When you hear the term “hard sell,” what do you think of? The oft-maligned used car salesman, right? Or maybe the image that comes to mind is a giant inflatable gorilla by the side of the road holding a sign urging passing drivers to “Buy Now!” because “Time Is Running Out!”

A “hard sell” is described as a sale that results from pressuring customers by being aggressive, unrelenting, and confrontational. Hard selling is all around us. It’s the go-to tactic of boiler room call centers, street hustlers, and even white-shoe lawyers trying to force a quick settlement.

And it’s a bad idea for creative professionals.

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Hard Selling Treats Buyers as Disposable

The goal of a hard sell is to overwhelm decision makers with information and close deals fast — on the spot, if possible. It usually isn’t until after the transaction that buyers have time to go over everything they were presented with, at which point they may discover some of it was misleading or outright erroneous. Hard selling may be effective at closing fast deals, but it’s not so hot when it comes to generating repeat business. “Sure, lofty promises may bring plenty of sales through the door, but if you can’t deliver on these promises, your client lifetimes will be short, and your negative reputation will precede you. Instead, be honest and realistic, and set prospects’ expectations accordingly.”

Soft Selling Builds Lasting Relationships

In businesses built on trust and personal relationships, like those in the creative industries, hard selling just doesn’t work. Creative professionals aren’t selling prefabricated products — they’re offering something bespoke for their clients. To do that, they need to understand their clients (and their clients’ constituents) on more than just a superficial level. Likewise, clients entrusting their brand and marketing resources to a creative firm need to have a positive relationship with their partners.

That’s where soft selling comes in. Soft selling means opening yourself up and giving potential partners the time to get to know and trust you before they make a decision. ”You don’t put psychological pressure on potential buyers. Instead, you find passive ways to show them that you have the solutions they need.”

In order to build that trust, transparency is particularly important. Agencies can display both their expertise and their values through white papers, seminars, and social media content like videos, blogs, and podcasts. ”Moving prospects along the sales cycle with free information is a great way to cultivate your sales relationships. People will respect you as an authority and not a pesky salesperson.”

 

People Skills Matter

Because it can be so difficult for an agency even to reach the stage where it’s in direct contact with a potential client’s ultimate decision-making team, getting that long-awaited sit-down meeting can feel like a make-or-break moment. So there can be the temptation to think a hard sell is warranted. Marketing consultant Robb High encourages agencies to resist that urge: “In the end, a client picks the agency because ‘We like them and trust them.’ Which is why prospecting should be more like real-world dating, where you take your time and seek to have a series of meetings to get to know each other.”  

According to High, clients generally have a pretty good idea from the outset which agencies they want to work with. Even though they meet with several, they often have two or three top choices in mind, and the rest are just added to the roster as part of due diligence. He also says that after meeting with agencies, clients spend more time discussing how they felt about the presenters than about their presentation. Were they fun? Were they engaging? Did they seem like a good fit? These decisions are usually made collaboratively through consensus rather than conflict — which means turning off just one person can knock an agency out of contention.

Soft selling is all about soft skills: social graces, relationship building, and listening to the potential client rather than talking at them. These skills are all reinforced by transparency, dependability, and conscientiousness.

 

Knowledge Is Power

When choosing a firm to work with, clients want to hear more about themselves and their customers and less about the agency itself. Because a soft sell seeks to avoid overwhelming decision makers, “it’s essential to find a balance between sharing helpful information on what you do for networking purposes and overloading uninterested parties with details.” A hard sell occurs when one party has all the information and uses it to the disadvantage of another. In a soft sell, two parties share information for their mutual benefit.

In a hard-sell mindset, every interaction has a zero-sum outcome: Either you made the sale or you didn’t. In a soft-sell mindset, every interaction is an opportunity to build a relationship, and a new relationship can be as valuable as a closed deal. Remember: No one wants to “be sold.” What they want is to find — and be — a willing and equal partner.