Selling is a conversation. A communication. It’s how you show yourself to your community. The confusion happens when we see people we like, look up to, and respect using sales tactics that belie their stated mission.
– There are only two effective ways to sell: Fast and shady or slow and vulnerable.
– You can’t do 50% the shady sales tactics and expect 100% of the results.
– If you feel like you are doing everything right, and yet nothing is working, this episode is for you.
I’m Illana Burk, CEO of Your Life’s Workshop, coach to entrepreneurs and solopreneurs across dozens of industries and host of Good Business. With nearly 20 years experience helping hundreds of clients create profitable, ethically driven and sustainable businesses based on their life’s work, I’m here to teach you how to do great work, make great money, and make a positive impact without feeling like you need a shower afterwards.
Today’s episode is the first part in a short series of hard-line, come to Jesus conversations about a topic I deal with every single solitary day in my coaching practice. What to do when you think you’re doing everything right and nothing is working. Or to put it in other terms, what the hell is wrong with my selling strategy? These are sales lessons, but in order to figure out what you’re doing wrong, you have to understand the difference between sales strategy and sales tactics. That’s where we’re going to begin today.
This is something I see all the time. People come in my door and say things like, “I hate selling. I’m sharing things a lot. I’m emailing my list all the time. I’m creating new things, but I feel like I’m just hitting the wall. I have very few people buying, but a few people do, and a few people are interested, and my list just isn’t growing, and my practice isn’t growing, and I just feel like I’m banging my head against a wall, and I don’t know what to do anymore, and my website looks great but nobody’s staying, and my bounce rate is really high.”
It’s all the things. I can’t imagine selling any more than I already do. That’s the refrain underneath. I’m doing everything, which is probably trueish, right? Here’s the thing. When you’re doing all those things, you’re not actually selling. You’re not. See, posting to social media isn’t selling. Sending newsletters isn’t selling. Interacting with your friends online isn’t selling. Relationship building isn’t selling. Those things are just tactics. Those are pieces of a puzzle. The puzzle is actually a lot more complicated.
To put it in another way, I think we talked about this on one of the earlier episodes that you can’t hate marketing because hating marketing is like hating a hammer. It’s like you hate a tool. It’s what you do with it that’s important. So if marketing is the hammer and the tools, then selling tactics are the nails. They’re just these tiny, important little connectors that take all the pieces of what you do and make them all stick together. You have a plethora of choices about the tactics that you use. When you start a business, and you embark on this, it’s really, really, really easy to not know what tactics you should choose. So you pick the ones that feel right. You pick the ones that you can live with.
This is where we talk about why the podcast is called Good Business. I’m not here to teach you how to make money. I’m here to teach you how to do business. There’s a big difference there. I want to make sure that’s always, always, always crystal clear because there’s plenty of people who can teach you all the selling tactics that will make you lots of money. That’s not my job. I know those tactics. I could teach those tactics, but I don’t because I also want to be able to sleep at night. Frankly, that’s the reason why you haven’t chosen to do all the things you’ve chosen to do. Some of the things are because you want to be able to sleep at night, too. You want to not feel like you’re manipulating people. You want to not do the things that make you uncomfortable when you’re being sold to.
Just like building materials, there are high-quality nails, and there are low-quality nails. There’s high-quality selling, and there’s low-quality selling. There are high-quality tactics, and there are low-quality tactics, and everybody’s definition of those things is a little bit different. How we define success for everyone, how we define a successful launch or a successful sales cycle, is different for everyone. So what happens for people with really fierce ethics and/or integrity, where they get hung up, is they confuse unethical tactics with sales strategy. It’s just a term thing. When you haven’t learned how to sell; when you haven’t actually learned the process of it – because it is an art and there are skills involved in it – when you haven’t done all of that, you’re learning in this ad hoc way.
You mistake all this tactical stuff for strategy stuff, and they’re two very, very different things. Strategy is something that you have to understand and think about on a much more macro level. It has almost nothing to do with the tactical piece of how you’re going to deliver your strategy. That is what tactics are; they’re how you deliver strategy. The thing I see more often than not is people start with the tactics and don’t ever think about their strategy. They don’t think about the impact their selling cycle is having on their overall reputation, or their overall brand, or on people’s ability to trust them long term. They simply do the tactics. You follow the things like it’s a to-do list for your business. If I do these nine things, I’ll be successful! If you do those things in the absence of strategy, then you don’t get anywhere because there’s no there.
You’re just doing stuff. It’s doing busy work versus doing actual learning. It can look the same on the surface. Both versions are somebody sitting at a desk thinking real hard. One version, there’s context, and there’s texture, and there’s input. There’s strategy. There are actual patterns involved, and there are pathways that can help you see how you fit into the information and how the information can be applied. Busy work can be rote memorization. It can just be stuff. It’s things anybody can do with the ever democratizing nature of all these different tools that used to be sort of mystical and unavailable to us.
By that I mean, now you can be a movie star, just get a YouTube channel. Or now you can be a designer; you’ve got access to Canva. Now you can be a radio broadcaster, because look, I started a podcast. We live in a much more democratic society than we ever have before when it comes to content creation and how we put things out to the world. The problem with that is it tricks us into thinking that we have the training and understanding to do it well just because we can create something that looks as good as what somebody who is a pro can do, but that’s where it ends. Selling is no different than any of that. Just because you can create a “shareable” on Canva doesn’t make you a designer. Just because I’m a podcaster doesn’t mean I’m a broadcaster. I’m still figuring this shit out. I have no illusions about that. Just because you put a bunch of stuff up on Instagram because you wanted to launch a new thing that you did doesn’t make you someone who’s trained in sales.
It doesn’t make you a salesperson. A lot of reasons why I’m doing this series is because I want to demystify and de-stigmatize the idea of sales because I think sales are amazing. Sales are the connectors. Selling is a connector. Selling is how we take information and ideas and beautiful art and concepts, and we get it into the hands of the people that need it. There’s no way around it. If you want to be in business for yourself, if you’re going to be a leader, you have to sell. So the best thing you can do is make peace with it. The best thing you can do is accept that you have to learn the right ways to do it. You have to understand it, or you’re dead in the water. If you’re finding yourself feeling like you’re dead in the water, keep listening because we’re going to talk about how to start learning how to swim.
It has nothing to do with posting to Instagram more often. I promise you that. That might be a tactic, might be a component of it, but that’s not a strategy. We’re getting back to the main point here. Confusing unethical tactics with sales strategy is mistake number one. If you’re in that category, check yourself, Think about it. Think about whether you hate selling because you don’t want to promote yourself because you see how other people do it and you think about how it makes you feel. Selling is something totally different. It’s a conversation. It’s communication. It’s how you paint the house, and it’s the flowers you choose. Strategy is not the nails. Strategy is how you show yourself to your community and the world. The confusion happens when we see people we look up to and respect using sales tactics that belie their stated mission.
For example, when you see someone that says they want you to live your best life and then they sell you that message by creating a false sense of urgency that makes you feel like crap about yourself. You’re not ready to make a decision right that second. It’s when one solid idea gets wrapped up and sold as a course, and then it turns out to be overpriced, and it under-delivers, because there was only one gem in there that you might have already known before you went in. It’s when someone really smart displays their originality by using messaging that manipulates us; it manipulates the wrong people into buying, and then they end up with lots and lots of refunds.
I was in a group once that people were talking about their refund rates on courses and this is a group of very, very, very successful people. Somebody was talking about how they were proud of the fact that they got their refund rate down to 30%. That means roughly a third of the people who bought from them wanted their money back. I don’t think that’s something to be very proud of, personally. I don’t generally get a lot of refund requests because I work really, really hard to deliver. If you’ve listened to earlier episodes, you know that delivering on a promise is kind of a thing that I stand for. If you’re getting people asking you for refunds, that’s a problem. If you get halfway into a course and it’s not at all what you thought, that person has sold you in a shitty way and chances are good that you don’t want to follow that same pattern when you’re selling something, but you don’t know what to do instead.
That’s the core of what we’re getting to here today. When people say they want to help others, but they focus 99% of their energy on turning people into dollar signs. How often have we seen that? We hear people talk about how much they made on a launch. How many people signed up. It’s all about the metrics and not about the result. You see a couple of testimonials that say how great everything was and how happy everything made them and how wonderful the results are. You hear the purveyor talking a whole lot more about how many people, how many butts in the seats, and people stop being people and they start being numbers. They start being conversion rates.
I’m going to caveat this; it isn’t something that I necessarily recommend, but is what I did for myself to avoid falling into that trap in my business. Very early on, I decided I was not going to pay attention to SEO. I was not going to pay attention to metrics. I was not going to pay attention to numbers. Now again, I’m not advocating for this. This worked for me because I’m somebody who can get hung up on the performative aspect of being in business. I know this about myself. I like to be the best, I like to overachieve, and the only way you can know if you’re overachieving is through metrics, through quantifiable results, and I know that I’m happier when I’m getting qualifiable results when I’m having people tell me that the work we’ve done has shifted them in some fundamental way they can’t fully understand or quantify but know that it put them on the road towards something better, towards something that they want, towards the life they want, towards the business they want.
That’s how I know I’m doing a good job. It’s not based on the number of website visitors I have. It’s not based on the number of people on my mailing list. It’s not based on how many keywords I pack into my homepage. So for me, how I’m wired, I decided early that I was not going to ever let myself turn people into dollar signs or website visitors. I want the people in my business to always be people. If that means I have to help fewer people on the way, then that’s what I’m going to do because a lot of leaders don’t think about how they model their work. They don’t think about how every single step of what they offer to the world, every single piece of it, is teaching someone something, for good or bad.
It’s why I’ve never actually done a real launch of anything. I think it’s why I’ve never done the high pressure, pressure cooker funnel thing because the minute I put form around that stuff for me, it stops being about doing business well. It stops being about the impact and starts being about money. Yes, I’m in business to make money. Absolutely. I’m a capitalist when it comes to that. I don’t believe that you can do good exclusively while also trying to make the most money possible. I think that if we as a culture paid a little closer attention to the impact that we make, one person at a time, we might make a much bigger impact overall. That’s how I choose to do my work. That’s how I define parts of good business.
Here’s the unfortunate truth though. Those shady tactics? They work. If you want to make a lot of money and you want to do it fast, then follow that path and not this one because the hard truth is that you only hate selling because the fast way feels like crap when you lay your head down at night. It’s not selling’s fault. It’s not sales’ fault. People are easy to manipulate. That’s the damn truth. People are easy to manipulate. You. This person listening right now, you are easy to manipulate. If I wanted to, I could manipulate you into buying something, and I’m in that category too. I’ve fallen into the same trap. I’ve signed up for the courses that I probably didn’t need or want because I fell into the urgency and I fell into the manipulation. I fell into all the traps, and I can see them. I have more training at this than most, and I’ve still fallen into the traps.
You’re not alone in that, and you’re not dumb. This is a highly skilled and highly honed industry, and some tactics are there that are gonna make you buy stuff you don’t want to. Some of it is okay, and some of it is not. Many of you are doing the stuff, that’s okay, If you’re not doing the stuff, that’s not okay. Unfortunately, it’s only effective when you do both together. It doesn’t do you any good to post a bunch of stuff to Instagram if you’re not also feeding people to a marketing funnel that’s going to progressively sell the more expensive stuff. Otherwise, you’re just building awareness, which is fine but doesn’t do much for you. It’s like filling your cup with water and then pouring in chocolate milk flavoring and it just kind of tastes like chalky water because you used water instead of milk.
It’s that you don’t have all the right ingredients, so that’s why it’s not effective. It’s not necessarily about adding in all the shady stuff. I’m not telling you to do that. It’s rethinking how you offer the stuff that works for you. That’s the critical piece. I’m going to repeat that one more time. You only hate selling because the fast way feels like crap when you lay your head down at night. That’s the only reason. Think about that for a second. Think about that. It’s not selling. It’s not promoting yourself that you hate. It’s that you hate what you think selling is. What’s the solution? The first piece is that you have to make peace with it being slow. You have to make peace with there being a compromise between profitability and impact.
Let me tell you. There are only two ways to sell. There’s fast and shady or slow and vulnerable. That’s it. That’s all there is. There is no other path. Fast and shady looks like selling you a car that you didn’t even want and probably didn’t need for 10 grand over your budget because they made the numbers work and made some magical changes to your budget that you know all made sense in a split second and then they made you feel like if you walked out, you’d never get it again. It’s getting you to invest in a $2,000 course packed full of stuff that you can easily find for free because all of the things that fed into it made you think that you’d be missing out if you didn’t. It’s anything that makes you feel like you can’t say no and circle back. It’s anything that makes you feel like you’ll never make it unless you say yes right then. It’s like you’ll never get what you want if you don’t buy their thing, or you’ll fail if you don’t buy their thing, or you’re not enough just as you are. Most importantly, the most critical ones are the ones that remind you that you have a problem that you didn’t know that you had until they told you about it.
That’s the rough one, you guys. That’s the one that makes me feel ill is because I’ve read a lot of sales books. I’ve read a lot of posts on selling and when I hear somebody say something like, create a problem for them, create a problem for an audience and then solve it or remind them they have a problem and then solve it, that’s just fucking gross and a terrible way to human as far as I’m concerned. This has nothing to do with profitability or impact right now. It’s just damn shitty. So much of what I talk about is, why can’t we be better at this? Why can’t we do things differently than all of the business models that came before us? We have this incredible opportunity. We have so much opportunity. We have so many avenues that we can communicate now that weren’t available to us just five, ten years ago.
You can be a podcast, or now you can be a writer. You can be all these incredible things, and how are we using it? How are we selling it? We’re doing it the same fucking way that everyone who came before us did it in industries that go all the way back to door-to-door selling vacuum cleaners. Why are we doing it the same way? It works. Because it works; because high-pressure sales work, because shoving your shit down somebody’s throat works. Eventually, they’ll swallow. I don’t care how strong you are. I don’t care how smart you are. Eventually, you’ll fall into the trap, and it becomes a numbers game. You shove your shit down enough people’s throats, and enough people buy it that you make a great living.
You think that what you created is enough to make up for that. You think that the impact that you make on the other 70% that didn’t ask for their money back is enough and maybe it is. Maybe some of those people are delivering. I’m sure that some of them are. I’m sure they’re getting impactful results for a portion of the people that buy. What about the people that don’t bother to ask for a refund, though? There are statistics that some people are just hardwired to not ask for their money back because they feel culpable for purchasing in the first place. They feel like it’s their responsibility to own their purchase. Frankly, it’s not. It’s NOT. We should be allowed to question. We should be allowed to ask, “is this it?” We should be allowed to wonder whether there’s something that could fit us better and we shouldn’t be held responsible for being manipulated into things.
This infects every industry. We watched it around the housing crisis, the big, let’s point fingers back and forth between the lenders and the borrowers. Borrowers entered into a contract, and all the writing was right in front of them. All they had to do was read the fine print. Well, you know, I’m sorry. Can we take a step and just remember that when you’re sitting there buying a house for the first time, and you’re super excited, and you’re packed with adrenaline, dopamine, and all you want is the keys to that beautiful new house that’ll give you security and safety and all the things that humans need at a really base level, and somebody says, sign this six-inch-thick stack of paper on every other page, you’re not going to read all the fine print because that’s human nature.
We don’t read the terms and conditions when we sign up for iTunes either. We don’t behave in our own best interest because we want what they’re selling. We want the promise they’re making. We want them to deliver on it. Whether they do or not is fuzzy and irrelevant at this point. The same is true, no matter what you’re selling. You can’t expect people to do their due diligence while you’re taking away their choice, while you’re manipulating them into not making a choice. That’s not good business. That’s not kind, that’s not empathetic, that’s just shitty. I hope if one person listening to this changes how they sell as a result of hearing my perspective, that’s enough for me. Truly.
Now I want to talk about the alternative. We’ve covered what fast and shady looks like. We all understand what high-pressure sales look and feel like and we’ve all been on both sides of that equation. Next, I want to talk about the alternative. What slow and vulnerable means. I’ve been in business for just about ten years now in my business’s current iteration, where I’ve been a business coach and a designer and a teacher. I probably have a smaller list than about half of the people that follow me or that are clients. I’ve never paid any attention. I honestly don’t even know how many people are on it right now. I don’t look; I don’t care. I don’t pay attention. Again, I’m not advocating for that. The point is that I’ve focused on the impact that I’ve made with people for the duration of my business’s existence. I focus on making sure that the person in front of me is getting the very best of me.
That’s meant my work is slow, and my presence is vulnerable. It means that I don’t make as much money as some of my peers. Some of the people that came up with me have hundreds of thousands of subscribers and can sell anything because no matter what they put out, they have enough people that will make it worthwhile to buy. It means I’ve taken a different road. I’ve chosen the slow way. I’ve chosen the way that 99% of my clients come from referrals. I’ve chosen the way that I don’t worry about marketing and promotion all that much because I’m focusing on impact. When you’re really good, which I think I can humbly say I’m pretty damn good at this, I get great results for people. It just takes longer because I’m teaching them foundational stuff.
So what does slow and vulnerable look like? It means that when you think about how to market yourself, you’re thinking about how to interrupt people’s patterns so that they will pay attention. Again, marketing isn’t the problem. It’s okay to ask for people’s attention. It’s okay to command people’s attention. You need to make sure that once you have it, you’re doing something good with it. It means that you are maintaining the agency of the people you’re selling to. It means that you are respecting their sovereignty as intelligent individuals and you’re offering them something that has enough tooth to it, enough content, enough validity that they’ll want to buy on its merits, not on the false urgency that you have to create to get them to pull the trigger right away. It means that there might be subtlety in your marketing. It means that you are clear, you’re honest, you’re consistent, you are empathetic, and you gain consent, and above all, you respect every single person that hands you a penny or $100,000 as equals because they are giving you something that equates to trust.
They are putting their care and trust in your hands, and far too few people are responsible with that. I’m encouraging you to think about what that means for your business. How can you show respect for the trust that someone’s giving you when they spend their money with you? How can you honor their fandom? How can you honor their willingness to part with their hard-earned dollars for whatever it is that you’re selling? How can you show them they matter?
The story I use to illustrate this point is from several years ago. My husband and I went to a comedy show in a tiny California town, and there were only like four people in the audience. The guy who was the comedian that night, the headliner, was somebody we’d never heard of at the time. We were looking for something to do. He’s since become quite famous, and his name is presently escaping me, but that’s not the point. Anyway, he played that night for the four people in the audience like he was playing at Madison Square Garden. I can’t remember laughing that hard, maybe ever. He was brilliant. He had the set of a lifetime. He pitched the comedy equivalent of a no-hitter. It was magical. It was amazing. He was so on. I remember laughing hard and also thinking about how much I felt sorry for him having this incredible set where he made the four of us have the night of our lives and nobody else was there to hear it. We went up and thanked him at the end of the show, and we thanked him for honoring the 12 bucks that we paid to get in. He said something that just stuck with me. He said, “the number of people in the audience doesn’t matter. I got in this business to make people laugh, and you guys laughed, so I kept going, and that made me feel good.”
I was like, Holy Shit. That’s a symbiotic sales relationship. All he wanted to do was make people laugh. The number of people in the room didn’t fucking matter. Our experience wasn’t affected by how many people were in the room because he didn’t let it. He let himself lead. He let himself stay true to the core of what he wanted to do in the world. So the next time you launch something, and you only get two or three or four people, and you thought you’d get 50 or 10 or whatever, remember that the people that are there love you already and you have an opportunity to make a huge impact with them, whether you’re successful or not.
As you think about what success looks like, what selling strategy should look like, what your sales tactics look like when you evaluate whether why things aren’t working, notice whether you’re taking tactics from people who do a lot more stuff than you in a lot crappier way, and notice whether you need to adjust. What does that look like in action? I touched on pattern interruptions. That’s a big one. That’s the biggest tool in your tool belt of ethical selling, as far as I’m concerned. You have to figure out a way to get people to stop thinking you’re just like everyone else. Usually, that’s where the vulnerability piece comes in.
Learning how to talk about the pieces of yourself that make you who you are. They make you unique; they make you interesting; they make you different. Those can be some of your very best strategies. Those can be some of your very best tactical pieces. What that means is instead of just posting shiny memes on Instagram, it means that you should be posting something personal. One of my clients and I were talking about this the other day. She’s in the middle of launching something, and she was frustrated because the memes she was posting weren’t getting a lot of engagement. Then she posted a picture of her cat, and people loved it. I said, “so why aren’t you posting a picture of your cat with information about your course?” She laughed, and she thought I was kidding. I wasn’t kidding. If your cat is the thing that gets attention, then talk about your course, while people comment about your cat.
It’s figuring out what works and what engages people in a genuine, human, personal way. I promise you it’s not slick, shiny design anymore. It’s personal. It’s a connection. It’s saying something honest and real. People can smell honest and real, and the right people will smell the right thing if you let them. So look for ways in which you can use your vulnerability and your honesty and your ethics as a core value in how you embark on a sales strategy and in the tactics that you choose.
I’m going to wrap up there. We will be talking about all of this more. The series is going to be at least three parts. I haven’t decided. There may be more. We’ll see how far we get in tomorrow’s episode. Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about how to look at your work from your client’s perspective and how that makes closing sales easy and delightful.
How would you like to have like a 90% conversion rate? Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be nice if closing every consult call felt easy and clean and not like you had to shift gears from talking to selling? Well then stay tuned, because that’s what we’re talking about tomorrow. I hope you’ll join us then. Thanks for joining me. I hope you’ll tune in tomorrow for our next episode on selling. Have a great day, everybody. Thanks so much for hanging out with me today.
For more information, visit www.thegood business.co or www.yourlifesworkshop.com
Quitting usually comes with shame. It feels like bad decisions and ignorance and can certainly be predicated on failure, but it is, and will always be a choice that is 100% within your control. You can’t be forced to quit. You can only choose to quit. Episode...read more
Gone are the days of taking out an ad in the local newspaper to get foot traffic. When you start a business this day in age, you have to not only have something to SELL, you have to have something to SAY.read more
Today’s episode is all about the last frontier of content marketing: The bold notion that you can tell the whole truth and people will buy whatever you’re selling.read more