4 Reasons Sales Isn’t for Assholes Anymore

The days of cheap suits, high-pressure tactics, and low-information buyers are gone.

by Andrew RanzingerLast updated: 07/29/2020

The image of the sleazy salesman has reached almost mythical status in American pop culture. It’s an archetype we are all familiar with—like Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street, or Donald Trump.

It’s the brash, egotistical, fast-talking master of persuasion who is unfazed by rejection and pressures people into submission. 

Unrestrained by shame or any inconvenient conception of ethics, he does what most of us would feel very uncomfortable doing—and is richly rewarded for it. He drives sexy cars, wears expensive suits, and doesn’t take shit from anybody.

But this stereotype is outdated. While this approach may have worked for ambitious business people in the 1980s, it will get you laughed out of the room in 2020.

Here are five important ways that selling has changed.

1. You’re an advisor, not a salesperson

One of the greatest scenes in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street is when a young Jordan Belfort sits down with his new Wall Street stockbroker boss Mark Hanna, played by Matthew McConaughey.

Jordan Belfort: I gotta say, I’m incredibly excited to be a part of your firm. I mean, the clients you have are absolutely…

Mark Hanna: Fuck the clients. Your only responsibility is to put meat on the table. The name of the game? Move the money from the client's pocket into your pocket.

Jordan: But if you can make your clients money at the same time it's advantageous to everyone, I’m I correct?

Mark: No.

Pick up any book on sales from 30 years ago, and it’s focused on high-pressure sales tactics—things to do and say in the moment to persuade your prospect to buy now

It’s about creating an environment of intense pressure and urgency that overcomes your customer’s objections and convinces them to pull the trigger, even if they are going to regret it a day later. 

Those tactics have given sales a terrible reputation, but those tactics don’t work anymore. High-pressure selling is dead. No one likes to feel coerced, and the abundance of options means you don’t have to. Think about it—nowadays you get a little uneasy if a retail store employee smiles at you while you’re browsing.

Prospects have so much more information than they used to. Before you talk to them, they’ve read articles about your products, compared you to your competitors, and looked up your reviews.

What buyers want now is someone who can help them make sense of all this information they have access to. Someone who will take the time to understand their problem, empathize with their situation, and work with them to find the best solution—even if that solution isn’t your product. 

Be that person, and people will trust you and buy from you.

2. You have to believe in what you are selling

So I was selling them shit, but the way I looked at it, their money was better off in my pocket.

–Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street

Exactly what you were selling used to matter a lot less than how you sold it—a great salesman could sell anything. In fact, the worse the product, the more of a stud you were for being able to make it fly off the metaphorical shelves.

Today, quality and conviction matter. In a world of social media and online reviews, bad products and unethical salespeople are outed much more quickly, and the companies that used them are discredited. The consequences of sleazy sales are higher than they’ve ever been.

You need to believe in your product. Is it something you would buy yourself? Not only will it make you much more persuasive, but it will protect your credibility—and in the digital age, credibility and reputation are everything.

3. You need to solve a real problem

Fugayzi, fugazi. It's a whazy. It's a woozie. It's fairy dust. It doesn't exist. It's never landed. It is no matter. It's not on the elemental chart. It's not fucking real.

–Mark Hanna, The Wolf of Wall Street

Whether you were selling stocks, used cars, or face lotion, sales used to be all about manufacturing need. You had to convince your customers that they had a problem they really didn’t. 

Examples abound, but late-night infomercials are one of my favorite collections of useless junk that someone figured out a way to sell—products like the Shake Weight, Snuggie, or ThighMaster.

Sure, some people got fabulously wealthy off of those products, but it’s not a sustainable business model—more like winning the lottery.

Why? Because ethics aside, building a useless product or service and banking on your amazing powers of persuasion to make it work is pretty risky. 

Solving real problems people have is a much better way to ensure there is a profitable market for your product.

4. Cold calling is dead

In the case of the telephone, it's up to each and every one of you...my killers who will not take no for an answer. My fucking warriors, who will not hang up the phone until their client either buys or fucking dies!

–Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street

If people like Jordan Belfort used to be sales legends, then cold calling was their crucible—the true test where they really showed their mastery.

Calling up someone out of the blue is really scary for most people—it’s awkward, painful, and the chance of rejection is high. And some people still think that to be a good salesperson, you have to be good at cold calling. 

But the reality is that cold calling was only a necessity before things like personal computers and the internet. Now it’s just inefficient and annoying. 

Consumers today have access to so much information and so many options. They want to come to you when they’re ready, not have a stranger hijack their afternoon. And besides, nobody except grandma answers calls from people they don’t know anymore.

You need to connect with potential customers and build credibility before trying to make a sale. It’s why tools like content marketing are so powerful—providing high-quality, free information to prospective clients establishes you as a trusted brand. When your prospects are eventually ready to make a purchase, they will be a lot more likely to buy from you. 

If you’re trying to sell something to a cold prospect in 2020, you’re doing it wrong.

We’re all salespeople

The stereotype of sales from the past was one of high pressure, ego, and gimmicks. Today, successful salespeople focus on things like quality, authenticity, and empathy. 

And remember, like Daniel Pinker writes in his book To Sell Is Humanwe’re all in sales. Whether you have the word “sales” in your title or not, we are all selling something. We’re selling our opinions, our ideas, our products, but most of all we are selling ourselves. 

And selling successfully isn’t what it used to be.