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.

Marketing Promises: Does Your Brand’s CX Add Up?

Customer experience (CX) is more critical than clever ads and interesting content for getting new sales, securing repeat sales, referrals and loyalty. And it’s been this way for more than a couple of years. So how is it, then, that we continue to get really bad service from some of the really big brands that have the resources to really know and do better?

Customer experience (CX) is more critical than clever ads and interesting content for getting new sales, securing repeat sales, referrals and loyalty. And it’s been this way for more than a couple of years. So how is it, then, that we continue to get really bad service from some of the really big brands that have the resources to really know and do better?

Bad customer experiences, including difficulties customers have getting information about your products, not only kill sales, but can wipe out all of your efforts and spend on marketing, and actually backfire. Take this next statement seriously if you want to keep your job.

If your marketing promises a happy, customer-first friendly experience through words, offers and images, but your sales and customer service are not lined up to deliver accordingly, change your marketing or don’t market at all!

Missed expectations don’t just miss the mark, they miss the ability to generate trust, loyalty and referrals from customers. Oftentimes, they create such bad impressions people go to the competition and tell everyone how bad your business was!

Case in Point: Here’s a rundown of the experience I had just this week with Lowe’s while shopping for new kitchen countertops.

  1. Visit website and find no information on pricing for options listed.
  2. Go to the store and look at samples.
  3. Salesperson tells me she can’t help me, but the guy tied up on the phone can.
  4. Wait and he never acknowledges us, so we leave.
  5. Go to website and look for granite and quartz styles.
  6. Again no prices, no measurement guide or cost estimator to guide selection.
  7. Call the store again.
  8. Told I have to call the store closest to my house, as prices change at each location. (What? Does this mean they mark up prices when they think they can get away with it?)
  9. Call the local store.
  10. Am told sales rep is out to lunch and will call back.
  11. Never does.
  12. Connect with online chat that tells me they don’t have prices.
  13. Call the store again.
  14. Get sales rep, who tells me she’s busy, but will call me back.
  15. Never does.
  16. Get an automated email from sales rep per the online chat I did.
  17. Sales rep has no idea I am the one she told she’d call back, but never did.
  18. Email sales rep asking for prices.
  19. She sends me category prices, which are of no help as they are not listed on website.
  20. I email back as to what styles are in the lower category.
  21. She emails me names of styles that are not on their website.
  22. I delete the email and get an estimate for various options from Home Depot in less than 10 minutes, using its online estimator based on actual prices listed on website.

That Lowe’s experience involved 21 touchpoints or actions on my part that went nowhere.

A friend of mine bought a microwave from Lowe’s and paid for installation, which was promised in 48 hours. Instead, he got a series of unreturned calls, and excuses from employees, which included, “It’s been a long day so I can’t help you; I’m going home early,” over eight days. He returned the microwave and shopped local, where he got the same microwave for less money and got it installed in 24 hours.

Its advertising promise is, “Never Stop Improving.” But perhaps Lowe’s needs to change it to “Never Will Be Improving” as this kind of service, and difficulty in getting information about products you are trying to buy, is unconscionable and has been for years in this decade of customer experience strategy and technology.

On the other hand, Home Depot’s promise, “More Saving. More Doing.” was right in line with my experience. It DOES provide information about products online and on the phone. It DOES provide guides to help you determine what you need and what your costs will be, and it DOES help you save by offering discounts frequently. Even though it, too, didn’t return phone calls. I totally don’t get that for any business.

The purpose of sharing this story is not to call out Lowe’s, even though it deserves it, but to make a critical point. Your ad copy, marketing promises, content offers and more, MUST align with the experience you offer at all touchpoints of a customer journey. You can’t just come up with a great slogan that promises unexpected, delightful service and products. You have to deliver!

When people see slogans like “never stop improving,” they call or chat or go to the store with an unconscious expectation that their experiences will be an “improvement” over what others offer. When this does not happen, the levels of disappointment and respect fall deeper than if they had not seen your promise in the first place.

Unfulfilled expectations from slogans are much like “fake news,” as they become fake marketing promises that can kill a brand as quickly as fake news can a politician.

Take inventory of your customer service protocols and see just how well they align with your promises. Here are some tips:

  • Mystery shop your own brand.
  • Pay a friend to mystery shop and give the friend some tough questions or situations to pose to your staff.
  • Find out what your NPS score is. Do your own NPS survey and, if you’re a big brand, go see what SatMatrix and others list it as. Is your experience worthy of referring others or not?
  • Survey customers immediately upon purchase and ask them to evaluate their experience in their words.
  • Ask customers to rate their experience by the words you currently use. If you promise, “friendly,” “extraordinary” and “best in class,” how much do they agree with you?
  • Make employees feel like they matter to you and they will make customers feel like they matter to them. A simple, yet critical and often overlooked concept that costs almost nothing.

Actionable Takeaway: Define how you want customers to feel after every touchpoint with your brand. Create an experience protocol for all to follow that supports that outcome. Train your employees on how to deliver on your marketing promises, and make sure they are promises you can keep! Every day, every customer.

Delivering on the Marketing Promise

We all know that promises are made to be kept. And let’s assume that most marketers are intent on delivering the promises they make, even if the promotional wording of those promises may be somewhat exaggerated.

marketing management
“community-manager,” Creative Commons license. | Credit: Flickr by Enrique Martinez Bermejo

We all know that promises are made to be kept.

And let’s assume that most marketers are intent on delivering the promises they make, even if the promotional wording of those promises may be somewhat exaggerated.

The problem is that unless we can truly control every step in the journey from the first promotional articulation through to the timely receipt of the goods or service and payment, Murphy’s law — “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” — may come into play. I remember many years ago making a unique “Act Now: One Day Only” offer for a book club membership drive and being hit by the season’s worst snowstorm at the end of the “One Day Only.” We waited and waited for the response: one day, two days and only on the third day did the mailed orders begin to trickle in. Of course, it never caught up with expectation.

Not long ago, a Brazilian marketing company had launched a major campaign for magazine subscriptions using, as a medium, promotional inserts in a bank’s monthly credit card charges’ mailing. The bank promised that 100 percent of its invoices would have the insert. When response was well below tested expectations, it was discovered that only about 60 percent of the promotional pieces had been inserted: Someone in the lettershop had mislaid boxes of the printed inserts and never alerted anyone, lest it slow the tightly scheduled invoice mailing. Had the marketer endured the boredom and personally paid a visit to the facility when the job was being run, a significant and very expensive disaster could have been averted.

We have no way of managing the customer’s expectation other than scrupulously delivering what we have promised or even a little more than we have promised — just in case Murphy is hanging around. We all know that one of Amazon’s greatest strengths is its delivery follow-through. It doesn’t only “ask” for — it almost insists — on customer feedback. It carefully monitors every step of the process and listens and responds to comments, whether bouquets or brickbats.

Sadly, in my experience, not enough companies listen carefully to the recordings of telephone interactions the law requires them to announce and proactively respond to about customer complaints.

We are at a strange time in marketing’s history.

We have more tools than ever before, and these allow levels of sophistication not even dreamed of only a couple of decades ago in the age of Addressograph plates and before computers were on every desk. But it seems that the promise of the future — super technology to deal efficiently with all the minutiae of the selling, purchasing and payment processes — often falls short of keeping that promise.

The easy thing to do is to blame it on “those lazy, overpaid, long-haired techies” and software that “doesn’t do what they promised it would do.” But, as the saying is, “the fault lies not with the Gods but with ourselves.”

As managers of data-driven marketing enterprises or service companies, most of us have come a long way from the days when management by walking around (such as visiting the lettershop facility in the earlier example) was in vogue. That meant actually seeing if what was happening where the real work is done, away from our elegant offices, matches the promising PowerPoint presentations we see in the conference room.

Our customers want and need us. They applaud with their purchases, in the convenience and economy of the digital world where everything is immediately available and even better than promised.

But for those of us who have left the “reality” down on the shop floor and manage by keeping an eye on our ever-fancier dashboards, it might be good to remember the anecdote about a possible future airline flight whose passengers were told that the flight was historic, the first one to have no crew. The joke about that flight is the announcement promised: “This flight will be flown by a faultless new technology and nothing can go wrong … go wrong … go wrong.”

We would do well to make sure that our promises are being kept the old-fashioned way — walking around.