Selling Unplugged!

History is peppered with sociological upheaval, but nothing quite like what we are experiencing right now. We sit at the bottom of a J curve as the phenomenon of the internet drives exponential change to how we relate to one another across our borderless, ever-shrinking planet. In this modern technology-driven world of ours, most of us seem content to be known as the ‘connected generation’. But then I wonder just how connected we really are.

I guess it all started not that long ago when an evil new thing called television was considered the work of the devil… driving daggers into the hearts of our cosy little family unit, stifling communication, and transforming us into square-eyed monsters with little else to do but spend our waking hours mindlessly staring at a box in the corner of our living room. Many feared that the very same room which once hosted real life – a convivial place where we used to sit around the fireplace, sharing our day’s experiences, singing, joking, and playing music and card games together – would never be the same again.

Well, we eventually managed to defy the critics, and somehow emerged from the threat of zombiism to resume a relatively normal life. Yes, we moved on! So here we are now, a couple of generations deeper into the information age. The television is now flatter, it’s bigger, a whole lot smarter too, and it has found its way out of the corner and up on to the wall. So what about that little satellite family of ours now… have we really moved on?

It seems not! These days we no longer even watch the communal television together. Mostly, we are apart, even under the same roof. We communicate in solitude – on computers, smartphones, pods, pads, and tablets – just us and our high-definition screen and our high fidelity earphones. We play our games alone too, as out interaction with the world around us becomes increasingly confined to social media. It has reached the point where we even seek out our partners online. Has social media turned us anti-social – has the connected generation disconnected?

Now please don’t get me wrong… I am devoted to technology and the immense gains it continues to deliver to today’s society. It has been my life’s work, and as a marketer, I appreciate the wonderful interactive analytics and market segmentation tools that this explosive new online world delivers. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the odd pang of disappointment when I see the downside, when I see it driving wedges into our essential togetherness – simple pleasures like understanding each other, helping each other, loving each other.

Sadly, this social isolation is not confined to our own private little world either; it is having a profound effect on the wider business community, revolutionising the whole concept of how we take our goods and services to market. Even face-to-face selling, long regarded as the epitome of connecting with other people, is being tested. Maybe, as salespeople, we need to take some time to look past the technology, to unplug ourselves from the digital world, and refocus on our interpersonal repertoire – that very special toolbox of selling skills so close to the heart of all professional salespeople.

For almost fifty years now, I’ve been involved with salespeople. At various times, I’ve been their colleague, their manager, and just like everyone else, their customer. In recent years, I have proudly been their coach and trainer. Many of these younger sales trainees of mine are products of the technology environment, the so-called ‘geeks’ you might find behind the counter of your local computer store.

Spending so much time with them in my live training workshops has given me a real insight into their makeup, and it has uncovered a disturbing trend… as competent and comfortable as they are dealing with all forms of electronic gadgetry, I’ve sensed their frustration as they struggle to reconcile the newest technology on the planet with the oldest of them all – mankind. In so many cases, they are simply not at ease dealing with people.

Technology itself is obviously not the problem here. Gen X have grown used to it, Gen Y have grown up with it, Gen Z have been born into it… and as we start the whole Generation thing all over again, the Alpha babies will be addicted to it. They are already being touted as the generation who will be ‘screenagers’ long before they become teenagers. With their playtime toys and kindergarten readers replaced by smartphones, Gen A are unlikely to emerge from the cocoon of their touch-screen, voice-activated virtual world until well into adolescence. By then, having to empathetically interact with their fellow man could come as something as a shock. The real challenge fronting them is not likely to be technical skills, but good old-fashioned people skills.

So, hidden under this sinister cloak of change, is the very real likelihood that we may eventually lose our vital selling skills. We simply can’t stand by and let this happen, because irrespective of how technology revolutionises the way we go to market, the underlying philosophy of how we buy, how we sell, and how we negotiate with one another in the process will not change. It will continue to demand a highly-developed level of skill and understanding if the personal touch is to be preserved. The balance must be retained.

For as long it is people who use our products, it is people who will buy them, it is people who will create them, and it will be people who still sell them. The human element will always prevail over technology, which is after all no more than its delivery vehicle. Yet there are signs that we are getting it all wrong.

In the face of ever-diminishing standards of customer service and widespread dehumanisation of the marketing process, the buyer’s satisfaction in making a good purchase – and indeed the seller’s pride in helping them realise that satisfaction – is taking a battering. While we must accept that some customers do not want to be ‘sold to’, and we do hear the odd commentator suggesting that the need for human interaction in selling is becoming redundant in our new online society, we also know that honest advice, genuine concern and helpful attention is still appreciated.

It is badly wanted by most, and it is sorely missed by many.

So let’s do whatever we can to preserve our age-old selling skills, and be sure we don’t allow ourselves to become too detached. It may well be a world of technology right now, but it was a ‘people world’ before it, and it will be a ‘people world’ long after it. An email now doing the rounds of Facebook might just sum it up… it goes something like this:

Last night we had a power blackout. All was well until the batteries in my iPad and iPhone went flat. There was no way I could recharge them, so I eventually wandered downstairs and joined my wife and kids. With no television to watch and no PlayStation to fight over, they were all sitting around the lounge room, chatting in the candlelight. So I joined in.

You know, they’re quite a nice family, that lot!

About the Author:

In a distinguished career spanning half a century, Keith Rowe has managed the full journey from shop floor to boardroom. Along the way, he has headed the Australian sales and marketing operations for three of the world’s largest Consumer Electronics manufacturers – Toshiba, Sanyo and Sharp.

Keith is not just a successful businessman. H

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