Why Listening to Sales Experts May Be Hazardous to Your Sales

A sales expert, I’m not. A trust expert, I think I’ve become. And it turns out, there’s a big overlap.

One of the interesting points in Neil Rackham’s classic SPIN Selling is that certain techniques developed for small-item selling – notably closing – actually backfire when applied to larger, more complex sales. In other words, “sales expertise” of a certain kind may actually be hazardous to your sales health.

That may not seem like much of an insight more than 25 years after the book’s publication. Since then, we have seen major growth in thinking about B2B sales, as well as the transformative impact of the internet on the sales function. Nowadays no one would be caught dead trying an “assumptive close” in a modern B2B sales interaction.

But does that mean all sales expertise these days works more or less? I don’t think so. In fact, there’s a glaring assumption at the heart of almost all sales systems, which, if not properly understood, will actually decrease your sales effectiveness just as much as improper closing techniques.

It is the assumption that the point of selling is to get the sale.

What Is the Point of Selling?

That may seem like a stupid question, with an obvious answer. What else could the point of selling be except to get the sale? And I’m not talking about the difference between single transactions and repeat business either. I’m talking about the very purpose, the underlying goal, aim, and objective of the salesperson, sales process, and sales function. What else could the purpose be except to get the sale?

The alternative purpose, may I suggest, is to help the customer. That is not a trivial distinction; it’s a meaningful one. It’s also a powerful distinction, and it’s one easy to achieve. But if you do achieve it, you’ll do better on many dimensions – including sales.

To see why, let’s first explore what it would mean to have a different purpose for sales – a purpose other than to get the sale.

Design Implications of Helping the Customer as a Goal

Suppose your primary purpose was to help a customer.  Just suppose, just for a minute. What exactly would you do differently?

You’d be less concerned about whether you won or lost the sale. You’d spend a little more time on situations where you thought you could help – and a little less time where you thought you couldn’t. You’d take more time with leads to help them determine the best way for them to get help. You would often end up referring them out to other related-service providers where you thought they might get better help.

You’d seek out slightly different leads and targets than if you focused solely on where you thought you could sell. You’d view your competitors differently – as alternative offerings to help your customers get what they need. You’d give up your time and expertise on occasion if you felt it would help your customers advance a key cause. Conversely, you might be quicker to embrace value-billing in cases where you clearly bring value to the table.

You’d talk less about your own capabilities, and more about what would be good for your customer. You’d be naturally curious about what your customer needed and what would make their business better. Your curiosity would extend outside and beyond your company’s service offering to include those of other firms.

If your organization similarly supported a goal of helping the customer, then the metrics you operate under would be changed as well. Instead of an emphasis on quarterly sales results, progress against closing, and forecasted probabilized backlog rates, you’d see consumer-focused metrics that speak to customer performance and result of that performance. Noticeably absent would be much of the fine-toothed combing by lawyers enumerating the thou-shalt-nots of the relationship.

Operationalizing a Customer-Helping Goal

Looking at the above statements, you’re probably having one of three thoughts:

  • “Those aren’t that bad, actually. We could do with a bit more focus like that.”
  • “Yes, but you have to make money.”
  • “Yes, but you can’t let customers just take advantage of you.”

Note that thoughts two and three have an implicit assumption: that if you don’t focus on getting the sale, you probably won’t get the sale. And that’s where the miracle happens.  Because precisely the opposite is true.

People don’t like to be told what to do. People don’t like to feel controlled. People respond positively to a sense that they are being listened to, and to people whom they feel have their best interests at heart. We respond positively to generosity, and we respond negatively to greed. We tend to return favors and avoid those who have burned us.

In short, we reciprocate. The lessons of game theory, marriage therapy, and political organization all point in one direction: favors done, attention paid, and interest shown all beget the same in return. This simple truth is deeply embedded in our simplest human interactions (think handshakes and smiles) and our most complex ones as well (cultural affinities and political alliances).

The main result of reciprocation is – more reciprocation. If you listen to me, I will listen to you. If you treat me well, I will keep coming back. If I buy from you and you respond well, I’m likely to keep buying from you.

Unless, that is, the seller gets selfish. All bets are off to the extent that we perceive the seller as self-oriented, selfish, manipulative, and driven only by his own needs. If we as buyers feel objectified, treated solely as walking wallets by the seller, then we reciprocate. We coldly calculate the value of the seller to us and become willing to walk partly because we also feel insulted by such behavior.

The Paradox at the Heart of Great Selling

The best sales come from interactions where the sale is not the goal, but a byproduct – where the sale is a natural outcome of an attitude of other-focus, genuine concern, and focus on the other. Where the attitude is long-term, not transactional, and built on an assumption of win-win rather than of scarcity.

There’s a paradox here. You do your best selling when you stop trying to sell, when you simply focus on doing right by the customer. That doesn’t mean you turn into a non-profit charity. There is still a role for profitability metrics, CRM systems, and funnel statistics. But they must become subordinate to the broader goal: helping your customer. Dial them back 90%, lengthen their timeframe, and don’t think of them while interacting with customers.

Are there customers who’ll take advantage of you? Sure, though not nearly as many as you think. And those who act that way are the ones you gift to your competitors.

If you help your customers, they’ll help you. That’s a rule that doesn’t need your thumb on the scale to work. Don’t force it. Make customer help your goal.


Are you Hard Selling or Wrong Selling?

“Sell” is a four letter word to most customers. And, less consciously, to most sellers as well. It is not an easy thing to pursue a profession that the dictionary—which after all simply documents what people really mean by a word—pronounces as mean-spirited.

Consider these entries and examples in the dictionary definition of “sell”:

· Sell out
· Hard sell
· Cheat, hoax
· To be employed to persuade or induce others to buy
· To force or exact a price for
· To accept a price for or make a profit of (something not a proper object for such action):
· Sell down the river
· Sell (someone) a Bill of Goods

Common to all those definitions is the root reason people find ethical issues with selling—the absence of a relationship context.

If you’re Robin Crusoe on a desert island, you can be said to live in a non-ethical environment (leaving aside animal rights activists and strict vegetarians for the moment). You cannot behave unethically if there is no relationship to an Other to be violated.

There are more than a few echoes of non-relationship thinking in sales: you can find it in people who define sales as “the fine art of separating the customer from his wallet.” You can also find it in technocratic, process-driven approaches to selling; they have sucked the soul out of sales by removing the relationship component entirely and replaced it with metrics and motivational incentives.

Such approaches go well beyond garden variety “immoral” sales behavior. If I know I’m tricking you, I may feel guilty, or not—but I know enough to pretend otherwise in most situations, I know enough not to admit it to certain people—I know I’m violating a serious social norm by cheating or hustling my fellow man. I am still rooted in relationships, even if I choose to violate them.

It’s completely non-relationship based selling that is non-ethical, or unethical. Those approaches treat the customer as Robinson Crusoe might treat a coconut—perhaps essential to his existence, but with no meaning beyond the nurturance of Crusoe himself. The customer as fodder, or as poker chips.

As the late Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute once said in typically outrageous fashion, “There’s nothing wrong with killing a million people; what’s wrong is killing them without thinking about it.” If you can stand his exegesis, the man had a point.

When selling is decoupled from human affairs, it is desensitized, sanitized, de-humanized; and it becomes an awful thing. The crucial human point of commercial contact—the sale—becomes an occasion simply for extraction of monetary value.

There is danger in over-metricizing process. There is danger in over-using terms like “human capital” which dehumanize humans. There is danger in the perversion of terms like “loyalty” and “relationships” into statistical detritus. There is danger in thinking that physicalist “explanations” like today’s neuro-noun buzzword are somehow more “real” than poetry.

There’s nothing wrong with hard sell. What’s wrong is wrong-sell, done without thinking. And selling without relationships is wrong-sell.