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Do you want to sell ice cubes to the Eskimos?

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I bet you all know the saying that is often used to describe people with good persuasion and sales skills:

“He could sell ice cubes to the eskimos.”

I don’t know about you but I find it just a tad offensive.

I can’t help but picture those poor Eskimos returning home with their shiny new ice cubes — only to discover that it’s the same stuff their homes are made of, and they have no use for them.
And then maybe going back to where they got it, only to see that the store has disappeared overnight, and the smooth-talking stranger that convinced them of the various advantages of those transparent shiny cubes is nowhere to be found.

So whenever I hear that saying, I wonder:

Who would want to be that salesman, and why?

That’s bad customer service, bad long-term plan, bad marketing… bad everything, really.

But I digress. What I wanted to do was offer you a somewhat different perspective.

There is a joke in Russia that goes something like this:

An ecstatic Eskimo comes home to his igloo with a brand new refrigerator, and calls his wife to show off his purchase. After learning about the general workings of the refrigerator, the wife, perplexed, asks:

“It’s -40°C outside; -20°C in the igloo, and that machine only reaches -8°C*. What are we supposed to do with it?”

The Eskimo answers with a glowing smile:
“Why, we get warm, of course!”

*For you strange users of the Fahrenheit system — 0 degrees Celcius corresponds to 32 F (freezing temperature); which means -25 is really really cold, and -40 is colder still. (and still -40 in Fahrenheit, according to a converter.)

Notice the difference from selling them ice cubes?
(Yes, I know it’s just a joke, and that if they had electricity, a heater would be more useful. Just trying to make a point, bear with me.)

There is a completely unexpected benefit of the refrigerator, that could only be noticed by the Eskimos, or someone who knows them really well. I don’t know if it was the Eskimo himself who discovered the advantage, the smooth-talking salesman, or the company — the joke doesn’t go into that much detail.

It doesn’t matter, the lesson is still there:

When you truly know your target market, finding completely unexpected benefits is easy.

(Though sometimes you might be too close to see them, and in that case some outside perspective may help.)

So rather than trying to sell shiny ice cubes to your customers (and then running off with the money), why not focus on their real needs instead? You never know, there might be a benefit that you have been taking for granted, but that makes an enormous difference to them.

(And as for ice cubes, I hear there are quite a few places where these are hard to come by.)

2 Comments on this Post.

  1. Hi Lisa

    I like your analogy. In Oz we say “selling fridges to eskimos” when talking about those who are good at convincing us of something so I did smile with your examples ;-)

    You are so right, it is not about doing the hard sell and/or selling to people what they don’t need or want. Rather I want to do soft sell, giving advantages for the products I am selling. I know off-line this definitely works and now I am learning about on-line marketing from my experienced marketing friends.

    Patricia Perth Australia

    • Hi Patricia,

      Glad to see you again, it’s been a while! :)
      I had no idea you had the “selling fridges” saying — that puts my tale into a whole new perspective, doesn’t it?

      There are so many people who feel iffy about marketing because of that “you gotta do the hard sell” talk that goes around, and I just wanted to point out that it isn’t necessarily so. Glad it resonates!

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