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What Marketers Can Learn From Panhandlers

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I was recently in San Francisco and -- like many who dare visit the city's tourist hubs -- was besieged by panhandlers, lured by the city's temperate climate and historical generosity toward the downtrodden. With many homeless people suffering from mental illness, chemical dependency or other woes, it's a challenging social problem. But as a marketer, walking back to my conference after receiving two distinctly different "asks" in quick succession, I realized that the sales secrets many panhandlers perfect on the streets -- often as a matter of necessity -- are also applicable to our work. (For the record, I think it's a much better idea to give to homelessness prevention groups rather than to individuals on the street.)

My first approach came when I was seated on a bench outside the Ferry Building, the legendary food market. A man walked up to me and spoke so quietly, I was forced to lean in. "Can I ask you something?" he whispered. Unsure what to say, I nodded.

"Can you give me some money? I really need some money."

I politely declined, but it wasn't what he wanted to hear. He turned on his heel, and started swearing. "Bleeping bleep!" he shouted. "Bleep you and bleep my bleep!" Standing up for tourists everywhere, I swore back at him and added, "That's not the way to make friends!" Of course he didn't care for my career advice. He was on to the next mark.

So why didn't he get my money?
  • The forced yes. Like many slimy salespeople, he tried to force compliance by "asking" me whether he could ask me something else. It's human nature -- you almost have to say yes, but no one wants to.
  • The fake intimacy. Speaking softly, forcing me to lean in to hear him -- it creates a sense of rapport that can be powerful when genuine, but is otherwise a nasty sales trick.
  • The lack of relationship building. Sure, getting money from tourists is a numbers game. But his shotgun approach -- with his quick approach and even quicker metamorphosis from solicitous to seething -- was a clue that money was his only concern.

My next experience, just a few blocks away, was entirely different. The next panhandler came up to me while I was fiddling with my cellphone. "Before you make your call," he said, "Would you like to hear a joke?" How could anyone turn this down? Even though I was busy, I was intrigued and wanted to hear what he had to say. He sat down on the next bench over and launched into about joke about a student and teacher, replete with set-up and punchline. He wasn't Jay Leno, but it was well-told and well-calibrated (not too racy or offensive).

What made his pitch so good?
  • Recognition of the buyer's situation. He knew I was busy, acknowledged the interruption ("before you make your call"), and implicitly promised to be brief.
  • Offering value. Did I really need to hear a joke? Maybe not, but it's something small that brightens your day. Whereas the other panhandler only spoke about his own concerns (i.e., give me money), this gentleman recognized the value of exchange.
  • Good relationship building. Our encounter didn't last more than 90 seconds. But by sitting down on the bench, he placed his energy and focus on our conversation. He was present, which is what you want in a sales encounter.

I gave him a buck. With his salesmanship and marketing savvy, he'd earned it.

What sales techniques do you find most -- or least -- effective?

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of the forthcoming What's Next?: The Art of Reinventing Your Personal Brand (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, the National Park Service, and Yale University. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.