Two or three weeks ago, I was out shopping in one of my local stores for groceries. And on my way to the bread, I had to pass by a sales rep at a promotional table. As soon as the rep spotted me, he made a beeline for me and, no exaggeration, literally shoved the item he was selling in my face. Do you x? How about y? Touch it! Feel it! This is lifechanging!

His start-the-sale questions went unanswered and the product untouched as I smiled, politely said "No, thank you" and passed him.

On the one hand, I understood. He only has a few precious seconds to get my attention and reel me in, after all, and sales do go up if you can just get people to physically handle what you've got to offer.

But it doesn't matter how awesome your product or service is--if your sales tactics are just a bunch of aggressive shouting, people are going to ditch you, and fast. And so the standard advice now is to focus on the value to the buyer, to show them how what you've got is going to make their life better.

But don't get tricked into thinking it's just about making a personal connection between the customer and the product. The real issue is the connection they have with you.

Why aggression doesn't work

It's true that customers today simply are overwhelmed with marketing messages. But they're also just overwhelmed with life, stressed out by an enormous load of responsibilities and unexpected difficulties. Time is limited, and they're already sacrificing themselves in a lot of ways.

At the same time, buyers are savvier than before. The Internet lets them read all about why grocery stores put the milk at the back of the store, for example. And that same Internet has empowered them to do product research and buy on their terms, on their schedule.

When you try to sell aggressively, people immediately become suspicious. They sniff out the fact you have an ulterior motive and wonder "What are they manipulating me for and how will it impact me?" They get on edge considering not just the potential loss of money, but also that you're deliberately trying to outsmart them and drive them, quite inconsiderately, in a direction they don't necessarily want to go. They hate that you don't trust them to know what they actually need. And the harder you try to push, the more defensive they become.

This has always been true to some degree.

But the modern environment worsens this situation. Because of the issues outlined above, people truly will not tolerate being robbed of even a few minutes of time. They won't stand for an non-customized demand to look that takes away the autonomy they've already come to expect in the digital age. They hear you throw the same verbatim pitch to the person ahead and after them and loathe that you can't see their individuality. And because they've learned that a minimalist lifestyle really can make a difference in regard to joy and decreasing stress, they're incredibly picky about what earns the right to be in their homes.

So it isn't about making sure the customer knows benefits. It's about ditching your own egocentricity for two seconds so that the buyer feels like you have them in focus. Show them some empathy and that you understand what they're up against outside the market. That, coupled with product/service honesty, is what's going to build the real trust necessary for them to open their pocketbooks.

3 steps to a better sale

Now, one key here is to help your customer know you before they ever see your face. For example, a small notice attached to a receipt or an opt-in text message about an upcoming promotional event gives the buyer time to become familiar with you, get information and decide in leisure whether to participate. Repeat exposure really does work, and to do it right, you have to accept that a sale is actually an extended process, not a quick one-off.

Secondly, get away from the idea that you have to go to the customer. Yes, access of course matters. But watch what happens, for example, when a store announces a demonstration at a promotional table just ahead of the event. People do come. These are the people who already have an interest in you and who will be easier to sell to in the first place. And if you do your repeat exposure properly, this crowd is going to be bigger than if you didn't.

Once you've got the customer in front of you, don't just say hello, thanks for coming and launch into your spiel. Take a moment to joke about your morning coffee. Offer a compliment about their outfit or ask a thoughtful, get-to-know-you question. Shake their hand and be warm. You'll see the defenses go down, even as a little more time ticks away. Then, and only then, is the moment right to tell them about what you want them to buy.

Published on: May 8, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.