Sales Lessons From a Girl Scout (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

It’s baaaack! Girl Scout Cookie time! Don’t worry, I am not going to ask you to buy any (we have three sons and no daughters in the Karrh home). But I do recommend that while you ponder Thin Mints you also consider the marketing and sales strategies used by the all-time record-setting Girl Scout cookie seller.

During last year’s cycle, Charlotte McCourt (age 11 at the time) managed to increase her sales by 25,786 boxes compared with the year before. You might think that a remarkable chain of events would be necessary for that result. You would be right. But that chain of events was only set in motion when young Charlotte chose to offer a prospective buyer a large serving of brutal honesty (delivered with sprinkles of humor).

Lesson One: Make your message different. During the sales drive, Charlotte heard her father, Sean McCourt, mention that a longtime friend of his was “very rich” and might want to donate some boxes to American troops overseas. Less than an hour later, Sean noticed in his sent folder an email Charlotte had sent to his rich friend.

The email was not the expected “you know my parents so please buy some cookies from me” plea. Instead, Charlotte offered her personal rating (on a 1-10 scale) of each of the varieties of Girl Scout cookies plus a lot of guidance on what to buy.

I generally advise clients to make their messages brief and not too product-focused. But if the message is truly distinctive and engaging, then the audience will hang in there with you. Charlotte’s email was lengthy but it was a must-read.

Lesson Two: Use authenticity to earn trust. Charlotte did not recite Girl Scout talking points. Not all of her personal reviews were glowing. Oh, some of the cookies received personal ratings of 9 on the 1-10 scale and descriptions like “inspired,” but other varieties were tagged with words and phrases such as “unoriginality,” “blandness” and “bleak, flavorless, gluten-free wasteland.” The exception was the S’more, which Charlotte had not tried and “could not rate in good conscience.” Have you ever heard that from your neighborhood Girl Scout?

One of the best ways to build trust in the eyes of buyers is to be honest, especially when your recommendations seem counter to your interests (such as selling as many boxes and varieties of cookies as possible). Charlotte’s email was a one-way communication, so she could not ask questions (such as whether the person was gluten intolerant). In the absence of a two-way conversation, Charlotte’s candor showed she was willing to potentially lose part of a sale.

Lesson Three: Spread the word. Here’s where the viral juice comes in. Sean McCourt, Charlotte’s father, works with Mike Rowe (of “Dirty Jobs” TV fame) on Rowe’s podcast “The Way I Heard It.” McCourt showed the email to Rowe, who liked it so much that he read it on his Facebook page. That video received more than 10 million views. On the video, between belly laughs, Rowe said, “A basic tenet of sales is that you can’t sell a product unless people first trust you. The best way to get them to trust you is to tell the truth.”

Honesty was a great policy for Charlotte. She shut down her website after selling 26,086 boxes and donating 12,430 of them.

Sure, Charlotte caught lightning in a bottle (or rather, a cookie box) because her email found its way to someone with a huge social-media following. You and I don’t have that many followers. Nevertheless, most companies do not come close to engaging all of their potential messengers (and, by extension, those messengers’ networks of friends). Leaders need to recognize that nearly everyone close to the organization — not just those in sales, marketing or customer service — is connected and equipped to help spread the word.

The Thin Mint got a 9, by the way.

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a consultant, coach and professional speaker as well as a consulting principal with DSG. See JimKarrh.com, email him at Jim@JimKarrh.com and follow him on Twitter @JimKarrh.