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Career Success
JAN 30, 2017

Beating the fear of cold calling, and other lessons kids taught me

By Karl O’Callaghan

This article covers the sales day (November 3rd) for the 14 teams of elementary schoolchildren entering Junior Economy College in Tatsuno. Part 1 is here.

On November 3rd at the city festival, all 14 teams sold their wares. All sold food, while some also sold crafts they had made.

The sales day started very early. Due to hygiene rules, all food needed to be prepared that morning. The teams were split into two groups, each heading to a local elementary school at 6:30 am to prepare their food. They had 90 minutes. With limited preparation time, it was the teams that took time to plan and decide exactly who did what that were most efficient. The team that had the furthest to travel arrived flustered a few minutes late. They were a little behind already, even before they started. Three of the 5 members were peeling locally grown potatoes, while 2 washed. A couple of them ended up cutting their fingers, eating further into their valuable time. Another team just seemed to walk on water. They had all their products—sandwiches with yakisoba noodles using locally produced soy sauce and basil sauce—cooked, bagged and boxed with 30 minutes to spare. It was almost magical, like seeing Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints from The Goal in live action.

Learning Point #5: Be sure to understand your process. These kids only got one chance. Yet they knew their roles and exactly what to do. In the business world, companies can kaizen (continuously improve) as they go. But when you’ve got only one chance to sell, it helps to do practice runs or make prototypes. I didn’t ask the children in this case, but I suspect they practiced before the big day.

In Japan, presentation is key, and the children can definitely be proud of what they created. Some teams expended effort on their uniforms or on the stalls. One team even created a stamp with their company name, branding every single one of their homemade cookies. Their level of attention to detail was exemplary.

Learning Point #6: Attention to detail with branding can be a key success factor. In the world of start-ups and self-help books for procrastinators (which I usually read when I should be doing something else), they say perfection is the enemy of the good. But showing you care is often enough to make your product extra special, delighting the customer and making them put their hand in their pocket. It’s called branding and it’s easy to forget sometimes.

One of the special rules for this year’s competition was to try to use locally produced ingredients in at least one of the products each team sold. Teams didn’t have to do this. But those that did would receive a weighted score acknowledging this effort. Tatsuno is famous for soy sauce. The city is home to Higashimaru, Japan’s third biggest producer. Soumen noodles are another main product with Ibonoito, a famous Japanese brand (actually an association of noodle producers) based here. Its third major product is very high quality leather. Hyogo Prefecture produces about 70% of all Japanese cattle hide and of that 40% is produced in Tatsuno. So – perhaps not surprisingly – many teams used one or more of these products within their offerings. A couple of teams made keyrings and even wallets out of leather. Many used soy sauce. I liked one team’s idea to sell locally grown potted plants. They were unique (no team had thought of this before) and easy to sell. And something I learned later is that another of the teams even went to meet an organic farmer to thoroughly understand their raw materials.

Learning Point #7: When you have a skill, make best use of it. When you don’t, learn. The teams making leather products made great use of their existing talent. The team that interviewed the organic farmer could use this information when selling the product. Both make great stories when speaking to potential customers. And a great story is a wonderful way of creating value.

The stalls closed at 3:00 pm. By the end, every single team had managed to sell all their products. Apparently, this had never happened before in four years of competition. The first team sold out around 1:00 pm, quickly followed by a few more teams. It’s better for the heart to sell early. But on the other hand, teams selling out closer to the deadline were probably better planners, while the early birds could well have sold more.

Over the next two hours, the sense of panic was palpable as the teams with product remaining became more and more anxious to sell. Gradually, as panic exceeded their fear of not selling, the kids got braver, venturing out of their stalls, canvassing harder and louder to make a sale. Some teams even decided to reduce their prices. It was great to see how a sense of urgency created action, like John Kotter’s 8 Steps to Change in fast forward!

Learning Point #8: Don’t wait until the last minute to push for sales. This learning point is one I really must take to heart. Even though I have lots of experience in sales, I prefer working through introductions than cold calling. When calling in Japanese rather than English, the telephone still scares the life out of me! I have to psych myself up before making a call. I know that this fear has meant lost opportunities for me.

In the final article, we’ll look at how the teams wound down their companies as well as some of the results.