I was a freshman in college when I learned one of the most valuable lessons in business, and it came from an unlikely source. It was the summer of 1983 and I was earning five bucks an hour on the retail floor at the SuperRunner’s Shop, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The legendary running store is owned by Gary Muhrcke, winner of the first New York City Marathon and a patriarch of the New York running community.
Gary is a slight guy with a gigantic personality surrounding a warm heart. Now, even at age 69, he still has the bounce in his step of a great athlete, a twinkle in his eye, and a Long Island accent thick as a corned beef sandwich. But don’t let any of that fool you. He’s a tough-as-nails former firefighter and a retail marketing genius.
1983 was the heyday of the running boom, and technology in athletic shoes was advancing rapidly. I was running 70 miles a week and fascinated by the combination of technology and biomechanics that were the tools of my trade as a collegiate competitive distance runner: polyurethane-encased pockets of air that helped Nike grow from famous to iconic; Brooks’ biomechanically correct, metatarsal-saving “kinetic wedge”; adidas’ impact-dispersing “Dellinger Web”. I knew my stuff and I had a closet full of running shoes, with thousands of miles on them, to prove it. But I didn’t know much about business.
The SuperRunner’s Shop catered mostly to serious runners, but Gary was happy to sell a pair of shoes to anyone. And he was no dummy—he wanted them to keep coming back—so he hired only serious runners and trained us well. He placed a premium on incredible service, detailed product knowledge and a “no questions asked” return policy. And it was never, “How can I help you?” which he felt sounded like pressure; it was “How was your run?” or simply, “Hi, howya doin’?” Good things would come from a more natural conversation between salesman and customer.
I was a natural. I was young and hungry, I was passionate about the technology, and my own laboratory – attached to my ankles—tested our products for ten miles every morning. I couldn’t wait to come into the store and talk about running shoes. Yes, I was a talker. But did I know when to stop?
Gary was my first boss and I wanted to impress him. One day I was about to sell a pair of New Balance 990’s to a portly middle-aged man wearing a blazer who’d just set foot into the shop for the first time. He wanted a pair of comfortable shoes to stroll the neighborhood because his podiatrist told him to walk more. Whether he needed the most expensive pair of shoes in the store to dodge taxis and tip-toe around doggie doo was beside the point—he was a customer with an unmet need, and I was about to fill it with a $99 pair of shoes in a shiny blue bag. Now, that’s business, I thought.
I smugly escorted him to the cash register and matter-of-factly declared, “These 990’s are great. The compression-molded EVA is much better than the old flow-molded midsole. You’ll definitely feel it in the flex-rebound when you roll off your forefoot.”
Somewhat bewildered, my prized customer stopped and scratched his head. “Compression what? Midsole… flex? What’s that? Do I want that? I should probably check with my podiatrist before I buy these—they might not be right for me.” He muttered something, left his shoes on the counter and walked out the door, taking my $5 commission with him.
After a few seconds of dead air, Gary piped up from the other side of the store, “Hey mis-tuh Ivy League, thanks a lot – you just cost me $60 bucks in profit,” and threw a pretzel nugget at my head.
I was still a little stunned when Gary came over, put an arm around my shoulder and said, “Let me give you some advice. The minute that guy says ‘I’ll take ‘em’, only one sentence should come out of your mouth: “Do you need socks with that?” Change the subject. Don’t undo what you just did. Don’t un-sell the sale. Got it?” I got it loud and clear, and I still haven’t forgotten.
As business people, especially as marketers, we’re constantly convincing, advocating and yes, selling—and not just to make the sale, but to do what we’re being paid to do. And it’s hard work. So don’t throw it all away by taking it too far. By keeping your focus on the client, and on their unmet need, you’re not only doing your job, but you can be more effective, more efficient, and more focused on the finding the next solution, the next answer and the next great idea. Be smart. Take yes for an answer, and move on.
Gary taught me that it was fine to be a running shoe junkie, but not to let that get it the way of the business of selling running shoes. If you’re trying to sell something, showing off your knowledge, even if it is superior, can be counterproductive. Listen to what the customer wants, help the fill their unmet need. And if all they want is a pair of shoes, don’t try to sell them the linear programming model that designed their midsole unless they ask. Just sell them the shoes. And maybe some socks. And the best way to keep them coming back for more might just be by shutting up.