Earning Customer Trust Through ‘Deselling’

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Marketers are traditionally entrusted with the job of communicating a product’s values and benefits to the customers. ‘Deselling’ is the process of communicating the opposite – letting the customer know why they should not buy your product. It may appear counter-intuitive, but deselling is an important component of earning customer trust.

How To Desell

Deselling does not necessarily mean dissuading the customer actively from buying your product. Rather, a proper deselling campaign helps the customer view your marketing platform as a neutral medium to arrive at a purchasing decision. In other words, they do not have to resort to a third party to understand the limitations of your product.



The two most commonly used deselling strategies are reviews and pro/con lists. Reviews are mostly used in service industries where customers are more interested in the neutral or negative experiences rather than glowing positive ones for decision making. Yelp is a popular platform for deselling. Businesses advertising on the Yelp platform know for a fact that the website visitors clicking on their ads are quite likely to read the negative reviews as well. However, a neutral review platfom combined with a friendly support team that responds to each of these reviews helps the business desell the product while earning customer trust.

Pro/Con lists are more effective on a business landing page. This is especially true for high competition industries like mortgage, insurance or healthcare. Businesses in these segments are stereotyped as pushy and aggressive in their marketing campaign. A service provider in such an industry could thus instantly earn customer trust and loyalty by spelling out the limitations of their product. Take Fundera for example. This short term loan provider clearly states on their sales page that while people with bad credit can avail loans from them, such loans are also more expensive and can be tough for businesses with sporadic revenue. To a customer, such a list clearly differentiates the product from alternatives that only extol the virtues without spelling out the negatives.

There are several benefits with deselling your product or service to your customers.

Sets Expectations Right: The first and foremost benefit of deselling is that it helps set the right expectations. Customers who buy your product or service or not misled in any way during the decision making process and hence absolutely know what’s in store for them.

Reduces Product Complaints: A direct consequence of setting the right expectations is that it reduces the incidences of complaints regarding the products from customers. In effect, this also brings down the number of complaints and product returns. This improves your overhead and helps improve your business bottom-line.

Communicates Brand Honesty: Transparency and honesty are traits that can help any business earn customer trust and loyalty. Deselling a product with its limitations contributes towards exactly this.



Makes Other Product Claims More Legitimate: One of the more understated benefits of underselling is that it makes your other claims more legitimate. Customers tend to take the claims from a business that desells its products a lot more seriously than they do otherwise. This can go a long way in establishing your credibility, authority and trust.

Stating the limitations of your products can be a risky bet. A competitor that offers something that you do not could grab this opportunity to tell customers why they are better. It is hence obvious that deselling may not work in all cases. But in industries where limitations are universal, deselling goes a long way in being transparent and credible in front of your potential customers.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Anand: first, I admire that you have presented an argument for telling the truth. But in this context, I think it’s hard to execute it the way you have described. A fundamental idea in selling anything is persuasion. Selling people on your idea. Selling others to support your cause. Selling customers on your product or service.

    Persuasion and selling require selectively presenting facts. That means promoting some information and/or withholding other things. It’s impossible to extract persuasion from selling.

    I agree with you that vendors and customers alike can benefit when a vendor shares guidelines (I purposely did not say facts or information) such as, “customers with these needs will find our product useful,” and “our products are not well suited for customers needing X, Y, or Z.” But to me, doing that is not “deselling”, it’s one way to approach selling. And while imparting such guidelines (or imparting them that way) might not be the right tactic for every vendor, it serves a selling purpose by making sure the right customers buy, and for the right reasons. That’s a win for the vendor by avoiding the risk of having unhappy customers, and an obvious win for the customer because the vendor has helped them to narrow buying choices, and possibly saved them from making an error.

    I think that almost every customer who has grown up in a capitalist economy expects vendors have the intent to persuade, and there’s nothing negative about that. For example, I have something to sell. I want others to buy from me. My prospects expect me put my best foot forward through what I share. No foul. And as a buyer, I expect vendors to be honest, but never to offer a “neutral platform” – for the same reasons. Even a newspaper or periodical can’t (or shouldn’t!) assert neutrality. They still choose what they present, and how they present it.

  2. Thanks for the great points Andrew. I am not discounting the persuasion you will need to make a purchase. Advertising the merits of a product (and sometimes even exaggerating) is all part of the marketing process. Showcasing positive testimonials (and positive alone), for example, is often a common way to sell your product.

    As I have noted in this article, deselling is the process of presenting the negative aspects of your product as well. For example, your product could be pricier than alternatives, or cheaper (but less effective) than competition. You do not have to diss your product. But by showcasing these experiences from past customers, or providing them in your sales page has its advantages (like those I have mentioned).

    Deselling may not be the same as dissing your product. Deselling helps establish credibility. Dissing your own product ruins it.

    “And as a buyer, I expect vendors to be honest, but never to offer a “neutral platform” – for the same reasons. ”

    Not disagreeing with you. But if you are looking at reducing product returns or complaints from customers, then such a strategy might help.

  3. Anand,

    What an inspiring post!

    IKEA posts big posters inside the store saying that, YOU, as a customer, have to do more DIY services in their store. If you want ‘service’, you should go somewhere else. The trade-off behind is their brand value – good value for money.

    Starbucks could promote something like “We are not fast.” If you want speedy service or in a hurry, you should go somewhere else. The trade-off behind is their brand value – The Third Place.

    The beauty of your “Deselling” approach is, it drives away the non-target customers and to receive no more complaints from them, and at the same time, you attract and keep your target customers.

    Personally I would advise you to take “Deselling” as the foundation, to expand and develop into a structural marketing approach. It’s unique and I think it will work.

    Maybe I should write an article on “The Limitations of the PIG Strategy.”

    Great post! Thanks Anand.

  4. HI Anand,

    In sales, we call what you are talking about the negative sell or the take away. Elmer Wheeler introduced this concept in his 1935 book, Selling Yourself to Others. He called it the Reverse Sizzle and actually credited Benjamin Franklin for the concept. Of course you can’t have a reverse sizzle without first having a sizzle and Elmer introduced that too. He is the one who coined the expression, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

    The problem is that this approach works far better when it is part of a live dialog, a conversation, as opposed to anything in print, whether it be an ad, a poster, a tweet or a brochure.

    When it isn’t part of a live dialog, the nuance can be lost.

  5. Anand: This is a very interesting post with thoughtful/provocative ideas. I admire the intent and thinking you’ve gone through. Having said that, I tend to be aligned with Andy and his thoughts on deselling.

    some reactions to the post:

    1. I would tend to disagree with your post from the outset, “Marketing has the responsibility of communicating the product’s value and benefits…..” Marketing certainly has a responsibility for helping people understand potential value/benefits and creating interest. But value is defined by the customer–each individual in the buying group. It is different from person to person, from enterprise to enterprise, and changes through the buying cycle. As a customer learns more, what they value will change.

    Value is, in fact, very dynamic, consequently it is the responsibility of the sales person to determine what the customer values and to communicate the value of solutions in that context.

    2. The dynamic concept of value creates a fundamental challenge to de-selling. De-selling as you present it doesn’t recognize the dynamic nature of value or how it changes as a result of persuasion (by any sales person), as Any suggests.

    3. De-selling as a concept for focusing on target customers is an interesting concept. But we should be defining our targets very richly and only focus our positive outreach to those, not wasting time with people outside that sweet spot. If we are doing the right job in targeting our customers, then the concept of de-selling becomes unnecessary.

    4. As Andy has suggested, even though the intent of what you are doing is outstanding, already our customers have been conditioned not to trust vendor websites/vendor content. There have been a number of studies showing the preference for third party, and the avoidance for a vendor site. So the customer behavior will be not to trust the de-selling, and perhaps feel a little manipulated.

    5. Related to 4, to some degree the well has been poisoned. As an example, the pharma ads in the US have a heavy desell component to them–which actually is a manipipulation to increase interest. The de-sell, “if it last longer than 8 hours, consult a doctor,” is perhaps the king of all de-selling efforts.

    6. I think the concept has great value in both marketing and sales, but tweaked from a de-selling to a “right selling” view. How do we become so intimate in our understanding of the customer that we present the right value 100% of the time—to the right people at the right time?

    Thanks for a great post that provokes all of us to think more deeply.

  6. A friend of mine has a great expression: “the easiest thing to remember is the truth.” I don’t think a sales executive should be focused on selling or “deselling.” The focus should be on matching the prospects needs with the right solution. That solution may or may not be the one that you are selling. It is interesting that your blog was published just a couple of days after a prospect call I was part of late last week. I started the call by stating that I wasn’t sure whether we were a good fit for their needs, but with answers to just a couple of questions I could determine whether or not we could help. Her comment in an email back to me: “I enjoyed your upfront manner in your approach. Very refreshing. It either is a fit for a company or it isn’t.” As it turned out we may find a way to do business. There was more complexity in the situation than I had originally thought; and the prospect was very creative and transparent. I caution against introducing a negative into a sales process. I think there is more downside to that than earning trust by being honest and transparent.

  7. Great article, and great comments! Back in 2014, Doug Kessler with Velocity Partners in the UK gave a webinar titled “Insane Honesty in Content Marketing.” In this webinar, Doug addresses some of the same issues that Anand covers in his article. A recording of the webinar is available via BrightTALK at https://www.brighttalk.com/webcast/43/114653.

    Doug’s presentation is both informative and entertaining, and well worth the time.

  8. Telling a customer with poor credit that his loan will cost more isn’t exactly adventurous advertising. Explain the terms in the 6-point type dropped out of the grey tint block on the back of the application, or the 200 words that flash by in seconds at the bottom of the TV ad — now that would be doing something. Anyone up for that?

  9. Dave Kurlan,

    You said, “The problem is that this approach works far better when it is part of a live dialog, a conversation, as opposed to anything in print, whether it be an ad, a poster, a tweet or a brochure.When it isn’t part of a live dialog, the nuance can be lost.”

    How about one of the most famous marketing taglines of all time – the Avis car rental company campaign: “We’re No. 2, but we try harder.”?

    Thanks.

  10. Daniel,

    You said, “I caution against introducing a negative into a sales process. I think there is more downside to that than earning trust by being honest and transparent.”

    I think Anand’s idea is to present both the pros and cons.

    For example, the Avis’s tagline: “We’re No. 2, but we try harder.” They are not number one but they would try hard to serve you better. It’s both honest and transparent. Don’t you think so?

    Thanks.

  11. Dave Brock,

    You said, “De-selling as a concept for focusing on target customers is an interesting concept. But we should be defining our targets very richly and only focus our positive outreach to those, not wasting time with people outside that sweet spot. If we are doing the right job in targeting our customers, then the concept of de-selling becomes unnecessary.”

    In the above posts, I guess that you, Dave Kurlan and Daniel are referring to a B2B environment. How about B2C?

    “IKEA posts big posters inside the store saying that, YOU, as a customer, have to do more DIY services in their store. If you want ‘service’, you should go somewhere else. The trade-off behind is their brand value – good value for money.” IKEA is opening their door to all customers, so are other retailers facing the ned-to-end consumers.

    B2B selling or marketing are quite different from B2C, agree?

    Thanks.

  12. Dave Brock,

    I tend to disagree with you on “I would tend to disagree with your post from the outset, “Marketing has the responsibility of communicating the product’s value and benefits…..””

    When your Target Brand Values are communicated to your customers, they become your Brand Promises. That’s one of the functions or duties of marketing. For sure customers may or may not see them as the same way as the brand, customers could have their own Perceived Brand Values. But it doesn’t alter the fact that “Marketing has the responsibility of communicating the product’s value and benefits…..”

    Thanks.

  13. Samson, the Avis slogan was not deselling – they didn’t say “buy from Herz but we try Harder,” they said, “we try harder.” That was a positive message.

  14. The salespeople I know in this conversation have been pretty consistent in the sentiment that the purpose of any sales operation is to sell. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s B2B or B2C. And I don’t think it makes any sense for sales organizations to prioritize discouraging high-potential prospects from buying. That’s fundamentally opposed to what sales organizations are set up to do. Every strategy, tactic, resource, and process is aimed at capturing revenue.

    I think Dan expressed it well: “The focus of sales should be on matching the prospects needs with the right solution.” Pragmatic advice to the core. In practice, I (we?) would probably consider what Anand calls ‘de-selling’ to be qualification. Throughout the buying process – but in the earliest stage in particular – salespeople actively seek risk conditions for completing the sale. In other words, we look for possibilities to tell prospects, “I don’t think it’s worthwhile to pursue a transaction.”

    Sales professionals do this for two reasons. 1) We don’t want to squander time working on deals with little chance for a positive financial result, and 2) most of us would prefer not to have customers who are dissatisfied with our company and/or with us.

    As Dave Kurlan has pointed out, posting negative information on a website or a brochure runs the risk of misinterpretation because nuance is sacrificed. That does a disservice for customers. Disclosure – I have used “negative” messaging myself with prospects. Example: “Not every business benefits from my supply chain technology. Our company has found that the companies that get the most value are already handling and tracking their inventory well, and their staff are diligent in recording transactions.” To be clear, my objective is not to have my prospect quit dealing with me – though it could happen. It’s to get his or her competitive adrenaline rushing, and to think, “well, heck, we’re good at that! I want to join the club!”

    The point is that it can be useful for vendors to introduce a product’s limitations into sales conversations. There is a delicate, implied contract between buyers and sellers. Buyers anticipate that sellers intend to position their product or service in the best way possible. They should want that – no buyer would enjoy working with a company that projects an image as a loser. As salespeople, I believe we have the obligation to conduct our customer engagements with high integrity and ethics.

    I think conducting a “deselling campaign” is a questionable tactic that probably won’t help customers. And it certainly won’t help vendors. And I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “neutral medium” for arriving at a purchasing decision. Even the people who rate products for Consumer Reports have biases. So it’s an impossible target for vendors. And finally, as a vendor, I want my prospects to look for third-party validation for understanding the pros and cons of my product or service. The effort to take in-house everything a buyer needs to perform due diligence would quickly become expensive and overwhelming – and unnecessary.

  15. I should add . . . I’ve worked with hundreds of salespeople over many years, telling them that trust is an essential component of selling, and that salespeople cannot survive in the profession without being trustworthy. Then, along comes blockchain technology, which enables transactions to take place absent trust.

    Maybe organizations can achieve strategic goals by de-motivating buyers. I’ve never seen it happen, and I think it would never work. But then again, blockchain proved me wrong about trust . . .

  16. In the real world, not everything is a positive. Sometimes products/solutions really do suck.

    In the early days of Amazon, Bezos was criticized for allowing negative customer reviews because they would detract from Amazon.com’s job to “sell things.” Bezos said: “We don’t make money when we sell things. We make money when we help customers make purchase decisions.”
    https://hbr.org/ideacast/2013/01/jeff-bezos-on-leading-for-the.html

    Customers don’t trust marketing and sales because of the constant positive spin. Is it any wonder that they are moving to self-service, and companies are investing in “bots” and other forms of automation. Yes, even in complex B2B.

    Some of the biggest sales I made in my IBM career were made because I didn’t pull my punches when a solution pushed by HQ really wasn’t the right one. If you want to be a “trusted advisor” you have to tell the truth.

    We can argue about how best to present negative messages, but overall I agree with Anand and Sampson that “deselling” can really help to build trust and, in the end, actually sell more.

  17. In a sales and marketing world often dominated by ‘overpromise and underdeliver’ practices, it is rather refreshing to consider a somewhat more balanced approach. Human beings are both rational and emotional, and make product and service selection decisions accordingly. They want to trust the vendor, and their decision (everyone knows about buyer’s remorse), so this approach can, prospectively, facilitate greater assurance, in both b2b and b2c situations.

    Benjamin Franklin was notorious for deeply considering a decision’s positive and negative results, even committing this to paper when it was important enough. In a contemporary way, enabling a prospect to judge all sides of value can help build a stronger customer relationship from the outset – assuming that this is done in a creative and reinforcing way.

  18. Part of my objection is in the word ‘deselling’ – for which I can’t find a dictionary definition. I’m assuming it to be the antonym of ‘selling’, which means ‘to persuade someone of the merits of.’ So deselling would be ‘to deter or dissuade someone on the merits of.’

    When I look behind the quote that Bob shared about Jeff Bezos, “We don’t make money when we sell things. We make money when we help customers make purchase decisions,” I see a person who is not so much egalitarian, but one has made a very astute, self-oriented bet. And his bet is that the purchase decisions that he is facilitating on Amazon will produce enough revenue for his company to be profitable. I believe that others who have tried to emulate the Bezos model and been on the losing side of the bet . . . well, we don’t hear about them because their businesses were unsustainable.

    I think Anand’s message is really that honesty has a marketing value. I fully agree. But he references a “proper deselling campaign,” and a campaign is a set of activities organized to achieve a particular goal. Which for most profit driven companies would never be to demotivate customers. Bezos has brilliantly figured out that candor -not marketing fluff – sends purchasing decisions his way, and drives sustainable revenue. His model is a selling model that also helps and serves his customers.

    There are exceptions: big tobacco tries to discourage youth smoking. Distilleries and breweries to prevent alcohol abuse and drunk driving. Those efforts (campaigns) might be called de-selling, and it serves an important purpose. In the end, it’s still selling. Aren’t these companies better served for sales by giving the appearance that they are good corporate citizens?

  19. Thanks Anand for the article and the rich knowledge which has followed your post. As pointed by Andrew Rudin, despite the good intention of expressing the (-) side of what you sell so as to avoid customer regrets, such expressions are just part and parcel of selling. A tagline on beer bottle indicating 18+ is a label that legalizes selling than informing about who should drink. Because same bottle if sold without such label may pose a lot of questions to the buyer.
    As one Dave Kurlan said, honest in comunicating (-) messages about what you sell is good when in conversation than in other media. Those, none-conversational are not to be taken lightly as they make part of the cost of sales.

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