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.

Free Lunch Tuesdays

I refer to Tuesday as my free lunch day because, while it’s true that I get free lunch, it’s much more pleasant than the more accurate, “Get up early to listen to people lie with statistics,” days.  In other words, it’s the day of my broker’s Sales meeting, followed by a property tour where desperate Realtors use food to bribe people into looking at their listings.  Given the economy, and the market, most people are desperate.  And there are few things that crawl under my skin like desperate sales people.  We hates them, precious, yes we do.

The good news is that overall, showings and transaction rates across the state are up.  The bad news is that Dane county (that’d be the Madison area for the non-locals) is down.  This is weird because Dane county has been the bastion of stability throughout everything.  It took a hit, but not nearly so bad, and the market here bottomed out and started recovering first.  Now the rest of the state seems to be recovering while Dane county is sliding toward a double-dip.  “Why do you think that is?” asked my broker, who last week was talking about how great this summer is going to be.

People hemmed and hawed and talked about foreclosures in the rest of the state going back on the market – which is bunk because if that were true the inventory levels and market saturation numbers would reflect it – and other equally fuzzy explanations.  I honestly do not know whether these people are that short sighted and delusional or what, but I snapped and said the obvious.  “Scott Walker.”

What’s special about Dane county, the reason that its trends are overwhelmingly stable compared to the rest of the state?  Public sector employees.  The Dane county work force is disproportionately public sector when compared to the rest of the state.  It’s a side-effect of hosting the state capitol and its flagship university campus.  The people in this market are terrified.  Also, I called this happening back in February.  Roughly 100 out of 14,000 Realtors believed me.  Maybe I should change my pen name to Cassandra Lay.

Other things that annoyed me: When talking about how properties in the $650,000+ range are moving pretty well while the middle of the market is stagnant, somebody treated us to a rant about how the rich people are smart enough to buy low and sell high, but the masses are too stupid to see the wisdom there and do the opposite.  Or, you know, they’re selling now because they have to since they’ve lost their jobs, or taken massive pay cuts, or are leaving the state.  We’re not talking about finicky stock investors here, we’re talking about people coping with the most brutal recession since the depression.  I think they bloody well know it would have been better to sell three years ago, except they didn’t need to then.

The thing is, this doesn’t just rub me on the general “stupid people being stupid” way, but it also gets my “incompetent, desperate sales people,” peeve.  How can you expect to do right by your clients or be effective in this market when you are busy twisting numbers into the picture you want to see and deluding yourself about your customer base?  This is just as bad as the furniture sales people who wouldn’t talk to twenty-somethings wearing jeans and T-shirts, when in Madison, they’re likely to be the ones with too much money.  And yeah, that meant there was less competition for a valuable market, but come on, there’s no fun in winning because your competition is too incompetent to compete.  At least learn to read a bar graph, please.

So yes.  Tuesday is my free lunch day.  Otherwise, it’d have to be my, “I really hate other Realtors,” day.