Why “selling” is really, truly dead—and what you should do instead.

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Kristin Zhivago

President & Founder

Kristin Zhivago, revenue coach, is the president of Zhivago Partners, a digital marketing management company, and author of Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy. Zhivago and her team of digital marketing specialists focus on helping clients get to “ka-ching” by making it easier for their customers to find them, appreciate what they’re selling, and buy from them.

Speak with Kristin on her direct line: (401) 423-2400

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Why “selling” is really, truly dead—and what you should do instead.

Ever since Google made it possible for anyone to find anything online, the need for smile-and-dial salespeople has been seriously diminishing. I’ve said it before (in 2011!), and I’ll say it again: selling is dead. By selling, I mean making cold calls; “hunting,” making aggressive pitches in the cold call; “overcoming their objections,” and generally pushing the customer into a solution. 

If you ask real customers how much they love getting cold calls, their response will be universally negative. And if you ask salespeople if they love getting rejected all day, many may claim it doesn’t bother them, but given the chance, they would much rather talk to someone they already know than to be constantly rejected by people they haven’t interacted with before. 

If these methods of trying to make sales are so ineffective, why do business leaders keep insisting on it?

For one thing, it seems to make sense. “We’ll identify the most likely buyers and then call them and email them. That’s how we’ll get the word out.” But, in reality, it doesn’t make sense, because:

  • People have gotten very good at screening their calls and ignoring pitch emails. They really, truly, do not want to talk to salespeople unless they have decided it’s time.

  • Even if the person is a perfect “target,” the likelihood that the person will be looking for that solution at that moment is almost nil. They will be most likely to consider it an irritating intrusion. 

  • Interrupting someone’s busy day with a pitch is like walking up to a perfect stranger on the street and starting to tell them your life’s story. It is only the graciousness of the person answering the phone that allows the salesperson to stay on the line long enough to at least get out the initial pitch. 

And don’t get me started on how seldom these pitches are even call-worthy. Too often, the salesperson talks too fast, afraid that the person who answered the phone will hang up. So they whiz through their name and company name, and then, sometimes (!) they say what their company does. And then they ask a question. As in, “What are you doing for SEO now?” 

Let’s say the potential customer’s name is Brian. When he picks up the phone, Brian is right in the middle of doing something else. Now he is forced to engage in a conversation that requires more of him than he’d like to give at that moment.

“Darn. What does this guy want?” Brian is thinking. “OK, so I’ll give him a minute. But he’d better get to the point fast, I’m on a deadline.” So Brian says, “Tell me your name again, and what your company does?” As it turns out, Brian is not in the market for SEO services, and even if he were, he would not hire someone who had just called him out of the blue. 

After one of these conversations goes flat, the salesperson often says, “Well, OK, but if you ever need [whatever I’m offering], just give me a call.”

What? Two months from now “Brian” is going to remember this call? Remember the salesperson’s name? Try to find that call in the hundreds of calls on his phone?

In your dreams.

Which brings me to the whole reason this silly dance goes on: Management wishful thinking.

Management fantasy, customer irritation

This is a management fantasy, totally removed from customer reality. It is all about what some managers are hoping will happen, not what is actually happening out there in the real world. 

This practice persists because managers want to believe, against all the evidence to the contrary, that this “straightforward” method will work. It wasn’t that effective prior to the internet, but it’s crazy now. 

So far, we’re talking about “cold” calling. 

What about “warm” calling, where someone has downloaded something or otherwise expressed an interest? 

That’s a completely different situation. 

If the customer has already taken action, that customer has signalled that she is, at that moment, interested. 

Then it’s really important to call immediately, while she is focusing on that subject. Don’t wait. Don’t be afraid to mention that she downloaded that piece. She will know that’s why you’re calling, and it’s better to mention it, so you don’t start out the conversation hiding the truth.

Then ask her why she’s interested, so you can understand her situation, and ask how you can help. 

When do customers indicate that they want to be contacted? At what points in their buying process do they make that clear?

  • At the beginning of their search, when they have decided that they need to solve a particular problem. If you have a solution to their problem, this is where you need to run search engine ads and appear in the unpaid search engine results. “But these methods don’t work,” you might be thinking. Yes, they do, if they’re done right. I’m going to talk a lot more about that in my next blog article.

  • They are buying a “high-scrutiny” or “intense-scrutiny” product or service. They’ve done a lot of research online and now they have additional questions that they could not get answered using online methods. 

  • The sale is complex and customized enough where the customer and a company representative need to work out details.

  • The customer needs to see a demo or try out the product somehow before it can be purchased. 

  • The customer has a need you can fill, finds you, and reaches out via email, phone, or chat. 

Again, responding immediately is incredibly important. Don’t wait; today’s customers can quickly move on to the next possibility online and find a solution that meets their need before you get back to them. And make sure you have chat up on your site; customers are getting used to it and using it more than ever. 

Hire customer support people, not hunters 

The salesperson on commission has one goal: to close that sale, as fast as possible. That mindset automatically takes them out of sync with the customer, who doesn’t care about the salesperson’s commission or quota.

The buyer’s agenda is to get their questions answered, as thoroughly and honestly as possible. They don’t want to be rushed.  

So the people who follow up when a customer signals interest should not be on a commission or trying to fill their quota. They should be more customer-service oriented. Call them Customer Success Managers or Client Service Managers. Don’t hire them because they are all about the “hunt” and “closing”; hire them because they love to help customers solve problems and achieve a mutually beneficial resolution. 

Sure, it’s fine to reward them with a bonus if the whole company’s revenues go up. That way, their reward is not only about them as individuals, but their ability to help customers get what they want, working with the rest of the people in the company. 

Customer service types who understand the product and like helping customers will be more likely to answer the question that every buyer—especially buyers of high-scrutiny products and services—has, which is: “What’s going to happen to me after I buy?” These buyers don’t want to make a bad decision, especially if this is a B2B sale and their internal reputation depends on this purchase working out. Avoidance of embarrassment is one of the biggest motivators in corporate purchases. 

Customers don’t want to be placated in these situations; they want to have an intelligent conversation with someone who has knowledge and experience. This is why, by the way, my own “closing” rate is always around 80 to 90 percent. I never sell; I listen and discuss. And, our own marketing prequalifies interested customers to the point where, when they do call, they are pretty much pre-sold and only have a few questions (as in, “Would you like to work with us?” and “How much is it?” and “When could you start?”). 

This is how marketing and selling should work. Your marketing should answer almost every question, and the ensuing conversation—when they reach out to you—should only focus on the few remaining concerns. The more “pre-sold” they are, the better. And all the more reason why you don’t need someone who is trying to push them into a decision. 

But let’s go back to the main point: Cold-calling is a terribly ineffective way to make yourself known to your target market. There are much more successful ways to do it. And, using hard-sell folks to close the sale isn’t as effective as using customer-service types. 

One of our B2B clients made this switch recently, replacing two “sales” people with customer service types. Here are the results:

  • Close ratio rose to 56 percent last month; traditionally the average ranged from 25 to 38 percent.

  • Revenue for the month is up 13.5 percent over the previous month.

  • 144 closed deals year-to-date, up from 90 in the previous period last year. 

We also have instituted “Mindset-Driven Marketing” with this client, who reported that they had 84 leads this month, versus 40 leads from the same month last year, and 61 leads in the previous month. Again, more on Mindset-Driven Marketing in my next blog articles. 

Today’s customers are so far ahead of company leaders on this whole cold-calling, useless conversations thing that it’s pitiful.

It’s time to catch up.

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Kristin Zhivago's book, Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy
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