Avoiding the Used Car Salesman Trap
I work with technology companies, and in general, everyone in the company outside of sales finds selling uncomfortable - particularly founders. I wondered why that might be, so I asked a handful of founders I work with. The reply was pretty consistent - they just don’t want to be seen as “that guy.”
You know the guy I’m talking about. The used car salesman. The archetypal fast-talking, lying, cheating, greedy, selfish dude who is single-mindedly focused on moving the cash out of your pocket into his pocket.
What do we hate about the used car salesman?
We dislike many things about the used car salesman stereotype, but I think the main one is that this guy LIES. The used car salesman tells you the car is great (it isn’t) and reliable (it isn’t), and you are totally going to love it (you won’t) with zero regard for the truth. The used car salesman is greedy and self-centered and willing to lie about anything to get what he wants. Nobody wants to be that guy. We want customers to respect us and the product we are selling. We don’t want to seem so “pushy” that buyers question our intentions.
We sometimes worry so much about looking like the used car guy that we refuse to do any selling at all. We show customers the product, and that’s it - it’s up to buyers to figure out what’s special or valuable about it. Which simply isn’t a great way to help customers understand why they should pick our stuff over the alternatives. We avoid selling to the point where our sales conversations aren’t very helpful to prospects.
Differentiated Value - the key to never sounding “sales-y”
What if I told you that you could guarantee that you and everyone on your team did a great job of selling without ever sounding like a car salesman? The key is nailing your differentiated value and understanding how to communicate it.
Lies happen when folks don’t understand what’s true
I have never met a founder, sales rep, or marketer that I felt was deliberately lying to customers. But have I heard lies? Oh, I’ve heard hundreds of them!
The key thing we are trying to communicate in our marketing and sales efforts is the answer to the question - “Why pick us over the alternatives?” If folks on the team don’t really understand the answer to that question, in my experience, one of two things happens.
Option 1 - We avoid answering the question at all and stick to simply listing features. We leave it entirely up to the customer to figure it what value we deliver that the others cannot. That product walkthrough demo your sales team is using - that’s a great example of Option 1. Your marketing page that reads like a feature checklist? That’s Option 1 in action.
Option 2 - To fill the void, folks will start to kinda, sorta make stuff up. The intention isn’t to lie exactly, but we have to say something, right?
An example - value vs. differentiated value
At one point in my career, I worked at IBM in the database division, where our primary competitor was Oracle. In the early days of database technology, there were significant differences between database vendors across things like scalability, reliability, security, and extensibility. By the time I showed up, however, most big vendors had closed the gaps, and along any of those traditional vectors, we were essentially the same. That didn’t stop our sales reps from trying to make the case, however. More than once, I listened to sales reps proclaiming that we did something better than Oracle and watched the skeptical looks on customers' faces while they asked for proof of these claims (proof that we generally didn’t have). Needless to say, we weren’t earning a lot of trust among buyers with that sales pitch.
In this case, the issue was that the sales team really didn’t know why a buyer should pick us. In the absence of a good reason, they simply fell back on yesterday’s stale value propositions - and ended up looking like used car salesfolks in the process.
A positioning exercise helped us understand what our true differentiation was. At the time, we were very supportive of open standards, and our database played nicely in a very diverse IT technology stack. The value we could deliver was innovation - companies could swap out technologies quickly and easily to take advantage of opportunities as they arose. Oracle, on the other hand, at the time, was a much more “closed” ecosystem. Their differentiator was that you bought the whole stack from Oracle, and the value was that it was fast to deploy and easier to maintain because it all came from one vendor. Our value proposition worked well in the very large accounts we sold to that were worried about agility and vendor lock-in. Oracle had the edge in smaller accounts where budget trumped innovation.
We built a new sales pitch that gave our reps a clearly differentiated story to tell around innovation and why that was important to our large accounts. Once our reps understood the new pitch, they naturally stopped stretching the truth and started to develop better, trusted relationships with clients.
The better we understand the truth, the more trustworthy we are
I believe in good selling, and I have been on the receiving end of some great sales experiences. I believe that it is possible for us to sell without sacrificing our principles. How do we do it?
Sales and marketing are having a thousand interactions with customers every day. How much do they really understand about why you win in the market? That’s not your feature set. That’s not even the value you can deliver to customers. You win because of the value that you can deliver to customers that nobody else can.
Nailing your differentiated value is the key to this. Many companies can list a set of features that they have that they think customers will like. Some can answer the question, “Why pick us?” But if we really want to win in the market, everyone on the team needs to understand what the company can deliver to customers that no other company can. That’s your differentiated value. It’s a key component of your positioning.
Once the positioning is locked in, we need a sales pitch that makes that story real for sales reps who need to tell it in the field. If we can help everyone understand our differentiated value and how to communicate it, we can be certain that we are never treated like used car salesmen again.
A couple of things before you go!
Did you know I launched a new book last week!?! My new book, Sales Pitch, is out, and I’m really pleased with the early reviews. If your positioning is failing to make the jump between marketing and sales, this book is for you.
Last week on the Positioning podcast, I dropped a special book launch episode. If you want to hear more about how to craft a sales pitch that wins - this episode is for you.
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