“You shut your mouth when you’re talking to me.” Image

This line from the movie Wedding Crashers is just plain funny. Analysis would only diminish the effect. But just for grins, let’s beam this comedic irony to a sales context. Let’s hire salespeople to sell our products, and assign them a quota. We’ll put some of their compensation at risk by paying revenue commissions. Even offer a bonus carrot for outstanding performance. Then, we’ll castigate them for selling.

Stop selling! No belly laughs, though. For some reason the irony fails to raise even a halfhearted chuckle. Stop selling, experts urge salespeople. They do it through blogs, training sessions, and “motivational” speeches. Here’s a sampling:

Want to Sell More? Stop Selling, Start Engaging.

Stop Selling—Innovate the Sales Experience

Stop Selling (and start listening, helping and connecting)

Stop Selling, Start Listening

I’ll stop at four because there’s not enough space. If you wanted to express slightly more disdain, you’d only need to substitute the word stealing for selling. How did Selling become something to get rid of, like an old smelly rug? Clearly, many people who write about selling are conflicted, or self-loathing. There’s rationale. “Customers don’t want to be sold,” more than one person has told me. We’ve all heard that popular sentiment, but it’s illogical. The marketing equivalent of attempting to prove that the angles in a triangle don’t total to 180 degrees. I’ll get to the reasons in a moment.

To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with engaging, innovating, listening, helping and connecting. But these activities are the fabric of selling, not oppositional forces. Effective selling consists of all the activities associated with acquiring and retaining customers. Stop selling? No wonder salespeople are confused. Management, too, for that matter.

What’s happened is that an innocent present participle got hijacked, and stained with the image of the stereotypical aggressive salesperson, along with his nonstop, jargon-filled product prattle, bad breath, cheap suit, Timex watch, and transparent drive to make a buck. That’s wrong. The better message is stop selling the wrong way. Stop selling only means quit, which is fine, if that’s what you intend to do.

I would be less irritated by Stop Selling confusion if I didn’t see it lead to bad strategy. Great listening skills are fantastic. Who shouldn’t do more listening? But salespeople also have to articulate messages—by talking and writing—that tie customer need to potential value delivered. Call that essential skill making a sales pitch. Call it persuasion. I don’t mind. And in today’s collaboration-fueled business environment, building and engaging communities would make the top of anyone’s sales strategy list. But if there are no mechanisms to close the deal, to get a signed order, to execute a contract, or to swipe a credit card, there’s no buying. And there’s no selling. Sure, we have empowered customers, but nothing gets bought without a vendor’s facilitation.

If you’re reading this blog on an iPad, it was likely one that you bought—and Apple sold—through a complex orchestration of product development and support, distribution, retail savvy, staffing, supply chain logistics, application development, pricing strategy, point-of-sale technology, and social media. If you liked the experience of buying it, chances are that the selling processes worked synchronously. You appreciated the delighted feeling you had when you walked out of the Apple store. It was no mere accident. For Apple, Selling is not only desirable, but deliberate and fine tuned with more precision and attention to detail than most customers will ever know. No bad breath. Selling—embraced, not expunged. “My new iPad. I can’t wait to start using it!” Ka-ching!

Buying and selling are reciprocal for customers and vendors. That’s the logical fallacy of the admonition to stop selling. One doesn’t exist without the other. So the notion that customers don’t want to be sold means logically that they don’t want to buy. In that sense, even the term customer is misapplied. You get the point.

Stop selling the wrong way. I buy that. But not stop selling. No commercial enterprise has been successful long term without being really, really good at it.

Image: Olaf Speier /Shutterstock