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Goofiness: the Dullest Sales Tool in the Shed

Anyone who's been an IP for more than ten seconds knows that success is partly a matter of temperament and partly a function of hard work. Hard work's hard work, but disposition and personality -- now that's something else. It's a head game, building a business, and nobody makes more of that plain fact than modern-day sales coaches and marketing mavens. They're hip to what scares you -- cold calling, public speaking, closing a sale, rejection, even success -- and their stock in trade is to keep you motivated on a daily basis by plying you with so many hot tips and cool checklists that you push aside your pusillanimity and get out there and land that client already! Want proof? Pick up a copy of The Secrets of Superselling: How to Program Your Subconscious for Success, and unlock your hidden persuasive powers by visualizing your way to riches. Or try Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, another exercise-laden positive thinking kind of book from a psychotherapist who promises to move you from passivity to assertiveness, an area I happen to know a little something about. (Hint: there's a lot more to assertiveness than thinking good thoughts.) If those resources don't do it for you, there are about a gazillion others where those came from.

Let me hasten to add right now that these advice-mongers and pumper-uppers do have their place -- what I wouldn't give on dumpy faded days to have my very own personal coach pound my psychic posture into shape by shrieking, "You go, girl!" Still, it seems that every time you turn around, those well-intentioned up-and-attems fall one sausage short of a barbecue.

Consider first that perennially popular pair, comedy and commerce. Yes, everybody knows that a sense of humor helps loads. Problem is, some folks can't tell the difference between humor and outrageousness. Certain high-profile marketing experts won't let a little thing like good sense stop them from urging IPs to win over prospects by doing something wacky -- they're positively besotted with this notion, judging from the way they're always yowling about it. Call it the Stand-Up Comedian School of Personal Promotion, where any trick or treat that lets you bust out (far out) from a crowd of milquetoasts is, by definition, terrific. The nuttier the caper, the better; who cares what the prospect thinks? It's really a dicey proposition, but never mind, let's run with it.

One motivational drill sergeant, for instance, enthused about a guy whose master marketing stroke was to bring his pet pig to tough sales calls. He'd get the receptionist to announce him (and his porcine pal) to the Grand Pooh-Bah in question by saying, "Bill and his pet pig are here to see you," a slapstick exploit that supposedly explains how Bill "gets in almost every time and is never forgotten." I'm afraid that good old Bill is not such a good poster boy for IP self-promotion. He's undoubtedly a nice guy, but in this case, he comes off like a first-class doofus, and the marketing maven who cited his piggy behavior as a model for you and me to emulate should be quarantined.

Of course, growing your business and taking a few chances go together like pork and beans. But I think our enormous faith in the power of humor to do everything from sell cars to cure cancer explains why a gaggle of sales savants breezily suggest leaving robust messages-in-song on a recalcitrant prospect's voicemail, or sending goofy postcards, gag gifts (food, especially doughnuts), funny notes, and silly email. Unfortunately, Krispy Kremes won't melt every prospect's heart. And have these fellows forgotten that a synonym for "silly email" is spam? As somebody who just got hit with the gruesome and malevolent love letter virus (don't ask), I can attest that after the unbounded wretchedness it caused -- still not completely resolved, by the way, but that's another story -- no "silly" email message is getting past me or my virus sniffer (now on high density steroids). I don't care who you are, if you try any funny cyber-stuff, I promise you I'll carry a grudge. Attempting to show your marketing mettle by bombarding people with that kind of junk is worse than stupid.

Don't get me wrong here, because I wholeheartedly believe that courage to try different things is an indispensable and worthy trait, and humor is a wonderful way to improve almost any relationship. What bothers me is how we're constantly being pushed to do all kinds of extreme things in the name of strutting our best stuff, and above all, "staying upbeat." A positive attitude is an American fixation, but these vaudevillian tactics are universally light on substance and dripping with snake oil. Take Ed McMahon's Superselling. When it comes to boosting sales, McMahon (yes, that McMahon) writes that we buy from people we trust; we trust people we like; and we like people who make us laugh. Ergo, he concludes, if you can make 'em laugh, you'll make 'em buy! This kind of circular logic leads unfunny people to make fools of themselves by hacking their way through bad jokes and worse punchlines. Besides, it completely ignores the fact that there's a potential buyer in front of you whose wishes and rhythms you'd do well to pay attention to. If he's not in the mood for horseplay, you'd better snap to, and quick.

This means that if you're more bullet-point than Borscht Belt, don't try to bend your mind too far because somebody told you bravado's the only way to go. Just remember that all professional transactions, sales calls included, have distinctive ground rules that people with level heads must always be sensitive to. Some things are the kiss of death -- tasteless jokes, showing up late, too much Aramis, or rampant name-dropping -- but that still leaves you plenty of room to maneuver. You can kid around. You can relax. You can sometimes get away with telling an off-kilter joke, if you know how. The one thing you can never do is allow your enthusiasms to outrun your good judgment. If you do, it'll cost you, in new business and self-respect.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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