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Why are we still telling customers what to do?

John Graham

Even though we know that “telling isn’t selling,” we can’t stop doing it. It’s become “second nature” to tell customers what to think, believe, and buy.

In a sense it is, since most of us were raised to “respect authority,” whether it was the police, teachers, clergy, bosses, doctors, accountants, politicians, reporters, bankers, business leaders, coaches, and news anchors.

It worked well for selling just about anything, but not now. The air has gone out of respect for authority, including marketing and sales.

Even so, playing the authority card continues. From actors in TV ads wearing white coats with stethoscopes hanging around their necks to real estate agents in suits masquerading as corporate executives.

Here are thoughts about why telling doesn’t work:


1. Nobody’s listening. Millennials, for example, aren’t into listening to “telling” messages. They turn to their social media contacts for purchasing recommendations.For example, when one 34-year-old woman was getting ready to buy a car, she ignored ads and TV commercials and contacted friends and business associates for suggestions and those were the only brands she would consider.

And it’s not just Millennials who reject being told. Some 69% of “connected Americans… seek out advice and opinions on goods and services before purchasing,” reports Research Brief on the American Lifestyles 2015study. Of those, 70% go to user review sites or independent review sites before making a purchase, “while 57% use social media networks for recommendations.”

Yet, advertisers still try to grab attention. However, Chandar Pattabhiram of Marketo, the company that conducted a recent consumer survey says that marketers “are talking at us rather than engaging with us and we, as consumers, are beginning to tune them out.”

But we’re not just tuning out ads, we’re blocking them big time. TiVo started it years ago, but they’re fast gaining ground. Hulu offers an option that comes with a surcharge. Apple raises the ante with a built-in ad blocker in its IOS 9 operating system for mobile devices, while the Android system isn’t far behind. We can count on others to fall in line.

  • Takeaway: Figure out ways both to gather and use data to personalize your messaging so that customers and prospects know you’re thinking specifically of them. If not, they only ignore the message, are offended, and leave.


2. Engage not persuade. A car dealer says his brand is #4 in the ratings. And he stops right there, thinking his statement will influence someone’s buying decision. But the astute customer, trying to have a conversation, asks, “What does that mean? Highest ratings for what?” But the agile dealer changes the subject.

Customers are turned off by anything that smacks of being self-serving. Awards, such as a “Premier Dealer of the Year” plaque or “Five Star” this-or-that are less than compelling, as are company sponsored surveys.

And the doubts don’t stop there. “Sponsored” articles, those that are paid for by advertisers, in newspapers and on websites are ignored or viewed with a jaundiced eye.

  • Takeaway: If you want to attract and retain customers, then make sense to them. Identify and align with their values, make it easy for them to give their feedback, and encourage them to challenge you. Such interchanges create conversations that can give customers a stake in your brand.


3. You get one chance, so don’t blow it. The opportunity was interesting, because it seemed like a good fit for our business, particularly since it came through a vendor we had worked with for years.

It was introduced with an impressive webinar, which I followed up by calling a toll-free number. What I received was unexpected, an unprofessional recorded message to leave my number for a callback. It came three hours later.

Here’s what went through my mind: If they weren’t prepared handle calls after the webinar, how would they take care of the work they would be doing for me? Would there be excuses for not getting it done on time? That’s when I went online to check for complaints and found hundreds that reflected my worst fears. Only about one-third had been resolved.

  • Takeaway: “When in doubt, don’t.” That is the mantra of today’s customers. Why put yourself in harm’s way? Why take a chance? It simply isn’t worth it, so move on.


4. Keep upping the ante. “Push yourself because no one else is going to do it for you” is good advice. And there’s plenty of pushing to do today. CVS Pharmacy does a lot of things well for customers, such as automated prescription notifications, compelling customer rewards, and a good customer feedback program.

Yet, good customer care can create unanticipated problems by raising customer expectations. For example, a recent email from CVS offering a 25% off women’s cosmetics left me wondering! Why not an offer for men? Today, such “mistakes” don’t go unnoticed. We expect messaging to be personalized, and when it’s not, we’re irritated. It also says, “They say they know me, but really don’t.”

Also, nothing annoys customers more than being asked to fill out the same information over and over again. “You go one place and are given a clipboard, which is annoying and takes a while. And then somebody talks to you about it. And then you go somewhere else and you have to start all over again,” says Jonathan Bush, CEO of AthenaHealth in USA Today. Although his company markets cloud-based electronic health records apps, the problem is far from limited to the medical field. It’s everywhere.

  • Takeaway: The cost of keeping up with customer expectations is not nearly as high as losing their business.


It’s a mistake to believe that we aren’t doing our best unless we tell customers what to think and buy. It holds us back and blinds us to what we can learn by aligning our actions and messages with what customers want and need from us.

John Graham of GrahamComm is a marketing and sales strategist-consultant and business writer. He publishes a free monthly eNewsletter, “No Nonsense Marketing & Sales Ideas.” Contact him at[email protected], 617-774-9759 or johnrgraham.com.



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