In Heinz Goldman’s classic book on creative selling, How To Win Customers, there is the story of a life insurance salesman who pathetically approaches another man with the words: ‘I do not suppose you would like to buy any life insurance?’ It happens that the ‘prospect’ is a sales manager, who decides on the spot to take out a small policy, with the twin objectives of boosting the rep’s confidence, and then commenting on his poor style.
After the transaction is settled, the sales manager approaches the subject of the other’s lack of technique. He is quickly taken aback when the salesman replies, ‘Of course I know that is not normally a good approach. I just happened to notice that you were a sales manager, so I gave you my specially reserved pitch. Sales managers are impossible to sell to any other way.’
It is difficult to say whether this actually happened, or whether in the interests of driving home the truth the author made it up. It certainly demonstrates that the selling process can involve the unexpected. The life insurance industry, being thoroughly familiar with the concepts it represents – and the good sense associated with them – struggled for years to come to terms with the fact that talking about what would happen to someone’s family if he were knocked over by a bus the following day, while it contained a real, important message, failed to sell any insurance.
The problem is that the message is so real as to be threatening; it frightens the prospect, and may also induce guilt feelings about the way he spends his income. The listener’s instinct then is to try and escape from the situation – to close the conversation. The industry discovered the solution eventually – let the conversation be about the fate of the prospect’s family had he been knocked down yesterday.
This way, he is reassured (he wasn’t knocked down), but the message is still there, and the prospect can almost be grateful to the representative for pointing it out. This approach worked well, though it too was abandoned when reps realized that if they sold policies not as insurance but as savings plans, they fared so much better. Amongst other things, they appealed to greed, rather than prudence, as a motive.
The above demonstrates how the buying process – whether someone is actively selling or not – involves a mixture of the rational and the emotional. More formally, these dimensions are known as the cognitive and the affective, the former dealing with knowledge, and the latter feelings. Messages such as the impact of tomorrow’s bus create what is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’, meaning that the listener does not like the message, and seeks to ignore it.
The reason that different health warnings appear on cigarette packets is that each one is dissonant, but as the smoker gets used to it, so it can be ignored. One message is fairly ineffectual. Varying the messages means that every time smokers see a new one, they have to work harder on the process of ignoring it.
Cognitive dissonance is an extreme case of the more general selling problem, namely that it is not always enough for people to need something, they must also want it. The trouble is, response to dissonant messages cannot be predicted. You might think that news of soldiers getting shot would discourage applications to join the army, but in fact it does the opposite.
Products like life insurance and encyclopedias, things for which there is a clear need, derived from good intentions, have to be sold actively, because people do not otherwise get round to buying them. Goldman’s book is about creative selling, meaning the securing of sales which would not otherwise happen. Some people view selling as undesirable and exploitative; the response of people working in sales to such detractors objecting to the ‘foot-in-the-door’ intrusion is to observe that they are engaged in the effective presentation of ideas of mutual benefit.
They then back up the assertion with stories of mutual success. Creative selling is always required, for this reason: until people know what it is someone is selling, and fully appreciate the benefits it offers them, how can they decide whether they need it? All but the most basic needs for food and clothing have been acquired as a result of social development, and were once unknown.
To claim that something is not needed as a matter of principle is to deny human progress. The creative sales rep’s job is to go forth and point out the need – and then to create the desire to satisfy it. If intrusive approaches are sometimes required, this is merely to get someone’s attention. This is a fact, though the jury is probably still out on the extent to which the end justifies the means in every situation.
By Julian Bush