Selling Without Making the Buyer Feel Sold (Part 2 of 2)

(This post was originally published in

In yesterday’s post, I suggested that most salespeople feel a tension between the felt need to sell, and the desire not to make buyers feel like they were being sold. There is a solution, I suggested, which parallels some characteristics of gifts. They create an obligation to buy, but not in the tight, transactional, market-based way we think of as selling. Instead, they create a friendly, bonding form of loose-obligation. Selling based on that approach–being willing to give freely of sample advice for a period of time to a select group of candidate firms, ends up being highly profitable. Today: Why it’s hard to do, how to do it, and thoughts on the paradox of selling this way.

Why This is So Hard to Practice

The best salespeople practice this technique already: they freely give of their expertise—a tiny bit to everyone, and a lot more to a select group of people.

They don’t expect sales from any particular person at any point—yet they definitely expect an aggregate amount of sales from an aggregate amount of leads. They just don’t know from whom or when. But as long as the return rate remains high, they are quite happy not to be more controlling with any one lead.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking is the opposite of what passes for Received Wisdom in sales these days. Tools like reinforce the idea of more control, smaller time increments, and more metrics. The dominant theme in improving sales is about efficiency, not effectiveness.

Every transaction is treated not only in isolation from others but is broken down even more finely. Behaviors are sliced and diced, incentives more finely tuned. Qualifying the lead happens more frequently and at shorter time intervals. The net effect on customers is to feel more mechanically processed. They will resent the actions and will push back.

How to Do It

It takes a strong personality to not give in to the general business demand for short-term and impersonal sales techniques. But the rewards of staying the course are great. The way to think about it mainly comes down to two changes: less control in timing and in metrics.

Timing: Take a longer view of the desirability of a particular lead. It’s the ability to show a sustained, genuine interest that offers the chance of a relationship. This doesn’t mean you don’t screen and exclude buyers; it means you do it more definitively and less frequently.

Metrics: In a longer timeframe, decision metrics become far simpler, and selling can focus on relationships, not evaluating transactions. Are you being invited in? Are they returning calls? Is there a real project being discussed? If yes, keep it up. If not, stop it.

The Paradox of Selling

Yes, you still want to sell what you sell. And yes, they still don’t want you to control them.

Don’t choose one or another, and don’t sub-optimize. By lengthening your timeframe and reducing the precision and number of metrics, you open up space for natural human instincts to work. In that context, you can intelligently give the gift of sample selling, and you can reduce the need to control that gift. That way people can feel the natural inclination to reciprocate rather than the resentful guilt or rejection that short-term control induces.