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Selling to New Customers is a lot like building a campfire

You might be surprised to know where I find inspiration for these blog posts. Or, maybe not, considering you’re here. I bring a lot of everyday life into training and coaching conversations in sales. I find that general business jargon and “sales speak” make people want to take a nap or mentally check out. Telling stories is how I bring people in and get them thinking about accomplishing their goals in new ways.

Finding common ground through common experiences has lead me to relate SELLING to sports (volleyball, baseball, football, running), Girl Scouts, Island Vacations, Survivor, Hiking, March Madness, Shampoo, and one of my favorites, Earl from Home Depot.

I found my inspiration for this particular blog at Kamp Kiwani this weekend while trying to help each member of my scout troop build a small fire in a challenge to burn through twine staked around it. Real survivor skills stuff.

This sales related observation didn’t hit me right away. No, I’m typing this by the glow of my nearly dead cell phone at 1 am because I’m in a rustic, utilitarian cabin and sweating and can’t sleep with some small creature rustling leaves outside and ALL the creatures great and small (mainly tree frogs and cicadas, I think) are having a screaming rave out there loud enough to rival the squeals of eight 1st grade girls who have just discovered a cricket in their bunk (yes, I can attest to this actual comparison).

And because the gnats and tiny moths are drawn to the light of my cell phone, I’m tucked down, hiding in my sleeping bag, further exacerbating the sweating issue because it’s also 85% humidity.

The things I do for you people and this profession!

Since everything comes back to Sellers and Selling for me, here’s what I observed today at camp:

Selling is a lot like building a fire.

I’m talking about scavenging for materials in the forest, striking a match, “fire from scratch” – no fire logs, accelerants, or blow torches. That’s cheating and you don’t get nearly dirty enough that way!

For novice fire starters, it seems they all make the same mistakes and this perhaps leads me to believe we’re all naturally inclined to make these mistakes when we attempt something new and are unsure about ourselves and the outcomes. It took a lot of practice (and patience) to work through successfully building their fire high enough to burn through their rope.

First, they were scared of the matches. They would timidly strike them and quickly fling them onto their materials – effectively killing their flame. They had zero confidence that they could hold onto something with the potential to burn them. I’ve seen sales people do this too. They’re hesitant about making calls, they secretly pray no one answers their call, or they dance around their reason for reaching out and then bail at the first sign of resistance, fearing their rejection.

To overcome this, we had to practice how to hold the match, strike it with force and purpose, and prepare to hold on to it while we light the tinder. Having been warned to never play with fire for their entire young lives has ingrained fear in them that was hard to overcome. Practice and preparation were key to helping them conquer this challenge and that’s no different with hesitant sellers that carry very powerful feelings of fear or rejection into their efforts.

They were trying to directly light twigs. Those that did hold onto their matches were trying to light sticks and twigs on fire without realizing how that tiny flame wasn’t going to take off and ignite the wood. They didn’t have anything to quickly ignite and help create the first sustainable flame to light the fuel.

In a sales parallel, you’ll see the very worst cold calls like this – a seller calls someone and asks if they can have time to listen to their pitch – with no referral, mutual connection, or compelling commonalities to relate to their prospect in context. Finding that “tinder” to help ignite and engage those first precious sparks in a sales conversation can make quickly building a relationship more successful.

They were using too large twigs. The materials the girls gathered were too large to be consumed and catch fire. Their tiny flames would die trying to ignite sticks that were too big. I sent them back out to gather the tiniest of twigs and branches and created graduated tinder sizes to add piece by piece to their fire. Adding those very, very small sticks first allowed them to gradually build a flame that could sustain their fire and eventually get to the bigger logs that burn longer, hotter, and create those bright orange coals.

Think of building a fire like building a relationship, many sellers are not starting small enough. Their objective when making a call or meeting someone is to “sell my product” instead of setting the foundation for a relationship, adding layers of credibility, trust, and expertise. Going too big doesn’t work in building fires and certainly not in selling. People buy in increments, so sell to them in bite-sized bits or you’ll probably never ignite a relationship.

They were smothering the fire. Fires need fuel and oxygen. Not that different from people, right? Your foundation for a fire needs to allow for oxygen to get to the flames. These scouts couldn’t figure out why their fires would die when they had small flames – though they would toss or drop an abundance of sticks right on top of their small embers.

Just like new, young relationships, you need to leave room to fan the flames of interest and certainly shouldn’t dump all your features and benefits onto prospective customers. You will kill your opportunity if you rush in and smother them with your need to get them to buy on your terms and on your timeline. Patience and due diligence will support your growing relationship. Without them, you don’t make it to those “hot coals” that go the distance.

If you’re not the outdoors type, now, we’ve done double duty and given you the recipe to build a fire AND some best practices for your sales and prospecting approach wrapped into one thought-provoking blog post.

For me, it’s back to thinking about what’s crawling around underneath our bunkhouse, making a mental note to check for spiders in my boots tomorrow, praying for sheer exhaustion to overtake me right now and OH, to remember to return one of my scout’s teeth to her tomorrow as she didn’t have pockets in her shorts today when she plucked it out.

I couldn’t make this stuff up. Fortunately, I don’t need to.

Sales, just like all of life, is always an adventure.

Until next time, stop hoping, start SELLING!



I remembered to remove the tooth from my pants before washing them upon return. I am, however, sleep deprived and slightly regret that I sent this child’s mother a text that said, “I have your daughter’s tooth.”

That required a bit more explanation.

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Straightforward, practical and perhaps slightly cheeky, Shawn Karol Sandy's innate gift is helping people find new ways to solve old problems, unique ways to approach new problems and helping businesses re-invent themselves and their sales strategies. With Bold and Brave thought leadership and Clear Action Plans, her impact on business is Measurable and Meaningful and will lead your sales revolution to growth and revenue goals.

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2 Responses
  1. Loretta McNary

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Great job on creating the parallels between building a fire from twigs and building a mutual business relationship before the selling process.

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