When Life Is Television

The TV series Mad Men is about people in the advertising business in the 1960’s, and the main character Don Draper drinks a lot and makes bad personal decisions. The show often uses real ad campaigns from the period and fictionalizes the pitches made to buyers. That alone is enough for me to watch. But what really intrigues me is Don Draper’s Four Rules of Selling. In the story, they work – as you would expect. Well, most of the time. Do they apply to real life? I wonder.

Don Draper’s Four Rules of Selling

  1. Only Sell to Believers
  2. Want It All
  3. Never Be Needy
  4. Nothing Is Free

Business pundits have written much about these rules and clearly there is some material to work with here. In fact, I have been thinking about writing a post about the rules myself for almost a year, hoping the urge would pass and that I would not expose myself as another derivative me-too thinker.

But it kept calling me back…

Why? I don’t think we should dismiss these rules simply because they came from a TV show. After all, the writers spent years developing the characters and plotlines – I expect they know a lot about advertising and sales. But I have one problem with the rules: The order is backwards. Here is what I believe is the correct order and why:

1. Nothing is Free

In a negotiation, everything has value. Whatever you promise or agree to has a cost. Anything the client asks for has value to them. When you can connect needs, wants, and money – you are meeting the minimum criteria for a salesperson. However, the buyer is doing the same thing. Their needs, their wants, their money. Both sides want something important. It’s the entire point of the engagement. It’s why you are talking. Losing sight of that leads to failure. That is why this rule has to come first.

Establish the concept of Value in the first conversation.

To be better sellers (or for that matter, a better buyer), you must be able to quantify value. Knowing your costs is a good start, however you also need to know what the deal is worth to you. Nothing is Free. Let me share an example. I recently helped a client navigate a Dutch Auction. Here’s how it works: The buyer posts an RFP and accepts proposals from suppliers. Some of those sellers are approved to participate in the auction. The buyer sets a starting price that is clearly below market based on the submitted proposals. At the appointed time, the buyers submit their best price and the auction begins. The auction price increases until it meets one of the seller’s submitted bids. Then the auction ends. The sellers have to be aware of their costs in order to be confident in what price they are willing to accept. The buyer leaves no money on the table – unless they set their opening bid too high and someone takes it.

I suspect that Don Draper would not have participated in this deal, but my client did and won the work. They won because they knew what business was in their pipeline, saw they had an opening for this project, and understood their costs well enough to know they could make money at the price they bid. Did they leave money on the table? Maybe. But if the next bidder was only $1 more than my client, they didn’t. We will never know.

What’s missing from my example is the other three rules. The lesson here is that winning isn’t always victory. Sometimes it’s just cash flow.

2. Never Be Needy

I have a corollary to this: Never negotiate from a position of weakness. Is filling a gap in your schedule with profitable business needy? It doesn’t have to be. If, like my client in the Dutch auction, you know your needs and costs, and additionally want the business – then everyone wins. On the other hand, I see needy salespeople all the time. They are usually motivated by desperate bosses that focus on top line revenue, but in any case – being needy compromises your selling position. It takes away from your message that your products and services are valuable and meet the customer’s needs (rule #1). Most of all, being needy compromises your position that the customer should want to do business with you over their alternatives.

Weakness attracts predators. Confidence protects your negotiating position.

I wish it was not true, but I see weak, needy suppliers being eaten by capricious buyers all too frequently. I have done it myself to manufacturers that desperately needed my order. I may have a story or two about buying a car on the last day of the month. It’s a two-way street. I can also share stories where I overspent when a supplier spotted my urgency and took advantage. To say exploitation is human nature is an explanation, but I find that most people want to be fair and be dealt with fairly.

Having said that, being needy – in whatever form it takes – is bad business as a buyer or a seller. Having a healthy business is the ultimate solution, but in the meantime we can at least try to not look desperate? Let me point out some examples: Websites that focus on transactions instead of outcomes are inherently needy. Itemized proposals suggest that everything is negotiable: really needy. On the other hand, setting a price for a specific scope of work and negotiating value items says, Nothing is Free and I Am Confident.

3. Want It All

I think Don wants us to be ambitious too. Ambition is not the same as greedy. Wanting it all means that you won’t settle for a one-time transaction. You want the account and the full commitment of the customer to the success of the engagement. Want It All fits comfortably in the third spot of the Rules.

Don’t focus on the meeting. Visualize how the meeting ends.

Another way to consider this rule is the sales maxim, “Focus on the fourth sale.” You want the relationship, the partnership, the mutual benefit – but the deal doesn’t start here. There are steps that need to be taken in their own time. The fourth sale is about visualizing success.

In the narrative of the Don Draper world, I suspect that Want It All also refers to wanting material things, power, and influence. Plus, it makes for better drama. For our purposes, putting one’s personal goals ahead of your company undermines the intent of the rules. The goal is a committed customer at a profitable fee. Self-satisfaction needs to be a byproduct, not the goal. For managers, the lesson is this: If you want a committed salesperson, pay them well enough to put the company ahead of themselves.

4. Only Sell to Believers

This is my favorite rule, and the one that seems to engage the majority of bloggers on this subject. What this says to me is, “What you do is critically important plus you do it better. You want clients that appreciate that.” Customers that are willing to transact without this level of commitment are non-believers. They are not partners and therefore you won’t have a real relationship. You won’t make the fourth sale. If you truly believe in relationship selling, then you need to embrace the non-negotiability of this rule.

If your ideas are valuable, then you’ll win over believers.

For Don Draper, Only Sell to Believers may be the first rule, but for me it’s the final test. If you know how to negotiate, if you are rightly confident, if you expect the best from the customer-supplier relationship, then all that’s left is to determine whether that buyer is a believer or not. The first two criteria are all on you, the salesperson. You and the customer have to navigate rule #3, The Want. And finally, the Customer has to demonstrate that they are at least willing to believe. This is the basis of a Don Draper engagement.

Putting It All Together:

Don Draper’s Four Rules of Selling (Revised Order)

  1. Nothing Is Free
  2. Never Be Needy
  3. Want It All
  4. Only Sell to Believers

The Don Draper Four Rules of Selling have meaning in the real world, especially if taken in the order I have prescribed. First, if we understand the value of our goods and services, we can better represent options and pricing to our customers. Second, never compromise the deal with your personal desperation or fear. Third, don’t settle for the transaction. Win the customer’s full commitment. And fourth, know when to walk away. A customer that is just playing along is looking for the right moment to either derail the deal or exercise their advantage.

Be brave, be confident – you have the rules working on your side.

Mastering the four rules allows you to stay in the moment throughout the deal making phase of the engagement, which ensures the optimal outcome. If you sell under these rules, then you and the customer will receive the greatest returns from the engagement. And remember, Don Draper always knows when to walk away.

Tom Stimson MBA, CTS helps owners and management teams rediscover the fun and profit that comes from making better decisions about smarter goals. He is an expert on project-based selling and a thought leader for innovative business processes. Since 2006, Tom has successfully advised over two hundred companies and organizations on business strategy, process, marketing, and sales. Learn More at TRSTIMSON.COM