I flew internationally today and as we entered international waters, I was surprised by the invitation to make duty-free purchases--not because the concept was new, but because of the way the airline was broaching the subject.  In the past, there would have been a loud general announcement, indiscriminately calling all the passengers' attention to the opportunity to shop. The airlines didn't care whether those passengers were sleeping, eating, or otherwise occupied. They just issued the cattle call.

Today, however, the sales pitch was subtle. There was no blaring interruption to get voyagers to prepare their wallets. Instead, a stewardess discreetly passed my seat, as I was reading the onboard magazine and said "Madame, I just wanted to let you know that if you are interested in browsing, we have some lovely duty-free items set up in a shop area between the cabins. Perhaps you'd like to stretch your legs and have a look..."

I always wondered how many people, if any,  actually took the airlines up on the offer to spend money at 36,000 feet.  To me, the call to action was more a nuisance than a temptation. Every once in a while, I would see one or two people cave in to their craving and buy a giant toblerone bar, or a scarf as a last minute gift, but both were rare.

This invitation though made me take notice--there was something in the direct way the stewardess offered this opportunity especially to me that actually peaked my interest. I felt obligated, in the way you do when you go into a store and get really attentive service from a sales person, to not leave empty-handed. Dutifully, I got out my duty free catalogue, had a little preview, and then went to browse in person.

This stewardess, either on her own instincts or after receiving good training from the airline, had become more than a service provider. She was a salesperson. She had understood that the way to making a sale was not by trying to corral everyone into the galley, but by carefully vetting the most likely prospects instead.  All the passengers watching movies or having a siesta were left alone. But she had done her homework on me, properly identifying me as a target after she saw me flipping through the fashion pages of the seat back literature. In essence, I was halfway to her finish line. I already had the needed motivation in hand--I only needed to turn a few more pages and I would be right in the duty-free section.  She connected to me conscientiously, lowering her voice, and intimating that she had an idea I would like. Then she made a beautiful transition to getting the close by giving me specific instructions as to where to head and why to go. She had gained my buy-in by making her call to action seem like an exclusive opportunity meant for me.

Whether you're doing it while flying across the ocean, from your desk, or store counter, that's what selling is about. Connecting with the right person, at the right time, with the right product.