The art of selling without selling

If you build trust with your customer, you have a much greater chance of building an enduring relationship into the future


Some time ago, I wrote a blog on sales tips for start-ups. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how important sales are to becoming a successful business — and yet one of the biggest mistakes I see in start-ups is sales being relegated to an afterthought.

The theory appears to be that if the idea is good enough, it will sell itself.

Unfortunately, the history of innovation is littered with good ideas that never saw the light of day, and some of the greatest inventors were masters of marketing, not just brilliant scientists.

I also completely understand that the very idea of sales can be uncomfortable, especially if you are not used to it—which is why I take inspiration from Bruce Lee.

Let me explain! In one of my favourite films as a kid, “Enter the Dragon”, Lee’s character is challenged to a duel on a boat out at sea. His opponent demands to know our hero’s fighting style and is intrigued when he responds with, “the art of fighting without fighting”. As the opponent eggs him on, Lee points to an island and suggests that is a better location for a fight as it will have more space. His eager opponent jumps into a dinghy to row out to the island only to find Lee’s character undoing the dinghy’s toe rope, casting him adrift — with- out getting in next to him. The fight was won without Lee raising a finger!

That quick-witted response informed my sales philosophy — “the art of selling without selling”.

The idea is simple. In sales, as with any other engagement, you are building a relationship not on a short-term win. Focus on the bigger fish, it’s not always the one immediately in front of you.

So rather than go into a sales meeting with arms and legs flying (figuratively speaking), when I was selling to big banks, I would focus on being helpful, understanding my prospects’ priorities and building my own credibility.

People buy from people, and they buy from people they like and trust. There comes a point when they are ready to make a purchasing decision. When that happens, who do they buy from? Is it the pushy sales-person who forced themselves into a meeting with a contract ready to sign, or the trusted partner who has helped them on the way?

I have found that more often than not, it is the latter.

The same principal can be applied to consumers. Sure, you can flash sales messages in their face and bombard them with offers, but you can also engage with customers in ways that are useful and can help them achieve what they want to achieve.

I firmly believe that knowing and understanding how money works can help you go a long way to following your passions in life and to doing the work you really want to do. I believe that as a brand, if you build trust with your customer, you have a much greater chance of building a powerful and enduring relationship into the future.

So when it comes to sales, my advice to start-ups is that from the minute you have the a-ha moment and come up with a great idea, you need to think about building your network and engaging with customers. Whether you are business-to-business or business-to-consumer, playing the long game can pay dividends in the future.

  • Neal Cross is the chief innovation officer at Singapore-based DBS Bank and founder at Hotel Orangutan. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and its editorial board.