Motive: Death of a salesman… and the collateral damage of a cold call
by Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) For some time, I’ve been living under the illusion that the internet had rendered the telesales agent about as obsolete as Willy Loman’s character in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But the dozen cold calls I’ve received while writing this have made me realise salespeople aren’t dead. They’re alive and kicking. Unfortunately, most of their kicks appear to be directed at the brands they purport to represent.
Would I buy life cover, asked the caller who introduced themself as a broker from one of the country’s largest insurers? How about I take out a new cellphone contract, implored the cellular service provider rep? Perhaps I’d be interested in a cast-iron investment scheme, suggested the JSE agent.
Each of the pitches was delivered in a high-pressure scripted patter, with the caller riding roughshod over my objections. And they ended in a similar style, with the line being disconnected after I asked them how they’d got my number and requested confirmation that they really did work for the big brands they claimed as employers.
Sometimes, like the 419Eaters who chase down Nigerian scams, I gain a perverse thrill from wasting people’s time when they’ve tried to hoodwink me. But, upon this occasion, the calls prompted a couple of thoughts.
The first was: why don’t brands do more to disassociate their names from such disreputable sales tactics?
While it’s unlikely the JSE had any ties with the company selling the ‘gilt-edged’ investments, I’d be very surprised if, no matter how informal, the insurer and cellular company don’t have some form of broker or affiliate relationship with the businesses that purported to represent them.
We live in a time where there’s more scrutiny than ever over the ethics of marketing. And while these approaches don’t exactly fall into the category of boiler-room calling, they’re hardly aligned to the values trumpeted by much of corporate South Africa.
As a consequence, my perception of these businesses has been lowered. And, if they start targeting and mis-selling to people more susceptible than myself, it’s not a stretch to imagine a media exposé that would pose considerable reputational risk to their brands.
In that outcome, even if the brands are able to demonstrate there’s no clear link between themselves and the sales teams claiming to operate on their behalf, they’ll still be tainted by association; tried in the court of public opinion.
So why isn’t the marketing department demanding that the sales team put an end to their shenanigans? Perhaps they should do as Julius Malema did back in 2010 and insist that the ‘bloody [telesales] agent’ is thrown out of the room.
Aside from leaving a sour taste in my mouth, the second outcome of the calls was to make me wonder why people still bother with a sales tactic that’s not particularly effective.
Age of the self-sold customer
Frank Rumbauskas, the author of “Never Cold Call Again”, cites a study by Baylor University that found sales calls have a close rate of just 0.3%. The title of his book suggests he might not be the most impartial witness, but the reality is that the influence of the salesforce is fast being eroded. We live in the era of the self-sold customer; an age in which the internet is empowering us to make purchasing decisions. On our own.
We’re able to assess trends and locate products and services with a couple of keystrokes. More importantly, we can validate the claims companies make in online forums or by logging onto Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter to ask our mates what they think.
We don’t want people to call us. We’ll rather call them. Or fill in a contact form. Or, better still, buy online.
Using the internet makes sense for consumers who want to buy stuff without being put under pressure. And it makes sense for companies looking to sell stuff. According to Search Engine Journal, inbound leads cost corporates 60% less than outbound leads and some, like those originating from SEO, have a 14.6% close rate. That’s particularly true for relatively sophisticated purchases such as the ones being pitched to me.
Give some sales budget to marketing
So why is the finance department not curbing the sales team’s budget and handing it over to marketing?
The lesson from all of this is clear: it’s dumb to use sales and marketing tactics that expose your brand to risk … and it’s doubly dumb to expose your brand to risk by doing something that patently doesn’t work.
So, please, let’s put Willy Loman to rest for once and for all.
Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) is CEO of Rogerwilco, a multi-award-winning independent digital agency best known for its expertise with Drupal, SEO and content marketing. A Scot by birth, he moved to South Africa in the early 2000s in his quest to support a winning rugby team. He co-authored Business to Business Marketing: A Step by Step Guide, which was published by Penguin Random House in 2016. You may also find him on LinkedIn.
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.