Selling Without Making Buyers Feel Sold (Part 1 of 2)


(This post was originally published in

One obvious purpose of selling is to persuade buyers to buy what you are selling. Most people have no trouble agreeing to that proposition.

Yet the harder you try to get people to do what you want them to do, the more likely they are to push back, resist, and generally behave contrarily.

Again, I think most people would agree.

Put those two statements together, and we can easily see selling as an ongoing struggle to get people to do what we want without making them feel that we are trying to get them to do what we want. Selling has at its heart a struggle to reconcile these two truths. You want to sell. They don’t want to be sold.

When two truths collide, one tends to lose, or they both tend to get watered down. But the way out is not to give up one goal (to sell) or the other (to not cause the feeling of being sold); it is to fully recognize both and transcend the apparent paradox.

It can be done. Here’s how.

The Tension Between Sellers and Customers

This paradox is hardly new. Sellers have palpably felt since time immemorial the tension to selling. Most sellers resolve the tension by one of three strategies:

  1. Defaulting to Truth One: hard selling 24-7 to anyone who comes within feeding range
  2. Defaulting to Truth Two: being nice and giving away money, relying on the hope that guilt will induce a sale
  3. Living With It: internalizing some form of denial, schizophrenia, or multiple personalities.

But there is another way.

The Other Way to Sell: Time, Gifts, and Trust

People resist being sold. But people love receiving gifts. In fact, receiving a gift induces a sense of obligation on the part of the recipient. Which suggests a strategy of "feels like" gift-giving might be the best form of selling.

For services businesses, there is an analogue to gifts—it’s what’s called sample selling in product businesses. Sample selling in the services might mean brainstorming, a small project, a "lunch and learn," a webinar, a series of articles, a series of conversations for which you don’t bill time, or sharing of some previous work.

Sample selling works even better in intangible services than in businesses that have "hard" products. The best way for a client to learn how to work with you is to let the client work with you. Create a sample experience.

But that’s only half the problem. The other half: if you set out to give a gift with the express intent of inducing guilt-based buying, you’ll get the reverse—outraged backlash at what is perceived as bait and switch, duplicity, two-facedness.

A gift has two features: it is open-ended, and it implies an ongoing relationship. (Think of Don Corleone in the movie The Godfather: "Perhaps, sometime in the future, and that time may never come, I will call upon you for a favor.") It is non-specific. It is not legally or logically binding, but it carries huge emotional obligation.

When we try to use the language of the market: "If you give me this, I will give you that" or "If you do this for me, I will do that for you," things change. That is the language of a contract, of money, of transactions.
The trick is for the seller to give up attachment to the specific short-term outcome of a particular gift to a particular buyer in a particular timeframe. The seller needs to give a sample as a gift, a generally social-obligating offer, not as a hard-obligating transaction.

Applied to selling, this means a strategy of loosely controlled sample selling is far more powerful than a tightly controlled strategy of transactions.

In simple terms, if you’re generous as a policy to a sensible group of people in the short term, many of them will buy in the long term.

Part 2, tomorrow: Why this kind of selling is so hard; how to do it; the paradox of great selling.