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How to Sell a ‘White Elephant’

whiteelephant_newsFrom time to time, we’ll find it necessary to sell something that might lead one to question the sanity of anyone who buys it. This could be a product, a service, or even an investment opportunity that’s missing readily apparent value. While a challenge, successfully unloading (or rather, locating a buyer), is often just a matter of looking at the offering a bit differently ourselves, and then getting a prospective customer to see it the same way.

We aren’t talking about putting ‘lipstick on a pig’ to cover flaws, or using euphemisms that confuse or mislead a potential buyer. Instead, we want to highlight commonly perceived weaknesses and make the case for desirability based on the offering being exactly what it is. We’re not fudging the truth. But we are manipulating the customer’s emotional and intellectual make-up so he will feel good about our offering. After all, an important goal in business transactions is making the customer happy—even if he doesn’t immediately think it possible. Consider these strategies:

Match the ‘product’ to the audience. Make no attempt to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Be aware that when you have that special, one-of-a-kind deal, not everyone is going to have the ability to properly appreciate it. Consider, for instance, sky-diving. Not everybody sees the appeal of paying a stranger for the chance to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, but the right people will enjoy the experience.

Acknowledge and then embrace the negatives. Show no doubt, show no fear, and don’t hide anything. The unattractive aspect of whatever you are selling should be front and center in your sales pitch. (“Take a look at this fabulous sinkhole – 100 feet deep! And it comes with a house at the bottom of it!”) People are wary if they think you’re trying to hide something, but if everything is out in the open, your customer will be more willing to hear you out.

Appeal to ego. Remember how we matched the product to an audience? That’s a select group, right? Exclusivity! Not everyone has the background, good taste, or financial resources to make the most of any particular opportunity. Additionally, an appeal to someone’s adventurous spirit (sky-diving again, or bungee jumping) often works with customers because they want to feel young and daring. Or you might tap into their hidden conceits by mentioning what great things a person with their home-decorating style could do with a 15 x 20 abstract painting.

Point out that you’re offering a one-of-a-kind, limited-opportunity. Have you ever seen those TV commercials selling the gold-clad (e.g. an atom’s thickness of gold covering a cheaper metal) coins? They’re always limited editions because people like owning things that other people can’t get anywhere. Uniqueness sells. Sure, the three-wheeled Robin Reliant had a tendency to tip over… but it was a British automobile with three wheels! How cool is that?

Make a joke out of it. Back in the 70s, a product came on the market that will forever live in marketing fame. From a practical standpoint, it was completely useless and frankly, definitively idiotic. It was the Pet Rock and it made its originator a millionaire. Face it – when you think of reasons to own a pet, choosing a rock would be terrible. Yet people went wild buying them, solely to be in on the joke.

Maintain enthusiasm for the customer’s benefit as they enjoy their purchase. Take the time to make your customer feel happy about doing business with you. Follow-up with them after they’ve made their purchase to see how things are going. (If you did a good job of matching customer to product, they shouldn’t have much regret.) If they are less than enthusiastic with the feedback, express your genuine surprise and try to find out if the product failed to perform as promised. And if their complaint is a real problem, you have another bullet-point for your brochure!

The reality is that there are no perfect products. And there is no sales pitch that’s going to work with every potential customer. But an honest representation of your offering, a positive attitude, and a sense of humor will go a long way toward helping you sell just about anything – and enable you to have fun trying.