5 Startup Sales Tips From Turkish Rug Dealers

Written By: Dharmesh Shah April 24, 2007
I'm writing this article on the flight back from a week-long trip to Istanbul, Turkey.  My wife Kirsten is an amateur rug collector and we decided to celebrate her birthday in Istanbul where the 11th International Conference On Oriental Carpets was being held.  (Candidly, until earlier this year, I didn't even know there was such a conference -- let alone the fact that it drew hundreds of people).
Loving husband that I am, I accompanied Kirsten during her visits to a variety of rug dealers in Sultanhamet (the old district of Istanbul which is the carpet capital of the world).  This is where The Grand Bazaar is located.  If you've never been to Istanbul, I highly recommend it.  It's a great city.

In any case, here are some of the insights I gained from my experience.
Sales Tips From Turkish Rug Dealers
1.  Make your customers smarter:  I was very impressed with the amount of time various dealers spent with Kirsten educating her on the various types of rugs, their histories and the regions from which they came.  Of course, it shouldn't be surprising that these dealers would try to sell their wares, and it would be easy to dismiss their efforts as not much more than a form of selling.  But, at the best dealers, this went well beyond just selling.  Even when it was clear that certain rugs were outside of our budget and there was close to a zero chance of a sale, the passion some of the dealers had still continued to show through.  They were genuinely pleased to share their knowledge.  If you're a startup founder, chances are that you know a lot more about the problem your offering solves than the customer does.  I'd suggest you share some of your knowledge and do everything possible to make your customers smarter (without sounding patronizing).

Pithy Quote:  If your offering is clearly the "smart" choice for the customer, helping the customer get smarter is a great strategy. 

2.  Focus On Relationships, Not Transactions:  The rug dealers did not behave in a way that I expected when it came to their selling process.  Rarely did I ever feel pressued to purchase anything.  Once it became clear that Kirsten was a new (but passionate) amateur collector, the dealers seemed to recognize that there were going to be a lifetime of future opportunities.  They sought to build a relationship, not close a transaction.  I'm guessing that this strategy has worked for them in the past as many avid collectors and U.S.-based dealers make regular trips back to Istanbul and become lifelong customers.  As a startup founder, even though you may only be selling a low-end (or even free) product, your early customers should all be oriented around relationships.  These first customers will help shape the product and give you insights into future opportunities.  Don't get overly maniacal about "closing the transaction".  Take the time to forge the early relationships. 

3.  Make It Safe and Easy To Leave:  Every dealer we encountered was supremely polite and courteous.  Even at that most crucial of times -- when we were ready to walk out the door without having bought anything (which was most of the time).  They thanked us for stopping in.  I kept waiting for the hard-sell, but it never came.  I think startups can go even further.  Send signals to potential clients that you will make it just as easy to walk out the door as you made it for them to walk-in.  Go out of your way to reduce the customer's barrier to exit.  This is counter-intuitive (you would think it would be smarter to erect higher barriers to exit).  The easier it is for customers to walk out, the more likely it is that they'll walk in.

Pithy Quote:  By making yourself easy to leave, you make yourself easy to love.
4.  Don't Disparage The Competition:  Not once did we have a dealer state (rightly or wrongly) that another well-known dealer in town had higher prices, inferior quality or offer other forms of criticism.  Instead, they focused on what their particular specialty was and what made them different. 
5  Don't Judge The Customer:  Kirsten and I are not the typical rug shoppers.  When walking in to a high-end dealer, it would be easy to immediately dismiss us as being "non-buyers".  Or, it would be even easier to assume that I was the primary buyer (it seems that most antique rug collectors are men).  But, the dealers did not make the mistake of assuming anything.  Kirsten was greeted with much energy and enthusiasm.  It seems that the Turkish rug dealers had learned, after decades of experience, that you should treat every customer that walks in the door as if they were a serious buyer, because there's really way to really tell for sure.  I contrast this to my first car buying experience in Boston.  I went to a high-end dealer ready to make a purchase and was treated as if I were simply there to admire the cars, but couldn't afford one.

Pithy Quote:  Your best customers unfortunately do not walk around with convenient labels on their heads.  You'll actually have to try and get to know them.

For those of you that have been to Turkey or shopped for rugs, you may have had a much different experience than I did.  Could be that we just got "lucky" and wound up in shops that had a disproportionately high level of professionalism.  I don't think any of the above insights are particularly controversial, but if you have comments or criticisms, please share.

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