It's true, everyone is a born salesman

A YEAR ago, a friend agreed to head his alma mater's campaign to raise $40 million over the next five years, but he was a little apprehensive about the challenge of extracting large sums of money from strangers.

He was a successful writer and editor, whose expertise was wrestling with words and pictures. He did not consider himself the ''salesman type''.

I muttered platitudes about how everyone was a born salesman and if he applied the same editorial skills he used to persuade interview subjects to bare their soul and to convince his bosses to run his articles, he would do fine.

When I saw him recently and asked about his fund-raising drive, he was ecstatic. In 12 months, he had raised more than half of the campaign's goal and, as he gleefully pointed out, ''we haven't even touched our alumni mailing list''.

He was a changed man. The nervous-editor persona was gone. He was immersed in the fine points and minutiae of soliciting contributions from wealthy donors. He liked ''selling''.

I pressed him on the transformation and he outlined some strategies that, to an experienced salesperson, might sound basic but actually revealed a subtle understanding of the sales process.

Confirm their interest.

''That comes first,'' he said, ''even before you determine whether or not a person has the resources to contribute. You have to find people who have a personal interest in the college.'' He has learned contributors do not have to be alumni, the most obvious donors. They can be residents of the college town or parents of alumni or simply people who believe in what the school stands for.

I think many salespeople can relate to this (and use the reminder). If you are selling ball bearings, it is obvious you call on companies who use ball bearings in their business. But if you are selling a more nebulous product or service, confirming the customer's interest is a valuable pointer.

In our business, where we are selling the concept of using athletes and sports events as a marketing tool, I have learned the best customers are usually people who are as passionate about sports as I am. It is a lot easier to sell sponsorship of a golf event to someone who loves golf than to someone who has no interest in the game.

Before he did anything else, my friend defined his donor base as people who had a personal interest in the college's future.

Know their ability to pay.

''It's a waste of time asking people for $100,000 donations when they don't have $100,000 to give,'' my friend said. ''You have to research their finances and know a little about their tax and estate situation. Some people are not as rich or as liquid asthey appear to be; others can contribute much more than you suspect.'' Again, determining ahead of time that someone can write a cheque may sound obvious, but it is so basic it is often forgotten. I know plenty of salespeople who have spent months and thousands of dollars pursuing a corporate account, only to be turned downin the end because ''there is no budget''.

Be candid about your intentions.

''When you intend to ask for a large sum of money from strangers, it helps to be very frank about the purpose of your meeting,'' my friend said.

He sets up meetings by announcing: ''We want to talk to you about your pledge to the college.'' He does not skirt the subject. He is warning the individual he will be asking for money. If the individual agrees to see him, my friend knows he is 99 per cent home. He has made a ''sale''. The meeting is just a matter of figuring out how much.

This candour certainly would save salespeople a lot of time pursuing dead-end leads. There is nothing wrong with telling a prospect, ''I'd like to meet with you to introduce you to our company and its products.'' If you get the meeting, you have at leastestablished the prospect's interest. But when you tell the prospect, ''I'd like to meet with you about placing an order for my product line'', and get that meeting, you have established his willingness to buy.

Don't rely on friends.

Fund-raising, like selling, often hinges on friendships. All the trustees of the college had friends who could contribute. It would have been easy for my friend to ask each trustee to call on a couple of friends. But he learned this would cost the college millions.

''Friends let each other off the hook too easily. If a person could afford to donate $100,000, a friend would let him get away with $25,000,'' he said. ''If I wanted to get the big numbers, I would have to make the call myself. Friends open doors. They don't close the sale.'' Reject the lowball offer.

''The toughest thing I've had to do,'' my friend said, ''was return a $150,000 cheque from a man who could afford to give 10 times that much. He was lowballing the college, so I rejected the offer.

''I told him, 'We expect much more from you and we're willing to wait for a bigger gift'.'' My friend has shown his ability to stick to the rate card many salespeople lack. We have salespeople who are incapable of leaving a room without a sale. If they expect $10,000 from the customer, they do not have the will to say no when the customer counters with $6,000. They accept the lowball offer - and sacrifice a decent profit margin - rather than wait for a better offer on another day. They would rather do a bad deal than no deal at all.

Make them comfortable with their gift.

In many ways, fund-raising is the purest form of salesmanship. Besides a tax deduction, all you are selling to a contributor is the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with charitable giving.

So, my friend learned, ''you have to make each donor feel good about how much they're giving. If you ask them for a million dollars and they can only give you $250,000, you don't want them to feel they stiffed you for $750,000. You have to show your gratitude. You have to show them how their money benefits the school. They are entitled to some psychic benefit from all their generosity.

''Part of this means promising not to ask them for more money for a long time.'' I wish more salespeople would remember that. When they make a sale, they think they have found a customer for life. So they keep going back to the well. There is nothing wrong with that. The bulk of your sales comes from a handful of customers. But that sort of relationship takes time to develop. A good salesperson has the good sense to wait.