#1 on Inc. Magazine’s List of 50 Best Websites for Entrepreneurs
#2 on Forbes List of 100 Best Websites for Entrepreneurs

When Selling is the Worst Way to Win Customers




Customers hate being sold to.

Customers hate being sold to. They don’t mind getting expert help when they want to buy something. But much of the time they are not ready to buy, and one of the most irritating things is to have a salesperson try to get them to buy when they aren’t ready. Unfortunately too many people in marketing and sales positions don’t seem to understand this, and proceed to irritate their potential customers. They don’t realize that there is a far better way to sell. That is what this blog post is all about.


When I started my first company, I had no business or sales training of any kind. As you’d expect for any founder/CEO, I was put into many selling situations. I developed a gut feel for how to interact with prospects that seemed to work surprisingly well. When I watched other sales people, I noticed that they jumped into a sales pitch far earlier than I would have done, and sold much harder than I felt was appropriate. My gut instinct told me that the recipient of these sales pitches felt both uncomfortable and mistrustful. Furthermore, when I read about how you were supposed to go about closing deals, I was surprised, as I wasn’t using any of those deal closing techniques, yet was able to close deals reasonably easily.

It was only later on in life that I realized what I was doing to succeed, and why it worked so well.

Building a relationship and trust

The mistake I observed was that too many marketers and sales people want to jump right into selling.


The problem with this approach is that it ignored the importance of trust in the sales process. I was doing something different:

  • First building a relationship
  • Then building trust


The result of this was that usually the customer would start asking me for my opinion on what they should purchase. As soon as that happened I had won the hard battle, and was well on my way to winning the customer. All this had happened without any hard selling.

This changed the whole dynamic from uphill selling to advisory/consulting soft-selling. To my mind this seemed a whole lot more successful way to go about things.

How did I do this?

  • I would start by learning something about them. Ideally I would do this by researching them before I made the visit or phone call. However there were many times where I wasn’t given the time to do that. In those situations, I would start with a few questions an rely on knowledge that I had gained from talking to similar customers.
  • Then I would work hard to find a way to add some value to their business life. Typically this meant bringing them some new insights, but it could be in other ways.
  • I was looking for ways to get the customer asking me questions about things that could help them or their business. When that happened, I took it as a key sign that I was starting to succeed.

In several situations, I figured out ways to start the creation of trust before I even met with the person. To do this, I could do one of two things:

International Software Guide

  1. Send them something of high value that proved that my company knew things that would be useful to them. An example I can give you of this was when we founded International Software in Europe (later changed the name to Corporate Software). International Software produced this great book every six months that was a review of all the PC software on the market. At the time we did this, the market was very early, and customers didn’t know what software to use for things like word processing, IBM mainframe terminal emulation, project management, creating slide presentations, etc.. The Guide educated them about what was available and helped them to choose what was best for their needs. This was high value. By sending them the Guide in advance of the meeting, we found that our acceptance rate for taking meetings jumped from around 20% to over 85%. And when we arrived for the meeting, there was already a high level of belief/trust that we could help them.
  2. I could use information that I had gathered about them from my research, and process that in my product to produce some output that was both personalized for them, and showed them something of value.

Adding Value is often best done in an orthogonal way

Many times the way I added value was not directly associated with the product I was going to try to sell them later on


For example, I might pick a much higher level topic of some mega-trend that was affecting their business segment, and discuss how other companies in their segment were tackling that issue. The value would be the insights into their peers or competitors.

However the nearer your topic is the better. For example, you could build a relationship and trust with a customer by playing golf with them, but when it comes time for them to select a sophisticated software package, they may not trust your opinion in that particular field. So it is better to build a relationship and trust in a way which sets you up as a person to trust for advice about their business.

Positioning as an Expert

I also had another technique that worked well: positioning myself as an expert. I would make sure that I studied to develop some expertise in an area that was interesting or important to them. Then, we would create a forum where this could be delivered as a presentation. The greater the audience size the more powerful the effect. Once I became established as an expert in the buyers mind, they viewed me as a natural person to turn to get business advice.

A key rule

There is a key rule that I instinctively stuck to: my presentations religiously avoided any reference to my company or product. In my view that would destroy the credibility, and turn this into yet another sales pitch.

Think back on your own experiences: how many times have you been at a conference that you paid money to attend, and were turned off by a presenter who couldn’t resist using their presentation to pitch their product. It continues to surprise to me how many marketers ruin great opportunities by ignoring this rule. They simply can’t resist the temptation. They apparently lack the understanding of how trust is built, and how it can be translated into a very powerful selling tool.

A Pre-Internet Example

In one situation where we didn’t have the expertise we wanted internally, we hired the Nolan Norton management consulting group to develop a presentation for us. This was back around 1987, in the early days of Novell networks. (In case you are wondering why I am using such old examples, and not referring to modern post-Internet situations, wait for the next section where that will become clear.) This presentation predicted how computers would go from individual disconnected machines, to connected workgroups, to company-wide networks, and then eventually to the stage where all companies would be connected together. (This happened to be a very prescient indicator of the Internet.) It talked about how each stage would transform their business.

The presentation was highly visionary, and also educational. We trained our salesforce on how to give the presentation, and in the process transformed them into thought leaders and “experts” who were worth listening to. They were no longer “salespeople to be avoided”. If the customer bought the premise of the presentation, they would likely turn to us for help implementing networks, and the software layer on top for communications and collaboration.

How to build a trusted relationship in the on-line world?

One of the most interesting mega-trends taking place today is the shift from face-to-face business interactions to on-line. This kind of on-line self-service is great for the customer as they can get the information they want, when they want, with no waiting, sales people, and annoying interactive voice response menus, etc. It’s also great for vendors as it’s far cheaper to let customers serve themselves on-line than with human touch.

The web also gave us a bunch of powerful new tools to engage customers (Blogs, Social Media, Videos, Webinars, Forums, Chat, etc.  It also gave us the power to personalize individual experiences based on a customer’s interests.

The downside of this is that your customer is in charge of where they spend their time, and if you don’t engage them quickly, they will simply leave your site. The key to that engagement is the same as it was in the face-to-face selling situations that I have been describing above: build a trusted relationship.

How the right nurturing leads to a Trusted Relationship

The smart marketers have figured out that they can build a trusted relationship on-line. The way they go about doing this is simple:

  • Find out as much as possible about your visitors
  • Provide them with Value
  • Track their progress through the buying cycle, and vary the content and approach accordingly

Lets look at the first two elements of this:

Find out as much as possible about them

  • What you want to learn:
    • Their stage of the buying cycle
    • Their specific pain point (if your product addresses more than one)
    • Their vertical industry
    • Their job title
    • Etc

Often this can be gleaned without asking questions, simply by watching how they navigate your web site. What landing pages brought them to your site? Did they follow navigation options for specific verticals on your home page? etc.

Providing Value On-Line

So far we have only talked about how to offer value in a the physical world. Moving to the on-line world actually makes things a lot easier as the work you create can be viewed by millions of visitors without additional effort. This means you can afford to invest a lot more time in creating great content.

Traditional content: Blogs, Videos, Webinars, etc.

The key to using this kind of content to create a trusted relationship is to eliminate all forms of sales pitches, and to take a strong view that only content that adds value to your customer’s life will be used. This can be done in many ways:

  • Provide them with Insights that they didn’t know before
  • Educate them
  • Entertain them
  • Use data. Provide them with data that is interesting. e.g. survey results that show what are other customers like them doing in some area of interest.
  • Use other recognized experts to help provide
  • Provide them with Best Practices in their industry and/or job function
  • Review content, products, in a way that is useful to them
  • Figure out ways to make them more successful in their job
  • etc.

Non-traditional Content

This is a great way to add value, and is often not considered simply because it is a little outside the content box:

  • Free Software. (e.g. Jboss’s free Open Source version, HubSpot’s WebSite Grader, DropBox’s free edition.) This is actually one of the most powerful techniques available. It uses the power of your engineering team to build things of value to your customers. Many times marketers don’t think this way as they are constraining their thinking to being inside the marketing box. Think outside the box. (Important note: free trials don’t count as value to the customer. They are just another selling tool.)
  • Benchmark them against their competitors
  • Offer Free Consulting
  • Etc.

This is an area that is ripe for great creativity. I would love my readers that have interesting stories to tell to add these as comments at the bottom.

The more you know about each individual visitor the greater the value you can provide.

Step 1: Customer Segmentation

A simple way to start doing personalization is to group (segment) your customers according to the information you learned about them, and create content that is specific to each segment. The more you segment, the more likely you are to be creating content that they will grab their attention. For example: content that is specific to their vertical market can use the right terminology to describe the pain points, how your product works to solve those, and how their business benefits as a result. Another form of segmentation is to use their job function to write content that is specific to the issues that they face in their work environment. Both of these approaches are far more compelling than a generic bland email message that at first glance look can look like yet another piece of spam.

Another segmentation approach is to use what you know about the specific pain that led them to your site. You might have a product that can address several pain points. As an example, if you are an HR SaaS provider, you might have people coming to you to solve one of these pain points: Hiring, Performance Reviews, Vacation tracking, Time tracking, etc.  Often times you will know this from how they found you. i.e. which Search terms did they use, or which banner ad did they respond to? Creating content that is specific to their needs is going to be far more valuable to them than taking their time describing features that they don’t immediately care about.

Step 2: High Value Personalized Content

The highest value personalized content that I have seen can be created in the following situation: You have some way to find out data about your customer from information that is freely available on the Internet (or that they are willing to provide to you).  For example, you might be able to observe how your customer is going about hiring, advertising, using social media, investing, marketing, etc. simply by looking at things they are doing on-line. If your product is able to take that information and generate a personalized report on what they could do better, that can be very powerful.  If they are early in the buying cycle, you will want to consider re-running that report on a monthly basis and automatically emailing it to them.  The fact that it is personalized to them will make them pay attention.

If you can’t find this information freely on the web, ask them if they would be willing to give you that information so that you can provide them with personalized reports. This kind of request has a high chance of success provided that you are able to assure them of confidentiality.

How this applies to Inbound Marketing

A big part of Inbound marketing is about using content to drive traffic. However it is not always clear how to create the best kind of content. The key recommendations that I would make are:

  • Figure out how to add value to your customers in your content.
  • Don’t be tempted into using your blog, or other content, to carry sales messages. They have the opposite effect that you are looking for, and damage your relationship building.

You may still need a way to communicate product related news to your customers. If that is the case, consider separating your blog into two entities:

  • Use one blog for your company and product updates
  • Create another blog for expert value-added content – i.e. for trusted relationship building

Never use the second blog for anything other than adding value to your customers. Aim to become a trusted expert. Recognize that any form of selling destroys your credibility as a trusted expert.

Virality and Social Media

Social Media like Twitter, Facebook and Google+ have made it increasingly easy to share great content. Not surprisingly the articles that get shared the most are not those containing sales pitches, but are those that contain value such as insights, expert opinions, vision, and educational content.  This can add a powerful amplifier to your efforts.

There is still an important role for Sales

By writing this article, I don’t mean to imply that you don’t need a sales organization. It simply implies that there may be a more effective way to start a sales process. However the real purpose of this post is to get a discussion going around how companies can make their on-line marketing efforts more effective. This approach does not work in all situations. Where it would work less well is in low price point, short duration, transactional sales. In those situations the customer may be just looking for the quickest way to purchase something and get on with their lives. I will talk more about that in an upcoming blog post.


In today’s world where the Internet has shifted the balance of power into the buyers hands, it is critical to understand how to delight potential buyers, and win their trust before promoting your product.

The answer: build a trusted relationship with your potential buyers.

  • Get to know your customers so you can understand what they would consider to be of high value
  • Define your strategy for adding value that you believe will lead to becoming a trusted adviser
  • Create communications channels (e.g. blog, etc.) that avoid selling, and deliver on your strategy.
  • Consider hiring content creators to create the material. Evaluate domain experts,
  • Never wreck the power of those communications by adding in any kind of sales messaging
  • Leverage social media to broaden the audience for your content.
  • Continue to nurture the relationship over time with high value communications
  • Try to get the customer curious to the point where they start asking you questions about how you can help them with their business problems. At that point you have started to win a trusted relationship. The sale will become easy – they will ask you for your advice on what to purchase, and will follow the advice without reluctance
  • Be careful to retain that trust by only recommending your product when it is a good fit for their situation.

If you do this correctly, you might just find that they spread the word virally about the value you are providing.

Above all, remember that your customers hate being sold to!

Credits: I’d like to thank Mark Roberge, the VP of Sales at HubSpot for contributing two important thoughts to this post.  Mark explained one part of this process that I had not yet been able to put into words: the importance of getting the customer to start asking questions.  Mark also highlighted the ability of his sales team to use the Internet to research their leads prior to making their first phone call, using information that was publicly visible on their website, blogs, tweets, etc.