Six outrageous marketing and sales ideas that make sense

Feb. 28, 2011

By John Graham

“Outrageous” may seem like an indefensible stretch or, more likely, a deliberate attempt to attract attention. While it may be both, it’s also accurate. It expresses views that fly in the face of traditional marketing and sales “truths,” which are passed on to those who obey them almost without question.

If there is to be progress, however, the “truths” deserve a hearty challenge, if for no other reason than to stimulate thinking and to break free from automatically believing that they are helpful.

At a time when customers are challenging us, we can best be served by questioning the tenets that guide our work. To put it another way, the wrong assumptions lead to the wrong results.

Here are six outrageous marketing and sales ideas:

1. Get rid of the “elevator speech.”
Well-meaning sales managers have convinced us we need an elevator speech, so when someone asks us what we do we don’t stammer or make something up. They want everyone on the sales team to have the same story.

While this seems like a noble objective, it’s also a waste of time because it runs counter to what selling and marketing are all about. What’s worse, an elevator speech is about us, while marketing and sales are about the customer. In other words, the elevator speech takes us in the wrong direction.

To put it bluntly, all we really need to do is forget about getting any higher than the second floor. Instead of an elevator speech, we need a line to get us up “one floor.”

Who cares about what you and I do? We do! Not our prospects and not our customers. What we need is a “one floor” speech, something that grabs someone’s interest fast. You should have conversations such as, “I help my clients dodge bullets that can put them out of business.” “What does that mean?” a prospect will ask. “Let me ask you a question,” you reply. Now the prospect is talking and you’re heading in the right direction.

Whether it’s marketing or sales, the goal is to engage people and spark a conversation that focuses on them.

2. Ditch proposals. Next, proposals should disappear. We salespeople expect proposals, and that can take us down the wrong road by trying to outdo everyone else who may be preparing proposals.

The head of a company opened a meeting with an account executive from a marketing services firm by saying, “Tell us what you can do for us.” He wanted a proposal. The account rep instead initiated a conversation with the group about what they wanted their company to accomplish.

The information from that conversation became the basis for a relationship and action plan that has continued for more than a decade. It wasn’t a proposal; it was a plan.

3. Forget about what you’re selling. For the most part, sales are lost because we let what we’re selling get between us and the customer. As amazing as it may seem, what we want the customer to buy becomes a distraction.

The genius of Apple is that it does not permit its brilliantly designed products to interfere with its customer relationship. For example, paying for a purchase at an Apple store is noninvasive. It’s low key and handled on the spot by someone who doesn’t look like a salesperson. The transaction is as elegant as an iPad or iPhone. If you want to experience this, go to an Apple store. To compare, see what happens at Sears, Macy’s, or just about any other store. Apple’s total focus is delightfully customer-centric.

4. No more sales calls. It’s time to stop the nonsense of making sales calls, whether by phone, e-mail, or in person. Like it or not, sales calls are more intrusive than ever and regarded by customers as nearly intolerable.

Even so, I like to talk to salespeople when they call. Without exception, it’s instantly clear that their goal is to get an appointment, and that’s when I ask, “Why should I take time to meet with you?” They inevitably answer in terms of what they want to sell me, without considering my interests or time. Like the padlock in “Alice in Wonderland” that runs around on spindly legs looking for someone to unlock it, salespeople spend valuable time looking for someone to listen to their story with as much success as the pitiful padlock.

This may have worked in the past, but that day is gone. The challenge now is to become valued for your knowledge and expertise, to become known for what you know, not for what you sell.

5. Let helping change the sales paradigm. No matter how much we want to think that both parties in a sale benefit, it’s buyers who risk the most since they fund the transaction. It’s no accident that customers want far more assurance than they have had in the past. Whether they are consumers or B2B buyers, everyone has made a purchasing mistake, which is something they won’t tolerate today.

As every marketer and salesperson knows well, the environment they are working in today is not about to change. In other words, taking chances is out, but free is in.

It works like this. Instead of doing everything possible to get an appointment, a more appropriate approach for lowering customer resistance is to say, “I understand how you feel. You don’t want to be pressured or make a mistake. How about we agree on what you’d like to accomplish, and you can have what we offer at no charge for a certain period of time? Would that be fair?”

This approach helps eliminate or greatly diminish customer doubt and gives the salesperson an opportunity to demonstrate results and build a relationship.

You may be saying, “That’s not possible.” Then why not figure out how to make it work? Of course there are challenges and obstacles, but are they any more daunting than what we’re experiencing now?

6. Advocate for your customers.
While there’s more than enough self-promotion in the world of business, there’s far too little customer advocacy. Whether it’s an individual or business, there are civic, industry, community, and trade recognition opportunities, along with more than enough deserving customers and prospects.

Why not ask customers if they would like to be nominated for an award or special recognition? Of course, it’s work to prepare the applications if you want them to win, but it can be a very effective way to show that you care about a customer, as well as bringing them well-deserved recognition.

There are also other ways to advocate. For example, letting a trade, business publication, or newspaper editor know about a customer’s accomplishments can lead to a positive article or feature story. Along with selling your products or services, you have the opportunity to “sell” customers to those who can bring them recognition, and this gives you the chance to earn their appreciation.

These six marketing and sales ideas may seem a little outrageous compared to the prevailing wisdom and practices. But simply trying harder or retreading the old ideas doesn’t work. It isn’t a matter of doing something “new and different” that counts; it’s a matter of taking customers seriously.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He writes for a variety of business publications and speaks on business, marketing, and sales issues. Contact him at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170, (617) 328-0069, [email protected], or visit his Web site at