Published in The Attention Architect, a newsletter on LinkedIn, March 15, 2022
Every company and institution has something to sell—whether it's milk, motorcycles, MBAs, or musical performances. Whenever my team and I start a new assignment, our clients will walk us through their sophisticated sales process, techniques, and tools for how they "sell" people.
Sometimes these sales methods are sincere and earnest, and sometimes they're based on pressuring customers into buying their products using questionable tactics, such as fatigue, misleading information, or trickery.
While nobody likes to admit it, we've all been scammed before and bought something we later realized was a sham sold to us by a shady salesperson. It's not a good feeling to be taken advantage of, and humans will go to great lengths to avoid that from happening again in the future, which hurts all consumer propositions.
The cult of selling has been around for generations and is often sold, ironically, to salespeople as a Teflon-coated confidence game of "always be closing." While those techniques might've worked well in the past eras, they send out all the wrong signals today and put customers in a defensive posture instead of the ideal frame of mind I call "The Dream of Someday."
Every person has dreams—whether it's a new car, bigger home, early retirement, advanced degree, or new body.
While customers' aspirations may vary per generation and geography, every brand should clearly understand what their target audience dreams about the most and how their brand's transformation potential can help them get closer to attaining wish-fulfillment.
Sadly, though, far too many brands don't know their customer's dreams. Or worse, prevent customers from getting closer to their dream state in the store because they push them into a state of psychological discomfort by coming on too hard.
THE TYPICAL CAR-BUYING EXPERIENCE
One of the most dreaded purchasing experiences consumers have to endure is the car-buying process. While price, features, maintenance packages, financing, and vehicle options are already stressful enough, consumers dread getting the runaround from sly salespeople.
Car salesmen (emphasis on men here) often make the situation worse. They wear starched shirts tucked in neat and tight and fitted out the nines with signals of success (fancy watches, jewelry, belts), all of which make them look like masters in control of their domain. They position their high back chairs, desks, phones, pens, monitor, staplers, and vantage point in a commanding perch to overlook the sales floor (shark tank), so they can see which customers (prey) walk onto the sales floor (trap) and shows interest (take the bait) for a potential product.
But when customers sit down with salespeople, their chairs are small, and their backs face the crowd, triggering primal instincts about being approached or attacked from behind. They have no access or even awareness to what all the numbers mean, nor do they have in-depth familiarity with what financial options are wisest for them to pursue. This vulture/prey dynamic makes potential customers feel inferior, weak, and diminutive, which is not ideal for dreaming.
Everything about this typical car sales scenario feels off-putting for customers and triggers one of the greatest fears humans have: losing control and being put in a vulnerable position.
In the work we've done in this industry, we eliminate any semblance of the "shark tank" feeling and install round, unassigned coffee shop-style tables that put customers more at ease and make them feel like they're on equal footing with the salespeople.
But it's not just car dealerships that embody this stressful dynamic; so too do places such as furniture stores and new home developments.
THE TYPICAL FURNITURE STORE EXPERIENCE
Traditionally, many furniture stores located their shops near malls in big box stores with hundreds of little vignettes of couches, dining room tables, chairs, credenzas, etc. The first problem with this approach is asking consumers to willingly come into the store to make a big-ticket purchase in a deliberate, premeditated manner.
Lifestyle brands like Crate & Barrel trade off the big store location approach to squeeze themselves into the tighter confines of outdoor shopping centers and main streets where there are a variety of other activities happening, such as eating out at restaurants, seeing movies, and hanging out with their spouse in a leisurely mind state. This approach allows customers to casually fall into the mode of "just browsing" the store and feel spontaneously inspired by the great idea they stumbled upon for redecorating their home. In these ideal dream state scenarios, the consumer feels empowered and in control and often walks out of the store with an unintended purchase: a new dining room table or bedroom set.
While we may pick up milk and bread from the grocery store every week, most of us don't buy big, bulky, expensive furniture that often. It's a once in every 3-8 years kind of thing. However, the salespeople who work in furniture stores often feel hungry for a sale and lonely for customer contact, like the old Maytag repairman commercials portrayed.
Yet, many furniture stores exacerbate this dynamic of customer anxiety and lonely salespeople by positioning their sales counters smack dab in the middle or central aisle of the store, preventing customers from dreaming on their own for the first few minutes.
Many years of studying store behavior taught us that customers dread these kinds of pressured selling environments because the stores are already overwhelming enough to wrap one's head around, much less to be bothered by an overly zealous salesperson.
While your particular store may not do this, per se, plenty of other brands soured the punch long ago for everyone else. In other words, they didn't give the customers room to dream by themselves and imagine the possibilities for how your brand offering will improve, enhance and transform their lives.
THE DREADED "SALES CENTER" APPROACH
Buying furniture or a new car is a sizable purchase to consider. But they don't compare to the stress and financial proctology involved in negotiating home prices, qualifying for a 30-year mortgage, and figuring out how to come up with the cash for the substantial down payment required to purchase a new home. Nor do they consider the emotional hurdles and psychological worries that some consumers—particularly older generations—have for uprooting themselves from one place to another.
While we all like to dream of someday, customers often get stressed about the exact details and requirements involved in change.
And when customers are in a worried, defensive posture, they can shut down their imagination and become very irritable and prickly to approach. However, the store's job is to help customers get comfortable and prevent these anxiety-ridden decisions and stress-inducing chemicals from overwhelming them so they can dream and imagine new possibilities for how much better their lives can be in the future.
Yet, again, what do most housing developments do to reduce this stress? They call their first point of customer contact the "sales center," which, for prospective customers, translates to entering a shark tank with hungry, aggressive vultures waiting for their next meal tickets to arrive.
THE THREE STEPS TO GETTING CUSTOMERS INTO THE RIGHT FRAME OF MIND
Our firm regularly helps brands rethink their "selling environments" by creating the ideal state for customers to dream about the future. While there are many steps to get customers into this mood, we encourage our clients to embrace three of the core principles below.
- Uncover the patterns of what your target audience's Dream of Someday looks like in visual and tangible form. Identify the roadblocks and obstacles that prevent them from pursuing these dreams, and help them see that the rewards are worth the risks.
- Banish the words "selling," "sales," "sales centers," "sales desks," "sales counters," and, of course, the title, "salespeople" from your store. These are antiquated terms that potentially put customers on the defense and in the wrong frame of mind. Instead, develop your own proprietary set of words that capture your store and employees' genuine passion for improving customers' lives. The store shouldn't be a "selling environment," but a place of enlightenment and transformation.
- Stop approaching customers as soon as they walk into the store. Instead, let them meander and process the store's offering. Create more of a self-serve store environment that focuses on self-discovery, where customers can briefly explore, daydream and imagine the possibilities for how your brand's offering will improve, enhance, and better their lives on their own. Once they've entered that state, then you can approach them to help answer questions. But achieving this dream state requires clearly defining your brand's transformational potential and designing iconic, symbolic, and succinct visuals and experiential surrogates that capture your brand's brilliance and help customers visualize their future life.
Of course, there are many other steps to getting your customers comfortable and in the right frame of mind in your store. But if you spend your creative energies and time thinking more about how to help your customers dream rather than selling them, you will get much closer to having your store become a place that fulfills dreams, not one that makes them uncomfortable.