Sell me this pen? No, thanks

I confess, I’ve always had a problem with selling.

I don’t mean the basic process of exchanging goods or services for money; it’s the whole elaborate paraphernalia – cold calling, pitching, negotiating and closing and the rest – that makes me cringe.

I think it’s because the fundamental motive of any sales related activity is just that – to get the other guy to buy the product – and that’s about doing whatever it takes to ‘win’, to impose your will on that person.

Back in the early days of relationship marketing, I read a Harvard Business School case study about a pizza parlour that handed out free pizza and money off vouchers to people whose house had just burned down. It was held up as a great example of relationship marketing, but for me it highlighted a dilemma at the heart of how you interact with your customers. Free pizza is altruism, but if your motive behind it is winning customers (and you underline that with money off vouchers) that starts to look a bit like cynical opportunism, and for me that leaves a taste in the mouth worse than a dodgy anchovy.

In my ideal world, every sale is a straightforward, honest, transparent transaction. I know what I need, I find the best quoted price, I buy it. My ideal world has no-one calling me to tell me it’s my lucky day because they have a great deal on something I never even realised I wanted.

If you say ‘Sell me this pen’, I’ll reply ‘Do you need a pen? You can buy this one if you like, but, hey, no pressure, there might be better ones for what you need.’ Not so much Wolf of Wall Street, more Squirrel of South Ascot.

Okay, I know the whole sales process is a lot more complex than that, and there’s all sorts of good stuff now about understanding your customer and establishing a relationship, and it’s all underpinned by the power of social media and big data, all helping us to achieve customer intimacy Nirvana.

And I think these elements have altered the whole sales dynamic. There’s a lot of talk about the rise of the ‘empowered customer’ who makes intelligent buying decisions based on much richer data than in the past, and who has an ongoing, adult dialogue with their preferred suppliers.

Many businesses have used this to drive more enlightened, stakeholder type customer relationships, whilst others have just used it to drive new and sneakier ways to dupe the punters into buying their product – bogus Trip Advisor reviews, anyone?

I’m a ‘glass half-full’ person, and I believe the enlightened, transparent approach is winning, even outside the digital space.

In my last job, where I was responsible for some fairly large spend, I found that the vendor account managers I dealt with fell into two broad categories: crudely, the ones who were focused primarily on their sales targets, and the ones who were focused primarily on my needs as a customer.

The proposition I always put to a prospective vendor was to build a relationship, share intelligence, and accept that even if they did that well, the best they would get would be a seat at the table when I needed to tender for something.

Over time, I found a growing number of account managers prepared to work to that model, and a dwindling number who persisted in expecting me to swoon in the face of their awesome sales technique and get the chequebook out there and then.

So maybe my problem with selling will go away and we’ll get to my ideal world where every sales deal is an honest, transparent transaction between equals.

Bad news for the wolves, but squirrels – you’ll inherit the earth.

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