Is “mani-pedi” selling dead?

When buyers get 15 rep calls and 25 emails per day, there’s no way they can spend time with everyone who wants a piece of their attention. So for decades, media companies have used perks — large and small — to get on a buyer’s radar. The classic example is reps taking planners to the salon for a manicure and pedicure, so they can informally get the scoop on upcoming RFPs.

Then there are the gifts. Small branded items have been part of the business for years. Larger gifts seem increasingly common. Many media companies are passing out iPads and AG jeans in the lively expectation that they will be remembered — and considered — in upcoming buys. But is this actually effective in a world so singularly focused on driving better results? The truth is this type of relationship selling is no longer as powerful as many believe.

Challenging the relationship seller

There has been a lot of buzz about “The Challenger Sale,” a book by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. One central theme of the book is that relationship selling is far less effective at driving business than most people think. The authors divide sellers into five broad categories:

  • Relationship builders build personal and professional connections as their primary strategy to gain new business. They strive for agreement and harmony.
  • Hard workers are the yeoman of the field. They work harder than others to make more calls, book more meetings, etc.
  • Lone wolves are the deeply self-confident and the rule-breaking cowboys and cowgirls. They do things by themselves, their way.
  • Reactive problem solvers focus on delivering satisfaction after the sale as a means of getting renewals and additional business.
  • Challengers use their deep understanding of their customers’ businesses to drive new thinking about how to push a business forward.

Perhaps the most surprising finding from their research is that relationship sellers tend to be far less effective than other sellers, especially versus challenger sellers. According to the authors, this is because the relationship seller is looking for harmony and “good meetings” while the challenger seller is consistently focused on providing ways to grow the client’s business.

Many digital sales organizations focus on the relationship sale out of a perception that all solutions are fairly similar and the customer’s decision of whom to work with relates more to emotional considerations than rational ones. But here’s the rub. Clients and prospects don’t want more of the same, they want better stuff. Far more than pretty nails, what the buyer really wants is a way to deliver better results.

My dear friend John Durham, CEO of Catalyst SF, says it best:

“I’ve always believed it’s product first. That you need to deliver a great solution, and that your people need to be able to talk about it in a smart way. That’s even more true today than just a few years ago. When today’s buyers meet with a potential partner, they are more prepared — with smart questions, product experts, requests for detailed information. You won’t make a sale to an inquisitive group like today’s strategic buyers if you’re relying on schwag and a free dinner to make yourself stand out.”

First-hand experience

One of the most vivid ways I’ve experienced this is through the change in who has a seat at the table in a typical prospect meeting. Before, meetings were dominated by generalists primarily looking for incremental improvements in their well-established ways of engaging consumers.

These days, minor upgrades aren’t enough. Buyers now want big advances. And they have teams of internal experts to ensure that they get them. When a seller calls on an agency there is likely to be a data expert, platform expert, and device expert in the room, each of whom has a set of highly precise questions as to methodology, results, and proof.

The new substance buyers and sellers

Earlier this year my job responsibilities expanded to ValueClick’s media business. During my first week, I was struck by the breadth and depth of product information and sales training being deployed in support of a new product initiative for cross-device advertising. I expected that there would be a pretty sales deck, a slick one sheet with a colorful stock pic at the top. You know the kind of photo — of a person coordinated enough to hold a phone, PC, and smartphone simultaneously, all while showcasing her 162 titanium white teeth.

OK, OK. There actually was a pretty deck and a sell sheet with that photo. But there were also countless hours of required product training for every seller. There were many more hours of cross-device sales training. Then there were marketing initiatives focused on research and data. It was about substance. There wasn’t a branded stress ball in sight. It was the sort of focus on product that the cynical among us might have thought was overkill. But here’s the thing: It’s no longer overkill. It’s just enough kill.

In my second week, I went on a sales call for our cross-device advertising solutions and the experience blew me away. I expected a few smart questions about methodology but that most of the focus would be on pricing and publisher lists. Instead, what I saw was our data expert talking to the prospect’s data expert about every aspect of information collection, management, and actioning. The humanities majors in the room, including yours truly, weren’t glaze-faced but rather following the discussion with laser-beam focus and a keen understanding of the key issues.

I wish I’d had a video camera because witnessing that one meeting would put to rest any of the cynicism that some sellers have about the buying community. After 20-plus years in the ad biz, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that you won’t find more committed people than the practitioner buyers on the front line. The meeting and the discussion were absolutely awesome.

Afterwards, the rep who led the discussion made an offhand comment that has stuck with me for months. “You don’t close those people over a mani-pedi or a cocktail.” Right on. Today’s buyers are looking to drive real growth and change. They want innovation and answers, not a paraffin treatment.

OK, maybe answers and a paraffin treatment.

The mani-pedi anti-defamation league

Ultimately, this is my way of saying that fostering personal dialogue is a great goal. Inasmuch as client entertainment can help be the catalyst for those kinds of relationships, bring on the polish. But every seller needs to know that in today’s environment, mani-pedis are not a sales strategy. What works with today’s buyers is smart thinking and real innovation, delivered in a way that is truthful, clear, and compelling.

Those French tips are now just frosting on the cake — err, nails.