How to ensure I won't buy what you're selling

(MoneyWatch) Like most of you, I get cold calls and e-mails every day -- not spam, I mean "real" sales calls -- most of them for things in which I have no interest, or for which I am not even a prospect. And like most people (I'm making statistical assumptions), I almost never answer or respond. It's not because I have it in for all salespeople -- though probably most of us have a hard spot in our hearts for solicitations -- It's because the vast majority of them botch their door-opening efforts so badly.

I appreciate that these people are doing their jobs and trying to make a living. In fact, as I wrote recently, whenever I get a call, e-mail or message from a salesperson, I remind myself that at my company, and probably yours, we call people to try to sell stuff, too. So I'm not insensitive to the plight of the honest, hardworking sales professional.

The problem is, most of their hard work often goes into turning me off to the point of nearly total disinterest in whatever it is they're selling, even if they were straight-up giving away gold bullion. As I delete the emails and voice mails, I invariably wonder, "Does this stuff work on anyone?" I suppose it does, or they wouldn't keep doing it, but it's hard to imagine many of these players have a high batting average.

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I'm referring mainly to business-to-business pitches, but most of the same bad ideas apply to consumer selling (in some cases even more so), including:

Acting too casual or familiar: I can't tell you how many salespeople open with some iteration of "Hey, Mike, how've you been?" First of all, if you assume using a nickname is OK, it means you must have known me before 1986, because only my friends from way-back-then still call me that. I'm not offended by it, I simply don't use it. Second, saying "how've you been" when we've never even spoken before is disingenuous and sneaky; it's a subtle tactic designed to make someone just unsure enough to not hang up. But once I figure that out, the chances of the call going anywhere are hovering around zero or less. To use formal business terminology, I find it yucky. Click.

Leaving "mystery messages": This one almost cracks me up, if it weren't so sad. It's where a salesperson leaves a message with no message: "Hi, this is Joanne, please return my call at your earliest convenience at 800-555-5555." I get at least one of these every couple of months. Seriously, does any real, credible sales prospect actually return a message like that? I suppose a vulnerable consumer might do so, perhaps worrying about the unknown, but an ostensibly savvy business person? Delete.

Being misleading about the genesis of the contact: "Someone mentioned your name to me" -- really, who? "I believe you expressed some interest in our product a while back" -- no, I didn't. "I studied your website and noticed you're not being found in web search results" -- if you actually studied our site you'd notice otherwise. And my favorite, "I'm not calling to sell anything" -- um, yes, you definitely are. Dial tone.

Don't BS smart, busy people. If your job is to cold call, do it with class and honesty. Try, "I'm hoping you'll allow me to introduce myself," or even better, actually know something about your prospect and say something targeted and specific: "I see you make laptop bags" -- we do-- " and am hoping you're open to looking at a new material we've developed" -- we are, send me your info!

Being presumptuous with follow-up expectations: This seems to be an increasingly popular tactic -- sending an email or leaving a phone message with a specific appointment time: "Please confirm that you're available for a brief introductory call on Wednesday at 3:00 p.m." You don't know me, we've yet to even speak, I haven't expressed interest in what you're selling, and you're penciling something in my calendar?

It sounds harmless enough, suggests initiative, thoroughness and tenacity. But it also crosses the chutzpah line. No sale.

I realize all of this may sound like I'm a grumpy, self-important hard-ass, but I'm really not (just ask around). And scorn isn't my default emotion when it comes to salespeople; sales make the world go 'round and we all want great sellers working for us. But these pitches sound and read like they came out of some horrible "get rich selling stuff" seminar or from someone who saw "Glengarry, Glen Ross" one too many times.

I fully understand the classic rules of selling: build rapport, get 'em interested, overcome objections, get to "yes," ask for the order and so on. But taking these rules too literally is self-defeating. Put that age-old wisdom in your tool box, but lead with sincerity, respect, honesty, a likable and real personality. You're still going to get doors shut, phones hung up and e-mails deleted, but probably not quite as much. Just as in customer service, authenticity and empathy shine, even through phone lines and ethernet cables.

Clearly the deck is stacked against cold-call selling, even at its finest. Like mailing a million catalogs to get a 2 or 3 percent response rate, it's one of those businesses where you accept a lot of rejection in the hopes of getting enough fish on the hook to make it worthwhile. But by breaking free of a mechanical, insincere approach to selling, getting off-script and thinking like one human reaching out to another human, you can improve those odds. In a low percentage game, even one more successful call makes a big difference.

Image courtesy of Flickr user aflcio