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Snakeoil Salesman vs. the IT Deity
How to win the age-old sales vs. customer battle
Posted Jul 15, 2011
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Salespeople never call at a good time. It's either smack dab during dinner or at the busiest point in the working day. They have advanced radars for detecting both inconvenient times. On the flip side, no one ever finishes their work early, steps away from their desk for a moment, takes a few deep breaths, and remarks, "I think it's time for my dose of a few sales pitches!" No, that would be akin to really wanting a tetanus shot in the face. In fact, since the dawn of man or thereabouts, the salesman and the potential buyer have been locked in this vicious struggle. The first, attempting to present the benefits of the latest gizmo to a busy and/or indifferent audience. The second, trying desperately to avoid the contrived discomfort of a slimy pitch for a superfluous product, which all happened to come at a "very bad time."

Sales is pretty much forced advertising after all, and we all know that when it comes to the business world food chain, even we sales guys get a rare chuckle at the advertiser's lowly position. See what I did there? That's right: I myself am a humble part of an ancient job title that conjures up slick used car salesmen, trenchcoat faux watch sellers, door-to-door vacuum cleaner pitchmen, magic steak-knife peddlers, and those blasted telemarketers. Am I the most technical guy around? No, but I'm upfront about it. In fact, one of my chief amusements is spouting random strings of technical gibberish before highly technical people. I like to crash meetings with Support, IT folks, and developers, wait quietly for a lull in the banter, and then interject something like, "Ah, I have the answer: we need to spool up the protocol on the http hyperdrive, which will reroute the kerberos packets at a kernel-hook level." Then if they still don't laugh at that I just make fake "boop-beep" noises on my iPhone.

By contrast, the clients I work with are highly advanced wizards, who are as informed in their specialties as Bobby Fischer was. They use a strange combination of esoteric babble and Jedi trickery to make me promise them every feature they could ever want for any price. It's really quite embarrassing. So the issue stems from the fact that I am supposed to (1) engage the prospect, (2) assess their needs, and (3) offer a solution. The customer is supposed to (1) avoid me at all costs, (2) only call me if there's an urgent need, and (3) pretty much express-filter Wall my emails directly to the trash (preferably via the malevolent shift + delete combo). And my only question for you today is: why can't the proverbial farmer and cowman be friends?

I believe the answer comes down to a simple matter of adaptation. With swindlers, peddlers, and telemarketers giving the rest of us a bad rap, we have been forced to evolve. The only problem with that is when we all employ the same technology (social media, online chat, advanced CRM) and tactics (personalized mass emails, special offers, buzzwords, swag, trade shows), then none of us really advances. We end up looking like every other sales guy, who inevitably is a dead ringer for Mr. Slick Rick Snake Oil. The thing is, I don't esteem used car salesmen or telemarketers any more than the next guy, even though I paid my dues as the latter. And let's not forget Mr. Specialist, the customer, who apparently has evolved in no small manner. What changed with the customer is that the individual who was once a carefree and open-minded technology hound is simply no longer interested. Pressures from purse-string holders over budget cuts have put a damper on spending. Overfilled spam filters, sagging from countless offers to "improve customer satisfaction, increase productivity, save on budget, and optimize ROI," have inundated us all. Time management has become a hassle. I can't remember where I read this, but apparently we are bombarded with about 3,000 advertisements and commercial messages per day. I think the estimate is probably a little inflated, but the underlying principle is unmistakable: no filter = no function. And if that means a few amazing products that would revolutionize life as we know it are thrown out with the bathwater, so be it.

To nip this all in the bud, the customer employs the time-tested technique I call the Vendor Shuffle. An urgent interest is feigned over the product, a bottom-dollar quote is beseeched, and then the prospect-apparition disappears back into the recesses of an office on the outskirts of Narnia, far from any access to voicemail or a reply button. Yet, I have the advantage of working with hundreds of customers who love the company I work for and its products. I count myself blessed to be among the dwindling few who get to pitch and sell a product that truly works, as evidenced by the scores of emails from elated customers about how their lives are happier now.

All this is to say there has got to be a better way to meet in the middle. And maybe I can take the first baby steps here, so let me analyze myself for a second. Have I used the teeth-grating clichés like "for a limited time only" and "exclusive special offer" that can literally be smelled on the other side of the phone line? Rarely, but I must have. Do I know every feature of our products in entirety? No, but I've committed to expanding my intellect, starting with using flashcards and cramming product specs like I'm studying for the Bar exam. And hopefully I can get a little more swagger going after that. Will I be able to explain in precise detail the development stages of our most esoteric product and its minuscule inner workings next week? Maybe not, but I'll work hard. And all I ask in return is a little communication. A simple yes or no now saves me the heartburn of an endlessly-postponed forecast. And as for the friendship part, I think we can get there with a little work if we both promise to evolve into something that doesn't waste too much of each other's time. Let's chat, but on your terms. Help me help you. And as a simple gesture of good faith, I'll go ahead and turn off the dinner-and-busy-work-time radar for you.


Nate Quarterman is an account manager at Bomgar, a remote control system for computers enabling support staff to take control of client computers to offer assistance.

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