Shh…It’s Called a Soft Sale

Window shopping is nice, browsing is even better. But actually forking over your money? That ultimate act of commercial faith isn’t called “coughing it up” for nothing. Buying is a hard step made for emotional reasons that our rational minds are quick to second-guess. As if the actual purchase wasn’t difficult enough, buyer’s remorse sets in as you fret about whether you got a good value, wonder how you let the salesperson talk you into it, and dread getting the bill in your next credit card statement.

I can only surmise that everyone reading this knows firsthand what I’m talking about. The kicker? If you’re in business, then your very survival depends on getting people to take that hard step, preferably more than once. Ideally, people who take the plunge with you will convince others to do so as well since word of mouth is one of the most powerful marketing tools out there.

How can you increase your odds of success? Easy: Remove the sting from the buying decision by creating a series of soft steps that don’t involve money or even selling. Each soft step seeks your customer’s consent to take the next soft step and so on. The entire process builds trust and confidence and forges a relationship between you and your customers that eventually transforms the actual purchase from a hard step into yet another soft step.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery is a classic children’s book. In one chapter, the prince meets a fox. This fox desperately wants a friend but as a wild animal fears all who approach him. The prince asks how he can become the fox’s friend and is instructed to visit the fox every day at the same time. During these visits, the prince is to do nothing but sit silently and watch the fox, coming a little closer every day. The fox explains that doing this will not only lessen his fear but will make him start to anticipate the pleasure of the prince’s company. Eventually, the prince will draw near enough to touch the fox, who will then be tame. In other words, the soft steps of drawing nearer will eventually make the hard step of reaching out and connecting that much easier. I love this story because it encapsulates what marketing is about so beautifully.

What does this look like in the real world? There is a summer camp in New York state that caters to affluent youngsters. This camp markets using small classified ads in relevant magazines and at trade shows. Does this marketing sell a camping trip? No. It simply asks people to send for a free videotape. The videotape arrives and regales prospects with images of gorgeous scenery, spotless equipment, superb counselors, and happy campers. Does this videotape sell a camping trip? No. All it does is ask people to schedule a free in-home consultation with no obligation whatsoever. Then and only then does the camp ask whether Billy wants to go camping.

Want an example of how not to implement your soft steps? My wife and I visited a restaurant for lunch one day. As experienced diners, we expect to be asked about salads, drinks, etc. and usually appreciate the thoughtfulness. This time, however, our waitress bombarded us with questions and recommendations and dollar amounts throughout the entire meal. The food was good- I think- but I was too busy trying to take on fuel and get the heck out of there as quickly as possible to notice. I’d have complained- if only I could have gotten a word in edgewise. That was over a year ago and we have never returned despite passing the establishment regularly. Trust me when I say that high-pressure sales tactics are perfect for ruining the appetite.

So what about your business? What series of soft steps can you create that will make buying from you a pleasant experience that your customers will look forward to doing? Here are just a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

– Free samples. Prove how great your product is!
– Free lessons/demonstrations: Show your product and its benefits in action. Depending on your business, consider offering free lessons on how to use the product. Home Depot’s free classes are great examples.
– Ironclad guarantee: Contrary to popular belief, the better your guarantee, the fewer problems you’ll have with returns. Why? Because energy is contagious. Demonstrate that much faith in your product or service and that will pass through to your customers.

The basic idea is to create a process that gradually transforms prospects into customers by moving them from soft step to soft step, gaining consent at every step of the way. What will this process look like? That is where your time, energy, imagination, and information come in because each business is unique and there is no cookie-cutter solution.

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