It’s hard to escape their unblinking notice the moment you enter their lair and become prey. Like a heat-seeking missile, they make a desperate beeline for you, refusing to retreat even after you tell them point-blank that you’re not interested. From the opaque gleams in their steely eyes, the fixed, taut smiles that exude creepiness rather than genuine assistance, and the rote sales pitches, they never take no for an answer.
No doubt you’ve encountered this unedifying species—the pushy salesperson—while browsing through a store or perhaps picking up your cell phone sans checking the caller ID. Their sales tactics are annoying as they are aggressive. But how can you, as a small business owner, avoid having your staff act like a battalion of dollar-hungry, bottom-line-obsessed automatons every time they’re in the company of a prospect? What are some takeaways that will help build and maintain a healthy customer base without incurring undue alienation?
Kelsey Meyer, senior vice president of the year-old Digital Talent Agents, which helps clients get published online to improve their branding, says many firms, particularly her own startup, are guilty of employing desperate sales tactics when seeking to sign a coveted client. She cites a recent example in which her company signed a “high maintenance” client and charged her 30 percent of what Digital Talent Agents normally charges just because they wanted to sign her on.
In hindsight, says Meyer, it was not the best decision, but she did it anyway because she felt that, at the time, her company was at the stage where it needed clients.
“We quickly learned that giving huge discounts right away and changing processes and billing standards for people because we were scared they wouldn’t sign on, not only made us look desperate but could kill our company,” explains Meyer whose company currently has 24 people on staff.
Now Digital Talent Agents has become more selective when it comes to signing clients and as a result, says Meyer, they have become more successful. “When clients feel that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you,” she says, “it's a more mutually respectful relationship and leads to more sales and better sales.”
Build the relationship with the prospect first before the sale
Rather than treat your clients or prospective customers as disembodied dollar signs, view them as people with whom you can cultivate and foster a productive, long-term business relationship.
Kent Wakely, managing partner of Fruition Interactive, a digital marketing agency founded in 2001 that has a staff of 22 (which includes part-timers), subscribes to this tenet when dealing with both clients and prospects. Although he concedes that his company was fairly aggressive early on in its client acquisition tactics—by pitching their solutions and services from the get-go—he and his colleagues later felt they might have better success if they employed a different strategy.
“So now we've put in place a process that is a little bit longer,” he says. “This incorporates several stages where we progressively commit more resources to a sale over the life of the process and that focuses mainly on educating and building trust with the prospect. We don't actually start to have a sales conversation as part of the sales process until after our third ‘date.’”
The benefits from this slow but steady sales approach have been enormous, says Wakely.
“Our cost per sale is down,” he notes. “We spend less time and money talking to prospects who we weren’t able to start building a trusting relationship with or weren’t a great fit for us because we're able to disqualify them earlier in the process.”
Also, because Fruition Interactive, which works with mostly small to mid-sized clients (although it has clocked in hours with well known brands like Home Depot and Bacardi) now invests time in building relationships, it more easily earns their trust. As a result, clients are now more likely to act on the agency’s advice and bring more of their business to the company long-term.
“To use a dating metaphor, yeah, you can probably have a one-night stand by using a quick pick-up line,” he quips. “But you build long-term relationships by having more open, two-way conversations.”
Ease up on pressuring clients
Some sales people freely admit that when faced with imminent deadlines, they have often pressured clients for a response. But often that might not be the smartest strategy to utilize, particularly when dealing with a tentative prospect.
Lori Karpman, founder and CEO of Lori Karpman & Associates Ltd, a 10-year-old management consulting and law practice that caters to small businesses, agrees. She recalls encountering problems with clients when she has pushed them into a commitment by saying they needed to give her an answer sooner rather than later due to time constraints.
“While the fact is usually true that because I have a small firm, I can only take on so much business, most prospects feel pressured by that tactic,” she maintains. “They say no right away, or completely ignore my deadline. In either case, I have boxed myself into a corner and it’s very hard to go back to them after the deadline to re-open negotiations. I have done it but by then I lose some credibility.”
Now Karpman’s solution is to tell clients that because she’s a small firm they need to give her a reply quickly because she is currently handling other projects and is pressed for time. “This way seems less pushy and they are happy to oblige,” she says.
Be confident in what you’re selling
This may sound like an obvious takeaway, but it is a basic sales precept that should never be given short shrift.
"If you know what you're offering adds value,” advises Meyer, “you won't come off desperate and you won't need to discount your product or services down 50 percent just to get somebody to sign on.”