I’m Selling Hammers, You Look Like a Nail

iStock_000000212423XSmallYou know the old line, “If you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It means we tend to see the world through our own frames of reference. It’s a good reminder to watch out for unconscious biases.  And in sales, it shows up in a very particular way.

[Trivia tidbit: the hammer/nail line is credited, in Wikipedia, to Abraham Maslow in 1966. But elsewhere, it’s attributed to Bernard Baruch – who died in 1965. Someone’s wrong.]

Hammers and Nails in the Field of Sales

Occasionally you get a salesperson who actually sees a wrench and mistakes it for a nail. But that’s an uninteresting mistake – that’s just incompetence.

A much more frequent occurrence is that once the salesperson sees the wrench, and recognizes it’s not a nail – they leave! They assume that the lack of nails means game over; nothing to see here folks, turn the lights out on your way out the door.

And it seems obvious, right? If you’re selling hammers and you find yourself in a nail salon, you say “whoops” and  ask directions to the hardware store. And you leave.

Because – wrong kind of nails. They’re never going to buy hammers, not from you, not from anyone. Because the only nails here are getting manicured. They…do…not…have…nails.

And in case it’s still not obvious you should leave, sales organizations reinforce it at every step. Don’t waste your precious time. Salesforce efficiency. Ruthlessly prune the lead list and the funnel. Deploy yourself where real nails are to be found. Go where the real nails are. Get out.

A Blinding Flash of the Non-Obvious

In our haste to get out of the nail salon and scramble to a He-Man nail store, we forget one thing. You just passed up a chance to do some high impact marketing.

And it’s easy. You were already there, standing in front of someone who probably buys. There are a hundred things you could have said to the lady at the nail salon:

  • Hey, I noticed your screen doors are getting a little worn – I know someone who fixes that, would you like his number?
  • Well, aren’t I the silly one! Unless, that is, you’re looking for a present for that special man in your life; if you tell me about him, I can tell you what kind of hammer to get him – and believe me, any man loves a new hammer.
  • You know what, as long as I’m here – you got any drawers that are always sticking, maybe an appliance that isn’t working right? I’ve got 10 minutes until my next call, anything I could help you with?
  • Tell me, what kind of ladies come in here, from where? How would I know if my wife would like this salon? What kind of friends should I refer here to you?
  • This is so funny, I was just thinking the other day about nails and nail salons, and they’re actually pretty similar – tell me, what works best for you in finding new customers, and in getting repeat customers?
  • Oh well, that’s my bad sales story of the week. Not so bad, really. How about you? You ever have a bad day in here? What would you say was your worst day in this business?

In other words – engage with and serve the customer in front of you. If you always do that, word will get around. The lady from the nail salon will tell friends, “A funny thing happened today; a guy came in selling hammers, and it turns out he’s really interesting…”

What does it cost you to make an impression? Compare the cost of that impression to a mailing, a phone call, a social media campaign – and then factor in the qualitative impact of that impression.

Sales Goals and Sales Outcomes

So much of what makes sales fail (and give selling a bad name) is thinking that the goal of selling is the sale. And so in single-minded pursuit of your sale, you leave negative impressions or no impressions at all as you bounce around the world – because you leave as soon as your goal is not immediately evident.

The better way to think about it is that the sale is an outcome – a byproduct – a consequence. It’s an outcome of a very different goal – the goal of helping people you run into, including a few who turned out not to be the nails you thought they were.

Don’t pass up a marketing opportunity because of your obsession with the sale. Play the long ball. Make your goal service. And if you do that – the outcomes, the byproducts, the consequences turn out to be at least as much, if not more.

9 replies
  1. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    You are quite correct Charles. In the pursuit of sales, targets are set for parts of the whole process and reviewed regulary by management. This results in salespeople chasing the reporting process.

    I wrote a script for a cleint who wanted to presentbthe case for less “selling” and more investigative discussion. In other words a business discussion leading to the possibility of making a sale – rathervthan presenting the product and using sales techniques to “win” a sale. Hell! That divided the room like I’d never seen before or since. 100 people agreed v. 100 people who excitedly didn’t!

    It was very interesting that the “pro” sales people just couldn’t get around what had been driven into them over the years – selling is about selling and using whatever sales tricks they had to win the sale. As one guy put it,” I tell’em what I got, and ask if they have a budget, and if the answer is no, I close my case and say goodbye.”

    The other group definately liked the idea of leaving sales techniques out of the meeting and were enthusiastic to see therebwas another way of conduction a “sales call”. This group comprised, lawyers, accountants, professional service people, consultants, and business directors. In their World sales techniques were counter productive – so they loved the presentation.

    Seems from the evidence that both approaches will work – but one way is short term, one-off sales, and the other buildss longer term realtionships for long term / high revenue business.

    We didn’t get asked back to do another evening seminar though – perhaps we were being way too radical for the sales guys to stomach any more contra sales ideas!

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:


      Thanks for the anecdote, that is funny! Actually sort of sad, I suppose, but funny too.

      I think you’re on to something by phrasing this in terms of two distinct audiences, or types of sale. I’m going to do a blogpost ver soon on precisely that, so I’m encouraged that you’re thinking along the same lines.

  2. John
    John says:

    Thanks for the post.

    I recently was involved in a conversation regarding the value of process vs. principle in selling. Initially the room was process was more valuable. When we were reminded that process serves the principles there was more agreement that principle is primary.

    My observation is that we spend a lot of time teaching and managing process that we sometimes forget the principle they serve, such as serve the customer in front of you.

    Take good care,

  3. Ian Brodie
    Ian Brodie says:

    Hi Charlie, I heard Seth Godin in a recent interview say something similar I think.

    He was saying how he’d reached the stage where he had enough fans. Enough buyers of his books. His quest now wasn’t to get in front of yet more potential buyers. It was to figure out how to give more value to his current folks.

    It’s one of the advantages of being in an expert or service business I guess. We never just have a hammer.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] I’m Selling Hammers, You Look Like a Nail Charles H. Green, CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates LLC, reminds sales people to focus on helping the customer in front of you, even if it might not lead to an immediate sale. […]

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