Selling Is Hard. 1 Easy Thing Can Make the Difference

Not going to lie. Selling is hard. Marketing your product or service to convert better than another brand is just plain difficult, as so much advertising sounds and feels and looks the same.

Not going to lie. Selling is hard. Marketing your product or service to convert better than another brand is just plain difficult, as so much advertising sounds and feels and looks the same. Add that to the harsh reality that the minor differences between brands offering similar products and services often don’t mean much to those discriminating buyers on the other side of the screen, conference table or phone.

And all of the “tricks of the trade” marketers use, like discounts, free gifts and compelling content, are the same tricks the old dogs have been using for many years. And they just don’t move buyers to action all that much anymore.

So what’s a marketer with a big sales lead quota to meet every month to do?

Stop Selling

Stop selling and start persuading. I’m not talking about persuasion in a manipulative sense that relies on one’s ability to master a carefully crafted telemarketing script that gets people to believe promises and sign up for an offer that often seems to be good to be true — because it is. I’m referring to persuasion in a natural sense, which involves influencing people to believe you, trust you and give you a chance because you are real, and really honest, reflecting the kind of person people see themselves to be vs. reflecting a polished sales rep with an arsenal up their sleeve.

If you Google “persuasion for selling,” you’ll get many lists of proven and best-practice persuasion skills from all the ”authorities” like Entrepreneur, Inc., Forbes and more. These include things like “playing hard to get, talking the talk of their industry, establishing authority and using words that make you seem trustworthy.” True, these telemarketing words may influence some to engage in a sales journey with you and your company, but there’s another big factor that persuades people to act on your offers even better: Transparency.

Everywhere we go, we are bombarded with marketing messages telling us if we do or buy something, we will be better. Be it prettier, richer, sexier, faster, smarter and so on. Yet so little of those advertising promises really come true. That form-fitting black dress just doesn’t look the same on the average Size 14 body as it does on the not-so-average Size 2 of the model in the ad. And when the dressing room mirror doesn’t lie, we end up leaving with negative feelings about ourselves and often about the store or brand associated with our missed expectations.

What does leave us with positive feelings that leave us trusting, believing and open to buying is when marketers, salespeople, brands, and stores create realistic expectations and are not shy about discussing the realities that many of us don’t want to face. A good example of this is Target. Instead of just showing models with zero body fat in swimsuits on in-store billboards, the brand shows women who look like many of their shoppers. Women who wear a Size 10, 12, 14 — because they have a few bulges that show when wearing a bikini. And at Target, these bulges show in larger-than-life photos at the point of sale, unashamed and unabashed.

In B2B, transparency rules. When we admit our flaws and imperfections, we are more approachable and most importantly, believable. Unconsciously, the mental wall or defenses break down among consumers when they listen to people who have flaws, have experienced failures just like we do and have. No one wants to surround themselves with perfect people and, thus, live with the pressure of being perfect, too; or the suspicion that perhaps that marketer or salesperson is not as good as they claim to be or is selling them promises they know will be broken. We do want to align with people who have ups and downs, successes and failures, just like we do.

One of my favorite examples of transparency in selling comes from Cam Conklin, VP of global sales and marketing at Innovatus Imaging, a leader in the medical device space. His approach is simply:

“I won’t promise to get everything right 100% of the time. But I will promise to fix any issues or problems on our part 100% of the time.”

By being real and never over-promising, Conklin opens doors other can’t.

Beyond Conklin’s example and sales philosophy, here are some tips for increasing transparency:

  • Sales Is Hard. Tell Those Stories: Every person and every brand has stories; some good and some not so good. As you tell your stories of success and how wonderful your brand is, tell stories about what it took to get there. What are some of the hurdles your company had to overcome to get to place of success you currently enjoy. A story of how your customer satisfaction rates were once in the 80s and what you did to get them in the 90s tells a customer many things about you. For one, your company doesn’t settle for “good enough,” but rather works hard to improve. Second, your company cares about customers and making them happy. And three, your company is willing to invest money in creating better experiences vs. just paying off shareholders and increasing executive bonuses.
  • Project vs. Promise: Ask any purchaser in any industry, and you’ll likely hear that their greatest frustrations include the hype and over-promises of sales executives. Over-promising doesn’t just occur in promising big returns like 90% success rates, record turn-times for repairs or services that maybe you achieved once but can’t duplicate consistently, and so on. It happens with the words you use. Do you promise or predict outcomes? Or do you project the possibilities according to real statistics from real customers? We are okay when economic analysts or politicians project certain outcomes, as we know that they may or may not happen and that they are projecting from statistically valid data that may or may not represent a trend. If marketing and salespeople share statistics and data that support projections for outcomes vs. implied promises like “All of my clients have achieved 100% increases in growth since hiring me,” chances are, they will achieve better outcomes.
  • Admit Your Failures, Because Selling Is Hard: Instead of trying to paint yourself as the poster child for a perfect account executive, and deliverer of all that your prospective client seeks, be real. Sales is hard. Admit when you have failed, discuss why, and describe what you did to fix the problem. My example: As a consultant, I have always achieved substantial increases in response and revenue generated from my psychology-based marketing campaigns tested against controls. Except for once. I broke even vs. delivering the triple-digit increase I implicitly set up as the expectation for my test. My failure was in trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. I took a marketing campaign that wasn’t failing and tried to elevate it when, in reality, the customer target didn’t need anything more to decide to purchase it or not. I learned a key lesson: If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. And learn to walk away when something or someone really doesn’t need your help.

To the above point, walking away is hard to do, as we are wired to compete and win business. Yet walking away pays off. You don’t set yourself up to fail, you can focus your resources on other opportunities, and you gain a higher level of respect from the target client who, in turn, may hire you just because they have discovered just how much they can trust you. We all hear stories of how David Ogilvy would walk out of a business pitch for a new advertising account if he discovered the competitors’ ideas were better than his. Takes a lot of guts to do that. And clearly, as Ogilvy has ruled the agency world for decades, this level of transparency did not hurt his sales or his legacy.

As you develop marketing and sales strategies, presentations and supporting marketing messages, take a step back and do an in-depth “reality” check. Dare to face your failings, not just your strengths, admit your limits and boundaries, and build your messaging around what’s real for and your clients.

In the end, we are only as good as our successes. And how we learn and help others learn from our failures.

Embrace Failure to Achieve Success

Too many marketers fear failure instead of embracing it. They fear that reporting poor results will be viewed as poor management. Instead, they should be positioning their results as learnings. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does; yet the fear of failure permeates many corporate cultures, discouraging risk-taking and encouraging the status quo.

failure
(Image via iskandariah.perubatan.org)

Too many marketers fear failure instead of embracing it. They fear that reporting poor results will be viewed as poor management. Instead, they should be positioning their results as learnings. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does; yet the fear of failure permeates many corporate cultures, discouraging risk-taking and encouraging the status quo.

There have been many times when I proposed a limited test plan with a small downside only to have it rejected by the client in favor of “the way we’ve always done it.” Following the course that nobody ever got fired for may be the politically safe option, but breakthrough results are never achieved from the status quo. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”

Reporting on the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon, The New York Times noted, “While other companies dread making colossal mistakes, Mr. Bezos seems just not to care … That breeds a fiercely experimental culture that is disrupting entertainment, technology and especially retail.” (June 18, 2017) Commenting on Bezos’s style, Farhad Manjoo said in his column State of the Art, “The other thing to know about Mr. Bezos is that he is a committed experimentalist. His main way of deciding what Amazon should do next is to try stuff out, see what works, and do more of that.” (NYTimes June 19, 2017) Something direct marketers have done for decades.

Learning to embrace failure is an acquired skill. Smith College has instituted a new program called “Failing Well” to destigmatize failure for the high achievers who are admitted to the prestigious school on the basis of their perfect resumes. Smith’s Rachel Simmons says, “What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s a feature.” (NYTimes, June 25, 2017)

David Ogilvy, a strong proponent of testing and measurement, addresses the importance of embracing failures in the Ogilvy on Advertising chapter entitled “The 18 Miracles of Research.” He relates a story about a client who had invested $600,000 (a large sum in Ogilvy’s day) to develop a new product line. Ogilivy says, “ … our research showed a notable lack of enthusiasm … When I reported this discouraging news to the client I was afraid that, like most executives faced with inconvenient research, he would argue the methodology. I underestimated him. ‘Dry hole,’ said he, and left the meeting.”

Testing and experimentation is easy in the digital marketing environment. Even the best-conceived test plans will produce more failures than successes. Embrace those failures as valuable learnings.