Selling today is filled with contradictions. E-mail enhances our connectivity, but the number of messages is often so overwhelming, they go unanswered. Voice mail links customers with contractors, but too often, voice mailboxes are clogged.

Computers give us freedom to roam the world in an instant, but we are far more tied down to technology than ever before.

These forces are fashioning dramatic changes in sales. On the surface, it appears that selling is more complicated, less personal, more demanding, and not so much fun.

Understanding how the technology shapes buyer behavior can reveal new strategies for successful selling.

Split personality of today's buyers

  • We want everything faster, but buying decisions are taking longer than ever.

    When the customer gets ready, the customer wants that furnace or heat pump now. But do you know how long that decision was in the making?

    The “hurry-up-and-wait” style of decision-making is everywhere. Many salespeople have trouble understanding the process, interpreting an absence of action as a lack of interest. This isn’t always true.

  • Contacting customers is easy, but connecting with them is increasingly difficult.

    Today’s technologies have made it easier than ever to contact customers. But amid the rush of messages, one fact emerges: Unless customers sense that a message is directed to them, messages lose their effectiveness.

This is certainly the age of “individualization.” As Michael J. Wolf writes inThe Entertainment Economy, “If the 80s and 90s were about ‘I want my stuff,’ the next decades will be about ‘I want to feel better . . . more informed, better fed, and less stressed.”

Customers will only respond to totally personalized messages that focus on their individual objectives, not what you want to sell them.

  • Knowledge is more important than ever, but keeping the message simple is essential.

    The Internet plays into the need to accomplish more in less time. Giving customers just how much information they want is essential.

    Making information available is easy, but getting it across to the customer can be difficult. The sales process includes letting the customer know not only where the information is available, but formatting it for easy access and making it available in smaller segments.

  • There’s a lot of talk about planning, but everything seems to happen at the last minute.

    The customer calls and needs a proposal and a quote on a new heating system ASAP — quicker, if possible. The salesperson drops everything to get it done.

    Then there’s an unnerving silence. What was so urgent two weeks ago is languishing somewhere in a pile of utility and orthodontist bills.

    Three months later — long after the salesperson has given up on this prospect — they call, wanting to know when the furnace can be installed. Never mind that it’s the busiest time of the year.

    More and more frequently, purchases are made on this basis. Be there when the customer is ready.

  • It’s more important to get through to prospects than it is to get to them.

    The key is being present without being intrusive. Broadcast faxes, voice mail messages, and repetitive e-mails only serve to reinforce the idea that a salesperson wants something.

    It’s far more appropriate to make an effort to connect with the customer in ways that make the right impressions, such as offering helpful information, making useful suggestions, and keeping the customer informed. That’s how a relationship is built.

  • Although buying decisions are more involved, the customer expects everything to be easy.

    The customer doesn’t particularly care about the complexity of the transaction; that’s your problem. They just want their new system installed.

    Part of this is due to the Internet, which is changing customers’ expectations dramatically. On-line ordering offers a simplicity that they now want in other transactions.

    Salespeople can learn from the Internet: Focus only on the customer. Everything else is irrelevant.

  • Customers want consultation, not consultative selling.

    Reacting to the hard-sell techniques of 25 years ago, “consultative selling” emerged as a way for salespeople to appear less threatening to customers.

    The Internet has totally undermined consultative selling, by creating an environment in which, as Andrew L. Shapiro comments in The Control Revolution, “Hierarchies are coming undone. Gatekeepers are bypassed. Power is devolving down to end-users. The upshot of the new technology, then, seems to be its ability to put individuals in charge.”

    What today’s customers want is what you know. If that has value, they may buy from you.

  • While it’s all about new, it’s also about what works.

    The digital camera’s race to have the most “megapixels” is an example of the importance of “new.” Status is owning a cell phone that’s smaller than anyone else’s.

    What do you bring that’s different in terms of solving comfort problems? What do you have to offer that gives the customer an advantage?

    Ironically, today’s customers feel that taking too many chances may be dangerous. They want what’s new, but they also want the security of what’s been tested.

    That’s why they want to deal with specialists, like you, who understand heating and air conditioning technology and can explain it according to the advantages it offers to customers.

    Salespeople who position themselves as industry-qualified have a clear edge.