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.

Day 4 of 5: Trust-based Business Development in a Recession: Principle 3, Long-Term and Relationship Focus

This is day 4 of 5 in our week-long series about selling in a Recession using the Four Trust Principles. Today’s principle is Principle 3—Focus on the medium-to-long term, not the short term. This implies a focus on relationships, not transactions.

Even more than the other Trust Principles, this one is relevant to selling in recessions.

On Day 1 we suggested that the right trust-based attitude in a recession is to remember that down cycles are only half the story—and the half in which trust is most indelibly created. All strong relationships live by the motto ”for richer and poorer, for better and worse…”—and the test of the relationship is rocky times. The time to harvest trust is in good times; the time to build it is now.

You find out who your friends are when times are tough. You find out who really cares about you when they have to choose between self-serving and other-serving opportunities. And others find out how you make those choices. By choosing to defer self-aggrandizing activities in support of your customers—precisely when it’s hardest to do and takes the most courage—you increase your service to your customers the most, and earn their trust.

The suggestions that follow are built from that perspective. Please–add your own ideas to the list so that everyone can benefit. Here are 10 ideas to prime the pump:

1. Buy two tickets now for a major cultural or athletic event scheduled for mid to late 2010. Send one to a highly favored customer or client, with a note saying “We will get through all this, together, and I look forward to celebrating with you once we do. Keep this ticket in a safe place, because mine is the seat next to yours.”

2. Pick your top 3 clients, and strategize internally on how you can strengthen your relationship for the long run. Then go discuss those plans with those three clients, telling them exactly what you’ve done, and why.

3. Help everyone you know who has been laid off – provide advice, contacts, and/or just listen. These are people who are potentially great customers down the road; but don’t do it for that reason, do it because you care.

4. If you’re a consulting organization, now is a great time to establish your alumni network. And if you already have one, kick up the level of involvement. Host cocktail parties in various locations. Establish or update the directory. Get your alumni an intranet page, or a devoted Facebook group or other aggregation. Facilitate their networking.

5. If you’re a lawyer or consultant and not using social media to connect with your clients, now is the time for this type of investment– build your network and help your clients build theirs.

6. If you are one of the many unfortunate individuals who has lost a job, don’t burn bridges in anger, hurt or frustration. You’re now selling you. Keep the long term in mind. Join the alumni network—or offer to help create one. Use social media. Begin networking ASAP. Leaders don’t like causing hardship—they prefer to help. How you act in the days after a layoff advertises your trustworthiness.

7. If a key customer is in the middle of an important job with you and they can’t afford for you to finish it, talk it over with them and offer to defer payment until such time as the customer can pay. That could be a long time. But if the relationship is good, this generous offer creates trust and greatly reduces the risk of nonpayment. And the cost of financing these days is very low. It doesn’t cost much to be generous; it lowers credit risk by creating trust and reciprocity; and showing a little faith and courage does wonders for the relationship.

8. Consider what you can offer your clients’ children. Seriously. A financial planner in Canada offered free investment planning education to a client’s 12 and 14 year old children. His co-workers chided him because there were no fees associated with it. His response was, “are you kidding? Their father loves me for it; that’s good for referrals. And someday his kids will inherit a lot of his wealth. I’m in this business for the long haul—my lifetime and the lifetimes of my clients.”

9. If you offer a client a special "one off" deal, be clear about why you’re doing it. For any deal you craft now, imagine doing the same deal 100 times under similar circumstances. Would you? Would your client? If you didn’t answer “yes” to both, go back to the drawing board. Don’t worry about what you’re going to “get” in the near-term, or even from whom. It all works out in the end when we’re willing to do what’s right. And the end is what matters when we’re living this principle.

10. If you’re a leader, be prepared to lead in a most personal way. The month after 9/11, Koh Boon Hwee, then-chairman of Singapore Air, described the US airline industry’s reaction to the drop in travel: “they laid off huge numbers of employees.” By contrast, at Singapore Air, Koh took a massive pay cut; his direct reports took sizable hits; and everyone took a significant but smaller pay cut. He laid off no one. It’s no wonder that travelers, employees and shareholders alike are loyal to such companies. They live the trust principle of long-term focus, and are richly rewarded for it.

Trust-based Selling in the Real World: Bruce Abbott

Judy and I were in San Francisco a few months ago and ducked into a shop in Ghirardelli Square full of gorgeous wood carvings—One of a Kind. I’d been there before; beautifully turned bowls, unique tables—if you love wood, you’d love this store.

We noticed a unique sculpture—a Balinese statue of a woman, 5 feet tall, nearly Giacommetti-thin, carved from a single piece of wood. We quickly realized it was the piece we’d been looking for to fill an important empty corner at home.

The price was surprisingly reasonable. We bought it.

Bruce Abbott, the proprietor, took complete responsibility for the packaging and shipping, saying he’d personally supervise the packing, advising us on insurance, etc. Incredibly busy, he nonetheless managed to serve us impeccably and with great conversation (ask him about Bill Clinton asking to use the bathroom on a recent visit.)

The piece looks great at home. And I sent Bruce a note complimenting him on running a good set of business processes and an obviously successful business. Here’s his response (excerpted):

"People rarely appreciate all the details and "process" involved in a business like this, which starts at the "roots" and gets refined into pieces such as the one you received. I spend time in the woods selecting woods for my production and take care of pretty much everything else. I have help in my own production in the shop and also buy from several others, several of whom receive the wood they need from me.

"The store, at the moment, is full and very beautiful. I no longer worry so much about the cash flow but just try to produce and keep the store at higher and higher levels of fine woodworking and yet affordable. We have many things under $30, $20 and under $10.00, all of which are still cool pieces. I just make it difficult for people to walk in and not find something they’d like to have even if they cannot buy at the moment."

“I just make it difficult for people to walk in and not find something they’d like to have even if they cannot buy at the moment.”

Think about that as a trust-based philosophy of doing business. He’s saying:

• I’ll carry inventory that’s not likely to sell just now
• I don’t sell, I just make it easy to buy
• I focus on customer needs, not cash flow
• I’m building a store for your next visit, and the one after that.

The essence of trust-based selling is a paradox. If you stop trying to make the sale, and instead focus on helping the customer get what they want, you will end up getting more sales.

I won’t get into the psychology of it now; just enjoy clicking through pictures of some beautiful pieces at One Of a Kind .

If you go there, say hey to Bruce for me, and tell him I’ll be back again.