Put yourself in the position of a prospect. Let's say you're working with two salespeople from competing companies at the same time. The first sends you an obviously canned email asking for a five-minute call. They follow up the call with a demo, the demo with a pitch — and before you know it, they're asking for the close.
The other salesperson comments on a few of your recently shared LinkedIn posts, sends you a personalized email, and, after learning a little more about your business needs, asks for a demo. They take time to work with you to create a pitch that will match your company's goals, and, after due diligence, they work with you to ask for a close that meets your budget and team needs.
First, you've just witnessed the difference between a hard and soft sell. Second, which rep are you most likely to work with?
Chances are, you are familiar with the hard sell: asking for the sale in a straightforward manner in an effort to close as quickly as possible. Soft selling, on the other hand, involves an entirely different strategy that prioritizes the quality of your relationship with your prospects over how quickly you can land the sale.
So what exactly is a soft sell?
The Definition of Soft Sell
Soft sell is a sales approach focused on subtle persuasion and casual language. A soft sell technique intends to create a low-pressure sales experience for the prospect that is less likely to turn them off from excessive pushiness.
It is important to note that soft sell is not synonymous with “passive.” Though they don’t ask directly for the sale right away, sales reps who use a soft sell approach must be persistent throughout the sales process and knowledgeable about the product or service they are offering to establish their expertise.
In addition, they must balance persistence and product knowledge with relatability for the prospect, keeping a conversational tone to help buyers feel comfortable and at ease throughout the process. Soft sellers are masters at keeping prospects engaged for the long haul without turning them off with aggressive sales tactics.
For example, a sales rep for a company that offers custom nutrition supplements could scare off potential customers by reaching out to prospects and attempting to push them into a sale right away.
A rep for this type of company could have better results by asking prospects what their current nutrition looks like, allowing them to explain their current wellness goals and personal situation. From there, this rep could suggest their custom supplement assessment and subscription as a solution to help the prospect reach their wellness goals.
Though prospects may not immediately opt to buy a product or service when it’s first presented in this manner, it can be a useful technique for encouraging repeat sales and creating lifelong customers.
Soft Sell vs. Hard Sell
A soft sell is an indirect approach to persuading a customer to buy a product or service. A hard sell is a direct approach to asking for the sale. With a soft sell technique, sales reps focus more on relationship building with their prospects to build trust than pushing for the sale. Hard selling is a more straightforward approach where a sales rep tries to close the deal as soon as possible.
While going for the hard sell can help some reps close deals faster, it’s not always an effective approach. For some customers, a hard sell can be perceived as “aggressive," which according to HubSpot research is a word often associated with salespeople along with “pushy."
For example, a sales rep can be perceived as pushy by constantly reaching out to prospects and asking for the sale without first providing value or giving the prospect any room to deliberate. This type of behavior is a turn-off for many buyers.
Let’s walk through seven techniques you can use to facilitate the soft sell.
1. Do your research.
First, learn as much as you can about the prospect’s current challenges and point of view. This will help you determine if the product or service you are offering is a good fit, and will enable you to make the best recommendation possible.
For example, if you work in B2B beverage dispenser sales and typically sell to corporate offices, take time to do adequate industry research before pursuing a prospect who manages a coworking space. Gain familiarity with the unique challenges a coworking space faces (i.e., the differences between amenities for paying members vs. employed staff spaces) so you understand their priorities and challenges.
2. Be personable.
While you always want to remain professional when working with prospects, you don’t want to be stiff or over-the-top in your communication. When making the soft sell, personability will go a long way. This means being empathetic in your communication style, offering genuine recommendations to help the prospect solve their problem, and keeping your tone conversational to offer relatability.
For example, when using a soft sell approach to engage with prospects, try not to read directly from a script or to follow presentations word-for-word. You want your communication to feel casual and conversational in nature. Make your delivery feel more like advice from a friend than a dry sales pitch. Let’s look at how a rep from an office furniture rental company could address a prospect.
Formal tone — "Hi Erin, this is Michelle from Office Unlimited. Today I will be sharing our key product features with you."
Conversational tone — "Hi Erin, this is Michelle from Office Unlimited. Before I dive into telling you about our products, can you tell me more about how your company is currently sourcing your office furniture? What is and isn’t working about your current setup?"
If you were the prospect, which communication style would resonate with you more? The option where someone is talking at you pushing their agenda, or the two-way conversation that puts your needs first? Chances are, you would resonate more with the latter, and your prospects would as well.
3. Focus on relationship-building.
Fostering positive relationships with prospects is critical to closing the sale and establishing loyalty. When you take the time to get to know your prospects and are seen as a trusted advisor, your prospect will be more primed to purchase.
For example, when you are engaging with a prospect, take time to learn about them as an individual instead of diving straight to business in each conversation.
This could be as simple as remembering to ask how their day was, or following up on a personal anecdote they mentioned in a prior meeting. This shows a genuine interest in the prospect on a human level.
Truly listen to what your prospect shares with you.
Repeat content back to the prospect.
Ensure you are understanding them correctly by asking for clarification, and getting verbal agreement from the prospect after repeating content back.
When your prospects feel heard, it builds credibility which further enables your ability to make the soft sell and provide an offering your prospect needs.
Practice active listening by having open body language while listening to your prospects, if you are meeting face-to-face. And avoid multitasking during virtual meetings, so your prospect has your undivided attention. Finally, avoid interrupting them while they are speaking.
5. Ask thoughtful questions.
When you ask relevant, open-ended questions to your prospect, it demonstrates a genuine interest in helping them solve their problem. Also, asking questions further helps you get to know and build more rapport with your prospects.
For example, if during a call your prospect is sharing a challenge they’re dealing with related to your offering, engage with open-ended questions (e.g., questions that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”) to gain the full context of their situation.
Again, this shows a genuine interest in the experience of the prospect, which helps you gain their trust and get the full context of their situation.
6. Provide value without asking for the sale.
To add value for a prospect is to go above and beyond to provide them a good experience — even if it doesn’t immediately result in the sale. Ultimately, you want to show your prospect that they’re top of mind.
For example, if you have engaged with a prospect who shared they are struggling with getting leadership to approve funding for purchases, you could send them helpful content with pointers for navigating budget conversations with their managers.
7. Give your prospects space to decide.
While your prospect is deciding if your offering is the right choice, give them space to make their decision. Ultimately with a soft-sell approach, your prospect should only receive relevant information from you that will help inform their decision without making them feel pressured to buy.
When you do touch base, offer to answer any questions that may have arisen during that period or offering relevant materials to help them decide. Again, you want to constantly provide value (see number six).