Soft Selling

I’m on the record as hating, loathing, and despising desperate, clingy, and high pressure salesmen.  I love watching a good salesman at work, but the ones with an eau de used car make my skin crawl and insult my sense of professional standards.  This isn’t so much because the desperate hard sell doesn’t work – plenty of sales people have had successful careers based entirely on the strong-arm pitch, but because it lacks anything by way of subtlety or panache.  A truly great sales person is a problem solver; they find a problem the customer has, then solve it with something in their inventory.  If no such problem exists, they let the customer go on their way, but are friendly and informative in case a useful problem develops later.

Accomplishing that requires a great deal of manipulative skill.  Customers are, like all people, idiots of the first order.  Sometimes they think they know what they want, rarely that actually do, but usually they have a vague sense of need or want which they articulate using whatever salient thing has been advertised at them recently, then flail.  A sales person has to cut through the wrong ideas and the bad information, plant the correct information, and then convince the customer to do the thing they should have been doing all along.

The sales process is one where you have to wheedle information out of the customer while entertaining them enough that they don’t realize it.  It’s like planting exposition in your novel, except in reverse.  The questions are the same: Who are you?  What are your goals?  What are your obstacles?  And like a master expositor, a good salesman takes you through the process while you’re too absorbed to notice, and then presents to you a surprising but inevitable conclusion.  “You, ma’am, want the red-leather sectional with accent ottoman and a cushion upgrade.”  And they’re right, it’s just the perfect thing.

Sales is really just improvisational story telling.  Some customers are not your audience.  Some goods are not your genre.  The structure and the skills are all the same.

Which leads me to my absolute favorite thing to do, as a sales person: the half-nelson soft sale.  It’s a parody of the desperate, high-pressure sales person, the equivalent of foreshadowing doom by talking about bunnies, and the hardest part for me is to not cackle when I’m doing it.

It’s particularly useful in situations where the customer either wasn’t sure they were interested in buy X, or where you upsold them outside of their planned comfort zone.  They want X, it is the perfect thing for their needs, but they’re not sure they ought to, or that they can, or that waiting wouldn’t be better.  The is the moment skeevy sales people add pressure, start talking about falling inventory and concluding sales.  That’s cheap and tacky.  I do the opposite.  “We have a few of those left in stock.  But don’t worry, if we sell out, you’ll only have to wait six weeks for the next shipment.  That’s not a big deal.”  “If you’re not ready to make an offer, let’s wait.  If it gets sold in the meantime, we know what perfect looks like.  We should be able to find something close.”  You don’t hit them with the downside of failing to act, you just open the door and direct their attention to it by telling them not to worry.  Then you shut up and let their brains start spinning the scenarios.  If you’re good, you’ve told them stories about delayed shipments and settling for mediocrity already.  Not pointed stories, just chatter, filling the time.  It’s a story worth telling because it almost never happens, it probably won’t happen to you.

90% of the time, once you’ve properly executed the half-nelson soft sell, the customer closes the deal for you.  They’ll stare down the protesting spouse, glare at the astonished best friend, and do exactly what you just assured them wasn’t necessary.

The first time I did this as the furniture store, my manager thought I was crazy.  I let the customer walk away with a “I’ll get back to you,” and an assurance that they should take their time, there’s no rush.  Go ahead, put that book down, you’ll be able to sleep without reading one more chapter.  They didn’t make it out of the store before they broke, came running back, and demanded to buy everything I’d pitched to them.

I giggled for half an hour once they were gone.  My manager decided that I was definitely insane, but I knew what I was doing.

My business plan for the Real Estate stuff is based on a long game of this strategy.  My broker thinks I’m insane, but he’s seen my sales resume, and I told him up front I wasn’t interested in doing any of the tacky bullshit touted to Realtors as the hot best way to build business.  I’m hanging out with people, looking at pretty houses, and being very, very reassuring.  It’s lots of fun.

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