There's a reason why the only prerecorded sales conversations are at the drive-thru.

As a potential customer, there are those moments when you realize that you're no longer having a conversation with a salesperson, but merely a bit part player in an over-rehearsed play. You can hear the script kick in, the rote blurb that's carefully built to capture The Message, The Benefit, The Understanding, The Demonstration of Expertise, The Up-Sell, The Close. 

It's a disheartening moment. And it comes in a wide variety of bad and ugly. There are the minor annoyances, like when realize you're talking to a recording because McD's didn't trust the guy working the drive-thru to do the McRib pitch. And then there are the major manipulations, the "yeah, we can solve your business challenges with our superior technology solutions no prob" responses that lead to the prospect calling bullshit--or, even worse, to projects going millions over budget and other big probs for both the seller and the oversold. 

Full disclosure: I've written those scripts. Lots of them. And to a certain degree, they're unavoidable and sometimes essential. But when they overtake real conversation--whether that's because they're delivered with amateur theater aplomb or don't fit the moment--they're counterproductive.

Is it possible for sales to stay on message and, at the same time, engage in real conversation with customers? I believe so. Here are a couple of thoughts.

Be honest, even when it's not pretty.
I love McCann Erickson's old-school "Truth Well Told" tagline, and not just because I work for them. Trickery will only get you so far, and rarely anywhere with a sophisticated client. And why cover up at all when the naked truth is often the best way to establish client trust and begin true dialog.

This interview with John Burke, an Oracle group vice president for global sales, illustrates the advantages of honesty in sales. Here's a prime snippet:
Nobody is perfect and no company is perfect. It alienates customers when executives and salespeople try to pretend that they're like Superman and will fix all their problems. Now that I've taken a more humble approach that admits our limitation, customers are drawn in, and believe what I tell them, because they know I'm not posing as something or someone that knows it all.
Burke admits that this honesty takes lots of nerve, but that the raw vulnerability it generates can foster close ties to customers--an essential element for meaningful conversations.

Improvise, but stay on theme.
Being freed from a script doesn't mean random, however. In almost any selling situation, there are core elements that need to be there for the sale to succeed. But how you express those elements can vary. It's like jazz musicians playing standards: they solo differently every night, but the underlying melody and chord structure is always there to provide the base.

And where you go with the improvisation depends largely on the person you're selling to. The author of the fantastic book The Art of the Sale highlights a Moroccan, Abdelmajid Rais El Fenni. Majid, as he's called, has risen above dog-eat-dog world of rug and trinket salesmen. How? Here's how the author, Philip Delves Broughton, explained it in a recent article entitled, appropriately enough, Portrait of a Perfect Salesman:
Majid is a master at categorising sales leads (the people who walk through his door) and tailoring his approach. Sometimes you need to be patient. At other times, you must treat the customer as a king, to make them feel powerful and inclined to exercise that power by buying. Sometimes you need to teach, to establish your authority with customers who take you for a mere peddler. He compares the different modes of selling to gears in a car. “You change because the gear needs changing,” he says.
Tailor, tailor, tailor.
This is where the conversation part really kicks in. If you're constantly pitching, you're not listening. You're not learning. You're not understanding. You're not learning what's important to a person and what's drivel.

Social media is not a window into customer perspectives. It's a glass house. And as the HBR article Tweet Me, Friend Me, Make Me Buy states:
Developing in-depth knowledge of the client is the fastest way to position for a long-term collaboration. Sales remains a relationship-driven activity, but “who you know” is now trumped by “what you know about who you know.”
It's not just the niceties you can learn about from surfing someone's Facebook page, the birthdays and anniversaries that you know about and can use an excuse to send a fine box of chocolates. It's the moment a frustration is implied in a twitter post, which you can jujitsu into a conversation. It's the blog post that expresses an executive's strategic mindset that you can leverage in your meeting with his team. In fact, it's surely so much more than any of these trivial on-the-fly examples.

A blatant request for dialog.
Once again, sales folk, please let me know where I'm going wrong or right. I'd learn lots from a dialog with you, not to mention a teaching moment or two.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for the kudo, Matt. Feel free to post your brilliance here (and give 9 3/4 a big credibility boost).

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