THE ART OF PERSISTENCEIn pursuit of a deal, how much persistence is too much?

Selling and sales resistance are like a river and its bank—more or less inseparable, even though the former is always exerting an eroding force on the latter. Also, like a rushing river, high-pressure selling is persistent, indeed relentless and often suffocating.

For a given level of (un)interest in what is being pitched, why will persistence inconsistently pay off—sometimes closing the deal, other times closing it off? In answering these questions, it may be very important to note the difference between the duration of persistence and its “rules”. Often, the rules and factors of persistence determine the outcome more than the time invested. For schooling in such rules and factors of persistence, a very good place to start is where I traveled in 2012: the streets of China.

Souvenirs of Souvenirs

Of course, visiting any tourist area anywhere in the world means running gauntlets of vendors and touts.  That comes with the holiday territory. Here in Yangshuo, a magnificent karst-mountain ringed, Li River-side sleeping beauty that has been awakened by the kiss of tourism, this once sleepy town has been transformed into a national treasure and souvenir of itself.

By this, I mean that, at some point, anyone with open eyes and a logical mind should notice the very peculiar paradox of salesmanship here: The locals sell souvenirs as souvenirs of the tourist’s experience of souvenirs. What, before the selling starts, look like charming lanes, peaceful promenades and quaint narrow streets, have been transformed into crowded souvenir shooting galleries, in which the trinket vendors take their best shot at the shuffling tourists foolish enough to slow to a near sitting-duck halt. There are so many stalls, vendors and souvenirs leaching into the streets that the only experience to survive as a memory of surviving that gauntlet is that of passing, eyeing, dodging, handling, haggling over and buying or refusing souvenirs.

Grandmotherly Lessons in Persistence

Given that this can be a tough sell, the sales techniques have to be very good—or very desperate. Here in Yangshuo, persistence, and lots of it, is a bit of both. What is interesting from the recruitment standpoint—since, after all, selling is a form of recruiting, namely, of customers and clients—is how often it works and how often it fails. Even more interesting is why.

You don’t have to be selling souvenirs to appreciate how persistence is often necessary and how it can badly backfire or wonderfully succeed. It has worked and failed with me as the target in about equal proportions. Reflecting on why the deal has been sealed in some cases but not others, when my interest level in the souvenir was equal—often equally negligible, I have speculated that the outcome of  sale vs. no sale has been determined by factors and rules of persistence unrelated to whatever interest I had at the start or end of the pitch.

  1. The supply background vs. the demand background: Think of supply and demand (in this instance of dealing with a souvenir vendor or, for that matter, with anyone who is persistent) in terms of the supply and demand psychological, social and economic backgrounds. These are like the two appearances of a Necker cube—the cube that appears to be receding to the left or to the right, depending on which orientation seems more obvious at the moment. When I resist the persistence, it often is because I am focusing on my demand-side considerations, e.g., I don’t need it, don’t want it, could find it more cheaply elsewhere and have no friend who would want it as a gift. Perceived only through this supply-side filter, the persistence quickly becomes annoying.

On the other hand, if I shift to supply-side considerations, e.g.,

  • why anyone would persist not only in this particular sales pitch, but also in this job;
  •  how much the little money it costs will viscerally mean to the vendor
  •  how the supply of feasible alternatives may be very limited for the seller
  •  how many mouths will be fed by the sale of a trinket
  •  how much of a rest the stooped 80-year-old flower vendor could earn for herself with one sale…

…I am more likely to buy—especially since, set against the backdrop of such supply-side constraints and pathos, the greater the persistence, the greater the likelihood of a sale, since the persistence is perceived as a measure of need and desperation, rather than as cause or measure of increasing resistance and annoyance.

Back home, the same principle can be applied in the office, as well as the street: to make the sale, to snag the client or the candidate, consider whether or not there are some supply-side background factors unrelated to the need for or quality of what you are selling that will seal the deal. Work those into your presentation, or otherwise make them apparent.

For example, in pitching a job, it might be useful to insinuate into the presentation the effort it takes to have adequately presented such a huge and diversified company. In attempting to stimulate candidate “demand”, the presentation actually also smuggles in an indication of the considerable supply-side effort that went into it, to create respect and empathy for the recruiter.

2. Persistent effort vs. persistent pitch: Persistence in the effort to sell something is one thing; persistence in using an unvarying pitch or angle is quite another. Irrespective of whether a supply or demand backdrop perspective is operative, persistence of effort with/without persistence of pitch can be a determining factor in whether or not the vendor can clinch a deal.

Apart from the freshness of varying the spiel while persisting, the charm, intelligence and entertainment factors in a varying sales presentation that is no less persistent in duration than a merely repetitive sales chant may be enough to tilt the scales into the buy zone.

Moreover, varying the argument for the pitch may succeed where grinding repetition will fail, much as drilling for oil in more than one place usually does. The difference is that between a shift to looking for a soft spot and wearing down a rock of resistance by trying to drill through it.

As a bonus, the wit, charm, intelligence, grit or creativity manifested in a medley of sales pitches delivered with the persistence of a mongoose tackling a cobra can come across as proof that financially contributing to the preservation of such an engaging vendor’s genes is a good investment in the human gene pool.

3.  Self-satisfaction vs. guilt: Reassuring ourselves we are “nobody’s fool” can be an enormously satisfying experience (and, as an emotional objective, one of the driving forces behind haggling and bargain hunting everywhere in the world).

For persistence to cause a prospective buyer to give that up and instead buy requires emotionally remotivating him or her, through a motivational reversal not unlike that described in Michael Apter’s “metamotivational reversal theory” (which I have elsewhere cited as a dynamic behavioral model governing the interactions of a stick-fetching dog and its master).

In terms of reversal theory, persistence can succeed if it causes a switch from “mastery” to “sympathy”—which is equivalent to a shift from “being nobody’s fool” to being sympathetic or compassionate.

According to the theory, all of us act, feel and shift along various spectra defined by four polar opposites, viz., “serious-playful”, “masterful-sympathetic”, “conforming-rebellious” and “autic-alloic” (self-interested vs. altruistic) . To make persistence pay off, talent for inducing such a shift or a spontaneous shift in perception really helps.

For example, with consistent indifference to buying passion fruit from a cone hat-festooned woman’s 120-pound load of various fruit, I was nudged into the guilt zone when I focused on the fact that the weight she was carrying in her basket pole surpassed hers. I bought five. That was a case of a reversal in perception.

Another very old woman, obviously well into her late 70s or even maybe her 80s, got me to change my mind and jump from the self-satisfaction pole of the spectrum to the guilt and compassion pole by doing one simple, primal thing: softly misting over.

Her far-too-tired eyes went bleary, as though on the verge of weeping. It seemed spontaneous to me, but when, in other instances, it isn’t, it’s precisely the kind of deal-making talent that can induce a metamotivational reversal from “mastery” to “sympathy”.

4. (Un)Skillful use of “sub-text”: In any sales “narrative”, there is much more going on than pure sales presentation and persuasion. As important as the need or desire for the product or service, the costs and benefits of these, the clarity of the information presented, the convenience of the timing, the reputation of what is being sold and the vendor, there is the X-factor: how we feel about the seller (in addition to or instead of pity for their supply-side circumstances). Most importantly, as everyone knows, but many forget, making the prospective customer or client like you (in the sense of enjoying you, rather than becoming like you) helps—a lot.

One especially persistent vendor got me to buy a souvenir photo album of Guilin by, in effect, pretending she was deaf or that I was mute, charmingly ignoring all of my reasons for not buying.

She never, unlike almost all stall vendors, attempted to counter my points; instead, she merely sidestepped them, gently papering them over with more soft spiel.

She got the sale because she sold me on her. Her clever indifference to what I was saying was the sub-text of our narrative, and in the end the message that successfully got across to me.

(A few days later, I gave that book to another much older grandmother struggling to sell oranges downriver, encouraging her to resell it—a case of what comes around, goes around.)

In this respect, itinerant Chinese vendors are among the best at making me receptive to them. The stall vendors are pretty good too, but are far more scrappy and vociferous, like noisy carnival touts. Bad combination: abrasiveness and persistence.

Although far from any corporate office, the low-key wandering vendors, on the other hand, mostly follow many rules of executive-level business practice, while following some framed for the street:

  • always be polite
  • speak softly or confidently
  • sustain eye contact
  • remain physically non-threatening (e.g., by approaching slowly, avoiding overly expansive gestures and maintaining a friendly smile and posture—limiting the gestures to persistent product thrusting and dangling)
  • look long-suffering, but not overly self-pitying
  • do not employ entrapment—“giving” the product and then demanding payment
  • persist, but accept “no” when given either a real reason for it or a cold adamant brush-off.

Most of these can be adapted or refined for productive application in urban offices.

5. Bait and Switch: In its customary usage, “bait and switch” means hooking a sales prospect with one thing before switching the pitch to another (usually costlier product or service). However, there is a second sense of “bait and switch” very germane to the art and rules of successful persistence. It is the idea that, while baiting—in the sense of arguing with or relentlessly hounding—a prospect, at some point it will be smart to switch from baiting (in this confrontational sense) to something completely different. Specifically, it is a switch to an approach that is less likely to trigger a defensive response, e.g., to a mention of some previously unstated benefits of the product or service not covered in the defensive rationalizations and objections of the prospective buyer.

The great danger in trying to overcome the stated objections of prospects is that they are likely to become even more adamant, because of the their

  • pride (in always being or trying to be right)
  • cognitive dissonance reduction (manifested as a tendency to minimize, ignore or counter the counter-objections to the sale)
  • resentment (of perceived aggressiveness)
  • irritation (in being repeatedly contradicted and/or with the unvarying argumentative sales approach).

Although the street vendors of Yangshuo need no encouragement to be persistent or much coaching in how to do it well, many of the rest of us need both, and not only on the supply side of things. In particular, sometimes we have to learn how to (intelligently) persist on the demand side of our lives—for example, to learn how to persist in considering whether or not to make a buy (e.g., of a stock, to ensure we’ve carefully and thoroughly considered it).

The same goes for this analysis of persistence. If you’re not sold on it, don’t give up just yet. Try a little harder and longer.

Your persistence just might pay off.

…at least for me.


Note: This is one in a series of articles by Michael Moffa on the scene and on the job in China.

Photo: “The Art of Persistence” (Michael Moffa)





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