Should a new study change your sales approach?

By Alex Yewdell

Whether we agree with it or not, we’ve all heard the saying before, “Nice guys finish last.” In sales this has long been debated, even as negotiation experts have extensively confirmed the intuition that being warm and friendly pays off at the bargaining table. But according to new research published in Harvard Business Review, being nice might not always help you get ahead, at least in zero-sum negotiations. As we read through their conclusions, though, we had a hard time connecting the dots to our experience in the association sales world—reminding us just how important it is to take any new research study with a grain of salt.

In experiments with 1,500 participants who bargained over the price of an item, researchers tested the economic and interpersonal implications of being warm and friendly in a negotiation and examined the effects of communication style independent of the economics of the deal. They found that tough and firm messages were more likely to prompt a discount from sellers than warm and friendly requests—and sellers who made more aggressive initial counteroffers received more concessions from friendly buyers. The findings indicate that a friendly communication style can actually hold us back in this kind of zero-sum negotiation over price.  But does this mean that everyone should take a tougher approach?

Frankly, no.

Taking a quick look at how the study was conducted, we found that this data does not necessarily correlate to the type of sale you or our team are accustomed to. One of the studies was a field experiment conducted via, where a user reached out to various cell phone sellers. Another brought participants into a controlled environment and paired them up to play the role of either buyer or seller. In this setting, the roles of buyer and seller were randomly assigned and the participants were incentivized to reach the best deal for a bowl. Now I don’t know about you, but when trying to improve non-dues revenue for an association, the products and opportunities we are selling are not intended for one off purchases; where we make the sale, provide the service and then never expect to hear from them again. At Blue House Sales Group we know that a renewal is typically an easier sell than pitching to a new prospect. For this reason, we place a higher a value on the relationship we have with our advertisers and exhibitors.

We want to be the first person marketers turn to when they have questions about the industry. We want to know their goals and targets then help them hit those marks by providing a program that works toward their needs. We are not interested in one-off sales and thus, this data will not change the way we operate.

Of course, being friendly and helpful doesn’t mean you should be a push-over. While offering heavy discounts or freebies is a quick and easy way to generate some good will with new prospects—it can put everyone in a tough position down the line. Once something is discounted or provided as a complimentary placement, it is remarkably difficult to increase the price in the future. But there is a big difference between being firm and being aggressive. If you take the time to understand where your partners are coming from and why they might be pushing back on a price or opportunity, you are in a better position to help them find the right solution for their needs and budget.

It is always helpful to engage and read new business studies, especially when they feature sales. But before you decide to drop your current strategies in favor of their conclusions, it’s important to first take a step back and ask yourself: does this really make sense for my company? Is this the sort of interaction I experience in my day to day? Keeping an open mind to new ideas is essential for growth, but not if they go against your core beliefs. At Blue House Sales Group, we strive to do our job as successfully as possible—we work hard to become experts in any given field and provide the type of service that we would appreciate. And a big part of that is treating people with respect. After more than 20 years of experience, it’s clear that this combination of hard work and a nice, friendly demeanor is the reason we never finish last.

Want to learn more? Get in touch today.