Please stop selling me! Can't we just talk?

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I answered the phone. The salesman was a little nervous. “I’m new at this,” he said, as I corrected the way he said my first name. I wasn’t bothered by him not pronouncing my name correctly, although it’s usually the last name that people butcher. 

He launched into his pitch. I was somewhat interested in what he was selling (book cover and internal page design), so I started to ask him a few questions. For example, I wanted to know if they worked on ebooks, since that’s what I’m most interested in now. He wasn’t really able to answer; he brushed off my question with the classic evasion. “We can do anything,” he said. He then said he wanted to send me a brochure. 

But I was beyond a brochure. I was already on the phone with him. I didn’t care about a brochure; I just needed him to start answering my questions. 

Of course, in these situations, I always feel sorry for the salesperson, and endeavor to help them out. “OK, I’m interested. We’re on the phone now, and I have a few questions. Can you ignore the script for a minute and can we just have a conversation?”

I won’t bore you with the details, but the answer was no. He was irritated that I said this. He was determined to send me that brochure, and he was not interested in having a conversation. So I let it go, and went on with my day.

I got the brochure in the mail a few days later. I looked at the examples, and knew that the style was not right for the kinds of books I publish. I tossed the brochure. 

The next morning, I got a call from the rep again. I retrieved the brochure from the round file, remembered why I had tossed it, and told him that I really didn’t think the style was right for me. “We can do any style,” he said, brushing off my objection. 

He asked me about my future plans. I explained that I’m still focusing on promoting the current book, and it could be quite some time before I launched another. I explained that I just wasn’t a good prospect for him.

“So when should I call you back? A month or two?” Again reciting from his script. 

I laughed. He had not heard me. He was so determined to follow his script, and so oblivious to anything I said, that the whole conversation was becoming ridiculous. I may as well have been talking to a machine.

I can’t remember what I said next; I wasn’t irritated, I was just trying to help him see how what he was doing wasn’t doing him any good.

Then he blew up. Not just a little blowup, but a full-scale, spitting rant. “I’m not stupid,” he said. He went on angrily, then concluded by saying that he wouldn’t bother me anymore, and hung up, just like that.

I thought about this for a while, as I did other work. I decided to call him back, to apologize. You may think I was crazy for doing this, because I was the customer, and this guy had just completely blown it. But it was obvious that he is in the wrong job. Maybe a fresh approach would help him.

No dice. He took the call, and asked, “Are you the person I just talked to and I ended the call rather abruptly?” "Yes," I said, thinking that was a very delicate way of describing what had just happened. “Well,” he said, “I believe that the customer is always right.”

It was a cliché, it was his way of trying to save face, and it was so silly, given what had he had just done.

Now I knew I was dealing with someone who was truly self-delusional. He was even lying to himself. I can’t help people who are lying to themselves. I’ve tried, and I’ve never been happy with the results. So I just let it go.

What lessons can we learn from this exchange?

1. Never, ever put a person on the phone who will get angry with your customers. This one guy is going to un-sell everyone he talks to. He will be this company’s most expensive salesperson, hands down. Testy, defensive people are the worst salespeople, and unfortunately they are more common than you would think. They are sweet to their bosses and snippy to customers. It’s the last sort of thing you need, considering that customers are totally bored with anyone selling them anything. They want answers, and they want the person who answers those questions to be pleasant, patient, and professional. 

2. When you hire a new salesperson, listen to their calls. First several calls a day, then several calls a week. Find a way to “walk past” as they are calling, if they are in a nearby office or cubicle. If they even come close to this extremely negative example, fire them pronto. No company can afford to have someone being this negative with customers. 

3. Make sure your salespeople know that they should NOT stick to the script if the customer is expressing the tiniest bit of interest. Once the customer even hints that they might be interested, it’s time to switch into conversation mode, and ditch the script. The salesperson should answer the customer’s questions, honestly and intelligently, and assist the customer in finding the best solution to their problem. This is BIG, by the way. Salespeople are always encouraged to stick to their script, which is a huge mistake, because truly interested customers - people who would really want to buy - need someone who will do just the opposite.

4. Listen for desperation. If you’ve set up your salesperson to make calls, and they have a process they’re following, and it’s not working, don’t force them to just keep beating their head against the wall. Change what they are doing. 

In my next post, I’m going to talk about whether we need salespeople at all, or if we should be hiring a completely different kind of person to help the customer make a purchase. Stay tuned…



There are some things companies never seem to learn...

Fun to read your comments on this "old friend" of a topic.

I just saw another article on incomprehensible mistakes yesterday in the WSJ, about phone-answering menu trees being the worst way to "meet" the customer.
(Link: )

I read it somewhat amazed that I've heard you say this SAME set of points quite a few years ago. Do corporations NEVER listen? I think phone-answering menus have gotten worse in recent years.

However, I had a somewhat good experience yesterday. I had to call Verizon Tech Support because my Internet connection was down. At the end of the menu tree for the purpose, they had a recorded message saying something like, "Internet service in Xxxxxxxx, RI, is down currently and engineers are doing their best to fix it. If you live in this area, you are experiencing this problem." They must have patched in that recording just that afternoon. It was a good idea. I no longer felt the need to talk to a tech rep for help.

Keep on plugging. There are a lot of people who could use this "good ol' common sense" approach based on LISTENING to customer desires.

Yes, nice to see when they use automation for GOOD

Yes, I have seen that happen with the cable company as well, although they are still struggling in terms of "when" to play the recording about "your" network being down, after your call is answered by the robot.
Some thinking about what the customer cares about - as in, the first greeting being, "If you have an outage, press 8 - we may have an update for you." I hate to think of the amount of time I have wasted pressing one for this and two for that, though. A real human being with access to that information on a computer screen would be so much better. And those folks could work at home - even those who are "otherwise unemployable," such as those who don't have a car. 
But, as you say, we all just need to keep plugging away with that common sense. Albert Smit, a great marketing guy I know in The Netherlands, calls it "common sense but not common practice." He's so right.

Phone Schtick

stumbled across your blog by accident (it's the truth!) ... loved this anecdote. It still boggles my mind that companies continue to use script-based selling. And think that a brochure will help them make a sale! sadly, i think it's only going to get worse as the newer generations (millenials etc..) enter the workforce with only texting and twittering skills at their disposal!

Not so sure...

 Hi, Jonathan. Nice to hear from you. 
Actually, I have great hope for the newer generations entering the workforce. As I give speeches, and work with folks who are 20 - 40, I see a very strong desire to be genuine, to be "non-corporate." I see them searching for models of behavior that prove you can be humane and professional at the same time. This runs contrary to what you see on TV and what you often read in the comments sections - sarcasm seems to be an out-of-control virus that has infected modern society - but somehow, many smart and caring new entrants are rejecting that mindset. 
Their quest for humanity has made me quite optimistic.

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