An Italian Story on Sales, Power and Authenticity

by | Feb 14, 2020

In April of last year my wife and I had the privilege of traveling in Italy for 10 days. One of the things you do in Italy as an American tourist is shop for famous Italian leather. We decided while in Florence to walk through the San Lorenzo market doing just that, hoping to find some of those “soft prices” they talk about in your travel guide. What they don’t tell you is the exhausting, pressure-laden sales tactics of every vendor you pass. You either have to love the thrill of the negotiation or be confident enough to just walk away when you’re ready.

As you traverse your way through the jungle, trying to check out the merchandise without making eye contact with the vendor for fear of being interacted with, it becomes obvious as to why they were so aggressive: they’re all selling the same five items. Wallets, purses, large bags, jackets & notebooks. If they let you go, they risk losing you to the next guy selling the exact same thing. It was weeks before I realized how much I shared in common with these men.

I was on the hunt for a souvenir for Dad, a leather bound notebook he would certainly use in his therapy practice. After several encounters reinforcing how soft the pricing was, I got cocky and went dumpster diving for who would give me the best deal. I approached a stand, picked up a notebook I liked, and asked how much.

“17 euro”
“Hmm” I responded in mock thought, “the guy over there offered me 15.”
To my complete surprise, he responded “Well, I wish you luck with him then.”

Puzzled but undeterred, I moved onto another vendor, seeing how far the bottom would go. This vendor ushered my wife and I into a small store behind his stand, filled to the ceiling with notebooks, wallets, bags and more. And this is where the masterclass in pressure sales tactics began.

He did three things distinct things:

1. He stood between us and the door, giving us the subconscious feeling we couldn’t leave without buying something.
2. He swapped notebooks into different leather covers for us when we slightly suggested different colors or styles, making us feel obligated to buy now that he’d done something for us
3. He kept offering us better and better deals that we couldn’t refuse.

In this market where every vendor is selling the same 5-7 items, the buyer has all the power. Everything he did was designed to transfer that power to him, and make us feel like we were obligated to buy. I’m sure this works all the time for him, and for a lot of salespeople who will make a sale by any means.

And yet I found myself unwilling to buy. I had basically found what had sought: the best price. But it still didn’t feel right. It was because while his tactics had appealed to basic instincts and fears, nothing about him felt authentic. It just didn’t feel good to do business with this man because I couldn’t trust him. That feeling transferred to his goods, which suddenly felt cheap in my hands because they didn’t have any tangible value anymore.

People buy from people they like. No matter if it’s in a boardroom or in a street market, a lot of the reason you buy things is because you like the brand or the person selling it to you.

This is especially true in service-based small businesses, including marketing. If you own a small business, there’s a hundred people just in your city that can run a Google Ads campaign, or build a roof, or fix a leaky pipe, mow a lawn, clean their teeth. Your customers choose you because they trust you.

They trust you’ll be there for them when they need you.

They trust you‘re keeping up your skill level in your industry.

They trust you’re watching their back (and their wallet).

They trust you’re making decisions with their money that are in their best interests, not yours.

If the basis of your relationship with your clients relies on some secret sauce, or the cheapest price, you’re going to be spending more time replacing the customers you’re losing than helping people. And your failure flywheel will keep spinning faster until it crushes you.

Or you can choose to be authentic, focus on doing great work at a fair price, and win over customers for a lifetime who will do your sales for you.

After a last ditch effort where the street vendor stood between my wife and I (which escalated my tone quite a bit), we left the store. And went back to pay the 17 euros to the man who had the audacity to be authentic about his value.

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