The instinctive mistake that makes selling seem hard and icky
When we sell, we intuitively aim at the wrong objective. This makes selling very hard. We do this whether or not we’re thinking of salesmanship as leadership—but ironically, more so if we are.
Fortunately, it is simple to correct this. (Note that I say simple, not easy.)
The mistake we make is thinking—or, more accurately, feeling—that marketing is a kind of dilemma. You’ve probably heard that Sam loves to buy, but hates to be sold. This dichotomy naturally fits into our instinctive approach to sales, and we start to imagine that we have to do something rather difficult: get Sam to do what he loves (buying)…but without him realizing that’s what we’re doing.
This is always going to feel like hard, icky work, whether you believe you’re serving Sam or not.
Unfortunately, thinking of salesmanship as leadership does not immunize you from this mistake, because, after all, a leader leads—he has authority, and tells people what to do. So if you are Sam’s leader, he should be listening and following, and you should be getting him to buy, right?
Selling is not getting Sam to buy
To say that Sam hates to be sold means he hates being lied to, manipulated, pressured, and in every other respect prevented from making up his own mind in his own time. He also hates feeling like those things are happening, even if they aren’t.
Unfortunately, while you have no intention of lying or manipulating, you do instinctively feel that selling involves pressure. Especially when you yourself are under pressure to make sales. And especially when you think of yourself as a leader, having authority.
But this is where you need to recognize the differences between salesmanship and leadership.
By serving Sam, and showing him how to get the vision of his future that he wants, you are a genuine leader to him.
But because you are not in any kind of formal relationship, because you have not been assigned power over him, and he has not granted it, you don’t have real authority.
This is confusing, because it is completely standard for people to speak in terms of “authority” in the marketing industry. You’ll often hear that the key to success is being perceived not just as an expert, but as an authority. I myself often talk about authority in this way. But this is not the same kind of authority that a leader, in the most accurate biblical sense, has. The authority of a biblical leader comes from two things:
- Actual power to enforce his will;
- The right to do so.
For example, a church eldership has the power and the right to excommunicate a member; these are given by God in his word.
But you have neither power nor right over what Sam does.
This is very important to understand, because it places a crucial constraint on the model of marketing as leadership. Marketing is leadership by analogy. All the principles of leadership apply—right up until the moment you actually want to make Sam do something. In a true leadership situation, you can be justified in making someone do something if you are fulfilling your obligations as a leader. But in a sales situation, the leadership principles break down at this point, because Sam has no obligation to do as you say.
This is why women can be marketers
If marketing was leadership in a literal sense, rather than by way of analogy, then I don’t think women could sell to men. My egalitarian friends will disagree, but that’s where I would have to come down on the issue. Yet I think it is plainly silly to imagine that women should not sell. Just as common sense, I think, says that women should not take authority over men, by the same token common sense, I think, says that women should certainly be allowed to sell things. My best copywriting students have all been women.
Note that I am not reversing my definition of marketing as leadership. I am attenuating it by explaining in what way marketing is leadership. It is not by way of you having the right or power to dictate to Sam. Rather, it is by way of analogy with all the principles of biblical leadership that come to bear in the exercising of rightful power.
But this leaves us with the question of what we should think we are doing when we are selling. If our objective is not to get Sam to buy, what is it? You might say that it is to get Sam to see that you can fulfill his vision of the future. But that is really just another way of saying that selling is getting Sam to buy!
Leading Sam, when you are selling, does not involve reigns or a whip—or a carrot, for that matter. Any objective that involves “getting” him to do anything is what I call a false objective.
- A false objective is one which you do not have any real control over. For example, aiming to persuade Sam of anything is a false objective, because you cannot control what happens inside his mind. You have no control whatsoever over his actions, so anything he does cannot be a genuine objective for you.
- A true objective is one which you can control and plan to achieve. For example, in sales your true objective is generally to clearly explain your offering, and help Sam to accurately decide whether it is for him. This is something you can control, because it is something that you do.
In other words:
Don’t try to control outcomes that aren’t up to you
Thinking in terms of true and false objectives forces you to rethink what you are doing when you are selling. And it turns out that when you consider selling in terms of true objectives, salesmanship is simply telling Sam how to get what he wants, with enough detail and proof that the decision becomes a no-brainer for him.
Selling this way is completely covert—it goes unnoticed, because you’re not trying to manipulate. You’re just helping Sam get what he wants. No pressure, no persuasion tricks, and certainly no manipulation choke-holds or any other nonsense.
Keeping this distinction in mind is critical for planning and writing any marketing campaign. If you aim at an objective you have control over, you’ll write good, entertaining copy for your campaign. The task of writing will be more enjoyable, because you have a tangible and achievable goal to work toward. But if you aim at an objective you can’t control, like getting Sam to buy, you’ll find yourself consumed by a vague, icky need to make someone you don’t know do something they might not want to do. This results in shrill, breathless, needy, and ultimately unsuccessful copy.
Trying to control Sam’s decisions will always end badly, because the only person who can control them is…Sam. No one else has any power over this—least of all you. Sam knows this, so if you try to control the wrong outcome, he senses that you’re trying to take charge of his decision, and he doesn’t like it. Much of the task of learning to write good marketing copy is learning how to stop doing Sam’s job, and how to start doing yours instead: you must decide that your goal is to help him see as clearly as possible how to get what he wants.
The sin of presumption
What false objectives boil down to is presuming to know what is best for Sam. You might hope that your offering is really his best option, and that he should therefore buy it—but you don’t know for sure. In some cases, it won’t be. Trying to convince him of something that isn’t true does not serve him; it serves you. And he can pick up on this without any trouble at all. This is why focusing on giving him all the information he needs to make his own decision is so important. The way you serve Sam is by helping him decide—not by deciding for him.
You can take a cue here from negotiation tactics. In negotiating, it is important to give your opponent permission to say no. If you act presumptuously and assume that Sam needs your offering, it comes across poorly, and tends to make you look needy. By contrast, if you focus on helping Sam—not assuming you can and trying to force the outcome you want—it comes across as paradoxically humble yet strong.
Don’t start writing with an attitude that assumes Sam wants what you have. Start writing with the attitude that he should be able to check it out and make up his own mind.
To take a simple example to close, compare Mint.com’s old headline with one of its more recent ones. The first assumes Mint.com really is the best for the person reading. The second does not:
- “The best way to manage your money”
- “It’s easy to understand what’s going on with your money”
Next: arousing desire for your offering within the constraints of God’s design