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What Selling Knives Taught Me About SEO

Posted by Melanie Phung on Monday, July 21, 2008 at 12:26 pm

Long ago, when I was a freshman in college, I took a sales job for a company called Vector Marketing — a business you may know of second hand even if you’ve never heard their name. If you’ve ever heard jokes about college kids selling Cutco knives door-to-door you’ve heard of Vector.

(Just to be clear, we didn’t actually go door-to-door, that would just be crazy! It was a referral business.)

It was possibly the worst job I’ve ever had — it was hard, it was stressful, I worked 7 days a week… I had to go into the homes of people I didn’t know (and I was painfully shy) to SELL KNIVES … and if I didn’t succeed, I didn’t get paid.

But it was also one of the most valuable work experiences of my life. In addition to some terrific anecdotes, that short-term gig taught me some great skills and life lessons. Even better, I can apply these lessons to search engine optimization.

1. It Doesn’t Count If It Doesn’t Stick

You can sell several thousand dollars worth of product on a sales call, but if the client cancels their entire order after you leave, you get bupkis, nada, nothing.

If you pull all sorts of shenanigans and get yourself ranked #1 in Google, good on you, but it’s not worth anything if you get booted out of the index faster you can say “How do I file a reinclusion request?”

If I were to write this list in reverse order of importance, in the style of a count down, I’d save this one for last. But frankly, I can’t count on everyone making it all the way to the end of this post, so I’ll put it first: If the sale (ranking) don’t stick, it don’t count.

Luckily, with Google, you can beg for a second chance. You can undo everything you did wrong and beg for reinclusion, but that’s a tremendous waste of time and energy. In the door-to-door knife business, it was much harder to save a sale that’s falling through. I learned that closing the sale right was more important than closing the sale fast, but either way you had to close the sale and keep it closed.

2. You Can Have All the Talent in the World, But You Still Gotta Pick up the Phone

You could be a great salesperson, capable of selling ice to an Eskimo, but if you didn’t go on sales calls, you weren’t going to sell anything. Unlike the minimum wage retail job alternatives I could have taken, this was not a job where you got paid just for showing up. It being a pure commission gig, no one cared if you showed up at all, in fact. Being able to set your own hours, work when you wanted to or not work at all sounds great to most people, but it required a lot of discipline I didn’t necessarily have at that point in my life.

Unless you’re paid to blog or do nothing but speak at conferences, all the SEO knowledge in the world won’t actually improve your rankings and it won’t pay the bills.

Even if they’re not working on a pure pay-for-performance basis, most hardcore SEOs are going to want to be able to show real, significant results – not just talk about what it takes to get them. And a good SEO knows that in most cases real results require rolling up your sleeves and doing the work, not just knowing your stuff.

3. You Never Know Who Your Allies Will Be

Sometimes I’d show up at a customer’s house, take one look around and think “there’s no way this person can afford what I’m here to sell.” I might have brushed them off, done a half-assed pitch, rushed it, and not treated them like a valued customer — it’s trite, but trust me, the customer can always tell. In that case, the no-longer-prospective customer was just as happy to have me out of their house as I was eager to move on to my next appointment.

Other times I might have dedicated myself to building a rapport, listening to their needs and doing my best to get that sale. However, even if I wasn’t able to close the sale, these prospects became my allies. They liked me, they believed in what I was selling even if they didn’t buy it. The difference is that I’d leave these people’s houses with a long list of referrals. In most cases a list of referrals was of more value than any single sale anyway.

Don’t overlook folks you think aren’t influential enough — they might very well be the ones to recommend you to friends who will end up being your very best source of revenue/inbound links/conference speaker opps/customer referrals/etc.

4. Every Customer Is Different

Just like no single set of kitchen tools is right for every cook (you ever talk to serious cooks about their knives? They ain’t foolin’ around), there is no one size fits all solution to SEO.

As a Cutco salesman, if you simply memorized your sales spiel and recited it verbatim to every new customer, maybe you could sell something, but you could never communicate the full value of the big ticket items. When I was on a call, I never gave the same presentation twice.

When I’m optimizing a site, it would be crazy to follow the same plan I used for another site. There is no single site architecture, no copy style, no page title formula and certainly no link-building strategy that you simply reuse from client to client. It just won’t work.

5. Be Your Own Customer

The most effective salespeople were able to draw on their own experience with the product. Vector required you to own the products you showcased; all the best sales people actually used them too.

It’s possible, but awfully hard, to recommend strategies, speak intelligently about time lines or probabilities of effectiveness, or answer client questions about specific techniques if you’re not constantly perfecting and finetuning them. While it certainly makes sense to be doing that on current projects with other clients, the best SEOs perfect and finetune their ranking tactics on their own side projects (the ones they’re fired up about and perfect on their own time).

6. You Have to Have Executive Buy-In

As much as I liked thinking that stay-at-home moms had completely autonomy over their household budgets, it happened more than once that I totally sold the mistress of the house on the value of my product, only to have a message waiting for me when I got back to the office that the husband came home and blew his top when he saw the bill.

It’s not enough to get buy-in from your contact. You need to arm her with the right information so she can be just as persuasive relaying the value of what she bought when the (other) executive starts asking questions. If she can’t get him to buy in to the value you’re offering, you’re facing an almost impossible battle.

Whether you’re an in-house SEO or an outside consultant, you need buy-in from the right people, not just your direct contact, or your projects aren’t going to get resourced or prioritized to the level required to move the needle.

7. Sell People on What They Need, Not What They Think They Want

One of the best ways to find a new customer was to have them find you. I loved having friends of previous customers call me up to tell me they heard great things about the product and that they wanted to buy a knife. The easy thing would be to write up the order right there over the phone, but I always took the extra step to come to their house and do the full demo. I’d ask them what it is they liked about their friend’s set and why they wanted the particular piece they mentioned, and wouldn’t you know it, I’d always be able to upsell at least one or two more pieces (and sometimes their final order didn’t even include the piece they originally called about). Why? Because every customer is different (see #4).

The friend would tell my new customer the ways that she used her knives, not the way that her friend would likely use them. After being educated on how “a tool for ever job; a job for every tool” applied to her kitchen, the referred customer got what she actually needed, not what she thought she wanted — which always led to a more satisfied customer (and more often than not, a bigger sale). Even better, I could be assured that they didn’t injure themselves using their knives incorrectly.

A lot of potential customers think they know what SEO is. They’ve heard it has something to do with link building, or meta data, or cloaking, or whatever, and they go to an SEO firm to execute on their idea. More often than not, there are better ways to accomplish their specific goals, but you’ve got to figure out what the clients need, not just what they’re asking you to do. If you execute SEO tactics based on the latter rather than the former, you might actually be doing them a disservice.

8. Don’t Apologize for Your Price: Focus on Value

If you’re top notch, don’t compete on price. My prospective customers knew I wasn’t peddling $5 Ginsu knives because I knew it; I never apologized for the price, because I was selling the value.

There were always a handful of customers who didn’t get it, didn’t want to get it, weren’t ever going to get it, and it was best not to waste your time on them. Even a relatively short sales presentation came at an opportunity cost — if I cut down my 90-minute presentation in half, that gave me time to make phone calls and set up a few more appointments with clients who might actually generate commission.

If you’re selling SEO services and it’s clear that your clients don’t value your services, they’re going to end up being a pain to work with in the long run, and you need to decide if you want to sink time and effort into a project that you’re not being adequately compensated for. A client who doesn’t value you at $150 an hour, isn’t going to value you any more if you drop your fee down to $85 an hour. Know what your services are worth, and don’t apologize for it.

9. Some People Are Crazy – Don’t Let Them Near the Knives

In the real world, like the Internet, you’ll come across some people who are a little off. Trust your instinct, and don’t hand them anything that may end up causing you harm just because you’re desperate to make a sale (or gain a StumbleUpon friend, or get some Digg votes, or get entree into the cool kids club on Sphinn).

Used correctly, a knife could be a wonderful tool. In the wrong hands…


photo by darkpatator

Whether your “knife” in this metaphor is a particular SEO secret, an industry relationship, your client list, personal info or whatever… be careful not to hand it to people who are going to go totally psycho on you.

10. A Good Investment Lasts a Lifetime…and Other Conclusions

I was pretty good at my knife selling gig, but it involved blood (literally), sweat (my car didn’t have A/C) and tears (yes, sometimes it was that bad). Although the metaphorical blood, sweat and tears are never completely out of the picture, the SEO industry has been better to me and I’ve lasted a lot longer as an SEO (and made a lot more money) than I did as a knife salesman. The experience as a Vector direct salesperson, however, was invaluable.

For what it’s worth, I still own my Cutco knives and they’re great. I’ve taken advantage of the almost-sounds-too-good-to-be-true guarantee to have my well-used and even damaged pieces repaired or replaced completely free. It was an investment that paid for itself many times over.

The initial investment in the Cutco demo kit was a barrier to entry that kept a lot of half-hearted sales wanna-be’s out of the Vector marketing program. The world of self-proclaimed SEO “gurus” seems to have no such barrier to entry — any wanna-be SEO can start a blog and claim to know their stuff. In the end, however, the ones who’ve got what it takes will keep getting clients and those who don’t have the skills, talent and/or drive will fall by the way side.

Comments (9)

Category: search marketing

9 Comments

Comment by Olli

Made Wednesday, 23 of July , 2008 at 5:54 am

I really like the picture from darnkpatator. And thank you for sharing your experience.

Comment by David Temple

Made Monday, 28 of July , 2008 at 2:13 am

Nice analogy or whatever it’s called. I’ve been there done that, not with knives but the same sorta deal. You learn a lot. Definitely need that executive buy in, that killed more than one deal for me.

I like how you pointed out that you never know who your allies will be, sometimes in door to door it was the dog. Re: seo, it’s important to identifing and make that person(s) look smart. You need all the allies you can get.

Comment by Jenna

Made Monday, 28 of July , 2008 at 4:19 pm

Interesting post! I’ve actually had a few friends take Vector jobs — so it was funny you mentioned that.

Comment by SEO Toronto

Made Monday, 8 of September , 2008 at 5:58 pm

Was is your choice to get into that knives business or you didn’t have any other alternatives?

“The initial investment in the Cutco demo kit was a barrier to entry that kept a lot of half-hearted sales wanna-beā€™s out of the Vector marketing program.”
So you probably knew what you were getting into and you embraced the challenge, or not?

Same with SEO, I may say. One either doesn’t have other options so to speak, or they perfectly know what world they are getting into, and there they go heads first.

Comment by MD

Made Wednesday, 17 of September , 2008 at 12:35 am

@SEO Toronto. What Melanie doesn’t really touch on in her post is the level of deception that went into the hiring process at Vector Marketing.

Vector Marketing preys on College student with ambiguous “make $18.50 an hour guaranteed!” flyers that they canvass over parking lots. When I interviewed my freshmen year of college, I had no idea what the job was and neither did anyone else who was sitting in the interview waiting room. In my case, I was told I’d be reimbursed for the “sale kit” – and like almost all of my co-workers (all college students) I borrowed that money from my parents. By the end of the interview I was convinced I would be making $60,000 a year as a college freshmen.

@Melanie
My personal experience with Cutco was much like yours – it was a trying temporary gig, but it taught me some great and hard lessons (point #3 especially.) At a time in my life where I thought I knew more than I actually did, it was a humbling experience. In retrospect it allowed me to assert myself later to achieve professional goals.

I’ll leave with an amusing albeit not directly related story:
I was at a particularly trying and tough sale presentation. The wife was interested and the husband very much suspecting. Feeling my captive audience slipping I said “Look how great these knives are! You can even cut through a bagel without sawing!” I jubilantly picked up a bagel on the table and in one clean motion sliced through the bagel into the palm of my hand. It took me a moment to realize what I had done. I clenched my profusely bleeding palm and ran into the bathroom as the woman was screaming. The husband was yelling “He did that on purpose!”. I bled on and presumably ruined some beautiful flower bathroom towels that the husband insisted were “family heirlooms.”

I required six stitches, and somehow, I managed to sell one of those uber-$1500 sets.

Comment by Melanie Phung - Washington DC SEO

Made Wednesday, 17 of September , 2008 at 9:50 am

MD – that’s a great story — I bet those battle scars earned you some kudos at the next weekly sales meeting :) At least (?) the blood was your own though. In one of my worst experiences, I cut the customer and he nearly fainted. (Dude, if the sight of blood makes you queasy, don’t grab the sharp end of the knife when I’m holding it! In fact, don’t do that ever.)

p.s. $18.50 per appointment? Geesh, I think we were only offered $8 or $9 when I went in.

Comment by MD

Made Wednesday, 17 of September , 2008 at 2:14 pm

@Melanie

Many joked I had uncovered a new easy way to “seal the deal” in those stressful sale situations. Problem was you could only do it so many times before loosing a finger!

It was much less than $18.50 when I was doing it too. I recently saw some fliers that were unmistakably Cucto in a shopping center though, the price is getting up there.

Comment by Karlson

Made Wednesday, 1 of October , 2008 at 4:59 am

Thanks for such a great post.
It is almost unbelievable that such a business, like the one you had with knifes, can give so much experience that you can use later on different topics and areas.
SEO is very complex market, and different approaches are needed in order to comply with business needs. This post really hits the point of this.

Comment by Tracy S

Made Friday, 16 of January , 2009 at 8:36 pm

Great article! Well for me, I guess I did not think a job at Vector Marketing was so bad because I am not shy and am great at sales positions. I do not think that a job at Vector is for everyone, but I agree that you will and can learn a lot from this company.

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