How Salesmanship Can be Undermined by Competency & Expertise

In February I wrote a post about how for many people (who actually care about the quality of their work), low self esteem is one of the largest competitors to getting a fair market rate for the work they do. And low self-esteem can happen to anyone at any level of business:

What should have been asked, but wasn’t, is this: A-Rod, putting aside the Y&S line — since you weren’t that young, and you certainly aren’t that stupid — where does your low self-esteem fit into this equation?

Because that — low self-esteem — serves as the pure truth when explaining why a guy who already was by far the best shortstop in the game, if not the best overall player, would decide that steroids are the way to go. Low self-esteem is what makes a player of A-Rod’s abilities turn to Scott Boras, an agent who eliminates all other factors — comfort level, compatibility, organizational professionalism — and makes the number of zeroes at the end of your contract the only thing that matters when counseling his clients.

Self Doubt is a Strong Self Protective Strategy

The rub of it is that self-confidence is often counter-intuitive. Real experts are often self skeptical, challenging their own experiences & assumptions.

Approval is not the goal of investing. In fact, approval is often counter-productive because it sedates the brain and makes it less receptive to new facts or a re-examination of conclusions formed earlier. Beware the investment activity that produces applause; the great moves are usually greeted by yawns. - Warren Buffett [PDF]

Public Relations Hacks

Whereas the fake experts just sell junk:

Baker, author of the new book "Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy," comments: "If someone works for a trade association, they're there to push the industry line. Talk to someone with another perspective."

And they often do so EVEN WHEN they know they are wrong:

Q: Were you wrong to be so bullish?
A: I worked for an association promoting housing, and it was my job to represent their interests. If you look at my actual forecasts, the numbers were right inline with most forecasts. The difference was that I put a positive spin on it It was easy to do during boom times, harder when times weren’t good. I never thought the whole national real estate market would burst.

Do You Trust Sales Copy?

The lies baked into sales copy and public relations make sales harder than it needs to be because they teach consumers to be distrusting, and what marketers are selling is hope. Some people can sell get rich programs and pyramid schemes with a smile on their face, whereas others under-sell their own potential due to modesty and uncertainty.

The truth rarely ends up in marketing copy, so we discount much of what we read, assuming some of it to be false or over-stated. A person that is mostly driven by being an expert will likely have sales copy that sounds wishy-washy, especially when compared against a person who does nothing but write sales copy (or spin public relations) for a living.

Businesses have to hold contests to pry testimonials out of consumers, because without them all we have is sales copy, and people generally don't share specific numbers unless they are paid to (in one way or another).

Marketers Sell Hope

It is not that marketing is evil, but that consumers are gullible. The market for something to believe in is infinite, but we want to get behind a person with confidence so we are certain they are right. That is why there are so many hyped up launches with big guarantees and little substance behind the products...they work because we are suckers that want to pay for certainty, even if that certainty is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Excessive Self Confidence Crushes Longterm Returns

Ironically, the more confident a person is, the more likely they are to be ignorant:

“There are many incompetent people in the world. Dr. David A. Dunning is haunted by the fear he might be one of them. Dr. Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, worries about this because, according to his research, most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent.

“On the contrary. People who do things badly, Dr. Dunning has found in studies conducted with a graduate student, Justin Kruger, are usually supremely confident of their abilities — more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.”

As Jill Whalen recently wrote in this great article, the answer to many SEO questions is "it depends." Which is why it is important for SEOs to keep launching new websites and have multiple data points to compare their experiences against. It helps keep us honest and uncertain and learning.

But the less confident you sound, the more sales you lose if/when you sell how to information.

Brian Clark Rocks

I generally have been better at giving people other copy tips than I have been at writing our own copy. A sales letter is rarely a good spot to be self-depreciating or hold back, but for me it seems a self-aggrandizing feat unless it is broken down into chunks, patterned after another starting point, and/or done with the help of a master copywriter. This is proven by how Brian Clark killed it when he helped us out in the past, and proven once again with the great work of our current conversion boosting partners.

Interactive Sales Copy Writing

When you run a community website your sales copy selects who joins the community. Push conversion too hard and you get a community that looks nothing like the great community we have been lucky enough to build.

We have been working again on making our sales copy sharper and more confident with more concrete stuff in it...and the sales increased much more than I would have expected because I mistakenly assume people are far more rational than they are and know me way better than they do. That is not to say we try to state anything false to make a sale, but we have the input from people who are confident and sales/conversion oriented...they come up with ideas and we implement the best bits that really fit what we feel fits our brand.

Learning From My Mistakes

In years past I believed that you could do everything yourself, but this is probably one of my biggest flaws from a business perspective. One has to recognize their own limitations (or be held back by them for a lifetime). In some cases it is best if the person providing the service lets someone else help write the sales for me! :)

Published: March 2, 2009 by Aaron Wall in marketing


March 3, 2009 - 2:25am

One of the hardest things to do in life is recognize your own limitations, but it can also be one of the most enlightening experiences and have major business ramifications.

The key is to recognize your limitations and then learn to delegate tasks associated with those limitations to colleagues that are capable of carrying the torch in those facets of your business.

That frees you up to do more of what you're good at, improve at what you're not good, and learn more and meet other people that will help you on your way.

I believe that most great business leaders take this route, so it's no surprise that some of the most successful people I've ever met are also the most humble.

March 3, 2009 - 3:36am

Very interesting (and believe it or not inspiring) post. Your perspective is from someone who has gone through the struggle and growth process and is now at the top of their game.

I'm the opposite. I'm struggling with my professional identity and what I will hopefully be known for: a genuine, truthful blogger who puts content before marketing but is still able to succeed. So if I were to title this post I'd call it "How Competency & Expertise Can be Undermined by Salesmanship."

I often think about artists and how they feel when it comes time to start selling their art. There's a line they have to cross that involves looking at themselves from someone else's perspective. Marketing forces people to be self-confident or at least appear to be self-confident.

Copywriting is a touchy subject for me. I wonder if it's something that will ever go away because people will know exactly what they want and need and will rely on candid truth to get their information. Although I must agree Brian Clark is certainly an asset to all of us - he manages to do both quite well.

March 3, 2009 - 4:12am

Sure you could reverse the order of the title...I guess it depends on which way you are leaning and how far you are leaning that way. The most profitable position is probably somewhere in the middle if you intend to create a solid product or service and sell it for many least for most people (though there are many situations where being an extreme might be more profitable.)

March 3, 2009 - 8:19pm

Nice read Aaron, appreciate it. As a writer, I often hate that I have to do what I refer to as "painting the turd" - but at least it tends to pay really well.

I loved this line: "In years past I believed that you could do everything yourself" because I have shared this sentiment - I am sure many in web building do as well. I (like you and Hugo) have learned one mark of truly great leaders is an ability to surround themselves with really strong people and letting each one do what they do. Still, it's really hard for me to do this...but life is all about learning, and I am lucky that I am in a place where learning and growing is part of what I do every day. When I am not decorating the excrement, that is. :)

March 10, 2009 - 7:43am

Hi Aaron,

From reading the about page on SEOBook, I gather that you started out on your own and did much of the web development, copywriting, etc to build the SEOBook brand. At what point during your development did you decide to outsource some of these tasks? Was there a particular point wherein finances, time constraints, etc. finally helped you make the leap?

March 10, 2009 - 9:13am

I used a CMS for writing the site right away because I saw how blogs were getting a disproportionately large % of new inbound links and wanted to share in that. Learning that took maybe 6 months.

I got a logo for the site as soon as I could afford month 1 or month 2. Then I just color matched.

I hired a professional designer way later than I should have, at the recommendation of a friend. This was when the site was about 2 years old.

The ebook's format was originally sorta ugly. One of my customers offered to help format it for free in exchange for a couple hours of consulting.

I had Brian Clark help me rewrite the sales copy about 2 years ago. This was inline with seeing people offering the site links in part because the design was seemed to me (like design) that this would be one of those free upgrades that increases visitor value with no recurring costs. Perfect really.

I had a developer update the CMS and host to switch to Drupal and a high power dedicated server right around when I got married. This was because I knew I was going to change the business model because I knew the ebook model would get killed by piracy and disintermediation and lots of other factors that lowered perceived value compared to the amount of work it took to maintain.

I contacted the guys at Conversion Rate Experts because the site's growth started to flatten out, and because I felt that with the site about a year old we had worked through many of the initial kinks/bugs that needed fixed.

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