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New age sales: Why the hard sell is outdated

Desperate times call for desperate measures, which is why one expert suspects the ‘hard sell’ is making a comeback in business, despite the fact it’s a well and truly outdated sales method.

I declare right up front that I am not, and never have been a fan of the hard sell, it is not what constitutes “good selling.”

If you ask most people about what they think about the profession of selling they will often describe something akin to the hard sell. I have noticed lately a rise in hard sell stories where people are being unnecessarily pressured to buy or sales people being pressured to sell at almost any cost.

The hard times may be pushing some people to do things they wouldn’t normally do like the hard sell.

Have you ever wondered how hard sell selling came about why it harbours such negative sentiment? It evolved from ‘commission only’ selling which was born back to the US in 1950’s, post World War II / Korean War era when commission only selling became an industry norm.

Due to over production capabilities of the American companies such as GE, Ford and General Motors post WWII and the Korean War they needed to shift a lot of product, so management of these companies decided that additional salespeople would be engaged on a sell-and-earn-basis. Salespeople were therefore paid for selling something and if they made no sale they made no income. These salespeople were not employees and this kept business costs down. Hereby we are introduced to the business strategy of commission-only salespeople.

So how did commission-only sales develop into the hard sell? Let’s look at the climate in the US at the time. Dr Finkelstein, Barrett’s sales strategist and sales historian highlights that thousands of military personnel were returning home with little qualification, no job and no desire to go on the GI Bill (the US government’s free education programme). So, many turned to what appeared to be a quick and easy way to earn a great living – go out and sell. Commission-only sales required no special qualifications; had no hard and fast rules; and no ethical or corporate guidelines to follow – all they had to do was just get a deal and get paid.

Because these commission-only salespeople only got paid if they sold something, many told any story, made any promise and agreed with anything to secure the deal, even pressured people with tactics of manipulation and intimidation. As these salespeople were intently focused on earning a commission – their living, many did it at any cost. For most, self interest was their only focus; the customer was seen as a means-to-an-end, a schmuck.

From this dubious based some people made an art of the the hard sell – a dark art if you will. You will hear the hard sell also be described as:

  • Boiler room techniques
  • High pressure selling

To put it into perspective, the hard sell is not a common sales strategy employed by many businesses today and for most people it is not their preferred way of selling or buying as it has no long term benefits and relies on sales people working their way through a list of people who they can lure in to their web of deceit. Most people revile from being asked to sell in this way and rightly so as it is at odds with any form or viable healthy business relationship. And I would question whether it is deemed ‘selling’ at all or just a form of bullying or intimidation.

So what is hard sell and does it have a place in the 21st century business and selling?

Hard Sell – a definition from www.businessdictionary.com: Applying psychological pressure (by appealing to someone’s fears, greed, or vanity) to persuade the prospect to make a quick purchase decision. This approach is justified on the ground that most people are lazy and will postpone making a decision—even if it were in their best interest to make the commitment. This practice is, however, reviled when its sole purpose is the salesperson’s gain at the customer’s detriment. Also called high pressure selling.

I think the last sentence in this definition is key .. If a person is willing to be convinced and happy to take part in the process, fine.  However, many people who may not know what they are getting themselves into or may feel intimidated and do not know how to say ‘No’ may be caught up in the moment and buy something they do not want or need. For example if we look at the following technique you can see what I mean.

Boiler Room techniques

Outfit where salespeople use hard-selling (often dishonest) techniques to peddle (often fraudulent) offers to unsuspecting prospects (referred to as suckers) over the phone or face to face.

These techniques have often been attributed in the past to Insurance or Car Sales industries i.e. used car salesman,  e.g.  …extremely aggressive behavior by an insurance agent to convince a prospect to purchase the insurance product without due regard for the prospect’s ability to pay the Premiums and/or needs for the product.

Just think of the Subprime market in the USA and you know what I mean. If you have ever seen the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross” this gives you many examples of these types of hard sell tactics and why they are inherently bad for business.

By contrast, the term soft selling is to describe the opposite of hard selling and is often defined as where:

Sales philosophy oriented toward identifying the customer’s expressed and tacit needs and wants, through probing questions and careful listening. It contrasts with hard selling which promotes application of psychological pressure to generate a relatively quick sale

I prefer to call soft selling consultative, diagnostic, solution selling or, new age sales. Soft implies weak and insipid to me. Those people how engage in healthy, trust based, transparent, consultative/ diagnostic/solution Selling are assertive, positive and very helpful to customers and understand that not everyone is in a position to buy now. By treating people with respect and working in partnership with them then you set yourself up for a better future.

One of our clients said just that the other day. They employ a new age sales approach and have found it to be far more sustainable and professional. He said it really cements them as a preferred supplier or partner, especially up against competitors who employ hard sell or price gouging tactics. He should know because his business is a much smaller player at present up against much bigger businesses with a much larger sales forces. He said his sales people are well respected, well regarded, and are making good sales despite the competitions’ tactics.  He has held firm and not resorted to the hard sell and it is paying off in more ways than one.

I understand it is tough out there for many businesses but desperate times do not call for desperate sales measures.

While the hard sell has always been around and is likely to be around for some time in the future I would encourage you stay true to what you know is right. If you want to be around for the long term and cultivate long term client relationships then you know the hard sell is not for you. Just trust your instincts – would you like the hard sell done to you? Probably not is my thinking.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

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Sue Barrett

Sue Barrett

Sue Barrett is a sales expert, coach, and founder of Barrett, specialists in assisting businesspeople and businesses build high performing and profitable sales teams.

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