Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in a while and bought a copy of the Big Issue. There’s a very friendly and polite seller who has his pitch at the bottom of the hill near Highgate tube, and he’s there most evenings during the homebound rush. He’s a very pleasant chap, always has a smile and a greeting even if you aren’t buying anything.

I haven’t read the Big Issue in a while and it’s a lot more expensive than I’d imagined: it’s now £2.50. I can remember, back in days of yore, when it was £1.25. Admittedly that was almost ten years ago, and so I suspect it’s probably keeping up with inflation, but the problem with magazines is that a constant price is assumed. With most newspapers remaining under the £1 it’s hard to justify spending £2.50 on a magazine that’s quite a lot slimmer.

So the Big Issue sellers have their work cut out for them, as if they didn’t already. And this got me thinking about how the Big Issue sellers are selling from a markedly disadvantageous position. I really think the Big Issue is a British institution to be proud of, and it’s helped a lot of very unlucky people through some tough times. But the magazine still has to be sold, and to a market that is currently short of cash, stressed out and in some cases actively hostile. Homeless people get a lot of criticism in parts of the media, and although the Big Issue goes a long way to mitigate this, the sellers still have an uphill climb when it comes to sales. Yet they get by. So what can other sellers learn from them?

Know your patch

The seller at the bottom of Highgate hill seems to know he’s on to a good thing. It’s quite a wealthy area, and he’s stood at an advantageous position by the tube entrance, so people buy the magazine to read on the way home. Knowing where to position yourself in the market can be as useful as knowing your clients. It sounds a bit tenuous, but if you position yourself correctly you could save a lot of work. Networking and fostering relationships are all extremely important, but if you find a way to make yourself visible and accessible from the outset you’ll save a lot of work. Whether it’s a well-positioned online presence or simply a well-designed business card, good salespeople make themselves accessible by finding where the customers pass their professional time and simply placing themselves there.

Know your customers

This one is obvious, but I think Big Issue sellers have to work especially hard at it. It’s likely they’ll see the people that walk by only once in their lives, and it’s inefficient to approach absolutely everybody, especially in a crowd. Big Issue sellers have to be quite targeted in who they approach, and the only way to do that effectively is to have a good idea of your client already in mind. Know who you need to approach beforehand, and know enough about them to recognise them straight away. In sales, you should have a well-prepped and researched profile of your buyer long before you ever talk to them or meet them. Whenever you try and enter a new market you should be confident that you already understand the ‘average’ buyer in that market.

Create relationships

This is something I’ve mentioned quite regularly on the blog, and in our promotional materials, and it’s the subject of the next industry white paper we release. Sales is all about relationships, and anyone who doesn’t recognise that is doomed to failure. Big Issue sellers don’t have the luxury of new or emergent markets, of networking or marketing: their audience is right in front of them, and they can only talk to the people then and there. If you can’t move, the only solution is to get the buyers to come back to you, and the sellers do this by creating pleasant relationships with the people they talk to. It’s a while ago now, but where I used to live there was a Big Issue seller of the ‘cheeky-Cockney-chappie’ mode. We had some good banter and I confess to going up to him and buying the magazine just because I’d seen him in the street and he recognised me. A cynic would argue that there’s an element of guilt that makes people buy the magazine, but I genuinely enjoyed our conversations. I certainly wouldn’t have bought the magazine from any other sellers than him (then I would have felt guilty). That’s the kind of relationship you want: one with an element of loyalty.

Increase your profile

I was fibbing a bit when I said that Big Issue sellers have no promotional tools. They have the magazine itself, of course. The Big Issue has a spot on the back page where it profiles its sellers, and it also has a map to their pitch. You can understand why the sellers jump at the chance to feature in this section. But the magazine is (obviously) cautious to paint them in a positive light. Good sellers jump at the chance for some extra exposure, but should think hard about the quality and location of that promotional material. But the lesson to be learned here is that if you have only a few avenues open to you, you should work hard to make the most of them.

Catch people at the right time

This is something of an art form, but one that lots of people rarely mention. Have you ever had a sale completed unexpectedly smoothly or swiftly, just because you caught the buyer in a good mood? Have you ever finally got through to exactly the right person in a company, only to have them appear completely absent from the conversation, despite you presenting a solid offer? We’d all like to pretend that our mood doesn’t have a big effect on our professional lives but it’s simply not true. This relates a little to knowing your customers, but if you can make some predictions about how their lives are organised – and crucially, what effect that has on them – you’re more likely to profit from a sudden good mood. Big Issue sellers have to make snap judgements of their customers’ moods based on what they look like. Other sellers have more tools at their disposal, and should make the most of them.

Be polite

This just goes without saying.