"Not one single investor, in the whole wide world, thought Borders had a real economic future," tweets George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen. It truly is remarkable that Borders mismanaged itself so badly that it not only went deeply in the red, but also got to the point where things were so bad that nobody in the world was willing to buy out the beleaguered company.

How did it go wrong, though? And more importantly, what can you learn from Borders' mistakes to keep your sales soaring?

Annie Lowery for Slate put out an article that outlined four mistakes Borders made. Briefly synthesized, the four mistakes were: 1. Borders failed to adopt online sales, 2. Borders neglected e-books, 3. Borders failed to diversify, and 4. Borders expanded into too many stores even despite lackluster sales. I'll go over each of the four mistakes below, and then use them to offer four pieces of advice when it comes to making sales.

1. Borders failed to adopt online sales. At first, it decided to channel its "online investment" to in-store platforms instead of its web site.

What? In order to buy books online, people had to go to a Borders store in the first place? Doesn't this defeat the purpose of ordering online from the comfort of one's home?

By contrast, Barnes & Noble in the early-2000s recognized the importance of the Internet, and although they knew it would necessarily tradeoff with people walking into the stores, they recognized that making book sales both online and in stores was superior to trying to drive all their sales to the stores.

Similarly, you as a salesperson should look to create a presence for yourself online. You may still generate a lot of leads in more traditional ways, but how could it possibly hurt you to have even more leads coming to you through a web site? The beauty of having your own personal web site is that it continues to prospect even while you're sleeping or out working with clients. The web site is always there, always available for people to visit, even if they do so while fighting a bout of insomnia at 3 AM. It's a great way to make sales by get prospects coming to you, instead of you having to go out and search for prospects for yourself!

2. Borders neglected e-books, even though they are almost as popular as their paper counterparts. Amazon debuted the Kindle in 2007, Barnes & Noble answered in 2009 with the Nook, Apple's iPad would come out next in 2010. Borders took way too long to jump on the bandwagon and came out with an e-reader you've probably never heard of, the Kobo, just last year.

I was once written a note from a Zen master at a stage of my life where I was at a crossroads, and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. He wrote: "Matt, the only thing that never changes is that everything always changes."

Like it or not, your clients' desires and buying habits will change with time, too. You may have had a brilliant strategy for selling your products or services, and it worked pretty darn well to boot. Until one day...it didn't.

Unfortunately, a lot of people confronted with this situation let their egos get in the way, and cling on to their old sales messages that are no longer working. They believe that if it was once a great idea, it must still be a great idea. And, unfortunately, they only end up going down with their sinking ships.

By contrast, the pork industry totally reinvented itself in the light of a lot of negative press about the health dangers of red meat. Suddenly, pork became "the other white meat."

It adapted with the times. It moved forward. You should too.

Recognize that your ideas from yesterday were great ideas, but that it's also time to move forward with new ideas today. This can only make your sales stronger.

3. Borders failed to diversify. In the early 2000s, Borders was making hundreds of millions of dollars in CD and DVD sales. Fast forward to the mid/late-2000s, though, and music and video sales have taken a nosedive. When the likes of file sharing software, iTunes, and NetFlix entered the mainstream, this CD and DVD sales were no longer the way to make money. Similarly, Borders failed to jump on to a popular form of coffee or alcohol sales, which is the savior of many bookstores. Barnes & Nobles got the exclusive contract with Starbucks; Borders had to settle for Seattle's Best.

You need to truly understand your clients, and what they want. Borders failed to adapt not just when it came to adopting e-readers, but also when it to their very product line (CDs, DVDs, coffee, etc.). Borders failed to recognize what their clients wanted; they failed to make the shift from CDs to MP3s. This was a fatal error because it's always critically important to know what your clients want.

Knowing your clients desires, and then appealing directly to what they want, is a very successful method of making sales.

Do your research. Ask questions of clients during sales calls. Dig a bit deeper.

Then use that information to appeal to your clients' specific desires, and watch your sales surge.

4. Borders opened many stores, despite lackluster sales. The stores simply got to be too big and too expensive.

Although I think it's very important to start setting up a prospecting machine (which includes the Internet among other strategies) that works for you even while you're sleeping or dealing with other clients, you should also be careful to manage your costs. If you spend far more than you make, you only end up hurting yourself.

Fortunately, there are plenty of economical ways to set up a prospecting machine that works for pennies on the dollars that you will make through your sales!

Lowery concludes her article by saying:

In the end, you could blame the Internet for Borders' downfall. Retail has become a challenging, if not outright terrible, business, regardless of what you are selling. But, again, other companies adapted. Borders just didn't.

I agree with her. E-commerce has steadily grown every year, and it's harder to be competitive without a web presence. Good companies adapt and offer online services on top of their more traditional services; good salespeople should do the same. It will make your life a lot easier if you have a web site (among other things) putting in prospecting work for you, thus setting up your very own sales machine.


Tyler Cowen. Not one single investor, in the whole wide world, thought Borders had a real economic future [ Twitter Post ]. July 18th, 2011.

Anne Lowery. Readers Without Borders. Slate. July 20th, 2011.


Author's Bio: 

Matt Vassar is a sales training consultant as well as a professor at Stanford University. His Secrets to Soaring Sales system can be found at: http://secretstosoaringsales.com/blog