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Have you seen the movie version of Jordan Belfort’s book, The Wolf of Wall Street?

Memorable, right?

Not just because it holds the records for the most frequent use of the F word in the film world, but also for some pretty cool performances.

But one part of the movie irks me every time.

It’s at the end of the movie, the final scene. Leonardo DiCaprio is seen in front of a room, teaching his sales techniques. He pulls a pen from his pocket, walks up to a member the audience and looks one nervous chap straight in the eye.

“Sell me this pen”.

It’s a classic line. One we’ve all heard before and, in most cases, has us all thinking about which perfect answer we’d give.

But it’s a dumb challenge, that has less to do with “selling” and more to do with trying to make people believe they can’t really sell.

The underlying assumption is that almost by magic, or by using just the right words delivered in the right way with the right intonation, you can persuade anybody to bend to your will.

Some may say that’s what Jordan Belford is all about. Sure, regardless of what you make of his moral makeup, he has skills. And maybe we assume that his ability to sell the pen that makes him a master.

But Jordan Belfort didn’t become the person he is selling pens. He became the person he is selling (empty) dreams to people foolish enough to allow dollar signs to overload their logic circuits. He sold the promise of instant riches and a better life, and all you had to do is follow your heart over your head and do what he asked (and pressured) you to do.

There are two ways we could take this.

The first is to a blog about the importance of understanding the outcomes clients want at a deeply intrinsic level. However, I’ve written enough of those types of blogs to not want to repeat it again.

Getting to the heart of clients goals is what really great advisers can do well, just as they understand that advice isn’t really about the money. It’s about what options money create for people to live amazing lives.

The piece I’d like to focus on here is how the question misleads.

Jordan Belfort’s brand of sales is what is probably best categorised as a product-centric process. It’s also a transactional model (although I have no doubt there were more than enough people who fell for it more than once).

As an aside, a trader friend once told me a technique she was told by an older colleague for making clients think you walk on water.

  • Monday – Find 100 phone numbers and divide them into two piles. Choose a stock. Phone 50 and tell them the stock is going up. Tell the other 50 it’s going down
  • Tuesday – Check the paper and grab the names you told correctly. Divide in two piles and pick a new stock.  Tell 25 the stock is going up. Tell the other 25 it’s going down.
  • Wednesday and Thursday –  Repeat as before.
  • Friday – You now have a list of 5 people who think you can predict the future. Ask them for whatever you want. Go to lunch and order Absolut Martinis every five minutes until you pass out (or something like that).

It’s a numbers game, but I digress.

The point I’m seeking to make is that this product (or expertise) centric approach is about starting from a point of already having decided what you want to sell, then relying on your ability to massage a proposition to suit whatever intrinsic motivators you can identify in clients.

That model has been turned upside down and inside out.

We could give the credit solely to Silicon Valley, but in truth it started long before that. The internet has given us so much (and taken quite a bit too), including the ability to understand what people want better than ever before.

At any point in time, you can dive into any number of data sources to discover cold, hard metrics around what people are viewing, talking about, clicking and more.

The difference between this and focus groups? This is real.

Some of the smartest online entrepreneurs I know don’t start with a product. They start with a problem. They start by looking for what’s missing. They start by asking, “What do people want?”

The easiest sales process is the one where the decision has already been made.

You can go in and engage anybody who’ll listen with a proposition (Pens are awesome), try and talk them around (You need a pen because…) and explain to them why it matters (Someone like you needs to be seen with a pen like this).

The truth though is if you can’t dig deep enough and find the intrinsic need, your best bet is to be sitting in front of someone who already neeeds a pen, right?

That’s why it’s easier to start there. Find those who need it. Even better find those who want it. 

The simplest answer to the Jordan Belfort test is, “Do you want this pen?

If the answer is no, then the next question is “Does anyone else in the room want this pen?

After that, frankly, I’d be logging onto eBay.

The trap lies in the “sell me” part. It’s a restriction designed to trap the frame.

If this seems trivial, it’s not. 85% of the population clearly has some unmet needs with their money, and the demand is growing.

However, despite the data showing clients under advice have high levels of advocacy, the traditional financial planning proposition isn’t what most people are looking for.

“You need a pen. Oh, yes you do, you just don’t truly understand the value of this pen”

We talk about financial literacy (‘Let me explain how to use a pen properly”), explain the value of advice (“Do you how important pens are?) and helping consumers understand things better (“10 things to think about when buying a pen”).

At its most benign, It’s misguided. At it’s most extreme, it’s arrogance.

It assumes that the end-user is flawed. Instead of starting from place of asking, “What are we missing that’s not hitting the mark?”, we assume the pitch needs work. 

What’s missing from your life (that might require a pen)?”

I think this is one of the most significant opportunities in front of us. There’s not a single person in this country – maybe the planet – whose lives aren’t impacted negatively in some way, by money.

There are thousands of financial experts who have dedicated their lives to helping people solve these problems who can help, but the pen is getting in the way.

Let’s get practical.

What would you do if you were going to start from the problem-centric position?

Well, let’s assume for a second that you don’t want to stop being the expert in what you do. It wouldn’t make sense to start from scratch (unless you want to).

There’s a tool I sometimes run people through when we’re trying to get to the heart of that proposition. I call it the Problem Matrix. 

  1. In the centre of the matrix/ mind map, you define who you’re trying to attract; your ideal clients, your market,
  2. Around that – the spokes – you write the 8-10 areas you’re an expert.
  3. Remember those data sources? One of those are forums and chat groups. The ones that charges a motza each month to scrape so copywriters can do their magic. These are full of the questions real people are asking about your areas of expertise. Not the ones we tell ourselves they’re asking, but the real questions they ask others about insurance, investing, budgeting and more. By the way, they make fascinating reading. Budgeting for psychopaths, anyone? Financial planning for buying luxury handbags, perhaps? Budgeting for Mums? This is the real world (and the place where great blogs live).

When you have this insight, things get easier, fast.

The best marketing answers questions that already exist.

The best solutions solve problems people want solved.

The easiest selling is to people who are already sold.

I hope this helps. I’m not a Belfort hater (in case it came across that way). I bought* his Straight Line Persuasion system and some of the elements in there around tone, intonation, energy and more are incredibly useful.

It’s just his style of selling. The “I’ll just hammer away and try and influence somebody do what I want”.It feels like it belongs to an bygone era.

Just like his pen challenge.


*Bought may be an exaggeration. Let’s just say when he pays back what he owes, the cheque will be in the mail.

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