I grew up in the late 80s--when door-to-door salesmen ran rampant through the streets of my neighborhood with their Tupperware tubs of housecleaning supplies, hawking "magic" products to housewives. No one was safe. Least of all my mother--who was an ultra-polite midwestern woman. I remember one particular salesman who came to the door, trying to convince mom she needed a feather duster.

Mom hated feather dusters--they never worked well for her. She found a rag and some lemon Pledge were very effective, but she listened politely as not to offend the salesman. After his speil, she tactfully declined to buy. "You're crazy!" he said. "I'm giving you a great price!" And then he launched into a diatribe about how feather dusters the most effective way to clean your bookshelf--he acted it out and everything.

The salesman didn't seem to read the fact that my mom was subconsciously slowly closing the door to signal she had made her decision not to buy. Even at five, I knew this was a horrible pitch, but my mom was a supportive lady and didn't want him to feel bad. His fast talk became faster and sweatier, he threw in a shammy, and an hour later--mom had not one, but TWO feather dusters.

Congratulations man, you made a sale! But what happened AFTER that?

Those feather dusters laid around the house. Well, except for the time my brother and I pretended to be ostriches and stuck them into the back of our pants while we raced through the backyard. But did they ever clean the house? No. In fact, mom cringed when she saw them and vented to her friends about how she got sucked into buying the stupid things (if we had social media back then, Ma would be tweeting up a storm!). And whenever she'd see that salesman making his neighborhood rounds with his new products, she'd frantically call us inside the house. "Kids! Quiet down, turn off the lights, and close the curtains! It's that man again!"

Times have certainly changed. You don't see many door-to-door salesmen nowadays, but the hard sell is still very much alive in both B2B and B2C situations. Unfortunately, it's generally not the most effective way to sell and can also be a very narrow approach.

You can't blame the salesman in my mom's story--he was trying to do a good job and make a living. Just like modern salespeople all over the country. You also have to commend him for his drive, passion, and conviction: getting the door slammed in your face is not fun, whether you're selling feather dusters, insurance, technology, sponsorships, or business partnerships.

There's a reason why the hard sell is HARD. And it's usually because the entity being sold is not the best fit for the buyer. Making sure the entity being sold is a natural fit for the buyer is pure gold. Here's are some ways to make those opportunities happen:

Get to Know Your Audience

You've heard this a million times: Know your audience. And at the point of sale, it's not enough to infer "my target demographic is housewives between the ages of 25-35 and well, you fit that demographic, so you need my product, dammit!"

If you're selling direct to an person (whether it be a B2B or B2C transaction), treat them like an individual. Genuinely get to know them--it not only helps make the initial sale, but also increases the chances of a repeat customer.

If you are a larger business with a marketing budget, you can give yourself an advantage by investing in a predictive marketing tool to score your leads by how likely they are to buy (based on in-depth information about the way their business runs). This arms your sales team with knowledge, so that they can make a good case with potential customers.

If you are a startup and can't afford something like this, do as much research as possible before you make a call, so you can be as prepared as possible. Once you do make contact, ask questions and really try to figure out if you have the solution to your potential customer's problem. If you don't really have what the customer needs, then don't try to fit a square peg in a round hole or you'll spend a lot of time spinning your wheels with a dead-end lead. Your time is more efficiently spent talking to a stronger potential customer.

Look at the Big Picture

Don't focus on the one sale you're trying to make--focus on creating a repeat customer.

In the instance of my mom and the salesman, she told him upfront that she didn't like feather dusters. He disregarded her thoughts because it didn't fit his agenda and immediately launched into why she was wrong. This ultimately created a bad feeling around the transaction.

He would have gotten further with her if he had respected her opinion and asked her if there were other cleaning problems she had trouble solving. By opening a dialogue and showing a genuine care in solving her problems, he would have begun to develop a nice relationship. Who knows? He might have even sold her on the feather duster that day, but with a much more warm-fuzzy feeling. Or more likely, he might not have made a sale that day, but by showing that kind of care--he would have opened the door to make many more sales for things she did want when he got his next shipment. Instead, he made one sale and burned a bridge.

Also, think of this in terms of selling a business partnership. Creating a great case for a merger and having to work hard to get the other side to see your point is not a hard sell if there are striking reasons why it should work. There's a difference between being passionate and strong-arming someone. If you try to force a partnership that is not equally beneficial and happen to succeed, you're starting off that business relationship with a bad feeling. This could eventually lead to disaster.

Build a Pipeline

It's easy to get desperate as a salesperson when things aren't going your way--especially if your compensation depends on it. But potential customers can spot desperation from a mile away and it almost never goes well.

It's hard to walk away from a nice customer if a sale is not the best fit. But it's worth the wait. It's not a defeat--if you asked the right questions, you gathered clues to get yourself to more future sales. Keep those notes, follow up, and personalize your discussions. It's true that building a pipeline of potential customers can take time and patience, but certainly pays off when those sales eventually hit.

The hard sell may have been effective at one time, but these days, folks know that they have a plethora of choices. Generally, they want to work with people that they like--whether it's a salesperson or a potential business partner. I even wager to say they want to enjoy the sales process. Who doesn't love to brag to their friends that they got this amazing deal or talk about how excited they are about a new business venture with their awesome new partner? You WANT people to talk about you in a good way--particularly in the age of social media.

Business is always changing. Sell accordingly!

Published on: Feb 19, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.