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Insights / Blog / Business

Why selling is different today than it used to be!

May 03, 2016
Alain VeuveAlain VeuveManaging Director, AOE Switzerland

Recently, I read an interesting article by Andreas Kassat, “Poor Upbringing or a new Trend: Unreachable Contacts”. I recommend you do the same. The article deals with the situation that many contacts don’t return calls, aren’t available and, in the sales process, just don’t get in touch anymore. Andreas Kassat raises an exciting issue – I have a relationship with both the vendor and the customer sides of the issue. This upfront: I don’t believe that people no longer have common decency. But people constantly change their behavioral patterns and this has an extremely strong impact with regard to sales. A few thoughts concerning an area that is indirectly driven by technology to a much larger extent than we are aware of.

Saturation, first and foremost in the B2B sector

Even when considering all the details we shouldn’t forget that we live in a saturated world. Of course there still is demand, but compared to, say, the 1980s, it’s much less today. And there are obstacles to investing, which can be explained by the fact that amortization must take place much faster. Also, the competition is much stiffer, due to globalization. This creates a much more difficult terrain for the more conventional products.

Information at your fingertips

And thanks to the Internet customers rarely look for a solution to their problems very long. For most of the basic questions 30 minutes are sufficient to evaluate the appropriate vendor. This is one of the reasons that trade shows have become less relevant. The customer has hijacked the entire buying process, in a manner of speaking. He’s quite literally usurped it. Usually, he wants to dictate the pace, define the rules and march right through to the point of purchase. Or, if so desired, just refrain from buying.

Taken in this context, guided selling processes as we know them from conventional sales, are, to a large extent, a violation of the self-determination of the customer.

I think that it is owed to this circumstance that customers suddenly disappear after a supposedly good conversation and contact. It’s just too much of a good thing. This is an attempt at an explanation, not a justification.

What makes things even more difficult is that the customers usually are in touch with several vendors whose offerings are very close to each other. They thus have very little clarity with whom they want to continue. The more heterogeneous a product or service, the worse the situation becomes. I’m contacted regularly by companies who are evaluating Internet agencies and in the end can’t decide which one of three vendors they want to work with. Not because they are fools, but because it is really difficult to make an informed decision.

And yes, of course some have difficulties with saying no, I don’t want to do business with you, once a decision has been made. Simply “fading away” may not be the gentlemanly way of doing things, but I think this behavior is usually based in not wanting to disappoint anyone.

I also know this situation from the customer point of view. It’s hard to openly and directly turn down a vendor whose people have made a real effort (and whom one likes, after all). For, one must disappoint someone and, at the same time, break off the business relationship. Basically, the statement behind it is that, in this case, you aren’t good enough. Not a pleasant thought.

My personal, non-representative experience has shown that for the most part people aren’t totally ignorant. Of course I’m familiar with that bad feeling of not hearing anything from a customer. That, too, is not pleasant.

Self-determined attention

In the meanwhile; I’ve developed a very special relationship to acquisition through the phone: I consider it indecent. And I don’t just mean this in regards to cold calls, but also regarding follow-ups. As a rule, I’ve proceeded to not accepting calls any longer. That sounds really stupid, doesn’t it?

But, in reality it’s not. For I get a lot of calls, so many in fact, that when I’m out of the office for a day, there are at least 15 unanswered calls in my display.

Returning calls is the most unproductive task imaginable: If I recognize the number then I know who called, could prepare myself and then, if my counterpart isn’t in a meeting or busy with work that requires concentration, could reach my contact – which would be a good thing. Unfortunately, this almost never happens. Most of the time I don’t know the number and my potential business contact is occupied in some way.

What thus develops is a tiresome, ineffective process of coordination. I could afford it, but I don’t want to. My time is irretrievable. I am the master of my own attention.

For this reason, I rarely pick up the phone. And I never make hit-or-miss phone calls, simply by looking at the number in the display. One of the many reasons for this is that one receives an unbelievable amount of cold calls, at least three to sever per day. It’s simply too much. And I don’t see myself as an indecent person, but rather perceive these permanent and continuous infringements on my attention as an imposition.

And this even though I enjoy talking to people very much. On the, too. Sometimes. But I try to coordinate this beforehand, especially with customers. I try to make a telephone appointment. I’ve practically never had the case, that these are ignored on purpose.

Passive selling

Thus, I regard this pro-active selling as dead. After all, the “pro” usually stands for exaggerated activity. And this can rapidly backfire, namely in those cases where I get on my customer’s nerves, instead of helping him. This can have the reverse effect very quickly and creates a negative image for salespeople.

I’ve been a huge fan of solution selling for a long time. This methodology focuses on creating a solution for the customer using those products and services that I can offer, rather than on trying to “seal the deal”. This is more an examination of whether customer and vendor fit together – if the solution makes sense – rather than a hijacking of the sales process.

And this is how I try to do things myself: At first glance a cooperation between our company and the customer naturally makes sense. It’s like a hypothesis which one tries to refute. Is there a catch? Is it an ill fit, after all? The first question should be the one about the budget, for this is fundamental. Usually the transaction fails at this point in my experience, which is ok. It saves me an unbelievable amount of time – notably time that I can use for those prospects that match our mutual interests.


This approach has suited me very well. I like to tell potential customers that I’ve come to listen before we begin our conversation. You wouldn’t believe how many prospects literally breathe a sigh of relief when they hear this. “Finally, someone who doesn’t bend our ears, who doesn’t say everything is easy and that there are no problems.” And then I actually listen.

With the material I have thus been able to collect I return to the office, we discuss possible solutions in our team and try to develop something that really helps the customer. In many cases this isn’t possible; the solution is not a one-hundred-percent fit. Many sales people then make the mistake in these situations that they can’t let go.


And so they try to palm off the 70-percent solution at all costs. But, the customer generally notices and I maintain that he resents it. Maybe not on a conscious level, but he has the unmistakable feeling of being outsmarted. I try to avoid this. I just go there and tell them what we have to offer; and I also tell them when I feel that there are solutions available that are even better suited, even if we can’t offer them ourselves.

In most cases, prospects are thankful for such openness. Though we’ve lost the deal we have a good relationship with the customer. And you always meet each other at least twice. The alternative would be to push the sale through (if this even works), implement a project destined to fail and burdens the employees – all, just to then lose the customer altogether. A simple choice if you ask me.

Sitting in the cave

In the past I belittled those people who used a passive sales approach and said that they sat in caves, waiting for someone to stop by – for this was truly the wrong approach in a world in which information wasn’t available in every pocket. Acquisition was enormously important.

Today, I think that this has changed significantly. The most important thing, especially for service providers, is for customers to find you and for you to provide them with a meaningful experience. In such a way that the customer not only finds you, but can also assess you quickly. Today, this is considered inbound marketing, but it should be labeled as inbound lead generation. And storytelling is one aspect of it.

It is vital to be truly there, to be present at that moment when the customer is standing in front of the cave. To not get on his nerves by trying to capture and control his attention from the outside. And to be as honest and open as possible. If this is the case then, in my opinion, not much can go wrong.

Rethink your mindset

I think Andreas Kassat is doing a really good job. This is apparent just by simply dealing with the topic. Especially the question “What have I done wrong?” is the foundation for continued development. The answer to this question is, nothing. Today, one can expect decency. And one should. As decision-maker, part of this is to call back when one is already in discussions and tell the vendor that one does not wish to continue. This at the very least.

On the vendor side decency today also means not to make cold calls, or to call out of the blue one day after sending out an offer, or to send follow-up mails on the second day. Today, it means respecting the attention span of the customer. To adapt to the behavior and expectations of the customers. And, as a matter of course, to profit from this approach in one’s own daily work.