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Why your job is like selling air

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Financial products are as intangible as they get. Selling intangibles is like selling air–it feels much harder than selling ice cream, cars or clothing. Yet there are some rules that help make it easier.

Why selling intangibles is not easy
When you’re selling an investment product, the customer can’t touch it, taste it, hear it, see it or feel it; they literally have no sense of it. That means it’s hard to explain how it works and even harder to gauge the value of it. The burden to accomplish all those things is on you.

Selling intangibles is more personal–it really is about you. If the customer buys, you probably deserve a lot of credit, and if not, you rightfully take much of the blame, which means fear plays a big role. Fear of failure, fear of rejection– you know the litany. But before getting all psychological, let’s just make the sale itself easier.

It doesn’t have to be so hard
There are two things about intangibles that can work in your favor if you let them.

First, intangibles are like tofu: They support the flavor you add. You can create an emotional connection for the customer with your product. You can connect it to life events, personal stories, and family members to make it real for them.

Second, because the sale really is about you, it’s easier to make a personal connection. Don’t fear understanding the customer’s situation. In fact, it is your knowledge of them, not just of your product, that allows them to relax and listen to your advice. It is not about the product–it’s about the customer.

How to do it– A three-part conversation
Stories are invaluable for adding the “flavor” to the “tofu” of your product. But the most important story of all is your customer’s story. Start there.

Have them tell you their history and situation. Listen carefully–it’s not just what you hear by listening that’s important; it’s more about the respect you show by paying attention. The customer wants and deserves to know you understand them.

Second, tell a story about another customer with this product, one that enforces the emotional relevance of the product.

But the third step is the most important. Ask yourself one last time: Is this the right product for the customer? Have I heard anything that has changed my mind during this meeting about what this customer really needs?

If you still feel it’s the right thing, then say that. And if you think it’s the wrong thing–then say that, too. Saying it’s wrong means the customer will respect you much more for telling the truth; you will get a chance to come back with a better product; you will get positive word of mouth, and your reputation will be enhanced.

And that really makes selling intangibles easier.

Charles H. Green is founder and CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates. The author of “Trust-Based Selling” and co-author of “The Trusted Advisor,” he has spoken to, consulted for or done seminars about trusted relationships in business for a wide and global range of industries and functions. For more information, go to