. It teaches children how to think, not just what to think and encourages an enquiring, curious mind that wants to explore why, how, and why not as much as what.

FYI; Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google fame are Montessori educated. I want to say thank you to Naomi, the Melbourne Montessori Cycle 3 teacher who encouraged Max and Spencer, and to our principal, Gay Wales, and the other parents who attended the presentation and treated it with the professionalism and respect it deserved. More power to you. And while they do say it takes a brave mother to raise a Montessori child, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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