"The Navigator" News Blog

Are You Using 20th Century Tactics in 21st Century Sales?

I like to listen to audio books when I take road trips.  Well, heck, let’s be honest – I usually START them on road trips and finish them while driving around town.  Recently, I’ve been listening to a good one:  “Catastrophe 1914:  Europe Goes to War,” by Max Hastings.  It’s about the First World War, and since we have the National World War I museum here in Kansas City, it piqued my interest.  A lot of what I thought I knew about WWI and its causes and start was wrong.

You wouldn’t think there would be a sales lesson in a war book, would you?  I wouldn’t – but I was wrong.  Due to advances in weaponry, WWI has been called “The First Modern War,” but early battles created huge casualties because some armies (notably, the French and Russian armies) were using 19th century tactics against 20th century weapons – with predictable results.  In fact, in one battle, the Russians marched in, shoulder to shoulder, wearing bright red tunics and hats with a drummer and a flag, directly toward German machine gun emplacements. The Germans were so shocked by the Russians that they actually held their fire, wondering if such obvious targets were a ruse.  When they opened fire, well, you can imagine what happened.  Believe it or not, this has a lot to do with sales.

The 20th century could be seen as the birth of modern sales techniques, as authors from Ziglar to Hopkins to Gitomer endeavored to teach salespeople how to sell.  In addition, numerous sales training companies and franchises were birthed.  Some of the techniques taught were good, some were pretty bad, and many were a product of their time.

Times have changed.

What many of those techniques had in common is that they worked IF and ONLY IF your buyer didn’t understand what you were trying to do to them.  Looking back over old sales books, it amazes me how many of the techniques are based on the idea of maneuvering your customer into a corner with words (theirs and yours) so that they “had to buy.”  Those techniques worked when the customer was kept in the dark.  The trouble is, it’s not dark anymore.

The Internet has brought salespeople many gifts.  Customer information is far more accessible.  It’s easier to find and network with potential customers online.  It’s easier to disseminate your message online.  Those are all great things.

It’s also brought sunlight into the customer’s world.  It’s far easier for customers to compare and contrast products and services.  Customers no longer have to rely on salesperson-supplied references – review sites allow customers to share their experiences, both good and bad.  And – get this – there are websites that actually discuss sales techniques that salespeople use, and how buyers can defend themselves from those techniques and those salespeople.  If that’s frightening to you, you should probably reevaluate your sales approach.

I still sit in on live sales calls with my clients (both on the customer’s side of the desk and on the salesperson’s), and I’ve seen some amazing things in the last few years.

I’ve seen a customer stop a salesperson and say, “You’re trying to use an Up Front Contract on me, and I don’t do that.”  The salesperson’s jaw hit the floor, no doubt over his technique being spotted and named.

I’ve seen a salesperson attempt to misquote a product stat to position his as better than his competitor’s – only to have the customer turn his phone screen around and show the correct stat.

I’ve seen a sale lost when a customer found a salesperson whining about his customers on his Facebook page.

And of course, I’ve seen a lot more.  What all of these things have in common is this – salespeople were selling with a 20th century mentality, and 20th century sales techniques, in a 21st century environment.  To their competitors, they were the equivalent of the 1914 Russians walking into battle against the Germans.

So, what is essential to 21st century selling?  Glad you asked.

  • Open and honest dialogue.
  • Penetrating questions designed to elicit information, not manipulate and lead.
  • Transparency; if you try to hide things from your customers, they’ll find out anyway.
  • Respect for the buyer’s intelligence.
  • Knowledge of, and respect for, the customer’s buying process.
  • A desire to help the customer win rather than pushing product.
  • An understanding of information and its value.

In today’s selling environment, the salespeople who focus on those essentials, rather than last century’s sales techniques (even if they have cute names) are going to be the ones who win.