Category Archives: Sales tactics

Sales Lesson #1: Don’t “Get” Your Customers to Do Anything!

Every so often, an article with a title like How to Get Any Customer to Take Action Immediately, burbles into my newsfeed. There are infinite variants. No matter what you want your customers and prospects to do, you can count on finding a putative method for making it happen. But for all the how-to’s devoted to getting customers to do things, it’s easy to forget that the goal, of course, is helping them succeed, and not twisting their arms – figuratively or otherwise.

If you ask top producing sales reps – those who truly serve customers – how they get their customers to buy, they’d probably be confused by the question. Instead, they’d reveal that they don’t get their customers to do anything. What produces their excellent results is their ability to guide their customers, and ultimately help them achieve good outcomes. Guiding versus Getting: these are fundamentally different approaches, with little in common. Guiding assumes prospects can be trusted, Getting assumes they cannot. Guiding sees prospects as partners, Getting sees them as objects. Guiding views prospects as capable decision makers, Getting views them as inept. Guiding relies on inquiry and collaboration, Getting relies on telling and insistence. In countless interviews I’ve held with successful sales professionals, I’ve learned they embrace Guiding in every customer interaction, and eschew Getting.

“How to get your prospect to [fill in the blank]!” What regularly emerges are manipulative high-pressure sales tactics that break customer rapport and erode trust. Instead of improving sales outcomes and buying experiences, the resulting behaviors and activities undermine them.

The top producers I’ve worked with have figured out a better way, and honed their skills accordingly. They begin with a natural curiosity, and connect it to a sincere desire to understand customer problems, limitations, issues, concerns, performance gaps, and strategic challenges. They uncover the intensity of motivation to change the situation, and learn the mechanisms their customers have developed for investing in solutions. And if customers lack the mechanisms, top producers guide them to create a path forward. From there, they harness the power of the customer’s will to change. The energy might be low, or altogether absent, which is why reps, often goaded by their managers, turn to Getting. My question to them: how’s that working for you? . . .

The best salespeople know that attempting to force customer action can become a distraction. It can also backfire. As one rep, Denise, explained it to me, “I don’t push the monthly specials the way management wants me to. They don’t work, and it’s not the way my customers buy . . . When I talk on the phone, there’s no sales urgency to my voice.” The year I interviewed her, she was her company’s top producer out of over 50 reps. Though her immediate boss wasn’t clear about the reasons for her success, her statement provides much of the answer: Denise guides her customers. She doesn’t get them to do anything.

Eight Marketing Gifts I’d Rather Not Have This Holiday Season

With the holidays rapidly approaching, people are beginning to think about the perfect gift to give a partner, friend, colleague, or relative. Best to plan carefully, because we’re regularly enlightened with new insight about which gifts not to give.

According to a 2015 Newsweek article, “42 percent of women returned holiday gifts from their husbands (who should theoretically have at least some insider gifting knowledge) . . . 17 percent of [gift] recipients planned to donate an unwanted present, 13 percent planned to re-gift one and 10 percent would simply throw the bad gift away. A GameStop survey indicated that 98 percent of their customers had received at least one holiday gift that they’d rather return.”  While such rejection creates a logistical pain for retailers, returns drive billions in shipping revenue for UPS and FedEx. At least someone’s happy.

These days, many of my friends and family have discovered the powerful efficiency of sending gift cards – a task they can complete in seconds from almost anywhere. They’re convenient for me, too, because I can spend them however I want. Still, it seems every year I wind up with a pile of marketing gizmos I need to get rid of. Stuff I never ask for, and don’t want to keep. If only I could find someone willing to take them back.

Item: holiday e-cards
Reason for return: Insincere – even the “personalized” ones. Worse than receiving a greeting addressed to Current Occupant.

Item: marketing and sales stories
Reason for return: Whenever I read one, I find myself hoping for candor, but I never find it.

Item: customer case studies
Reason for return: I get a bunch from vendors every year. They bother me, because the name connotes objectivity. Really, they’re just advertising.

Item: personalization
Reason for return: data hackers already know more than enough about me. And my ego can survive without seeing my name and personal preferences everywhere I go online.

Item: Twitter
Reason for return: I don’t like it when people attempt to explain complex issues like sexual assault and brain chemistry in 280-character snippets. Also, an accomplished executive destroyed her career when she Tweeted before thinking. That worries me, because it could happen to anybody.

Item: gamification
Reason for return: Demotivating and annoying. At this point in my life, I don’t need to measure everything I do, and I don’t feel compelled to enter the results into a competition.

Item: robo marketing calls.
Reason for return: Companies send this horrible gift every year. Nobody cares to take it back.

Item: chatbots
Reason for return: Defective. Don’t understand sarcasm, and they get confused when I type long strings of expletives.

Sorry, marketers. I know you want to please me with these gifts. But once I remove the ribbon and wrapping paper, they don’t . . . add value! I don’t like to appear ungrateful, but someone – anyone – put them back in a box, and don’t send them.

Will Today’s Essential Sales Skills Become Obsolete in the Smart Machine Age?

In 2015, nearly four million babies were born in the United States.  Today they are toddlers, and many will be asked what they want to be when they grow up. Expect hesitation. The question will not be as easy to answer as it was for my generation. By the time these kids hit twenty, many of the jobs their parents and relatives performed will have vanished.

According to author Edward Hess, professor at UVa’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, about half of all current US jobs will be displaced by 2040. His recent book, Humility is the New Smart, cites a 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne which examines the impact information technology will have on labor and employment. Frey and Osborne estimate that as many as 80 million US workers will be directly affected during this upheaval.

People may disagree with these dire predictions, but it’s hard to deny the profound influence that the Smart Machine Age (SMA) will have on how people will work, and on how many will be working. Nascent developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, and driverless vehicles show great promise. But for society and the labor market, not every outcome will be benign.

If half of today’s jobs will be displaced, which ones will endure? That’s hard to say, but right now, if a machine or algorithm does what you do, it’s time to dust off your resume, and pray that the software that judges it will respond favorably. There’s more displacement coming. In an article, Automation and Anxiety: Will Smarter Machines Cause Mass Unemployment?, The Economist magazine offers a glimpse:

“. . . most workers in transport and logistics (such as taxi and delivery drivers) and office support (such as receptionists and security guards) ‘are likely to be substituted by computer capital’, and that many workers in sales and services (such as cashiers, counter and rental clerks, telemarketers and accountants) also faced a high risk of computerisation.”

In the SMA, jobs that are easily substituted by computer capital won’t be highly paid, and there won’t be much need for workers to do them, either. Yet, there’s hope. Smart machines and AI remain persistently cruddy at performing a myriad of valuable skills. Hess believes that the ones that will endure “will require high-level thinking, creativity, and high emotional intelligence. The consensus view is that humans will be needed to perform those skills that either complement technology, or constitute what machines can’t yet do well, and that list includes critical thinking, innovative thinking, creativity, and the kind of high emotional engagement with others that fosters relationship building and collaboration.”

Given Hess’s prediction, sales professionals can be forgiven for feeling a tad smug.  After all, no profession better exemplifies this rare combination of abilities. At least that’s the message we repeat to ourselves. Such “killer skills” are consistently mentioned whenever a salesperson is honored, recognized, or rewarded for high revenue production. But before anyone gets bullish and puts a deposit on a designer surfboard or a Ferrari GTC4Lusso, a sobering thought: the SMA has already nibbled away low-level jobs in sales and retail. Ominously, technology has a pattern of progressing from nibbling to gnawing, before becoming a full-on feeding frenzy. Temptation confronts senior executives every day. You can’t find a CFO on the planet who is unaware of the ratio of Sales, General, and Administrative costs to overall revenue at his or her company. And the number is seldom “good enough.”

Sales survivors who believe their skills will be coveted into perpetuity might want to reassess their hubris.  The “essential” skills that portend success today won’t be especially helpful in the SMA. In fact, for a variety of reasons, some will become liabilities. First, the nature of work itself will change. Traditional employees will become outsourced contractors. Goal-directed teams will rapidly coalesce and evaporate just as quickly. Decision processes will become more opaque. These developments fundamentally change how goods and services will be sold. It doesn’t matter whether the product is industrial pumps or property management services. Second, strategic success – and its measurements – will undergo massive change. It won’t be expressed simply in terms of revenue. Consequently, sales enablement will become much different.

The New Mental Model. Success in the Smart Machine Age favors companies that adopt what Hess calls a “new mental model.” Today’s sales organizations champion some skills that will be valued in the SMA – but others that are currently popular will get in the way.

1. Legacy model: individuals win

    SMA: teams win

For many decades, sales forces have been designed, staffed, and managed under a model where reps are “individual contributors.” The concept permeates everything from culture to process to compensation to hiring and professional development. Today, individual quota achievement as the key metric of job success. In the team-oriented SMA, that model creates substantial risks.

2. Legacy model: play cards close to the chest

    SMA: transparency

While Hess is referring to the organizational tactic of hoarding information, sales operations have long engaged in this practice. When it comes to taking responsibility for activities on the customer “front lines”, corporate boards and outside departments are reluctant to get involved. “What happens in Sales stays in Sales!” In the SMA, revenue generation will become a key part of every department in the company – from HR to Legal to IT – as well as Marketing and Sales.

3. Legacy model: Highest-ranking person can trump

    SMA: Best idea or argument wins

The person who coined the aphorism, “[Stuff] flows downhill,” probably worked in Sales as a “direct report.” In the SMA, titles, job description, and tenure won’t matter as much as the quality of an idea.

4. Legacy model: Listening to confirm

    SMA: Listening to learn

Today’s sales rep listens for confirmation. Sure, sales pundits talk a good game about why salespeople need to “shut up and listen,” and how “telling is not selling.” But today’s sales managers and coaches still goad reps to focus on listening for “trigger events” and “buying signals.” Today, listening to learn without having a specific sales goal in mind is a luxury. In the SMA, it will be a necessity.

5. Legacy model: Telling

    SMA: Asking questions

A bright spot for the sales profession’s evolution into the SMA. Asking questions to expose the truth has been an enduring part of sales culture.

6. Legacy model: Knowing

    SMA: Being good at not knowing

This element represents prominent awkwardness for sales professionals. Today’s sales culture insists that salespeople possess business knowledge, industry knowledge, competitive knowledge, best-practice knowledge, and product knowledge, not to mention common sense and street smarts.  “Know everything you can about your customers!” For reps, admitting a knowledge gap isn’t a career-enhancing move. Hess believes this unattainable interpretation of knowledge is becoming obsolete. “In the SMA, Old Smart will become the new ‘stupid.’ . . . NewSmart is a new definition of human smart that reflects the increasing cognitive capabilities of smart machines and is measured not by quantity – how much you know – but by the quality of your thinking, learning, and emotionally engaging with others. NewSmart is not about always being right, being perfect, and knowing more than others.”

7. Legacy model: IQ

    SMA: IQ and EQ

Another bright spot! Building rapport has long been considered an essential skill for top producers.

8. Legacy model: Mistakes are always bad

     SMA: Mistakes are learning opportunities

Sales organizations aren’t forgiving about mistakes, which range from screwing up a demo to failing to get an appointment with a C-Level executive to losing a deal. That culture makes them very weak on learning. “Just move on . . .” A terse, but all-too-common synthesis following a failed revenue opportunity. In the SMA, successful companies will be more open to admitting mistakes, and using knowledge to prevent them in the future.

9. Legacy model: Compete

     SMA: Collaborate

It’s nearly universal in sales organizations for reps to be indoctrinated with competitive spirit. And not just us against rivals, but you against each other.  In almost every organization, salespeople are ranked against their peers. There are monetary bonuses and other perks provided to “top revenue producers.” Reps are lauded when their individual accomplishments merit recognition – but rarely appreciated for leadership, let alone encouraged to lead. Evidence? A verbatim job description from a website that typified many I examined: “This is an individual contributor position that will not coordinate the activities of others.” In the SMA, sales teams will operate as teams, and not just be referred to that way.

10. Legacy model: Self-promote

       SMA: Self-reflect

“Customers buy from people – not companies!”  Today, removing self-promotion from selling compares to the result when helium is removed from a “happy birthday” balloon. The message is still communicated, but not nearly as well. How will sales professionals adjust to the introspection needed in the SMA? I’m not sure. Maybe a good start would be to subdue the ethos that everything a rep does centers on him or her making quota.

Does the advent of the SMA mean that hiring executives need to discover skills in sales candidates that were previously not considered predictive of success? Emphatically yes, if they believe that buyers and sellers will engage differently, and that the definition of success will extend beyond an individual’s percent-of-goal to include outcomes not previously measured or rewarded.

In 2037, a sizable portion of the four million babies born in 2015 will be newly-minted college graduates – or at least the product of what we now call post-secondary education.  As we progress further into the SMA, will most companies rely on uniquely human skills to generate revenue? Will AI become smart enough to substantially cannibalize the roles of legacy sales hunters and individual contributors? Will “pure” sales roles even exist?  Fun to ruminate on, but hard to predict. As we enter the SMA, the only certainty is that the most valued job skills – the ones likely to provide health, happiness, and prosperity – won’t be the same as today.

Additional resource: for related articles about Professor Hess’s May 16, 2017 lecture at the Darden Innovation Summit, please click here.


Shaming Customers Drives Conversions, but at What Cost?

Magnolia (not her real opinion)

“Don’t put words in someone else’s mouth!” This sage advice from my first-grade teacher has stuck with me. I have my conversational faults, but I’ve steadfastly avoided this transgression. Yet, the gaffe persists in society today, and it’s growing.

We need a grass roots campaign to stop the spread. First, let’s adopt a more contemporary slogan. How about, “don’t put e-words in someone else’s e-mouth!” It tackles a new wrinkle to this older problem because some major online retailers force people to say things they don’t really think or believe.

“No thanks, I do not want fast, free shipping,” Amazon e-said for me last week when I completed my online transaction, declining their offer for the “free shipping” benefit. Generally, when I don’t want to purchase something, I find “no” a simple and effective response. One that gets my point across fully. No need to embellish.  Whatever . . . my need wasn’t especially urgent. I let Amazon’s default comment stand. I just wanted my epoxy in the next few weeks.

“No, I will not protect my rental car and I agree to pay for damages incurred,” were the e-words a car rental agency attributed to me in April when I populated their online reservation form, indicating to them that I didn’t want supplemental insurance coverage. A more accurate statement would have been, “No, I find these charges a rip off, designed to pad the agency’s profits.” But that choice wasn’t available. Nobody likes to be misquoted, but for now, I’ll have to live with this violation. Sigh. At least the e-words indelicately placed in my e-mouth provided the cost savings I wanted.

In fact, anytime I rent a vehicle, I drive it with the same care that I do for my own, which is pretty carefully. And my personal auto coverages extend to rentals, ergo, protection! For these reasons, the “I will not protect my rental car . . .” isn’t technically correct. Nor is the “I agree to pay for damages incurred,” if, for example, a driver runs a stop sign and hits my rental car. When the at-fault driver has auto insurance, their provider pays. Not me.

I understand the reasons for this subtle humiliation. Shame and revenue are connected. I wonder how many consumers vacillate on decisions, wavering the mouse arrow around that car rental insurance offer acceptance box. “Should I? Should I not? Should I? . . . What to do? I will NOT protect my car? . . . hmmmm. Well, NO! That seems so risky! I WILL protect my car . . .” The consumer reluctantly approves the add-on fee, and proceeds to mull the next needless upcharge. If I ran a car-rental agency, I’d ask to hear a ka-ching play through a loudspeaker at headquarters every time a customer succumbed to this slick online trick. The staff would figure out how to deal with the racket. “Team! All of it goes straight into our profit-sharing plan!”

In the early days of e-commerce, retailers used large bright on-screen buttons to encourage customers to accept an offer, to buy a product, or to release identity information. The alternative, decline, was low-key and polite – usually a smaller button with a simple “no” or “no, thanks.”

Today’s customers proceed through a sophisticated, choreographed “buyers’ journey,” and vendors are loathe to allow them off the path to Transaction City. Shaming has become commonplace. So much so, that the Nielsen Norman Group has even coined a term for the enabling mechanism: manipulinks. “In a desperate attempt to nudge users towards conversions like newsletter signups some websites are adding manipulative link text to their popup modals.  These user-shaming labels are called manipulinks . . . : they employ the practice of what is often referred to as confirmshaming — making users feel bad for opting out of an offer (logically, this practice might better be described as declineshaming).”

Nielsen Norman provides some stunning examples: To decline “Show Me The Deals” [sic], a website visitor must click on “No thanks, I don’t like deals.”

Women’s Health To decline “GET MY TOTAL BODY WORKOUT PLAN”, a website visitor must click on “No thanks, I don’t need to work out.” To decline “SHOW ME 14 SIMPLE DINNERS,” a website visitor must click on “No thanks, I’ll have a microwave dinner tonight.” (I laughed at this one, though I sense jocularity was not the company’s intent.)

I see a hand raised in the back of the room . . . . yes, on the left, blue striped shirt! Could you speak up so everyone can hear you? . . . momentary silence . . . then, a confident voice rings out: “We don’t call it ‘shaming.’ A/B testing has revealed that certain messages produce more conversions. That’s why companies do it.”

I see. Numbers often create compelling arguments. But, as Nielsen Norman explains it, “focusing on conversions to the exclusion of common sense is a recipe for disaster. It doesn’t matter if more people [sign] up for your newsletter if you had to bully them into doing it.” Hands down, that is the most eloquent, sensible CX wisdom I have read in a long time.

The problem is that some marketers are dashboard junkies, and don’t see the risks. While A/B testing provides answers on which message produced the preferred result more often, it doesn’t reveal a cruddy customer experience.

I think it’s a mistake to shame customers. You can discount my opinion. You can say that I’m stubborn, unable to accept new ways of doing things. True, in this case. I confess that when it comes to positive customer experience, I don’t readily budge from particular ideals. One of them is that when customers visit my company’s website, and those of my clients, I want them to feel like winners, not losers. Every customer decision should be respected, even ones we don’t like or disagree with. That insight didn’t come naturally to me, but was discovered and reinforced through many years of face-to-face B2B selling. Today, basic courtesy has been shoved aside. Marketing professionals take note: snarkiness directed at prospects and customers will inevitably bite you in the rear.

“Be all you can be!” Now there was a brilliant aspirational recruiting slogan for the US Army, thanks to visionary agency NW Ayer. A message that every person on the planet could relate to. What happened to spreading good vibes as a marketing tactic? I don’t know. Maybe the wrong people got promoted into the wrong jobs. Or, maybe people started putting too much credence in their A/B tests. And maybe those who knew better didn’t feel safe questioning what the results were “telling” them. That’s why we have the e-words “no thanks, I’ll have a microwave dinner tonight” shoved into our mouths when we have the temerity to opt out of something a marketer wants us to opt into.

Not every company follows the shaming herd. According to Nielsen Norman, “Ace Hardware employs a traditional and more direct approach to promoting its newsletter . . . It presents the offer directly without using a condescending tone. Users can simply say ‘no thanks’ or close the window and move on.”

Civil and respectful communication. What’s not to like? And customer sentiment will likely be reciprocal. A positive result that any marketer should want.

Draw from the social skills that your elementary school teacher insisted that you follow. One of them might accelerate your revenue achievement.

Disobedience: A How-to Guide for Managers and Employees

Somewhere, a manager just ordered an employee to take a questionable action. To do something immoral or stupid. Something that causes harm to customers. There – it just happened again! In less than the time it takes to read this paragraph. Relentless wrongdoing. It happens all over the world.

It was a demand to ignore a customer’s legitimate complaint. An instruction to deny a refund when it was owed. An assignment to use big data to exploit vulnerable customers. A request to physically remove a passenger from an airplane because his seat was needed for someone else. “Follow the rules. Your job depends on it.”

The rule-following edict is a painful artifact of an abiding corporate culture that champions profits uber alle. Millennials, listen up: free thinkers are an impediment to efficiency. They don’t mesh with our manic, bottom-line obsessed business environment. “Objections are a luxury. We have a quota to meet, and there are only so many hours in the day.”

Tell that to the management of United Airlines, who are suddenly scratching their heads, wondering how to foster employees with less malleable backbones. Employees who don’t tremble when saying, “maybe we should consider another approach . . .” Good luck with that. The company just spent decades beating their employees into supplication.

When videos such as Dr. Dao’s violent removal from United Flight 3411 go viral, pundits echo the same three conclusions:

1. The corporate culture of the offending company is toxic,
2. There’s too much insistence on sticking to policy,
3. Employees need to be allowed to use their own judgement

If you’re looking for epiphanies, I suggest not reading any blog titled, What United Did Wrong. By now, we know. And among the “fixes,” you’re guaranteed to find employee empowerment, or some derivative of the idea. Hooray! Embedded in an Official Corporate Apology, we can expect a well-crafted sentence that contains the phrase, “our employees are now empowered to . . .” [Interesting note: that phrase – in quotes – received 175,000 search results].

When all else fails, try empowerment. We’re about it hear it like never before: Employee empowerment – or rather, employee empowerment! – get on the bandwagon now if you need a panacea for misguided corporate goals, bad policies, and ambiguous instructions! If only correcting scandals, scams, and commercial transgressions were that easy. Au contraire! Righting wrongs is not like flipping a switch. Or perfunctorily telling employees, “you are now empowered to . . .  Now, let’s get on with business as usual . . .” Alas, empowerment is never one-and-done.

In the context of an enterprise, empowerment, defined as authority or power given to someone to do something, is more a process than a word. For employees, empowerment assumes the ability to disobey immoral orders. I’ll go further: it imparts an obligation to do so.

To understand the complexities of this idea, I’ll revive a 1961 experiment by Yale professor Stanley Milgram, who wanted to learn whether men of various backgrounds would administer an electric shock to a stranger when asked by an authority figure to do so. The experiment resulted in 64% of the participants obeying the order, and 36% refusing. At the time, Milgram’s experiment concluded that there was no factor – demographic, age, occupation, marital status – that predicted whether a given person would be an order follower or resister. Not a comforting insight.

Fast forward to 2017. University of Virginia professor Bidhan L. Parmar conducted a new analysis on Milgram’s data, and he discovered heretofore unknown commonalities within the two groups. According to a February, 2017 article, Remove the Blinders: How to Disobey Immoral Orders, “After reviewing more than 1,000 pages of audio transcripts from the experiment, Parmar noticed subjects who ultimately disobeyed demonstrated distinctive speech patterns. They tested their assumptions, exercised “moral imagination” and speculated out loud about the consequences of their actions. (“Suppose he gets all these wrong, and I get up to a level where it’s going to be extremely painful?” asked one resistor.) The resistors were also quicker to personalize the issue and made more “I” statements. Said one resistor, “I can’t keep doing this to him” while another noted, “I don’t think I want to be part of this any longer.

“On the flip side, subjects who obeyed showed different verbal patterns. They dug into the procedural details of the task, which was to read word pairs and administer a shock if the unseen person could not correctly associate them (typical comments included ‘Do you want me to read these  fast or slow?’ or ‘Do you want me to write down the ones he gets wrong?’) The obeyers kept moral blinders on and read out word pairs, even as the ‘shocked’ person cried out.” (Note: nobody was physically harmed in the experiment. Milgram used actors as subjects, and the cries were recordings that were not created under duress.)

Parmar’s conclusion: “Resistors developed a moral understanding by asking questions, speculating and empathizing with “I” statements. Ultimately, they were able to override the authority’s instructions and make their own judgments.” Creating that outcome requires more – way more – than simply telling employees, “you’re empowered to . . .” Putting Parmar’s discovery into operation takes fortitude, planning, coaching, and – most important – giving employees room to question management’s requests, and to discuss their concerns. When executives cop an attitude that their policies are sacrosanct, when they lose ability to see wisdom from anyone other than peers, you get Dr. Dao bloodied while being dragged from his seat. That, and many, many lesser-known incidents resulting from the same hubris.

“In daily life, most people face choices in which there is a lot of ambiguity and the ‘problem’ isn’t always apparent,” Parmar says. “All of us are embedded in environments where we get conflicting orders, and often it’s not obvious what the right thing to do is.”

To boost the chances for employees to voice conscientious objection, Parmar recommends that managers should:

• Seek out dissenting views on key issues.
• Question routine actions: Ask why something needs to be done (or not) and what purpose it serves.
• Speak up when business imperatives conflict with personal morals.
• Protect those on your team who ask questions.
• Consider data from multiple angles.
• Make ethical reflection and discussion a regular part of team work sessions: How does our strategy affect customers, community, employees, the environment? Who might gain under this plan? Who might suffer?

Disobedience. Today, calling it moral imagination makes it sound more productive. That will keep the C-Suite happy. But it also might be the best liability protection a company can have.