Soft and cuddly puppy

The Soft Sell

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to succeed in sales without being a shark. My recent post on “How to Find [Almost] Anyone’s Email Address” got me wondering about what other tactics I employ to try and find an edge in sales. 

After compiling that into a list, it led me to reevaluate and codify a more macro perspective on sales in general, which I’ve now loosely defined as “The Soft Sell”.

soft cotton fibers
Be soft like cotton (Photo by Evie S. on Unsplash)

What exactly is “The Soft Sell”? Well, it’s one of those things that seems almost easier to define by what it is not rather than what it is

The opposite of The Soft Sell, is of course, “The Hard Sell”.

We all know The Hard Sell. It’s what many people who aren’t in some sort of professional sales role picture in their mind when they imagine the “typical” salesperson. It’s the “used car salesman” stereotype.

Used car salesman meme
What’s it going to take to get you into this set ‘o wheels?

And yes, at least part of that stereotype is true. As per the 2019 Bureau of Labor stats, about 82% of auto-dealership employees are men. But I digress.

What about the rest of that stereotype? That hard-selling, high-pressure, say-anything-to-close-the-deal mentality? Well, think back to your own experiences. How comfortable were you the last time you were shopping around for a used car or any expensive purchase for that matter?

Regardless of the truth, it’s the stereotype of salespeople being a group of smarmy liars with little more than their own selfish interests in mind that is the problem. It’s the perception as much as the reality that can be problematic for those of us in complex sales roles who actually strive to do right by our customers.

And overcoming that perception is a constant uphill battle.

person walking up a snowy mountain
The struggle is real (Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash)

I won’t get into the nuance of ad sales in this particular post, but know that it is a long-lead and ongoing sales process—one in which the salesperson is periodically selling similar, but seasonal programs to the same exact set of buyers on a relatively consistent basis. You might pitch the same team on a Spring Fashion program in Q1, a Summer Travel program in Q2, and a Gift Guide program in Q4, and win-or-lose, repeat the whole dance the following year.

Needless to say, ad sales is a role where building long-term relationships is crucial. It’s not a close-the-deal-and-onto-the-next-one position like many SaaS roles are, for example. Ad sales is all about repeat business.

With that in mind, in this job, you’d think it impossible to survive as a slithering snake trying to pull a fast one on your clients. But, if you don’t think that hard-sellers exist in this industry, think again.

Allow me to go off on a slight tangent. One of the unfortunate realities of ad sales involves pulling together a diverse team of experts at your company, spending a week to assemble the Mona Lisa of proposals, submitting it to the agency black box, and then never receiving feedback no matter how many times you follow up. 

At face value, it’s easy to assume this happens because agency folk must simply be inconsiderate. But is that really the case? Is it possible that they’ve been conditioned to “go dark”.

Buyers go dark all the time. Why? Simple. Many are afraid of doling out bad news.

A few years back during my tenure at Esquire, I was working on a proposal for a consumer electronics brand. Months went by with persistent-but-not-overbearing followup, and in their silence, I knew we did not win the business. 

When I finally got a member of the agency on the phone, I was super-gracious and told them “I just wanted to take a moment to let you know how much we appreciate you even considering us for this program. We don’t expect to win 100% of the campaigns we pitch for. What sort of details can you share on where we went astray and what we might be able to do better next time?”

The response from the media director floored me. 

She said something to the effect of, “Wow. I want to thank you for being so cool with not winning this campaign. I just got off the phone with another seller from a brand who also didn’t make the cut, and he chewed my ear off. He was practically screaming at me asking how dare we even consider passing on their “revolutionary” program. It was really uncomfortable.”

I could go on (and might in a future post), but you get the idea. Sleazy sellers make buyers uncomfortable.

So what is The Soft Sell? At its most basic level, it’s about stacking the deck in your favor to put you in the best possible position to succeed every step of the way.

It’s about doing all of those small, incremental things that eventually add up to closing the deal.

Football is a game of inches. Those inches add up to yards. Those yards add up to points on the board. Complex sales roles with repeat buyers are much the same—The more points you can get on the board every time you have the ball, the better your chance to win.

Scrum on a football field
Every yard counts in football and in sales (Photo by Keith Johnston on Unsplash)

In order to succeed in sales, what are some of these key points we want to get onto that scoreboard?

  • Being an active listener
  • Asking the right questions at the right time
  • Being hyper-organized
  • Diligent follow-up
  • Perfect cold emails and cold calls
  • Being gracious in defeat
  • “Passive selling”
  • Balancing persistence with annoyance
  • Synthesizing feedback
  • Neat and professional attire

I’m sure there are others, but this is a great place to start. If you’re anything like me, you’re not a shark. And that should not stop you from closing deals. In fact, just the opposite—it should help you win more business if you’re deliberate about it.

hand signing a document
Close that deal. Get that signed contract. (Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash)

In the coming months (years?), I’ll address these points and how to succeed in these areas. Win those inches to win those yards to win more business.

To succeed in sales with “The Soft Sell” framework is about building trust and establishing rapport. Frankly, it’s about being a friend and an ally rather than an adversary. As author Bob Berg has said, and is often quoted, “All things being equal, people will do business with and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust.” All components of The Soft Sell process ladder up to that.

All things being equal, people will do business with and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust.

Bob Berg

Any Stephen Covey fan knows that the sales process should be win/win and that no one likes a sleazy seller. Together, we will explore how to succeed in sales without compromising your values.






One response to “The Soft Sell”

  1. Bob Burg Avatar

    Terrific article, filled with wisdom that will benefit every sales professional who reads and embraces it. And thank you so much for your kind mention. Honored and grateful!

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