The Fashion of Empathetic Selling


brittan brightJoining us today on the blog is the amazing Brittan Bright. With a name like that, it’s impossible not to be a star! She is a dynamic SEO Account Director who has worked with enormous brands throughout her career. Those experiences combined with her passion for taking care of her clients and killer fashion sense, which she’ll explain below, are we think everyone needs to hear more from our favorite agency voice.

I will never forget when I figured out how to sell for the first time. I was an English major fresh out of my tiny liberal arts college, in a tiny town in rural Indiana. The only job I could find at that time was as a Sales Associate at the new Saks 5th Avenue store opening up in Indianapolis. So I translated my reading skills into people reading skills, moved to the city and accidentally started a career in sales, selling fancy stuff to be exact.

As I reflect back to the humble beginnings of my career, it’s striking to me how many of the skills that come naturally to me now were learned and honed in those early days. Being in the SEO industry, it’s safe to say I am still in the business of selling fancy stuff. My particular method for selling “fancy” or complex concepts and services, such as those offered in digital marketing, has always been and always will be to keep it simple.

Sometimes SEO can seem so complicated that we forget that it’s a professional business service. This means that there are simple truths that apply to how to service our clients, and I’d love to share my favorite four lessons with you today.

Lesson One: Try Things on Yourself

While pursuing the mastery of decking others out in designer duds, I became increasingly aware of my own ill-fitting and unflattering collection of college clothing. The only confidence this clothing came with was my ability to dominate a game of corn-hole at a keg party. I realized quickly I could never help someone else shop if I didn’t know how to shop for myself.

Putting away my pride and conquering the dressing room was one of my smartest moves to date. I had never considered approaching the business of dressing myself strategically before. I had never really paid attention in a meaningful way to my approach to getting dressed. I realized I had never clearly defined my end goal; my vague aim was to look appropriate for whatever I was doing, and hope that somehow appropriate would turn into attractive. That seemed to be my problem.

I needed to be strategic, I needed to understand the arsenal of tactics I had at my disposal. So I tried on every single thing in my department, and then hit the rest of the store. I asked the wonderfully experienced professionals around me tons of questions, and made their advice my own. I learned which line ran big, small, short, tall. I learned what was good for the busty, the flat chested, the apple, pear, and banana shaped people who came through my doors. I learned when I was willing to sacrifice comfort for fashion, and when to give up on a style, fabric, or color that I just couldn’t pull off.

In SEO we may have clients come to us needing a whole new site, or something completely different and better suited for their business needs. Try not to forget that it may not be realistic to suggest that someone replace her whole wardrobe all at once. Letting the reality that they’ve been doing it wrong sink in can be overwhelming. It will likely involving finding or fighting for more budget than they’ve set aside, acknowledging some bad decisions, and a lot of reeducation, which for some, can be very humbling.

Because I am an Account Director, I have been accused of being too willing to compromise with my clients on certain recommendations. In my opinion, it’s more about prioritization and partnership. In my role I often deliver strategies and recommendations to my clients. It wasn’t until I started a blog, and offered to write the copy for my dad’s hair restoration site, that I truly understood how annoying it is to stick to a content strategy and best practices when you are understaffed.

So if your customer can’t afford a whole new wardrobe, it’s ok to do the best you can with the budget she has, and send her out the door with a great fitting and versatile pair of jeans to start with.

Lesson Two: Learn From Customers Who Know What They Want

I used to have a client who loved a particular line. Whenever she came in she wanted everything new from that line, in her size, in specific colors that flattered her, ready and waiting in the dressing room. She knew which alterations person and what the hem she preferred was called and when the double shopping points days were coming up. And I let her get away with that for a while; it was incredibly intimidating to realize she knew more than I did. Until I realized she didn’t.

In any form, clients who know what they want can often be your biggest challenge. These customers are not only strategic, they have a vision and a brand and they know it better than you. What they often don’t know is how to take their brand to the next level. These are dynamic times we live in, regardless of the industry. Every fashion-forward customer or early-adopting client wants to stay that way.

Although this client came to me knowing this particular designer looked great on her, she didn’t discover that on her own. If I kept letting her call all the shots, what good was I? I was missing out on actually selling her something, and she was missing out on my expertise. So one day I added a few things to her dressing room, much to her dismay. When I explained that what I had added fit similarly to the brand she loved, and were pieces that would complement nicely the ones she already had, she actually gave me a shot. She also came out of the dressing room after a few minutes asking “Ok. What else ya got?”

For this kind of client you must have a thick skin, and you must earn her trust. This is the kind of client who can pull off an advanced strategy, as well as four-inch, $400 heels. Show this customer that you know your stuff AND her’s and she will not only be a loyal client, she will send you her friends (just not her competitors).

Lesson Three: Be Clever With the Confidently Clueless

One of my biggest frustrations as a sales associate were people who swore they were a certain size, and weren’t. It wasn’t just people who had gained a little weight and didn’t want to face that reality; it was just as frequently customers who had lost a significant amount of weight but still saw their old frame when looking in the mirror.

As much as humans try to compartmentalize our lives, we are not machines, and we don’t work that way. Whether you are a service provider of digital marketing, or designer jeans, you can guarantee that your clients will come to you with some baggage they picked up before coming to your shop. Both in my job as a retail sales associate, and in business development at an SEO agency, it would surprise people to know I have often felt more like a counselor than a used car salesperson.

In a dressing room it was usually a major life event, big disappointment or traumatic experience that I was counseling. In business, it’s often a bad decision, bad previous partner, or just bad advice. These kinds of opportunities are why I love working with clients. When you succeed in helping these particular kinds of customers, you can literally make a difference in their lives.

Learning how to quickly overcome your client’s baggage, and not taking it personally, is an important step in becoming a strategic partner, and not just a vendor. Also, seeing the potential and the big picture for the client is incredibly important.

Lesson Four: Be Careful With the Crazies

Be sure not to confuse this customer with the previous, there is a subtle but important distinction. This client could ruin your reputation. If someone insists on consistently ignoring your advice and expertise, yet tells people they work with you, your own brand reputation is now on the line.

If you have a customer whose vision does not line up with what you stand for, and who insists on using tactics that you do not support, you should seriously reconsider partnering with that client. But that doesn’t mean that you have to kick that customer to the curb. Chances are you know someone who is willing to take that risk. Send your friend a freebie.

Don’t Forget: Sometimes You Will Need Stuff Too…

And you’ll be confident, clueless, crazy, and know what you want, all at the same time. As a customer, I can personally be either a nightmare or a dream. Regardless, I’m always tough. I cannot stand condescending, pandering, patronizing, slimy, sleazy, lazy sales people. So I am not one.

I also don’t like to be catered to, sucked up to, taken advantage of, or taken for granted. So I don’t do that either. How do I treat clients? I treat them the way they show me they need to be treated in order to accomplish what they came to me for. No matter how complex the sale, or the process, or service, it’s truly that basic.

Your Comments

  • Great Tips!
    My role is a hybrid of account management and client work, but early on I had an experience like yours…We gave the client exactly what they wanted, and only what they wanted.
    It was for the best, but as a result I’m much more confident about making recommendations I can stand behind.
    Thanks for the post, and I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more content on your blog too, right?

    • Zeph, I hope Brittan blogs more! She’s got a knack for it, we just need to demand it. ;)

  • Hi Brittan some posts are inspirational and this post is one of them, for me its a timely post the way you explain customer type and tips how to prevent and facilitate them is just awesome.

  • All of these lessons are so important, but #2 really stands out to me. There’s something to be said about not reinventing the wheel when work that was done right just needs to keep working while we take things to the next level in other areas. It’s a hard lesson we learned recently and that I opened up about for a Whiteboard+: We didn’t acknowledge what had been done right. So important.

    Brittan, everything in this post was dead on, thank you for sharing your experiences! And, to reiterate what some of the ladies of SEO said on Twitter, we need to go shopping together! :)

    • Well written Brittan.

      Rhea, thank you for your link about vendors and consultants, I enjoyed the read.

  • Brittan, well said. I grew up in a small town in Maine and my first “real world” job in New York City was in retail, ending up in Macy’s Herald Square. Learning how to deal with the types of customers you outlined so well was perhaps the most important sales training I have ever experienced. I also learned that honesty, integrity and knowledge are a formidable tool set when developing clients…not just customers.

    Although I have not been in retail for many years now, those lessons have stayed with me for over 25 years. Thanks for the refresher course.

    All the best!

    • “honesty, integrity and knowledge are a formidable tool set when developing clients…not just customers.”

      Bob – AMEN!

  • Rhea, thanks again for sharing your readers with me! I run into lesson #2 most with Enterprise clients which is why it’s so fresh for me personally. There are times when I’m working with a client doing a lot of things right, or one with a widely established brand which can make bringing something fresh to the table a serious challenge. I tend to like this challenge though because it makes me dig really deep to figure out how to take it to the next level. In the agency world it might be as simple (and complicated) as figuring out how to get past implementation roadblocks or improve collaborations with the client’s other agencies (creative, PR etc…). So you’re right, it’s not about reinventing the wheel, it’s more about making sure the wheel is rolling and if we can get it to move faster.

    • Ironically, we JUST ran into this again (like 2 hrs ago). Quoting a client who had a big idea that rocks. They encountered push back from the top, but they’re on the right track. It looks like our job is going to be helping them find a voice and buy-in. I hope we can do it! :) Thanks again, you’re stinking smart with this stuff.

  • I have too much pride to conquer the dressing room.

  • I really enjoyed reading this, thank you! I also try to always “try things on” to see things from the client’s perspective and most of the time it helps. Sometimes though, I’ll have a client in a highly technical industry like healthcare facility software that I will demo, and the whole thing goes right over my head. Oh well