The web has not yet killed the art of sales; Techniques have not changed as much as some online evangelists claim

December 2, 2013 3:54 pm

The web has not yet killed the art of sales

By Andrew Hill

Techniques have not changed as much as some online evangelists claim

Call me naive, but somehow I expected more from the double-glazing salesman I recently invited into my home. I knew about confusing pitches, pressure tactics, cowboy installers and fly-by-night manufacturers. You do not have to do much research to appreciate that sellers of double glazing are in the hard-sell hall of fame, alongside used-car vendors and estate agents.But I had also read the latest literature – such as Dan Pink’s book To Sell Is Human – which points to a change in the selling culture. The internet has evened up the odds. Customers are now as well, if not better, informed than sales agents. I needed new windows and I reckoned I would at least gain an insight into a more transparent era of selling.

I reckoned wrong. The national company I asked to quote first sent an old-school salesman with a box of all the worn-out tricks I thought the web was supposed to have eliminated: the “limited availability” discount; the sign-now, pay-less offer; and the “why wouldn’t you?” financing deal. He insisted I should sign up to the last, even after I had mentioned I worked for the FT and wanted more time to examine the terms. Until I made clear a local supplier had got the job, the company kept harassing me with follow-up calls.

Why have these techniques survived? In part, because of the nature of the product. In all except newly built homes, windows are non-standard, tailored to the size and condition of the hole they fill. Online double-glazing companies do exist, but the choices, befuddling jargon (espangolet or shootbolt locking?), and risk of getting the order expensively wrong, would drive even dedicated bargain hunters back to a more old-fashioned intermediary.

Life is harder for sales forces in other areas. Take another bespoke glazed item – prescription spectacles. Giving a cruel twist to the competitive challenge, online rivals prosper in part because incumbent opticians carry out the all-important eyetests for them. Armed with this information – equivalent to my window measurements – customers order lenses with relative confidence online, while browsing limitless options for frames. The cost of going wrong is low. Opticians are left fighting a rearguard action based on limited stock, sketchy personal service and customers’ residual fears about trusting their vision to an anonymous website.

Online competition and comparison have turned mobile phone purchase on its head, too. Phone contracts in the UK are notoriously complex. Yet as a sales tactic, obfuscation has its limits these days. When I upgraded my phone recently, I had a clear idea of the model I wanted and the package of voice, data and texts I needed. Unable to cut her price, the nice saleswoman at my existing operator was powerless to prevent my switching to a competitor, whose offer I could see online while I negotiated.

The notion that in this tougher environment most sales teams are at best weakened and at worst redundant is not as compelling as it may look, however. Mr Pink says the data show salespeople are still “a stalwart part of labour markets around the world”. But to survive, they have to learn to “upserve” customers rather than simply upsell to them. He cites companies such as Microchip Technology, a US semiconductor company, which decreased the variable element of its vendors’ pay, and saw sales rise. Applehires brand converts for its stores because, as FT contributor Philip Delves Broughton has written, they sell “out of enthusiasm, not just for commission”.

My unpleasant encounter with old-style sales was, in some ways, rather reassuring. Techniques have not changed as much as some evangelists claim. The human touch remains vital. The way my double glazing salesman got me to provide clues about myself as he ran through his patter was impressive, even if he then went on to ignore them.

But while I suspect it will take time for online competition to smash double glazing, sales agents who focus narrowly on closing the deal could still benefit from a wider perspective, as a final personal sales tale suggests. Facing a big bill to repair our ageing people-carrier, I consulted a former car salesman, recommended by a friend, who now helps buyers navigate the used car market. Should we repair or replace the vehicle, I asked, expecting a self-interested response. He suggested repair. Guess who is the first person I will call when replacement becomes our only option.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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