Selling – the Key to the Future?

In ancient societies, eliciting the help of others was sometimes a matter of life or death - from the tiny baby forcing the hand of its parents when hungry, to the hunter who needed support in pursuing large game.

Selling – the Key to the Future?

By Stuart Thomson, Managing Director, Johnsons Chartered Accountants

In ancient societies, eliciting the help of others was sometimes a matter of life or death – from the tiny baby forcing the hand of its parents when hungry, to the hunter who needed support in pursuing large game. Social cooperation was vital to survival. In modern times, we all ‘sell’ ourselves various ways to succeed. We use selling techniques to get ahead in education, find a partner, and progress in the workplace. The way in which we present ourselves matters, and helps us thrive. But do we know how best to sell ourselves? And could better education in this area create a different society?

Today I received an email headlining ‘We Sell Businesses’. As I’m always on the lookout for a good opportunity, I opened it. I was frustrated when I realised it was yet another web marketing (SEO) firm soliciting for work, and offering to transform my business.

There were simply doing their job, but the direct selling frustrated me. Of course, SEO firms do sell businesses – they don’t actually sell a whole business but they do promote a business to its potential customers. Promotion is a form of selling.  So my frustration was due to my disappointment that my definition of selling didn’t line up with theirs. My narrow definition referred to Mergers & Acquisitions activity, and the buying and selling of whole businesses.

We all sell. We sell ourselves from the moment we are born. We play on cuteness to get cuddles (even though we are too young to know any other way), and we cry loudly to sell our desire (ok, demand) for milk. And as we get older, we learn more nuanced approaches, such as on-trend clothes, minty breath for that first date, a good personal statement for university and a good (often embellished) CV for a job. It’s all selling.

And some of us are better at selling than others. Given its importance in life, it is interesting that few of us do any formal learning in selling. We just muddle by, relying on parents, friends and educational establishments to mould our selling skills – with mixed results.

There are so many approaches to selling. The soft-sell which pretends not to sell, but really means ‘ wait for the buyer to bite’. And the hard-sell, where the buyer is given a pen and told where to sign before he has a chance to change his mind, or often before he decides to buy! And of course the email I received today was the indirect-sell – promotion. Then there is the ‘closer’. A closer is the action that aims to tip an ‘almost buyer’ over the edge, into a ‘buyer’, using the words ‘this offer expires today’ or ‘there are only a few left’.

Do these approaches work? Obviously they do, as they have entered folklore. But they are used based on people’s own preferences. Rarely will an actuary or accountant pursue a hard-sell, because professional ethics hopefully prevent such tactics from being used. A street trader, however, is more likely to hard-sell than soft-sell because the face-to-face contact may be fleeting, and the customer may not return with the same desire to buy.

But what is the best selling technique – the holy grail of selling? My own view is that it will vary from customer to customer. For example, it is now an established fact that generation Y and Z are very resistant to overt marketing and selling, which is resulting in an overhaul of traditional marketing methodologies. Social media natives have been ‘sold to’ from the cradle onwards, and they are wise to many of the techniques that still work on anyone older than the current millennial age group. Knowing one’s customer requires a high degree of social intelligence which is another skill which we develop by experience. It is extremely difficult to learn, so it’s probably better termed a life skill.

Selling skills are essential to modern living, and they were probably a matter of life and death in historic times. And if they are so important, perhaps we should be formally taught how to sell. How many people have heard of stories of doctors being unable to deliver difficult news with empathy. The message needs to be packaged and sold to the listener, with a high degree of tact and emotional intelligence in certain settings. This ‘packaging’ – comprising a subtle blend of language, attitude and body language – is all about selling. As a society we would do well to learn the art, or skill, of selling. Done properly, it may create a kinder, more empathetic and productive society.