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Chapter 16: Selling Without Selling

Although many of us want to buy, few of us like being “sold.” This proves a strange paradox for a marketer. It shouldn’t; it’s just that the notion of selling is somewhat misunderstood. Many think that a sale happens when you “close the deal.” I argue that this is only a small part of the process, which occurs rather late in the game.

Booty calls

A booty call is an eleventh-hour call for sex. I have firsthand knowledge of this because I was a young, horny idiot. During my early twenties, I’d sometimes find myself on the couch watching a movie, thinking, “she seemed to like me, and she’s probably not doing anything… It couldn’t hurt to ask.” I’d make a phone-call under the guise of, “seeing what you’re up to.” The nature of these calls was painfully transparent to the recipient, and mostly left me with the sole option of, um, “amusing myself.”

The next day I’d awake, embarrassed by my late-night blunder. Worse yet, I was left with the skewed notion that no one was interested in dating me. “No one ever says ‘yes’... what’s wrong with me?” Sadly, most companies do something quite similar. They treat sales like a booty call, and therefore miss opportunities by fixating on just getting another dollar in the cash register.

In part, I blame the film Glengarry Glen Ross, which taught too many over-ambitious young men to “Always Be Closing.”88 More than this, we’re all in such a rush that we’re willing to sacrifice that which is in our best interests in exchange for short-term gains. Let’s start this chapter with one simple agreement: you and I will never make a booty call (professional or otherwise) again. Deal?

“But I’m not good at sales!”

Ask those who run companies about finding good salespeople and you’ll get a lot of similar responses. I suspect that 9 out of 10 will say it’s the toughest position to fill. Few of these kinds of people have adequate understanding of our offerings and many of those who do, share characteristics with Larry from Three’s Company. If that reference is unfamiliar, just imagine that stereotypical “used car salesman” we see in the movies and on television.

Although I don’t consider myself a salesperson, I’ve wandered into roles that have required sales efforts of one form or another. Again, this is by no means my vocation, but rather something I’ve had to do because no one else was willing to. My first experiences of this sort were at age 14, when I started a hand painted t-shirt business. I was so nervous making calls that my voice raised two octaves when I spoke. It wasn’t pretty, but I learned one big thing from doing it: all you have to do is talk. That’s my big sales insight. Sure, there’s a little more to it, but if you get this one part right, I don’t think you’ll ever struggle with sales again. It will also get you past that general feeling of dread you experience when tasked with sales activities.

Shots on goal

Summer jobs were in short supply when I was in college. So I went door-to-door with hundreds of resumes under my arm, willing to take on any job that might be offered. This led to a couple of weeks of treeplanting, and even a short stint in a fast food restaurant. Eventually better things came along. Of all these brief posts, I learned the most from my two summers of selling bottled water subscriptions. Given all that I had done to get a job, I was happy walk around town asking businesses if they might like to buy some bottled water. I made $7/hr. and an additional $7 for each placement I made. In retrospect, it wasn’t particularly easy; I wore a shirt and tie on hot summer days, walked for stretches of up to twelve hours, and a few people were sort of rude. The nice part was that I could make a few extra bucks by putting in some extra effort.

You’ve likely heard the Wayne Gretzky quote, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take” many times, but it means little until you’ve experienced it for yourself.89 In sales I quickly learned that I had to hit a certain number of calls. If I only visited 5 offices a day, I’d be left with minimum wage, or worse yet, get fired. On the other hand, if I managed to reach 200 different businesses, the odds were higher that I’d find someone willing to give us a try. I started to measure the number of calls made on a crude spreadsheet documenting areas, business types, and interest levels in those I met with. I only found one clear (and rather obvious) pattern: the more calls I made, the better my return. It’s just simple math and jotting down the number of calls made daily keeps you focused on making these numbers work in your favor.


Around the same time, my dad and I met with a financial planner. I think my dad hoped this experience would rub off on me, and perhaps lead me to start investing at an early age. (It didn’t.) The meeting was eye-opening, though, and I’ll never forget it. The fellow we met with was well known in our community—first for the media presence he had established through advertising, and later for rumors of some rather dubious personal affairs. Upon arriving at his office, we met the man himself: a boisterous but dim-witted fellow in an ill-fitting suit. I could hardly remember why we had volunteered for this; I suppose it was because he had established “top of mind” awareness, and my dad wanted to hear him out.

After shuffling papers and taking calls that were apparently more important than my father and I, he looked at my dad sternly and said, “Sorry I’m in such a rush—I have to give a talk in an hour and my receptionist is away. Let me put it to you like this: give me ten thousand dollars today and I’ll call you when you’re rich.” I smiled. It was perhaps the gutsiest comment I’d ever heard. All the same, I had to wonder, “Does anyone actually ‘buy’ a line like that?”

Getting past every jerk in sales

I’m somewhat saddened by the idea that “Mr. Gutsy” probably wrangled a fair amount of business by simply being so confident. At the same time, I suspect this bravery didn’t get him far in the long run. Although his audacity was notable, he left me with a dirty feeling. We left his office with little interest in ever seeing that guy again. His wasn’t a big company but he allocated great sums in advertising just to get people into his office; yet, he blew his chance to turn us into customers. I suspect he watched Wall Street a few thousand times and could recite the Gordon Gekko “greed is good” speech on command. Unscrupulous jerks like this have led many to buildup strong armor in order to keep salespeople at bay. This armor has become so strong that it can prove outright intimidating when someone like you wants to talk to people about your offering.

Sweaty and tired on a particularly hot day, I walked into a small refrigeration shop to be met by a rather unhappy receptionist. Within a nanosecond of entering the room she barked, “So what the hell are you selling?” I was feeling beleaguered and had little interest in reciting the “pitch” that had developed over my many days of talking. I halfheartedly responded, “Just water. I don’t mean to bug you—look at the brochure and call if you’re interested.” I started to quietly slip out when something funny happened. My lack of a polished pitch served as a strange sort of “sales kryptonite.” Before I could escape, she started a conversation with me. We talked for a while, but not about the product—just talk. Soon we knew a little about one another; moreover, she had a water cooler on order for their office and one for their shop as well. I kept in touch over the summer and she even referred us to a few others.

I can’t say doing this will work in all instances, but it is something I’ve experienced firsthand on many occasions. Just being a decent person can shut down otherwise bulletproof defense mechanisms. The tough part is, you can’t fake it. Phony attempts at sincerity stick out like a sore thumb.

The lessons I learned over those summers can be boiled down to two things: numbers and sincerity. I still think they’re the most important lessons I’ve learned about sales. If you don’t contact enough people you won’t stumble upon opportunities; likewise, if you aren’t “yourself,” no one will give you the time of day.

“Right, but I still don’t know anything about sales”

Many use “not knowing” or “not being good” at sales as an excuse. Make no mistake, it’s still just an excuse. You may not be interested in sales, but you sell all the time. We all do, we just don’t call it that.

Whether you’re trying to get a date, ace a job interview, or persuade your kid to eat their vegetables, you’re in sales. What’s worth noting is that sales has more to do with attitude than personality. I’m “not any good” at farming, but if there’s no food, I’ll start planting seeds and watering. If you love your company, you have to sell. You might even ask how you could get everyone else to do it too.

Every staff member needs to understand that without sales, you’re dead. With this in mind, I think it’s reasonable to ask everyone in your company to take part in sales efforts. Besides, it’s really not that difficult. When your fellows spend an extra moment to chat with customers during a delivery, they are selling. Maybe they’ll just build rapport and share a laugh; alternately, they might make note of an upcoming sale or new service you offer. None of this should be practiced or insincere. Think of it as connecting with people and reminding them that you’re ready to help when they need you. The simple fact is, the livelihood of your organization—and every person within it—is directly related to your ability to persuade people to try you out and stick with you. That sort of thing should be a team effort.

Theirs is a “human-like” machine

I’m perpetually amazed by how willing companies are to sacrifice client relationships by using outsourced call centers. I can’t recollect a single good experience I’ve had with one. On paper, these services must seem irresistible to middle managers. Just think: “we can cut costly local staff, be rid of their idiosyncrasies, and replace them with a low cost team overseas that can work 24/7.” Sure, this makes sense on paper, but it belies the importance of human relationships.

I’ve seen a call center in action; the one I saw was like a machine with human cogs. On outgoing sales calls, the operator consults a sheet of numbers, and works through them one at a time. Rarely do these digits even have a name associated. Instead, they start with a number and move up sequentially. Each card holds dozens of numbers, and the same script is employed each time. The script is actually a highly practiced flow-chart, with clear responses for any objection someone might voice. Organizations like this want to streamline—allowing people to speak freely would put a wrench in the system. It would seem that call centers like this are perhaps the clumsiest ways to initiate a relationship.

Inbound call centers are equally bad, and often seem less interested in resolving our problems than handling a situation. Just for fun, try asking someone from a call-centre for their name. They may share their first, but rarely anything more. What does this say about their brand? This company wants our trust, but their people won’t even tell us who they are.

The “anti-call center”

I’ve expounded on my pure disdain for call centers and how dumb I believe such entities to be. Might companies that spend many millions on advertising be better served by cutting some of those costs and instead servicing their customers? Few do and I propose the notion that by employing call centers, big companies leave you with a huge opportunity. Let them pour their money into billboards and television ads while they starve their customer service departments. Your size allows you to do the complete opposite. You’ll get to know your customers and make them love you one-at-a-time. You’ll create advocates for your company. You will become the “anti-call centre.”

When you make contact (be it on the phone, by email, or on the showroom floor) try to think about how uncomfortable such interactions can be for the other party. Certain things run through their minds, and each one can shut down your “sale” before you even start. Some won’t know who you are or if they can trust you. Others will worry that by talking to you, they’ll feel somehow obliged to buy something. Additionally, people tend to have things happening in their lives other than your company. Perhaps their cat died or their kid is getting bullied at school, either of which would make your sales call seem awfully unimportant.

Remember, this isn’t a booty call and you’re not trying to make a quick sale. You’re introducing yourself and explaining what you do. No persuasion—just a brief “hello.” The sole purpose of this interaction is to let the customer know that you’re available when they need you. After you’ve done that, get out of the way and give them some room to breathe. Maybe ask if you can check back in every once in a while, but don’t smother.

If they show interest, I suggest you talk without any rehearsed script and just embrace any mistakes you make. Actually, these can help illustrate that you’re a person, not some machine trying to get them to buy. Look at this person like they are a friend of your mom’s. Are you really comfortable with what you’re saying? Come on… they’re going to talk to your mom about this later today. Are you really helping, or just saying what it takes to make a sale?

Repeat: You just want them to know you’re ready if they need you.

The two most damaging words to your brand

I use profanity around my kids and am not particularly concerned about them eventually picking up some of those words. Sure, there are times when it may be inappropriate for them to do so, but overwhelmingly, the words don’t concern me so much as their intent. There are other seemingly innocuous words that offend me far more because of what they actually mean. I’m going to mention two of them; hopefully this will be the last time we ever need to reference them. The words are: “company policy.” They basically mean, “Fuck you, we’ll do whatever we want.” Allow me to share a story that will illustrate how I think words like these killed a small shop.

My mom is great. All kids have to say such things about their moms, but mine is a notably wonderful person. Once, about a decade ago, she thought it would be fun to go shopping on Boxing Day. We had a batch of gift certificates, and she wanted to buy her sons some new clothing.

Before we started, we had to swap some slippers that she had received as a gift. They were a size too small, and we felt it smart to exchange them before the rush. Upon arriving we learned that they didn’t have her size and wouldn’t receive any for months to come. Given that they were just slippers, she decided to get a refund and buy something similar, elsewhere. The store was empty, aside from three salespeople. There weren’t any lineups of crazed Boxing Day shoppers looking to buy arm-loads of slippers; nevertheless, the manager made a grunt of sorts and pointed at a sign that read, “No refunds or exchanges on December 26th.”

This seems like a rather silly policy doesn’t it? Sure, it might be necessary from a crowd-control perspective, but it sends a terrible message—specifically: “Even though you paid full-price, you matter less to us than bargain hunters.” We acknowledged the necessity for such a rule, but noted that it seemed odd, given that no one else was even in the shop. The response was a cold, “company policy” with little other explanation. There was no negotiation or flexibility; the discussion eroded and the sales staff became rude and standoffish.

We returned a week later for the refund and never visited the shop again. Six months later it was gone. I wonder if the phrase “company policy” might bring with it an expiration date for businesses.

The two most important words in sales

I make mistakes all the time. These are mostly small blunders but I sometimes screw up spectacularly. All of this is manageable because of two delightful little words: “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry” comes in a variety of models including: “We’re sorry,” “I can’t believe this happened,” “We totally screwed the pooch on this one,” and “Oh my God! I’m such a complete and utter idiot!” All work similarly, but in the interests of brevity, the first one will probably serve you just fine. These are powerful words. I think that if you take only these from this (most spectacular) book, you’ve pretty much got your value from it.

The single problem with “sorry” is that people throw it around a little too easily. Think of the brooding teenager who grunts it out to appease a parent, without even a moment’s reflection. Being “sorry” is one thing; doing something to correct the oversight is quite another. I think the perfect companion to, “I’m sorry” is a serving of, “Let me fix this for you.”

Although many speak excitedly about “service,” I think things like call centers are testament to just how feeble such claims are. As the anti-call center I want you to operate with the notion that 99.999 percent of your customers are great people who want to buy more of your stuff. When things go wrong, it’s the perfect time to prove that you’re worthy of buying from again. On that seemingly unexciting moment when someone calls for support or to complain, I ask you to look at it as the best sales opportunity you’ll ever have.

I’ve found that I’m many times more “wowed” by a company that sincerely apologizes and fixes a problem than I ever am by a clever advertisement aired during the Super Bowl. One of these gets a chuckle; the other keeps a paying customer. It’s up to you to decide which one you would prefer.

Removing barriers

As consumers, we often think long and hard about purchases before committing to them. This is good as it helps us reach a more objective state before acting. When you’re in sales, though, there does come a time when this process must end so that you can close the deal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proposing that you push people into doing something they don’t want. That would be short-term thinking that would damage your brand in the long run.

I’m talking about the person in your shop who loves that patio furniture (or whatever you’re selling) but seems unable to take the next step. In this instance, saying something like “Why not give it a try?” might be necessary. There’s nothing pushy about this, just a friendly nudge. If they’re already leaning toward buying, this may be all they need: permission to act.

Most purchases aren’t “life or death” cases; unless you’re buying rattlesnake anti-venom, but really… how often does one really do that? I’ve witnessed people who clearly wanted what we were selling held-back by only a tiny thread of uncertainty. At these times, I feel that my job is to remove any reservations that don’t need to be there. Part of this comes down to reminding them that they’re in complete control. Let me share how we do that.

Although I believe our firm offers good value, hiring us generally isn’t cheap. I also know there’s a lot riding on this purchase in the mind of the buyer. So I remind them that they’re “driving” and that the choice to hire us isn’t made just now, but all the way through the process. I encourage them to call some folks we’ve worked with in the past and ask about the service we’ve provided. I also remind them that they can “fire us” if they are ever unhappy. I’d really like to have a chance to fix the problem, but if this isn’t good enough, they can pay out the time worked, and we’ll happily go our separate ways.

What’s important to remember about these promises, is that if you don’t stand behind them, they’ll mean nothing. Word travels quickly, and misleading a client will eventually do more damage than if you hadn’t made any promises in the first place. I can only speak from my own experience, but when we relax our grip on clients, relationships tend to flourish. Still though, my cell-phone carrier locks me into dodgy contracts that leave me feeling burned.

Sales when no one’s buying

Sometimes you can’t do anything to make a sale. You’ve answered all of their questions, built rapport, and prepared the best price possible. Still, they’ve decided to go elsewhere, or not buy at all. This can be a weird position, particularly if you’ve put a chunk of time into earning the sale. Early in our operations I met a fellow named David George. He runs a printing and stationery company that’s been in his family for decades. One day I confided in him about our frustration in not getting a particular contract. We weren’t unqualified for the project—actually we had won the job. A few days after being awarded it, though, the job was cancelled for political reasons, and we sort of got the short end of the stick.

David understood how I felt in part because I think he’s a little short-tempered, like me. He said, “Eric, you’re always going to have things like this happen. All you can do is smile and tell them that you’ll get the contract next time.” I haven’t spoken with David in a long time, but that piece of advice stuck.

Most prospects won’t convert to a sale and you’ve just got to accept that and take the crunchy with the smooth. Getting emotional or acting like a jerk when things don’t pan out doesn’t get you anywhere. They might not buy today, but they might tomorrow, or an associate might, or the company they chose for the contract could screw up and they’ll need you to come in and save the day.

It’s probably better if they want you

The worst handicap in sales is desperation. When we start our companies, though, we’re often not far from that emotion. That’s why it’s so important to keep your operating costs low, so no single sale feels too important.

We were very hungry when we started our company. We worked hard to land new contracts, which wasn’t a bad thing. I also think there’s something to be said for “going with the flow” at times. I learned this a few years in, when we had a consistent stream of work running through our studio. As we eased off on selling our stuff, people seemed to want to work with us more. It’s like they could sense our confidence, and this made them feel comfortable in hiring us. Repeatedly, we’ve experienced this same counterintuitive pattern. I call it the “nightclub principle.” In a nutshell it comes down to this: no one goes into an empty nightclub, but one with a lineup seems to attract hordes.

At these times, when we have many contracts in the queue, more customers seem to come to us without much directly related effort on our behalf. We’ve seen the same kind of thing happen with our online communities. When one of them sees a little increase in activity, other people (sometimes through no discernible entry point) start using it as well. My mom says, “When it rains, it pours.” I just think everyone’s looking for the party with the most action.

Selling value

There’s a great difference between the terms “price” and “value.” In my mind, it’s pivotal that those in sales determine how to sell the value of their offering instead of the price. Not doing so leaves a company vulnerable to anyone with ample funds who’s willing to wage a battle of attrition. These are bloody things with one clear outcome: the business with the deepest pockets outlives the other.

Unless a product is a pure commodity, most buyers are open to considering its value and weighing it in their decision making process. Just look at Toyota—sure, their cars come with a higher sticker price than many competing domestic brands. Most of us accept this as we think Toyota offers greater overall value. We reason that their better quality and reliability will result in lower operating costs, and command higher resale value. Only a chump buys something cheap today that costs more over its lifetime.

Value comes in many forms. Some buy suits that cost a great deal, but they find value in a garment that fits them well and makes them feel their best. Others will buy a Mac made up of parts very similar to that of a PC, because they appreciate the beauty of an aesthetically refined object, and this makes their time spent on a computer more palatable. Some also find that it makes more sense to pay more at a specialty shop than a box store as doing so gives them access to intelligent suggestions and greater product knowledge.

I was recently confronted by the argument that good software developers write code that is ten-times more efficient than that of their less skilled counterparts. Fred Brooks, author of The Mythical Man-Month explains, “Programming managers have long recognized wide productivity variations between good programmers and poor ones. But the actual measured magnitudes have astounded all of us. In one of their studies, Sackman, Erickson, and Grant were measuring performance of a group of experienced programmers. Within just this group the ratios between the best and worst performances averaged about 10:1 on productivity measurements and an amazing 5:1 on program speed and space measurements!”90

The curious part is that a good developer generally isn’t paid ten times more than an average one. Paying twice as much for such a person would be a bargain. So an extra 25 percent should seem like a no-brainer, right? This is a perfect example of how value trumps price so exponentially.

Your job is to clearly articulate the value of your product or service. That shouldn’t be too difficult, should it? If it is, you have bigger problems on your hands than sales.

Two dentists

Upon moving, I was tasked with finding a new dentist. Out of simplicity, I called up the practice my wife had been using. Amea noted that her dentist had been great, but was now retired and that a new fellow had taken over his practice. She had yet to visit him, but it seemed like this was as good a place to start as any.

I arrived at a well decorated office with nice views. Everyone was pleasant but perhaps overly so. After completing several pages of forms regarding my health, I met my dentist. He asked, “What would you like to change about your smile?” Given that I had put my modeling career on hold (joke), I was sort of irked by his question. I hadn’t scheduled a meeting with a plastic surgeon; yet, his practice seemed geared like one. Screens around me played commercials extolling the virtues of perfectly aligned teeth; likewise, numerous racks of brochures promoted a variety of cosmetic procedures.

By the end of my visit his assistants had me booked for another (that I later cancelled) and I was given an estimate of the dental work that I needed. It felt as though I had been fed through some kind of machine, which did everything to separate me from my money, short of shaking me upside down. Although his people called many times over the following few months to schedule appointments for me, I didn’t visit a dentist again for nearly two years.

Finally the time had come to get another check up—I could only leave it for so long, after all. A friend of ours suggested that I visit Dr. Kerstin Conn, given the good experience she had found in dealing with her. After months of procrastinating, I booked an appointment. I arrived at Dr. Conn’s somewhat bland seeming space, which felt like it had been left largely untouched since the mid-‘80s. There were no flat-panel televisions running slick commercials, nor were there any racks containing glossy brochures. No one was overly made up nor were they as eerily shiny as I found in the other practice.

After I was seated, Dr. Conn introduced herself and started to clean my teeth. She explained that she began her career as a dental hygienist, later earning a degree in dentistry. She noted that she liked to clean each patient’s teeth personally, as it helped her better “know” their teeth. I was asked about pains or discomfort, and we discussed some of the procedures that had been deemed necessary by my old buddy, “Dr. Shiny.” She examined the x-rays, poked about in my mouth a little and finally said, “I’d love to sell you something, but your teeth are great. You don’t need anything at all.”

I was ready to pay for the procedures I had once been told were necessary. Nevertheless, this dentist did something both ethical and rather smart. As a result of her honesty, she had gained my trust. Next time, she could propose a costly procedure and I wouldn’t question it. She gained this by seeing me as a person, instead of just a prospect.

That’s selling without selling.

The signature on the dotted line isn’t the end

The smart salesperson knows that they continue to sell all the time by taking care of their clients. They understand that it’s important to regularly check in with clients and make sure they’re doing alright. When someone does buy your stuff, don’t just rush-along to the next prospect. Instead, take care of them and ensure that they’re still pleased with what your company is providing to them. Take the time to care for those who have already committed to you. Not doing so may leave you cold-calling, and that’s truly the most arduous and demoralizing task in sales.


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