Why your non-buying customers are the most important

Most people aren’t buying what you’re selling

I used to sell wine at a call centre. Not cold calling, but selling to people who were part of a wine club. Wine is a good product to sell. It’s social, it makes people happy, and it keeps practically forever.

Saying that, only 1-2% of people we called actually bought wine. This isn’t a bad conversion rate, it’s just that most of the time, most people didn’t want to buy what I was selling.

I would guess, at any one time, 5% of people are interested in buying wine at bulk. That means a 1-2% conversion rate overall actually meant we were converting 20-40% of people in the market—not bad.

Despite what some people might have you believe, people don’t just all of a sudden decide to buy something. Their circumstances might create a sudden need, e.g. for a plunger, but most of the time a purchase is the very last step in a long, largely unconscious process. (Testing to Destruction gives a great example of this, which you can find here)

My point is, no matter what I did, my maximum conversion rate was going to be 5% (this is of course an arbitrary number).

More importantly though, 95% of customers were not going to buy, but still had a rather intimate experience with my company’s brand.

Cut-throat selling kills your brand


In my first few months, our telephone manner was cordial. After a while, a new manager came along. He’d previously managed a call centre, also selling wine, where the conversion rate was much higher.

He pushed for better numbers. Our selling became more in-your-face, and we would rarely hang up on a customer without going through as many different offers as possible.

Our numbers went up. In fact, in the first few months they nearly doubled.

However, after a few months our rate started to slow back down. Calls that had previously been pleasant started to get nasty. People would hang up at the mention of our company, or more and more often say they didn’t like our product.

Eventually it dropped back down to 1-2%, and after a year was around 0.5%. We eventually lost the contract.

People who don’t buy are more important than those who do


There is an old saying among marketers, “I know I’m wasting half of my advertising budget, I just don’t know which half.”

Someone could look at our call centre’s conversion rates and argue 98% of our calls are a waste. However, the 98% of people who don’t buy are more important than the 2% we sold to, simply because there are 49x more of them.

If marketing communications are overly cut-throat, fact-filled and in your face, people not buy-ready will learn to dismiss them, or worse, opt out all together.

When we did this, we slowly shut out our future customers. At first our numbers went up because we converted more buy-ready people, but we damaged the other 95%.

Preferably, we would have kept calling our customers at a reasonable hour, not harassing them, and being polite. They would have stayed receptive to future communications and kept a positive perception of our brand. Even better, we would have not contacted them at all.  I would argue the best use for customer data is deciding when not to contact people, as most marketing communications carry some negative sentiment if they aren’t relevant.

Direct marketing, from cold calling to mail, should always sell and do so convincingly. But it should never sell at the expense of the majority of your customers, the ones who aren’t buying.