• January 1, 2016
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

The Hard(ly) Sell

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Ah, the sales pitch. Few topics in business have been the subject of so much thought and effort. Salespeople will say theirs is so personal it could be used as a fingerprint. The sales pitch is a means of corporate success and personal enrichment, and one of the primary ways by which customers experience the vendors who serve them.

The pitch is also one of the things that can go the most wrong in a business context. The results can be hilarious or infuriating. Throughout history, salespeople have tried countless gambits to get a chance to make their pitch. There's a terrific Monty Python sketch called "Burglar/Encyclopaedia Salesman" that does a better job of making the topic funny than I'm likely to, so you may as well Google it when you have the chance. There's at least one Daffy Duck cartoon where Daffy goes through every door-to-door sales trick in the book, all to no avail. Clearly, there's something to this idea.

The image of the sales pitch includes "getting one's foot in the door," so to speak; here are a couple of times when it was more about setting off on the wrong foot.

Just the other day, I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room when two well-dressed young men walked up to the receptionist and asked to speak to the doctor regarding the delivery of a fish tank and its contents. This doctor does indeed have a fish tank in his office, so it seemed plausible enough to the receptionist (and to me, too). She went to his office (where he was in with another patient) to get him. The lives of several Piscine-Americans were on the line.

Out came the doctor, looking perplexed—since he already had a fish tank—and asked what this was about. The guys started with their line about delivering "his new fish tank, and the sharks and piranhas," then revealed their agenda: They were from Verizon and wanted to talk to the doctor about landing a better deal on his service package. Really.

This doctor is not a proctologist, but he managed a fair impression of one as he tore into these idiots. They had lied to get a moment of his time, interrupting his practice, all for something he wasn’t particularly interested in to begin with. Getting your foot in the door may be step one, but step two is to not make your prospect hostile.

Lest you think this is just me saying bad things about Verizon, my turn in the office came next. During the appointment, the doctor told me about an experience he had once with Cablevision. He and his family were painting the whole house. Everything was covered in drop cloths, and he was outside, roller in hand, working on a wall. The cable guy walks up and asks if he's busy—and would he like to upgrade his service? It's hard to imagine the combination of blindness, anosmia (paint has a distinctive smell), and plain ignorance and stupidity that would allow that question to be asked. Surprise; no upgrade was sold that day.

The doctor and I continued discussing impositions like those, because my health isn't nearly as important a topic as you might think. As an aside, he noted that in his native Haiti, there are a lot of people of evangelical faith, himself included. A person showing up at your door to discuss religion is not an uncommon occurrence. But if he shows up when a family is sitting down to a meal, he can expect to be chased off with a baseball bat.

In the end, these walk-up sales pitches are the live equivalent of cold calls, and they are just as likely to fail. Whether it's a question of tone, timing, or common sense, one thing is clear: If you're going to rely on them, you must pick your battles. If you don't, you just might be starting a battle of another sort, and you won't win.  

Marshall Lager is the managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, and is always happy to let other people write the bulk of his column. Pitch him a story at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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