Gain control over the buy-sell process by leveraging what your prospects want, and how your prospects think and react, instead of trying to control how they think and react.
An elderly man, harassed by the taunts of the neighborhood children, devised a scheme. He offered to pay them a dollar each if they would return on Tuesday and yell their insults again.
The children did so eagerly and received the money. Then he told them he would pay only 25 cents on Wednesday. When they returned, insulted him again and collected their quarters, he informed them that Thursday’s rate would be just a penny.
“Forget it,” they said – and never taunted him again.
– Alfie Kohn in “The Boston Globe”
In the summer of 1996, my partner and I were discussing starting our company, and running our plans past our wives. This was not the first company I had started, so one of Cindy’s (my wife’s) concerns was that, once again, I’d never be home. To eliminate her fears, instead of getting office space in a large building, I agreed to set up shop at home. My office has been at home ever since.
During late 1999, I was immersed in managing year-2000 projects (because our prospects wouldn’t spend money on anything else), and I too succumbed to a bit of the Y2K hysteria – I purchased and installed a wood-burning stove in my basement. It’s one of those freestanding, cast-iron stoves with glass doors, and I was able to install it in my office, so I would both be able to heat my house if needed, and enjoy the crackle of the fire while working.
One day, after my morning dose of coffee and news, I made the long commute to work – all 13 stairs from the kitchen to my office – where I found I had a visitor. It turns out, the screen on the top of the chimney had come loose, and a blackbird had found its way down the flue and into my fireplace. There it was, flapping around inside my stove, banging into the glass doors and stirring up the soot. So I called Cindy down to have a look, and to help me get the bird back outside.
Since I’m not a fisherman and have never collected butterflies, I had nothing in the house resembling a net. So Cindy and I started creating strategies to get the bird to fly out of the stove into a blanket, sheet or anything else we could devise to control the bird’s movement.
Then, as we were evaluating our options, it suddenly occurred to me. It really shouldn’t be this difficult, because this bird and I both want the same thing – we both want the bird out of my house. That’s when my sales training kicked in, and I found the solution to my problem: Instead of trying to get what I wanted by fighting against the bird’s natural instincts, why not rely on those instincts to get us both what we wanted, since we both wanted the same thing?
Why not just let the bird be a bird?
To what do trapped birds head in their attempt to get free? They head to the light source, right? If you walk in the side door to my house, three feet and 13 stairs later, you’ll be in my office – the stairs are directly in line with that door. If you turn at the top of the stairs, however, you’ll be in my well-lit kitchen.
All I had to do to get the bird out of my house was eliminate every light source in the basement, leaving only the light at the top of the stairs. I closed all the blinds. I turned off all the lights. I had Cindy open the side door and, with a dark blanket, cover the doorway leading into our kitchen. The only light you could see was at the end of the path up my stairs, out my door and into the wild blue yonder.
When I opened the fireplace door, the bird took one quick loop around the basement, banged into the ceiling tiles twice, saw the “light at the end of the tunnel” and, within seconds, had made it up the steps, out the door and on toward the clouds.
The best salespeople know that to close a deal, they must learn what their prospects want, match their solutions to those desires and be able to predict their prospects’ most likely behavior in any given situation. The best salespeople take total control of the sales process by giving control back to their prospects – by letting them make decisions based on their own best interests.
The best salespeople let buyers be buyers, just like I let the bird be a bird.
Behavior Is Not An Exact Science
Unfortunately, while people in general will behave in very predictable patterns, there are always exceptions to every rule. So, with everything I’m about to tell you, remember the normal curve. The majority of the people will be in the middle of that curve, but some people will be on either end – those who respond in exactly the opposite way, and those who respond in the predicted way but to an extreme. So, in your attempts to leverage what you learn about your prospects’ behaviors, try the following techniques dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times before you decide whether they are working for you.
Also, knowledge is power, and understanding what makes people tick represents power you can either use wisely and ethically or use to manipulate. One behavior that flies in the face of the normal curve – the exception that proves the rule, so to speak – is that people will always respond negatively once they realize they’ve been manipulated. So I advise caution as you use what you’re about to learn.
The Most Predictable Behavior In Sales
Sales resistance is the most predictable behavior that exists related to the buy-sell process, and one of the easiest to control. Why? Because sales resistance is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but rather a reaction to a salesperson’s actions. Yes, my friends, the bad news is that, if your prospects are resisting your efforts to sell, it is entirely your fault. Of course, the good news is that, since it’s entirely your fault, it’s also entirely within your power to change.
Sales resistance happens when you do something designed to get the prospect to act in any way contrary to his or her best interests or natural tendencies. Had I attempted to capture the bird in my basement, it would have resisted mightily, because it did not want to be captured – it wanted to be free.
To eliminate sales resistance in your prospects, look for it as you sell, and analyze what you did to create it – then change your actions next time. As for handling the situation when you first see it, the best advice I can give is to admit the truth: “Joe, I’m sensing some uneasiness. Is something bothering you?”
Provided you are willing to accept the fact that Joe may ask you to leave, and provided you curb your behavior throughout the rest of the current sales call, this type of blatant honesty can often eliminate the sales resistance you caused, but only if you do this immediately when you recognize that the wall has gone up.
Avoiding And Leveraging Your Prospects’ Fears
Succumbing to fear is another common behavior in buyers – when everything else is a fit, fear is often the reason prospects don’t buy. Regardless of how convinced they are that the purchase is wise, prudent or advantageous, there is always lingering fear that the wrong choice is about to be made, or that a better solution lies just around the corner. I know that as salespeople we would like to think we overcame all fears, but the bottom line is that writing a large check or signing a huge contract comes with risks, and our prospects know that.
Your prospects want to be confident in their decisions – from agreeing to meet with you, to introducing you to final decision-makers, to signing on the dotted line – so your actions must eliminate as much fear as possible, and increase their willingness to buy despite the fears you cannot eliminate.
So what do prospects fear?
Fear Of Salespeople
In the years I’ve been in sales consulting, I’ve worked with hundreds of salespeople, sales managers and business owners. In every case where I’ve worked with a team of salespeople, 20 percent of the team produced the vast majority of the sales that were made. On the flip side, that means that 80 percent of the team was either not getting appointments at all, or meeting with decision-makers and somehow screwing up the sales process. Bottom line, about 80 percent of the salespeople in the field are not very good at their jobs. As a result, decision-makers are often reluctant to meet with salespeople, because they’re used to getting hit with detailed PowerPoint® presentations, bombarded with solutions to problems that haven’t been diagnosed, or drowned in dribble about this feature or that.
In short, from the very first moment they hear you’re a salesperson, decision-makers are afraid that you’ll waste their time, because that’s what most salespeople do. At the same time, those decision-makers are never concerned about spending their own time if they feel it’s a worthwhile investment. And, like most people, decision-makers generally love to talk about themselves. So leverage those things.
To eliminate the decision-maker’s fear that you will waste his or her time if he or she decides to meet with you, focus on two specific actions:
- Learning about the decision-maker’s issues, problems, concerns, successes, failures, goals, etc. If you present yourself as a qualified expert in the prospect’s business, he or she won’t feel that meeting with you is going to be a waste.
- From the first interaction with a prospect to your last, invest time learning before you present.
Just like you would run from a doctor who didn’t understand your symptoms or who prescribed pills before diagnosing your ailment, so shall your prospects run from you if you don’t understand their issues and ask questions before offering solutions.
Fear Of Transitional Pain
Fear of the unknown is always worse than fear of the known, and one of the huge unknowns in sales is transitional pain. Whenever someone tries something new, such as a new accountant or new software system, there is always a period of transition from the old to the new, during which the “pain” that is supposed to be alleviated will actually get worse.
I’m revising this book on a laptop that is more than five years old – it’s early 2018, and I’m working on a Lenovo ThinkPad running Windows 7. The battery is shot, the two Fn keys are missing and the down arrow is, shall we say, kludgy. Yet here I sit, happily typing away while squelching a strong desire to upgrade to a Surface Pro.
Why do I resist? Transitional pain. I’ve done some pretty clever configuring with my Windows 7 operating system and because of wrist problems stemming from my early days in construction, I need a full-sized keyboard in order to type at the 70+ WPM rate I learned back in high school. It might surprise you to know that I’ve actually stopped by the Microsoft store and looked at the Surface a few times now, because I’m afraid of what it might cost in efficiency and personalized features to upgrade to the new version of Windows and in wrist pain if I change keyboards – none of the salespeople with whom I spoke bothered to address my issues in terms of transitional pain.
Step one to eliminating many of the fears your prospects feel is to discuss each fear openly and honestly. The trick is to listen, respond, elaborate and alleviate.
- Listen closely to your prospects as they describe their fears.
- Respond to their biggest fears by telling them exactly how much their pain will increase while they’re making the change from the old to the new.
- Elaborate on the other transitional pains they may suffer – the ones other clients have suffered that they may not have considered.
- Alleviate their fear of that pain by describing how much less it will hurt after they’ve made the switch.
Your honesty in acknowledging that the pain is real will position you as a trusted advisor, and your knowledge of additional pains and how to overcome them will ease the fear.
Fear Of Making A Mistake
A decision-maker about to make a critical purchase is like a captain on a ship at sea, in a storm – no matter how confident he may seem in his next decision, he is simply making his best guess based on the available facts and hoping he doesn’t make a mistake that costs him his ship.
While decision-makers may not be risking death at the bottom of the sea, they are risking their positions, their credibility with superiors and subordinates, and the incomes upon which their families rely. So, as you may imagine, large purchases represent risks to decision-makers, and you’ll never close a deal until you overcome their fears of making mistakes.
In his book “INFLUENCE: Science And Practice,” Robert B. Cialdini discusses a concept he calls “social proof.” This is actually nothing more than a description by external authorities to which decision-makers turn for validation of their choices and comfort that their fears are unfounded.
In a sales and marketing context, social proof might come from a decision-maker’s peer who is willing to say that he or she already purchased your product or service and is happy with that decision. The following are all examples of social-proof resources to which your decision-making prospect will look for reassurances about you, and your products or services:
- The person who referred you to your current prospect
- Anyone listed as a reference for your company
- A peer decision-maker who wrote you a testimonial
- An association or charity board member who knows you personally and can vouch for your character
- Endorsement of achievement, such as the “Ph.D.” or “CPA” designation that follows your name
- Editors and publishers who chose to publish your opinions
- Decision-makers who selected you to speak at their meetings
I won’t say you can’t sell without referrals, references, testimonials and endorsements of achievement, but I can tell you exactly why it is easier to sell when you have such social proof. Decision-makers use this type of social proof to help them make the leap of faith required to take a chance in the face of the unknown: “If she worked for a company the size of ABC Company, I guess I can give her a try, too.”
Great salespeople work diligently at accumulating social proof that they, their companies and their products or services are worthy of that leap of faith. A key to accumulating this type of social proof is to sell honestly, because, if you do, you can often accumulate social proof even from people who never hired you or bought what you’re selling.
Fear Of Missing Out
Fortunately for salespeople, your prospects are afraid of missing out, just like you are. Think about your own situation for a moment, and you’ll know what I mean.
In regards to your current employment at your company, could you be afraid of missing out on …
- Tomorrow’s commissions, a raise in base pay or your bonus at the end of the year?
- Having your name on the wall as the “Salesperson Of The Month,” or having it moved to the top of the company sales results chart?
- A promotion to team leader or sales manager?
The fact is, every employee from entry-level positions to the executive boardroom is afraid of missing out on something – and decision-makers are no exception to this rule. In a later chapter, I’ll discuss a letter-writing process that leverages a decision-maker’s fear of missing out. But for now, suffice it to say that every executive fears missing out on something, and if you learn what that is, you can position your products or services to eliminate that fear.
Fear Of Losing Credibility
Once a prospect makes a decision to buy, his or her subsequent actions will be in total and complete support of that decision, because of a fear of losing credibility if he or she waivers.
Years ago I was shopping for a new car, and I was comparing the Toyota 4-Runner to the Ford Explorer. Since I tend to drive cars until they drop, I take a long time to analyze my choices and make my decisions.
On the day before I decided which vehicle I would buy, if you had asked me about the two choices, I would have told you all the good and bad about the 4-Runner and all the good and bad about the Explorer. On the day after I decided on the Toyota, however, if you had asked me the same question, I’d have told you how wonderful the 4-Runner was and how the Explorer didn’t have anything I wanted.
And the only thing that changed was my decision to buy.
Once a decision-maker makes a choice, his or her immediate subsequent actions will be in total support of that choice, because of a need to maintain credibility. So you have an enormous opportunity to leverage your relationship by simply asking for things you want or need shortly after any choice is made. For example:
- Suppose you sell a variety of services to different departments within the same company, and your new client is the chief information officer. Try: “I’m writing an article on how chief financial officers can avoid mistakes by leveraging new enhancements to software. Do you think your CFO would want to be interviewed?”
- Need a referral now? Consider: “Do you know anyone else who might want to achieve the same result at his or her firm and to whom you would be willing to recommend me?”
- Want a testimonial or reference when you finish? How about a conditional commitment today: “When we’re done with this project – assuming all goes as planned, of course – would you be willing to write us a testimonial, provide some referrals or act as a reference for future potential customers?”
Decision-makers are virtually compelled to agree to these types of requests, because doing so is in support of the decision to hire you or buy from you. So the time to ask for the support you need is while they are afraid of losing credibility – shortly after they made the final decision to bring you in.
Of course most decision-makers would never admit, possibly even to themselves, that they fear salespeople, transitional pain, making mistakes, missing out or losing credibility. But most or all of these fears do exist, and knowing they exist allows you to position yourself to make the sale.
Lessons From Childhood We Cannot Ignore
We each have learned behaviors that allow us to exist in society and fit in with our neighbors, colleagues, peers, communities, and so forth – protocols, if you will, for relating to others.
In St. Louis, for example, I’ve learned to give the name of my high school when asked, “Where did you go to school?” Despite its size, St. Louis is nothing more than a big small town, and, as such, it has maintained its high school rivalries. (Give the name of your college in this area, and you’ll get, “Oh, you must not be from St. Louis.”)
While this learned behavior is regionally specific, there are other learned behaviors that extend far beyond regions and into the very nature of being human. Knowing these behaviors exist, knowing how to stimulate them without creating sales resistance, and knowing what to expect in response to these stimulations are key to successful selling.
If Your Friends Jumped Off A Bridge, Would You?
Yes, actually, most of us would have followed our friends right off that bridge, because we weren’t willing to suffer the consequences of not going along. The two exceptions to this rule were the kid who was more scared to jump off the bridge than be ostracized, and the kid who convinced the group that jumping off the bridge was stupid – the natural salesperson.
Earlier I discussed Cialdini’s concept of social proof – of looking to other decision-makers’ opinions and actions to help make the leap required to decide without all the facts. Another form of social proof you can leverage is the strength of the group itself.
When you specialize in a specific industry, you basically “join the group.” And decision-makers in that group will be more likely to buy from you than from your competition outside the group. (This is especially true when someone else in the group has bought from you and adds social proof through a referral, testimonial or reference source.)
While adults will typically evaluate things carefully before making the leap, the group dynamic will still influence their decisions in your favor, provided you are well-established as a group member and contributor.
Great salespeople look for groups with a high likelihood of producing business. Once they’ve identified them, these salespeople pay their dues, accept their hazing, serve their time – do whatever is required to become part of the group. Then they convince key group members that “jumping off the bridge,” or buying from outside the group, would be stupid.
I won’t tell you what groups to join, because too many factors go into the decision, and many of them are specific to you, your industry or your community. What I will tell you is to not get locked into any one image of a group, because size or mission doesn’t matter much at all. Worthwhile groups can be small (such as association boards), large (such as nationwide institutes), private (such as country clubs) or locally focused (such as chambers of commerce). They can even be casual (such as a bowling league or a quilting club), provided you have the opportunity to build relationships you can leverage.
The bottom line is that, once you establish yourself as a group member and gain a foothold, social proof will help you turn one client into dozens – so find a few groups that will work for you, and get involved.
We Aren’t Stopping Until We Get There!
I know with some parents this is an idle threat, but my mom meant it when she said, “You had better go now, because we aren’t stopping until we get there!” I learned the hard way that, if I didn’t take advantage of my last chance, I’d regret it.
Any time something is scarce, it becomes instantly more valuable to the buyer, because people hate losing their rights to choose. So if you can put a time limit on whatever you’re selling, it is human nature for people to want it just a bit more than before.
You can find a classic example of scarcity being used to impact a decision to buy inside almost any car dealership. Come on, say it with me: “This price is good until you walk out that door.” Supposing for a moment that this were true – that if we walked out and then returned, the price would significantly increase – each of us would at least pause to consider whether we should leave, because doing so would cost us the ability to buy at the lower rate. Of course if the scarcity is false, as it is in this case, using this tactic can backfire quickly.
Taking away the option to decide can be a powerful motivator, provided the scarcity isn’t manufactured falsely or over exaggerated. Here are examples of using scarcity to sell:
- When was the last time you saw a conference advertised without a discount for early registration or a penalty for signing up late?
- How many times in the past were you “warned” to get your copy of the DVD before a certain date, because that’s when Walt Disney will put the movie back in the vault for 10 years?
- Once a painting is numbered, why does it become more valuable?
When I decided to write this book, I offered a small number of copies along with a training and coaching program, at a one-third discount, so I’d generate some initial sales. The scarcity component was that, if you didn’t make your purchase by a specific date, you would miss out on the discount. Of course, to avoid ticking off those who made the early purchases, I had to honor my commitment to go back to the normal price once that deadline passed. Otherwise, I would have used false scarcity and would have damaged the relationships I established with those who made the early purchases.
Think through your products, services, sales environment, industry – anything that affects your ability to sell – and see what you can design that includes a scarcity component, because, once something is scarce, it becomes immediately more valuable.
Because I Said So!
When all else failed (not that it failed very often), my parents resorted to those four dreaded words – “Because I said so.” With them came all manner of implication, such as “You’re done arguing now,” “I’m getting impatient, so don’t press it” and “I’m in charge, so just shut up,” as well as the absolute fact that the discussion was ended.
What those four words taught me (and every decision-maker who heard them throughout childhood) was that a person in a position of authority has power over my ability to choose. It is this reaction to authority that drives decision-makers to certain behavioral traits that you must understand in order to sell.
When selling to larger companies, decision-makers must often make their decisions within certain buying processes. For example, many companies require that big purchases be made using a request for proposal (RFP) process – the company puts its requirements in writing, sends those requirements to many vendors and asks vendors to reply with written proposals. The biggest problem with selling to a company using the RFP process is that you can’t establish relationships or get your questions answered before you must offer your solutions, so your chances of getting in are greatly diminished.
Some sales experts teach salespeople to never live within a prospect’s buying process, because doing so rarely results in a sale. Instead, they advise you to do things to circumvent the buying process, either through manipulation or by making requirements of your own. The problem with this type of advice is that the majority of prospects won’t go along or give in, because authority is a powerful motivator and you aren’t the authority figure in the relationship.
In any environment where the buyer must use a certain buying process, you must never try to get the prospect to go against the authority of his or her boss. Instead, to have a much greater chance of success, focus your energies on two other areas:
- Help Buyers Follow The Rules: If making sales is all about building relationships, then why not build relationships with prospects by helping them become more efficient within the buying processes they must use? Getting vendors to respond to RFPs, for instance, can be an arduous task, because so many salespeople hate the process, as I do. Why not find (or write) an article titled something like “How To Get Quality Responses To Your RFPs,” and send your prospects a copy? If you decide to write the article yourself, how about calling your 50 best prospects and asking them whether they want to be interviewed, so their advice can be included in the article? There are endless ways to build relationships with these buyers so your proposals end up on top – but you’ll never think of any of them if your focus is on subverting authority.
- Educate The Boss: People who make the rules can also change them, if they believe doing so is for the best. And don’t forget, all companies that buy also sell – so your prospect’s sales force might be struggling with the RFP process as well. When was the last time you invited a salesperson or sales manager from your best prospect’s company to lunch, and picked his or her brain about replying to RFPs? What would happen if the two of you collaborated on an article that explained why buying with RFPs is a mistake, and then you sent a copy of the article to the boss – educating him or her on the negative aspects of RFP usage?
Great salespeople accept responsibility for everything that blocks their path or hinders their ability to sell. You may not be successful bucking authority, because following the leader is engrained during childhood, but that doesn’t mean you can’t accept responsibility for changing the rules yourself.
She Sends You $10 On Your Birthday Every Year, So Yes You Will!
Aunt Gladys simply rubbed me the wrong way – she was just too over-the-top aunt-like, if you know what I mean. Every time she came over, she had to make a huge deal out of everything, and I had to sit by her, tell her all my stories and otherwise entertain her all evening, despite the fact that I would rather have been outside with my cousins playing Freeze Tag, Red Rover or Hide-and-Seek.
My problem was, no matter how much I wanted to be elsewhere, I had to entertain my aunt, because she gave me a $10 bill every birthday – I owed her a debt of gratitude, and this was how my debt was to be paid.
Learning to reciprocate for a gift that is given is drilled into our heads throughout life. And it’s a lesson that is so strong, it often creates an uncontrollable impulse to give back whenever we receive, regardless of whether we liked what we were given. Your prospects are no exception to this rule, so whenever you want something of value from them, try giving something of value first.
Perhaps the best way to get appointments, for instance, is to introduce decision-makers to people who might want to buy from them. Remember, your prospects’ companies must also sell, so go through your contact list to see whether you have a great relationship with one of your prospect’s prospects. What could be a better gift to have reciprocated?
People will reciprocate whenever they receive something valuable. That’s why vendors send expensive liquor, smoked hams, and so on, to procurement managers every year. Of course, you’ll do a lot better if you aren’t just one of the pack, so find things of value you can give that aren’t mainstream – and save the trinkets from the trash.
On the flip side of this, people often enjoy having other people in their debt. So you can often get further with a prospect by asking for a favor first, and promising to repay later.
The key is to never go overboard and never drop the ball – whether you owe them or they owe you – because that will either cost you an opportunity or damage a relationship forever.
Finding Patterns By Looking Within
It is far easier to predict human behavior and leverage it, than it is to manufacture the type of behavior you want. In addition to the ideas in this chapter, you can pick up on behavior patterns simply by tuning in to the fact that these same behaviors exist in you, just like they do in everyone else.
You need look no further than your own reactions to find the best clues of all, because societies across the world all have common behavioral traits, and that means you have those traits, too. So, the next time you find yourself wondering why you bought that sweater, chose that movie or ate that entrée for dinner, go backward through the thought process that put you there, to see if you can find the behavioral pattern that influenced you to make the choice you made. Then figure out how to create the same behavior in your prospects, by changing your processes.
The [Your Name Here] Sales System: Gain Control
To build mutually beneficial business relationships, you must avoid trying to control human behavior, and learn to rely on it instead.
When creating The [Your Name Here] Sales System, remember the following:
- Sales Resistance: Decision-makers will resist you only if you give them reason. Stop selling. Start helping. Resistance will disapear.
- Fears: Prospects fear a variety of things. Instead of adding to those fears, minimize them or leverage them if you can.
- Social Proof: Work diligently to build social proof, because birds of a feather really do flock together.
- Scarcity: When something is scarce, its value increases.
- Authority: People do what they’re told. If that’s detrimental to your cause, attempt to change what they’re told. If it’s advantageous, then work with it.
- Reciprocation: Get a gift, give a gift – it’s an impulse that’s hard to resist but easy to make work for you.
- Just People: Lessons from childhood are common across cultures and regions, so the more you know yourself, the more you’ll know others.
The best way to maintain total control is to let others do what comes naturally, and then leverage what they do to get what you want. To become the best salesperson possible, gain control by first giving control away.
Much of what I learned (and summarized in this chapter) about why humans react to various stimuli came from the book “INFLUENCE: Science And Practice,” which was written by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D.
Cialdini does a much better job of explaining the underlying forces that drive these behaviors, and gaining those insights will help you better apply the concepts. So I strongly advise you to read his book as soon as you can. (That’s social proof, commitment and consistency, authority and reciprocation all rolled into one, so perhaps you should just give in and order it right now.)