Billy Joel and Elton John: Sales lessons from their concert

Sales Vocabulary

I had the opportunity to see the Rolling Stones kick off their US tour in San Diego a few months ago. What was most mind-blowing was how Mick Jagger at 87–or whatever he is now–bounced around stage like he did when he was 30.

Great concert overall. But one of the best ones I’ve seen was in 2009. Billy Joel and Elton John played together and I saw them when I still lived full time in Omaha.

The music was what one would expect from these two legends. And I loved it for another reason. I learned and reinforced some sales lessons.

Billy Joel and Elton John are two of the most popular, talented pianists/performers/entertainers of our time.
At this concert they both sang together to begin the show, then each performed separately. Then they finished together again with their biggest hits. The place was electric. 

However, in my opinion, one of them clearly connected with the audience better, and received a warmer response.

He expertly did things that we also do –or should do–as salespeople and communicators.

That person was Billy Joel. 

Don’t get me wrong, Elton John was fabulous, and I would pay to see him alone. In fact, I prefer his music. It’s just that Billy Joel was masterful in his handling of the crowd.

Let’s look at how. 

Elton played his set first. He mentioned the obligatory, “It’s great to be in Omaha,” which drew a big cheer. That was about it regarding his rapport with the crowd.

He could have been playing in his living room by himself. The music was great, he just wasn’t present.

Then Billy Joel sang his first song.  After it, he stopped, looked at the audience, burst into a big smile, and and brief conversations with several sections of the arena as if he shooting the bull at the bar with some buddies.

He then turned and joked with the section behind the stage, saying, “I bet you thought those were going to be bad seats,” which they weren’t, since the stage was backless. That drew hoots and laughs. 

He used some local humor, next pointing to the far upper end of the arena, “And you people way up there, sitting over in Council Bluffs, thanks for coming.” Council Bluffs is across the river from the arena, in Iowa.

That comment brought the house down. I’m sure it wasn’t tough to incorporate that local comment, but it had a huge impact. Just like some of the research we do to learn about our prospects and customers. 

Further addressing the people in the nosebleed seats he said, “If you can’t see me, I’m the guy who’s six-foot four, a cross between Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise…with flowing blond locks.” 

Of course he’s pretty much the opposite of all of that. And the crowd roared again. Self-eprecating humor helps us connect with others, as opposed to trying to be aloof, or a know-it-all in the sales process. 

Elton John did not acknowledge the other members of his band. After each song, Billy Joel introduced one of his many band members by name, and where they were from. It was not all about him. Just as in sales, it should never be about us.

Further, he again added some local flavor by making a point to emphasize that one of his guitarists was from LINCOLN, NEBRASKA.

That of course went over well. The more you can relate to what is going on in your listener’s local, physical world, the better the connection.

Elton John’s piano was stationary on the stage. His back was to my section on the side of the stage the entire time.

Billy Joel’s piano spun around, so that he was facing all parts of the crowd equally. Again, small point about making it about the audience, and connecting, contributing to the total impact. 

I am always amazed by people who do things 
that I have zero talent or aptitude for, and musicians certainly fall into that category.

My musical experience consists of being a disc jockey for weddings during college (I did over 400 receptions in four years!). As a result, I still know a lot of songs from that era. And when I go to a concert, like many people, I prefer to hear the songs I know.

For the most part, these guys excelled in this area, since they have about a gazillion hits between them. 

However, Elton John played one, maybe two new songs–one excruciatingly long–while most of the crowd politely sat. He looked like HE was enjoying himself. (Compare that to the salesperson who talks about what HE wants to talk about.)

Billy Joel, however, played only the well-known hits, delighting the crowd, singing along to every song. Again, it was about the audience. 

It reminded me of what Kix Brooks, of the famous country duo Brooks & Dunn told me. (I know, huge celebrity name-drop here.)

I played golf with him about a year and a half ago the day of their concert in Phoenix (a good friend of mine is a good friend of his). He’s a down-to-earth, regular guy, and a pretty good golfer (we tied with 82’s).

I asked him if he was going to play lots of songs from their new album. He looked at me, smiled and winked, and with his slight Southern drawl said,

“Art, when you got 16 Number Ones in the rack, people get pissed if you don’t play ’em.”

So true. 

Of course, being a sales geek, I found a way to turn a concert into a sales lesson. Billy Joel helped the crowd buy him by making it about us, personalizing and customizing his comments, and overall projecting a warm vibe that made him likable because he genuinely cared about his audience. 

Sounds like a good model, doesn’t it?


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