Why Originality is Overrated

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This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business ownersThe article below was originally published at Inc.com.

If you’re in sales, you probably know this: Selling something new and different is a lot harder than selling something that’s familiar or something that’s just a little bit different and hopefully better. Most people are reluctant to try new things.

This is probably a lot less true for entrepreneurs, but the vast majority of your potential buyers aren’t going to be entrepreneurs or risk-takers. That means you’ve got to learn to speak their language and put your selling proposition into a framework that they understand, appreciate and are comfortable with.

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Let me give you a great example from my days of selling Xerox machines to law firms.

The first thing you learn in dealing with law firms is that the senior partner who ultimately signs the checks rarely has anything to do with deciding the merits of any purchases. Nine times out of ten, this is also the case with the owners of car dealerships. The minute something goes wrong, all these guys become screaming maniacs and want to fire the whole office. As a result, preserving the peace, and not irritating the boss, become consistent parts of the purchase requirements.

So where does that leave us? With the simple fact that the decision criteria are not at all what you’d expect them to be. The office managers, not the senior partners, are the real buyers. And in a survey of hundreds of professional office managers (including, but not exclusively, for law firms), the factors which consistently ranked highest had everything to do with keeping the machines up and operating successfully and almost nothing to do with costs. In order, they were:

1. Reliability

2. Copy quality

3. Service

4. Ease of use

5. Price

If you asked the office managers about their choices, they would initially offer you really nice clichés such as: “When our copiers are working, our people are working.” But the truth, which always came out sooner or later, was more like, “I want to keep my job,” or “I don’t want those jerks yelling at me.” Saving money for the firm never even entered into the equation.

(MORE: Cultivate Customer Connections and Grow Your Business)

The most successful copier salesmen didn’t pitch price, speed or performance. They focused on stability, security and the ever-golden “silence.” They aimed their presentations directly at the pain points of the purchaser. That won the day.

The same approach and strategy works in almost any sales situation. You just need to remember five basic propositions:

  1. Originality is overrated. Pioneers end up with arrows in their back, and not a whole lot more. Don’t invent. Innovate.
  2. Novelty is a nuisance. It means expensive training, a new learning curve, and lots of mistakes. Tried and true trumps all.
  3. No one likes to cross the chasm–especially when they are first. Short, sure steps forward, and a lot more of the same, really sell.
  4. Don’t tell me how different your product or service is. Tell me how easy and familiar and fail-safe it will be.
  5. Analogies are better than apple pie. Show me anything I’m doing now and then tell me not how different things will be, but how much the same they will remain.

In the movie business, they call this process “high concept.” You give me a snapshot that tells me all I need to know. Like using the latest slick and suave incarnation of Justin Timberlake to play the Frank Sinatra role in remakes of any classic Sinatra films. Says it all. I don’t have to love the idea to understand exactly what you’re telling me. Or having Tom Hanks play the Jimmy Stewart roles in anything except “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  You get the picture.

Now think about what you’re making and selling and figure out the same thing: What’s the shortest pitch to get you on the path to a successful sale?

Howard A. Tullman is president and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. He is also the general managing partner for Chicago High Tech Investors. Over the past 40 years, he has founded more than a dozen high-tech companies. @tullman
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