Wednesday, October 8, 2008

How we sell, and why we sell that way

Over the last several days, I've attended two meetings. At each meeting, a man was selling something. One was selling a three-week summer foreign exchange program for teenagers. The other was selling a a major U.S. university. For purposes of this post, it's not important to explicitly note who they were, what they were selling, and (in the material below) which was which.

Before I touch on the differences between the two men, I'll touch on their similarities.

  • They were both selling something. While the university guy was technically an admissions officer and the other guy was responsible for reviewing applications to the exchange program, their main purpose in life was not to talk about the application process, but to sell their programs.

  • They both realized that they were addressing multiple audiences - the teenagers themselves, and their parents - and made sure that concerns of both were addressed in their presentations.
Now on to the differences:
  • Person A was more of a hard-sell person, as indicated below, while Person B was not.

  • Person A focused on the good of his program and didn't talk about alternatives. Person B did compare his program against others, and while he clearly preferred his own program, he acknowledged that his program was not for everyone.

  • Person A wanted to close the deal quickly. Person B was hosting more of an information session; the deal would be closed later.
As it turned out, I responded to Person B's pitch better than I responded to Person A's pitch - and this was independent of the merits of the programs themselves; I just liked Person B's style.

However, this is a personal preference, because if hard-sell tactics didn't work, they wouldn't be employed. So somebody likes the hard sell. Jennifer Mattern:

Some people find hard sell techniques to be obnoxious, but in some markets they’re extremely effective. In some industries too much soft selling might not get the desired results, and in others it can lead to huge sales volumes. The key is in knowing your target market and what kinds of messages and outlets are most likely to appeal to them (and of course knowing your own selling abilities and preferences).

And different techniques can be used at different times. TIME Magazine spoke of an ad in Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign:

Reagan is spending some of the $14 million he still has available for the primary season on ads that feature motherhood and the flag (no mention yet of apple pie). The spots are calculatedly vague—and enormously effective. Their sentimental and consumerist appeal might be used to sell soft drinks or hamburgers. A boy carries a fishbowl into his family's new house. A white-haired matron embraces a bride. The camera circles farmsteads and skyscrapers, even the Statue of Liberty under renovation, as a symbol of new jobs. The voice-over in tones, "Isn't it interesting that no one anywhere is saying the job of President is too big for one person."

For an example, see this ad.

But perhaps Reagan could afford to soft-sell because of the 1984 situation:

Reagan, in his 1984 reelection campaign...was ahead by a modest 10 points in August. But he won in the fall by nearly twice that margin.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. In mid-July 1972, Nixon was ahead by 10 percentage points, on the way to a landslide. But we all know the sales tactics that Nixon employed in June 1972.

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