Photo by The Shopping Sherpa (Flickr)

Photo by The Shopping Sherpa (Flickr)

Let’s take a moment to honor those of you with jobs in sales. Surely, there is no tougher way to earn a living. Salespeople aren’t trusted by default: it is their job to sell something, and every word uttered is another suspect in the mystery of “What mind game is he playing at?” Worse, salespeople do themselves no favors by publicly posting advice on the internet. In a world-viewable post that really belongs on the dark web—one which could essentially be titled, “How Can You Get at Their Money?”—marketer David Mayer and HR consultant Herbert M. Greenberg boil good sales down to two essentials.

  • You need the ability to feel. “Empathy…must be possessed in large measure,” Mayer and Greenberg state.  Now, empathy is a great quality to have as a human. I’m not going to argue against that point. But I’m pretty sure that empathy is not “the important central ability to feel as the other fellow does in order to be able to sell him a product or service,” which is what this same post defines it as. Seriously, salespeople, if you don’t understand how bad this sounds, then you actually have no empathy.
  • Once you’ve empathized with your prospect, you must have a “need to conquer.”  Mayer and Greenberg elaborate: the salesperson’s “feeling must be that he has to make the sale; the customer is there to help him fulfill his personal need.” Yes, they’re saying you pretty much need to be a full-blown narcissist who gains people’s trust by pretending to feel for them, when really you just see them as another stepping stone towards goals you are driven to accomplish.

Ugly stuff, Mayer and Greenberg. Ugly stuff.

The good news is that there are sales people out there who are all too aware of the stigma attached to their profession, and they’ve developed techniques to mitigate this with potential customers. Still, sales folks being sales folks, they named this technique “Suggestive Selling,” and not one person in the room giggled at the name when it was suggested. They’re goal oriented people, I guess. The idea behind Suggestive Selling is to play it cool during the sales encounter. Let the customer take the lead while you make friendly conversation, and only offer assistance in practical ways (“I’ll go find that in your size,” for example). Once they’ve committed to a purchase, that’s when you suggest something complementary to go with it, based on any nuggets of info you’ve gleaned from your polite conversation. Typically, the goal of Suggestive Selling is just to suggest an extra little something at the time of purchase—something that’s a fraction of the cost of their main purchase right at the moment when the customer’s in a buying mood. The “pitch” sounds something like this:

Photo by Brett Jordan (Flickr)

Photo by Brett Jordan (Flickr)

“Now, you said you and your wife were going skiing over New Year’s? How are you on wool socks? Because ours are 15% off right now.”

I could do some semantic trickery here, and make this sound infinitely more reprehensible a practice than Mayer and Greenberg’s Love ‘Em and Shove ‘Em strategy. But that would not be in the spirit of the holiday season. Sure, forging a false bond with someone just to get enough information to encourage an emotional purchase sounds sleazy. But I prefer to look at it this way: from the end of November till Christmas Day, almost nobody shows up somewhere to buy something and doesn’t buy something. Everybody’s buying something. You’d have to be the most tone deaf salesperson in the world not to understand this and use aggressive selling techniques during this time period. Nobody wants to be bothered by you. Cool your khakis, friend. Besides, everybody pretty much shows up knowing what they want to buy: you just need to help them find it. That doesn’t need to be an awkward time of silent exchanges of merchandise. The holiday provides the perfect opportunity for small talk, too: Any special plans? Is this a gift for someone? Should I roast or deep fry my goose?  

From this conversation, there are quite a few benefits to be had. By getting a customer’s backstory, you open up opportunities to suggest gifts for other people she hasn’t found the right thing for yet. You mentioned before that you were spending Christmas Eve with Rupert Murdoch? These hilarious “Thanks, Obama!” t-shirts make a great stocking stuffer. That kind of thing, but more realistic. The second effect, though, is actually making a connection with another human being. Maybe that sounds hokey, but there’s a value to that. It’s a time of year where most people drop their guards and remember to be people again. And these little conversations are welcomed by weary shoppers who’d lost faith in humanity three stores ago. It’s hard out there for a shopper, and when someone treats them like a person it makes them feel good. There’s nothing wrong with that, and—some might argue—epitomises what this season ought to be about: kindness, compassion, and providing excellent customer experiences so you can get a taste of that sweet, sweet Valentine’s money in a month or so.