Bullish: How to Sell Without Selling

In the suburbs, if you stand outside the mall handing out flyers, lots of people will take one. “What is this wondrous piece of paper, and who is this intriguing person offering to interact with me in some small way? Wonder of wonders!”

In New York, people are so inured to aggressive advertising that marketing reps can be handing out full-size LadyEstrogen SnakBars, and we’ll angrily march right by, deliberately avoiding eye contact, until twelve feet later we realize we’re hungry and someone just offered us free food. (Side note: a boyfriend on a road trip once refused to eat a LunaBar because it would make his “balls shrink.”)

Recently, I was giving a free seminar about the GRE. At the end of the talk – at which point I’ve made math titillating and vocabulary edifying! – there’s a slide about upcoming classes. This slide mentions that, as a thank-you for attending tonight, you get $100 off a class.

And as soon as the slide popped up, I noticed: six happy people who had just been joking around and sharing their math anxiety all the sudden get tense and start looking around uncomfortably.

I said, “Anyway, that’s all on this sheet if you want to come back and see us. I’m a teacher, I don’t really sell things.” And everyone relaxed and started smiling again. If they’re going to sign up for a GRE class, they’ll probably pick the one taught by the nice lady who makes them feel comfortable.

People get really defensive when you hard-sell them. Maybe women even more so, since a lot of that yelling on the street about how our tits and asses do or do not look has much the same tone as many sales techniques.

So, let’s talk about how to sell without selling! Obviously, if your job is sales, or if you run your own company, you need to sell.

But even if your job isn’t explicitly selling – well, the economy sucks, and it’s pretty hard for someone to fire you if you’re bringing in cash. A little bit of soft-sales provides a lot of job security. It’s easy to argue for a raise if you just brought in the cash that raise is supposed to come from.

Sell with Events

I ran an Internet marketing firm for five years (see Bullish: Three Career F*ckups I Made So You Don’t Have To), and selling was my absolute least fucking favorite thing ever. To the point where I would rather linger in bed and stare at my bedspread for a depressed hour every morning than pick up the phone and call some recalcitrant business owner. Sales made me want to fucking kill myself.

In fact, the vast majority of “motivational” products are sold to salespeople, who constantly need to pump themselves up in order to counteract the constant rejection. Ouch.

When I was running my company, I interacted with many of these salespeople at networking events, and I was always struck by how dehumanizing a model it was: the salespeople have little credibility, since everyone knows they sell a particular company’s line in exchange for commission, and that they in fact must sell particular amounts of product by particular deadlines to remain employed. These people are the most biased information sources on the planet. And yet, they don’t make the product, and have little control over how it is presented, what features will be in the next version, etc. – they are not empowered to do things in a better, more humanistic way. If potential customers don’t already love and want the product, the only tools left for the sales team are, essentially, badgering and manipulation. In an age in which information is better conveyed through technology than people anyway, I really wish this business model would just end.

I got so tired of acting like these salespeople – despite having completely the wrong personality for it – that I did the best thing I ever did as a business owner. I did it a little by accident, too.

A colleague suggested that we host a lunch at a country club type place. We’d feed people, she’d talk for half an hour about her business, I’d talk for half an hour about my business. Hurrah. We started making plans, but then she backed out.

Okay, I said. I’ll just do it myself. I’m going to need some other speakers. That was the easy part – pretty much all business owners are happy to speak for free. Soon, I had a slate of five speakers, all on marketing and Internet topics.

The next hurdle was paying for the event. Due to my sales phobia, I was pretty broke. I talked to the country club: “What do I have to do for you to reserve a date so I can start advertising? How much do you need for a deposit?” It turned out that they only wanted a $500 deposit, and they didn’t need it until 30 days before the event. “Okay! I’ll take it! Yes, please,” I said. That gave me about 45 days to advertise.

Once I had all these other speakers involved and a full day available at the country club, why not charge admission?

I set up a website and a Paypal account. I bartered with a talk radio station for some ads (many radio stations will actually record the ad for you – you just give them a script and they’ll even add cheesy intro and outro music). I diligently sent press releases. I sold table space to those salespeople for $150 per table; they came equipped with logo tablecloths and freestanding posters.

Sixty-five people attended the conference, and a few were even turned away (fire codes!)

Sell with Information

I am verbose – as you (obviously) know! My public speaking is no different.

My talk – the headline presentation, just before lunch – was called something like, “How to Market Your Business on the Internet.” As in, how to do everything yourself, without having to give me a dime.

And then I told people every single fact and secret I knew. All of them. From how websites are built and how to put the right keywords in their META tags to fun facts about people clicking more on banners at the bottom of a page than at the top, and opening the most emails on Tuesdays (true at the time). I accompanied the presentation with a twenty-page handout, in case anyone missed anything.

I was very popular at lunch. I answered so many questions I didn’t have time to eat.

The next morning, my voicemail was … full. This had never happened before. The typical message said something like, “I know you gave us all those details and I have the handout … but … maybe we should talk about you just doing this for us. Can you call us soon, please?”

I’ve never believed in holding back information. Especially in the age of the Internet, virtually no information is really secret or exclusive. As a teacher in the private market, I don’t so much share information as make sense of information; I help people understand and implement the information that is now free to all. I help people adapt information to their own purposes, memorize when needed, and figure out what it all means.

Give It Away Now

Public speaking is a fantastic sales technique, both for products and services as well as for you as a professional.

But even if you have no direct product to sell, or can’t get yourself in front of an audience of professionals due to working for a highly restrictive large corporation or because of a hideous deformity, you can still sell with information. Can you make a YouTube tutorial about how to do something? Can you write a whitepaper or an e-Book?

A 10-page whitepaper I wrote in 2002 about Internet Marketing Metrics (it explained how to use simple arithmetic to manage your ad spending) got picked up for a business school course reader in 2005 and was used by one of my GMAT students in a presentation as late as 2010. While people sometimes scroll fairly mindlessly through blogs (not this one, of course!), e-books and whitepapers get downloaded, cited, passed around, and stored on hard drives for all time.

(Regarding the title of this section: When the Red Hot Chili Peppers video for Give It Away Now came out in the ‘90s, my mother banned all Chili Peppers music and paraphernalia from our home, because she was offended by a singing crotch shot).

Information is basically free now. Sharing information generously – and interpreting it for pleasantly unguarded people who also think you’re smart and charismatic – is a great way to sell while also living your life like a decent, sociable, intellectually interested, helpful expert. It’s a pretty good feeling.

originally published on The Grindstone

  • In the Shop