Having worked with thousands of sales people from a wide range of industries and organizations,
I’ve uncovered a critical "missing link" to delivering difficult sales messages and answering
difficult questions or objections effectively: understanding that we actually might – just might
– be wrong. By accepting this possibility as fact, we can use this knowledge to approach any challenging
sales issue, and resolve it successfully.
Understanding that we might be wrong
A funny thing happens as sales people become more and more experienced with their company or product.
They also become less and less effective.
At first glance, it would seem that the exact opposite should be true. Yet it still happens time
and time again. How can this be?
The simple fact is, as we gain more knowledge, we also start to make more assumptions. And we all
know what we make out of "u"
and "me" when we start to assume.
When we become intimately familiar with something, we begin to mistakenly assume that the customer
likewise understands what we’re talking about. We assume that every customer problem is the same
as one of the others we’ve already heard before. We start to imagine that our customers are complaining
about price just because the competition has launched a new price schedule. And we also suspect that,
because of our experience, we know more about how we can help our customers than they do.
The end result? As we begin to rely more on what we assume or imagine to be true (and less on what
the facts actually are), we become less and less effective as sales people.
Now, let’s be clear: all these assumptions might be right. But they could also be wrong. In fact,
odds are, they could be wrong as much as 50% of the time. Can you – or any sales person – afford
to be wrong half the time?
Reversing the trend
Once we understand the dangers of this trend, how do we go about reversing it?
First, we need to change our mindset. It goes without saying that you will know much more about
the products and services you sell than your prospect does. But does that really matter? Remember
that your prospect doesn’t buy for your reasons; they only buy for their own.
So how can you find out what reasons will motivate each new prospect to buy? There’s only one way
I know of, and that’s by asking questions – not providing information.
Each time I speak about this trend and its disastrous effect on sales, I inevitably run into at
least one skeptic, and a good conversation ensues. I remember one particularly persistent doubter,
Lisa, who had come to us for coaching to boost her performance.
Lisa was an experienced telesales rep who worked in New York, and had clients all over the West
Coast of the United States. Lisa was what might affectionately be called a "fast talker." She
was very excited, and truly loved the products she sold. She was also an expert in her field, and
never turned down an opportunity to tell her customers all about it.
Yet although Lisa had always achieved her sales targets through a combination of hard work and persistence,
she had never been able to make the breakthrough that would help her exceed her goals on a consistent
After working together for some time, I began to notice that Lisa always sold her products the same
way and with the same messages, regardless of who the client was. She was convinced that, because
of the depth of her knowledge, she knew exactly why people needed her products, and she wasn’t afraid
to tell them.
One day on a coaching call, I asked Lisa how she was feeling. She said not great, she had this cold
that wouldn’t go away, and her sore throat was making it difficult to talk. I told her I was sorry
she was sick, and she responded:
"Actually, it’s been great! For the past week I’ve had such low energy levels that I haven’t
wanted to talk to my clients. Instead, I’ve been asking the questions, and letting them talk
"Because I’m a bit sluggish, it takes me a little longer to respond, which is allowing
me to listen better and hear more of what my clients want. I’m amazed at some of the reasons
I’m hearing about why people are buying our products. I would never have thought to sell them
that way. In fact, most of our clients are using the products in ways I would never have thought
"For the first time, this month I’m 20% over quota, and I’m positive it’s because I’m
making sales that I wouldn’t even have thought of before."
Try on someone else’s shoes
Put yourself in the customer’s shoes for a moment. Would you want to deal with a sales person who
thought they knew what was best for you?
Although in the past Lisa had been right about 25% of the time in identifying how her customers
could use her products, she was also wrong 75% of the time. This was clearly affecting her ability
to close sales. So as soon as she was well again, Lisa agreed that she needed to continue asking
questions and actually listening to the customer’s reasons for buying, instead of telling them her
Using the tools she had learned at our seminar, Lisa continued to initiate conversations with prospects
who seemed to be heading to the competition. She actively sought out their advice, and asked questions
about how they could make the product work for them. Voila! By understanding the source of her ineffectiveness,
she was able to change her attitude, and eventually achieve her goal of 120% over quota.
Consider this: who would you rather work with? Someone who thinks they’re always right? Or someone
who is sincerely open to the possibility that he or she just might be wrong?
The better we understand that we’re often mistaken, the more open-minded we will be in our sales
interactions, and the better we will be able to communicate our point of view.
Here’s an example of how this might sound:
"I noticed that I haven’t received a response to our e-mail asking for feedback on the
proposal. I’m imagining that perhaps you didn’t like the price, or that the information wasn’t
comprehensive enough. But maybe I’m also off-base, so let me just ask you: What are your thoughts
about the proposal?"
If you prefer, you can make it even simpler, and just say something like: "I noticed I haven’t
heard back from you. I suspect you may have some questions about the proposal I sent. Will you please
give me some feedback?"
The key to resolving difficult issues effectively is to approach them with the true belief that
we may be wrong. Once you’ve adopted this sincere mindset, just watch the positive effect it can
have on your communication with others.
This article has been adapted from a chapter in my upcoming book Honesty Sells, a collaboration
with honesty expert Steven Gaffney. For more information about the publication of this book, please
contact our office at (613) 730-7700 or email us at email@example.com