Is Selling Too Hard? Maybe You’re Doing It Wrong

The Financial Trust PuzzleMost salespeople love athletic metaphors. For example, consider these well-known maxims:

  • No pain, no gain
  • The harder you try to hit the ball, the worse you do.

Note – these two platitudes express precisely opposing points of view. So – which is the right answer? Is it effort – or form? Is it grit – or ease?

Many sales pundits will tell you that an essential ingredient in selling—perhaps the essential ingredient—is effort. Gumption, grit, hustle, sweat—whatever the word, the image it conveys is that success in selling is tough. No pain, no gain.

This view posits selling as being like football: the team that exerts the most effort is the team that wins.

And there is a lot of truth in that viewpoint.

But consider another truth. Think about hitting a golf ball. As anyone who’s tried can attest, the quality of your golf shot is in inverse proportion to your effort. That pleasing “thwock” of a well-struck iron almost never comes from trying hard.

Instead, the “trick” in golf is not how hard you swing—it’s how smooth, relaxed, and “at ease” your swing is. If you’re swinging too hard, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong.

And there’s a lot of truth in that viewpoint as well.

But here’s the thing – most dichotomies like this are false. Selling isn’t only like football, or like golf. It’s both – in different ways. But that’s a different article. This article is about just one side—the golf side, if you will, where if you’re working too hard at selling – you’re doing it wrong.

Adam Smith, Competition, and Selling

Blame it on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, if you will. The Scottish moral philosopher and economist famously claimed that by the self-oriented struggling of the butcher and the baker, the “invisible hand” of the market makes itself known by balancing out all for the greater good. Out of individual selfishness grows the maximum collective good.

While Smith has been unfairly characterized as arguing against regulation and in favor of unfettered free markets, there’s no question that his powerful formulation rhymes with competition—individuals seeking their own betterment. Perhaps ever since, business has been full of metaphors from war and sports. And nowhere are those metaphors more prevalent than in sales.

Take just one sport alone: pitch, curve ball, hitting cleanup, bottom of the ninth, pinch hit, get our signals lined up, strike out, bases loaded, don’t swing at the first pitch, home field advantage, double play, we’re on the scoreboard, leaving men on base, pop-up, foul ball, home run hitter, shut-out, and so on.

Here’s the thing about sports metaphors: they’re all about competition. Real Madrid vs. Barca. Yankees vs. Red Sox. All Blacks vs. Wallabies. Seller vs. competitor.

And—most of all—seller vs. buyer.

Selling without Competition

It’s hard for most people to even conceive of selling without that competitive aspect between buyer and seller. Isn’t the point to get the sale? Isn’t closing the end of the sales process? If a competitor got the job, wouldn’t that be a loss? And why would you spend time on a “prospect” if the odds looked too low for a sale?

When we think this way, we spend an awful lot of energy. It’s hard work—particularly because much of it is spent trying to persuade customers to do what we (sellers) want them to do. And getting other people to do what we want them to do is never easy (if you have a teenager and/or a spouse, you know this well).

There is another way. It consists in simply and basically changing the entire approach to selling.

The first approach is the traditional, competitive, zero-sum-thinking, buyer vs. seller—the age-old dance that to this day gives selling a faint (or not-so-faint) bad name. It is one-sided, seller-driven, and greedy.

Social media haven’t made this approach to selling go away—they have empowered it. Just look at your inbox, spam filters, LinkedIn requests, Instagram feeds, Twitter hustles, and pop-up ads on the Internet.

And boy do you have to work hard to sell that way.

The second approach is different. The fundamental distinction is that you’re working with the buyer, not against the buyer. Your interests are 100% aligned, not 63%. If you do business by relentlessly helping your customers do what’s right for them, selling gets remarkably easier.

You don’t have to think about what to share and what not to. You don’t have to control others. You don’t have to white-knuckle meetings and phone calls because there are no bad outcomes.

Selling this way works very well for one fundamental reason: all people (including buyers) want to deal with sellers they can trust—sellers who are honest, forthright, long-term driven, and customer-focused. All people (including buyers) prefer not to deal with sellers who are in it for themselves, and constantly in denial about it.

This is the golf part of selling: the part where if you lighten up, relax the muscles, let it flow, you end up with superior results. And there’s a whole lot of truth to that view. If you’re working too hard, you’re not doing it right.

6 replies
  1. Dave Bard
    Dave Bard says:

    Companies that continually employ these core business strategies (honest, forthright, long-term driven, and customer-focused) will continue to succeed

    Reply
  2. Frank
    Frank says:

    I think the football versus golf comparison is misleading. It takes a lot of practice to be “effortless.” Similarly it takes a lot of work to effectively align yourself with a specific customer. So there is “pain” involved. And on the football side, corporate buying and selling are both team efforts. So both metaphors are imperfect, but both can be appropriate for the same transaction.

    In neither case is the relationship competitive. Football teams compete and golfers compete, but they don’t compete with each other. The buyer and the seller are playing different games. Even the most exploitative transaction will not take place without expectation of gain on both sides.

    Reply
    • Charlie Green
      Charlie Green says:

      Good points, Frank, thanks for unpacking the metaphors. Left alone, each is too blunt to bear an entire story line.

      Reply
  3. Clint Fyke
    Clint Fyke says:

    As you point out the athletic metaphors seem to be too confrontational, competitive with the seller vs buyer. I like the metaphor of their dragons to slay. The basic premise in an influence situation is that the audience has a problem, a decision to make. The agent provides A solution. The inner conflict of the decision maker has been externalized and objectified by many with the objection label. While sellers often view these as obstacles they have to overcome, they have nothing to do with the agent. They represent outward expressions of issues the decision maker is facing internally. The agent needs to realize that the solution they represent is never perfect. That doesn’t mean it isn’t the best option for the client. Often other issues take precedence over “perfect”. Focusing on context first can solve many issues. Decisions have no basis without context. Who, when and where can be easiest to consider. Problems are usually not isolated to the decision maker. Broadening to include the other affected parties can shift perspective enough to generate different options. Bringing other “who”‘s into the picture often changes decision criteria. Sometimes that can be the decision makers biggest problem. They have listened to too many other views and need to narrow based on prioritizing for themselves, not other individuals criteria. This shows that who can be changed by broadening or narrowing who should be considered in the decision. Too often the issue for a client is they seem stuck in a perspective. It can lead to trance like behavior and programmed responses. The agent needs to shift the context since the context acts as part of the trigger for those responses. The narrowing and broadening of who, when and where variables causes different option generation concerning decision making.

    Often information can trigger different options. Have you ever said or heard someone say, “if I had known that I would have…”. It usually is after the fact but the speaker generated a time line internally, put themselves back before having made a decision and saw a different future. Natural internal processes like this can be harnessed by the agent to help the decider “slay his dragons”. Acknowledging those processes help them move through the process. We all try to act responsibly by being frugal, That doesn’t mean just cheap. The right solution needs to come first. But once we know the final price tag we can get onto the next stage and not stay stuck in an unproductive place. Asking the decision maker if now that they know the final price does how to pay for it represent the next issue. That draws a line on price and addresses financing that otherwise can be part of a bigger picture. By partitioning the different contexts along a timeline you can separate the solution problem from the finance one. Too often time comes bundled across a span with many problems bundled inside. The biggest one sticks out often overshadowing the others. By taking apart the bundle and setting up a timeline to let them cross each bridge as they come to them, we take the buyer/audience from being overwhelmed to sequential problem solving. One step at a time with focus on each context.

    Remembering that they have the most to lose helps. An agent simply moves onto the next client. The person with the problem will have a solution or still have the problem when that happens. If they will still have a problem, what does that look like? What compromises come as a result? How costly are they? And consider the who, when, where questions for that. Who will be affected, for how long and what other problems will that create? How expensive will that be, later? Things are unlikely to get better, do they have to get worse before actions need implementing? Taking them down the road of not solving an issue, makes them own it. Now “we” can do something about it, together. Creating a “we” let’s “us” move past a you vs me mindset. Help them past their obstacles. Objections are their issues, not yours. Their dragons to slay. Line up the dragons, hand him the sharp weapons to slay each in turn, make him the conquering hero, celebrate his victories with him.

    Reply
    • Charlie Green
      Charlie Green says:

      I like the use of “the common enemy” as an alternative metaphor; helps deal with some of the difficulties pointed out by Frank, above.

      Thanks to both of you for the thoughtful responses.

      Reply
  4. David Heath
    David Heath says:

    It seems to me that there are really only two reasons to wrap an activity into a neat little bon mot. Either you’re attempting to package up your success into a bite-sized communicable piece… or you’re trying to justify your failure.

    There’s really nothing in-between… otherwise, what was the incentive to say it?

    Reply

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