Bob Moesta is a dear friend, mentor, and all around original thinker. He’s helped me see around corners, shine lights on things I didn’t know were there, and approach product development from unusual angles. Every time we talk, I come away inspired and full of optimism.
So when he asked me to help him with something, I jumped at the chance. In this case, it was writing a foreword for his new book Demand-Side Sales 101: Stop Selling and Help Your Customers Make Progress. Bob and I have talked sales for years, and I’m so pleased his ideas are finally collected in one place, in a form anyone can absorb. I highly recommend buying the book, reading the book, absorbing the book, and putting some new ideas in your head.
To get you started, here’s my foreword in its full form:
I learned sales at fifteen.
I was working at a small shoe store in Deerfield, Illinois, where I grew up. I loved sneakers. I was a sneakerhead before that phrase was coined.
I literally studied shoes. The designs, the designers, the brands, the technologies, the subtle improvements in this year’s model over last year’s.
I knew it all, but there was one thing I didn’t know: nothing I knew mattered. Sure it mattered to me, but my job was to sell shoes. I wasn’t selling shoes to sneakerfreaks like me, I was selling shoes to everyday customers. Shoes weren’t the center of their universe.
And I wasn’t alone. The companies that made the shoes didn’t have a clue how to sell shoes either.
Companies would send in reps to teach the salespeople all about the new models. They’d rattle off technical advancements. They’d talk about new breakthroughs in ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) which made the shoes more comfortable.
They’d talk about flex grooves and heel counters and Texon boards. Insoles, outsoles, midsoles.
And I’d be pumped. Now I knew everything I needed to know to sell the hell out of these things.
But when customers came in, and I demonstrated my mastery of the subject, they’d leave without buying anything. I could show off, but I couldn’t sell.
It wasn’t until my manager encouraged me to shut up, watch, and listen. Give people space, observe what they’re interested in, keep an eye on their behavior, and be genuinely curious about what they wanted for themselves, not what I wanted for them. Essentially, stop selling and start listening.
I noticed that when people browsed shoes on a wall, they’d pick a few up and bounce them around in their hand to get a sense of the heft and feel. Shoes go on your feet, but people picked the shoe with their hands. If it didn’t feel good in the hand, it never made it to their foot.
I noticed that if someone liked a shoe, they put it on the ground next to their foot. They didn’t want to try it on yet, they simply wanted to see what it looked like from above. Companies spend all this time making the side of the shoe look great, but from the wearer’s perspective, it’s the top of the shoe against their pants (or socks or legs) that seem to have an outsized influence on the buying decision.
I noticed that when people finally got around to trying on a shoe, they’d lightly jump up and down on it, or move side-to- side, simulating some sort of pseudo physical activity. They were trying to see if the shoe “felt right.” They didn’t care what the cushioning technology was, only that it was comfortable. It wasn’t about if it “fit right,” it was about if it “rubbed wrong” or “hurt” or felt “too hard.”
And hardly anyone picked a shoe for what it was intended for. Runners picked running shoes, sure, but lots of people picked running shoes to wear all day. They have the most cushion, they’re generally the most comfortable. And lots of people picked shoes purely based on color. “I like green” was enough to turn someone away from a blue shoe that fit them better.
Turns out, people had different reasons for picking shoes. Different reasons than my reasons, and far different reasons than the brand’s reasons. Hardly anyone cared about this foam vs. that foam, or this kind of rubber vs. that kind. They didn’t care about the precise weight, or that this brand shaved 0.5oz off the model this year compared to last. They didn’t care what the color was called, only that they liked it (or didn’t). The technical qualities weren’t important — in fact, they were irrelevant.
I was selling all wrong.
And that’s really what this book is about. The revelation that sales isn’t about selling what you want to sell, or even what you, as a salesperson, would want to buy. Selling isn’t about you. Great sales requires a complete devotion to being curious about other people. Their reasons, not your reasons. And it’s surely not about your commission, it’s about their progress.
Fast forward twenty-five years.
Today I don’t sell shoes, I sell software. Or do I?
It’s true that I run a software company that makes project management software called Basecamp. And so, you’d think we sell software. I sure did! But once you meet Bob Moesta and Greg Engle, you realize you probably don’t sell what you think you sell. And your customers probably don’t think of you the way you think of yourself. And you almost certainly don’t know who your competition really is.
Over the years, Bob’s become a mentor to me. He’s taught us to see with new eyes and hear with new ears. To go deeper. To not just take surface answers as truth. But to dig for the how and the why—the causation. To understand what really moves someone to want to make a move. To understand the events that drive the purchase process, and to listen intently to the language customers use when they describe their struggles. To detect their energy and feel its influence on their decisions.
Everyone’s struggling with something, and that’s where the opportunity lies to help people make progress. Sure, people have projects, and software can help people manage those projects, but people don’t have a “project management problem.” That’s too broad. Bob taught us to dig until we hit a seam of true understanding. Project management is a label, it’s not a struggle.
People struggle to know where a project stands. People struggle to maintain accountability across teams. People struggle to know who’s working on what, and when those things will be done. People struggle with presenting a professional appearance with clients. People struggle to keep everything organized in one place so people know where things are. People struggle to communicate clearly so they don’t have to repeat themselves. People struggle to cover their ass and document decisions, so they aren’t held liable if a client says something wasn’t delivered as promised. That’s the deep down stuff, the real struggles.
Bob taught us how to think differently about how we talk, market, and listen. And Basecamp is significantly better off for it. We’ve not only changed how we present Basecamp, but we’ve changed how we build Basecamp. We approach design and development differently now that we know how to dig. It’s amazing how things can change once you see the world through a new lens.
Sales is everything. It’s survival. From selling a product, to selling a potential hire on the opportunity to join your company, to selling an idea internally, to selling your partner on this restaurant vs. that one, sales touches everything. If you want to be good at everything else, you better get good at this. Bob and Greg will show you how.