man walking with umbrellaThough I have had the privilege of traveling extensively and enjoying a variety of climates throughout the US and the world, I find that, without consciously realizing it, I have always been a sun person and now happily find myself in the arid, sometimes 110° F (43° C) heat of Tucson, Arizona.

A few years ago, I had 2 experiences in rainy climates that taught me a lesson about business. I think the high level of discomfort that I felt from prolonged exposure to gray skies and rain put me into an unusually high state of focused attention. Or, maybe it was all the coffee I drank?

I worked for 6 months in Amsterdam and then transferred for 3 months to Seattle, Washington, where I noticed a distinct difference in the “rain” culture in the two cities. Now, I had always believed that when it comes to marketing and sales in business, a winning philosophy was captured in the saying, “when it is raining, sell umbrellas”, and for most of the world that is true.

In Amsterdam, umbrellas sprout like mushrooms when it rains. In fact, the higher-end local hotels offer umbrellas for guests to take out as they leave to go on an afternoon walk. The hotel guests stay dry and the hotel benefits from a low-cost advertising and brand awareness campaign as their guests sport prominently logoed umbrellas. Locals use umbrellas as well. In fact, it is quite common to see Dutch men and women expertly balancing themselves on a bicycle with a pack over one shoulder, one hand perched on the bicycle handlebars, and the other holding an umbrella.

In Seattle, the use of umbrellas is generally restricted to the tourists. Locals tend to embrace the rain and maintain a close physical relationship with it. In fact, while walking into a local Starbucks a barista asked me where I was from because “no one from Seattle would be caught dead with an umbrella”. That statement immediately changed my perspective, and from that moment on, I noticed that locals generally did not carry an umbrella. I also finally understood how the “grunge” style had developed out of people wearing clothes suited to the rain without umbrellas. A true revelation!

So, this experience called into question my long-held marketing philosophy of “when it’s raining, sell umbrellas”. It forced me to get more specific and revise the philosophy to fit my newly found real-world experience to “when it’s raining, sell umbrellas, unless your target customers are from Seattle, then sell them coffee.”

Even in a downturn, sales continue to happen for most industries. Those companies that manage to survive and thrive always find a way to sell what customers really need and want in the slower economic environment.

We say, “when it is raining, sell umbrellas”, meaning to identify what customers need at the moment and then sell it to them, but be careful to really get to know your customers because what they want might conflict with what you consider to be reasonable or logical. Maintaining a high level of sensitivity to your customer’s needs will help you see the hidden opportunity that lies beyond your own perspective.

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