Our three most recent blogs were about managing client dialogs when the consultative salesperson is in “transmit mode.” This week, we’ll reverse roles and examine what happens— and doesn’t happen— when the salesperson is (supposed to be) in “receive mode.” In reality, it’s not only extremely difficult to pay full attention when your client is talking— it’s actually even harder for a bright, pro-active, committed, goals-driven salesperson. Here’s why:
The barriers to effective listening fall into at least three different categories.
- External circumstances: the phone keeps ringing; that fire engine’s siren is getting louder; the waiter keeps interrupting your conversation at lunch—in other words any distraction that is generated by the surrounding environment.
- Personal issues— some are “generic,” and others are unique individual. The average person can process speech 6 – 8 times faster than the speaker can talk; that’s a really great opportunity for your mind to wander. Indeed, people naturally make distracting mental connections and associations as they listen; the experts believe that nobody can pay full attention for more than 90 seconds, and that the first distraction may happen in as little as 5 seconds! Add in each listener’s personal interests, habits, biases, etc., and it’s clear that we all have a listening problem.
- Selling-related issues only make things worse. The salesperson has his/her own objectives, agenda, plans, etc., as he/she tries to advise, solve problems for and sell relevant products/services to the client. So, while the client is talking, we’re thinking about what he/she really meant by that, or what question we’ll ask next, or how we’ll respond when it’s our turn to talk, or whether or not we look like we’re paying attention (!) Thinking about what we’ll say next is so common in client dialogs that it’s been given a name: “rehearsal effect.”
Now, here’s the kicker. Research has shown that in many business conversations, the client will not bring up his/her most important issues early in the conversation— the “big stuff” will come later on. (That’s because he/she is a bit anxious and reticent about revealing the most pressing problems, and needs to gauge the salesperson’s receptivity before opening up completely.) There’s a term for this, too; it’s called, “discretionary disclosure.” Sadly, we’re very likely to be tuned out by then, for all the reasons listed above.
It sure looks like the deck is stacked against us when it comes to being good listeners. Happily, there is “good news” too. It comes from the fact that, putting aside the external distractions, all of the barriers to listening boil down to this: it’s us, thinking about us— our issues, needs and behaviors— just when we should be truly hearing the client. Fortunately, this problem can be addressed; that’s what we’ll do in the next Baron Group blog.
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Our most recent two blogs discussed the obviously worrisome task of saying “no” to the client. We think that saying “yes” can be a surprisingly difficult challenge, too— and for reasons that are more subtle and, perhaps, more difficult to overcome. Let’s talk about three forces that tempt us to reject even our client’s good ideas out of hand, despite our best intentions as consultative salespersons.
- “Not Invented Here” syndrome: virtually a universal human trait, NIH is especially likely to affect strong-willed, proactive, competitive business professionals. It comes from (secret and embarrassing?) feelings of jealousy and insecurity when someone else comes up with a compellingly attractive idea that we didn’t think of. (It’s especially daunting if the idea is within our own area of expertise.) Our “solution” — reject the good idea and try to substitute something of our own.
- “I believe in myself and my stuff”: This one ‘comes from a good place;’ we’re confident that we have the best answers, so we don’t really want or try to listen to other points of view. How could they possibly be as good as ours, anyway?
- “I need to prove my value”: Every consultative salesperson feels a continuing need to demonstrate that he/she adds value to the client— especially in the current economic climate, in which provider costs are under a microscope more than ever. One apparent way to show our worth is to always be “right;” to always have a better idea; or to always at least embellish the client’s good idea.
This is very self-destructive behavior, especially since clients who can see their own input in our proposal are inevitably more genuinely enthusiastic; “involvement is the prerequisite to commitment.”
We know of a sales director who was shocked to hear his client privately confess that he took a tranquilizer (only) before meetings with the sales team. When asked why, he replied, “There’s nothing I can say in our meetings that your team won’t challenge, redirect, or add to; they always claim to have a better way. I’m in a leadership position in a Fortune 100 company. Isn’t it just possible that, at least on occasion, I might say something to which the appropriate response would be: “Good idea” or ‘Okay’?”
The sales team later conducted some attitude research among its clients, and was surprised (!) to learn that most of them branded the team with a scarlet letter “A”— for “arrogance.” When a sales team counters or “improves” every client idea, they believe they have demonstrated their value several times over. The client team leaves that same meeting thinking, “We lost again; today, it was 4 – 0.”
Everybody wins when the consultative salesperson is objective, receptive and supportive of the client’s good ideas. Fortunately, just being conscious of the forces that work against that is at least half the battle.
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Last week’s blog discussed the all-important first step in saying “no” to the client: playing back his/her (unacceptable) request and even imagining aloud how satisfying it might be— from the client’s perspective— if the request could be granted. You indulged him/her in this way to assure that your genuine understanding, empathy and desire to meet the client’s needs would not go unnoticed amid the inevitable disappointment that declining the request will produce. Now, let’s talk about delivering the “no,” and about transitioning to the productive (and much more enjoyable) part of the dialog— your recommendation for getting the job done.
Again, always bear in mind that until you get to your counter-proposal, you are in a dangerous and negative “role reversal”: the client is trying to sell you an idea, and you are an unwilling “buyer.” Your primary goal is to get out of that situation quickly and smoothly, and to resume your role as a consultative salesperson.
To accomplish this, you should spend as little time as possible explaining the reasons behind your “no.” Don’t expend an extra word or an extra second beyond the minimum needed to make a strong, concise case for declining the request. The last thing you want to do is offer up a number of “targets” for your client to rebut in a protracted attempt to keep his/her request alive. Indeed, it will be ideal if you can segue directly from rationalizing your “no” into your counter-proposal for meeting the client’s need— get the client talking about what you have to offer, not about what he/she asked for. (Note that this is actually the opposite of consultative selling technique (!)— where you probe deeply into your client’s objections to your proposal, to assure that your subsequent response will be on-target and totally acceptable.)
Interestingly, there’s considerable debate about the best time in the dialog to deliver the “no.” Some suggest that you do it early; get it over with, and finish on the productive, forward-looking path you are recommending. Others believe that you should try to make your recommendation first, and end the conversation with the definitive “no,” which may now be more palatable to the client who (hopefully) already likes the sound of your counter-proposal. Either approach has its pros and cons; the circumstances and “climate” of the moment should influence your choice here.
Whichever sequencing you use, the lion’s share of the conversation should be a needs-driven discussion of your recommendation, in which you show the client that your solution will achieve his/her goals. After all, that’s what the client really wants; getting the desired outcome is more important than the authorship of the solution that gets us there.
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Most salespersons would agree that saying “no” to the client is one of the most anxious moments in consultative selling. It’s a role-reversal of the worst kind, where the salesperson-turned-buyer feels compelled to refuse the suggestion (or demand?) of the client-turned-seller. Recognizing that he/she is on dangerous turf, the astute salesperson may try to get the “no” over with— or make a counter proposal— as quickly as possible. Ironically, that’s exactly the wrong way to go.
The basic truth that the salesperson must bear in mind is that there’s a world of difference between being told “no” and being rejected out of hand. Every one of us, both in our professional and personal lives, has faced the word “no” innumerable times. It’s frustrating, deflating and perhaps worrisome in the short term, but “it’s not the end of the universe as we know it.” Life goes on; rarely has permanent damage been done.
If, however, your client perceives that the “no” is not just specific to this particular situation but, instead, is a signal that you’re not truly empathetic, you’re not trying to work it out for him/her and you don’t really care— then it can, indeed, damage the client/team relationship, perhaps permanently. (Sadly, the client may see it this way regardless of your true commitment; it’s his/her subjective perception, after all.)
Two interrelated initial steps can signal your genuine support and empathy, even in the face of an unworkable, unacceptable client request:
- First, play back the client’s request, objectively paraphrased, before evaluating it. Acknowledge the importance of the general subject area. This shows that you were listening, that you understood— and implicitly respects and validates the client’s right to want this (even if it’s unrealistic). Don’t stop here!
- Next, describe how positive and satisfying (you imagine) it would be for them if you could fully comply with their request. (Some people call this “sharing the fantasy.”) If appropriate, you might say that, ideally, you could want this too, if you were in the client’s shoes. Just a few seconds of living their dream makes it absolutely clear that you “get it.”
A hypothetical example: “You’ve said that you want us to be on call for you 24/7/365. I can imagine how reassuring and satisfying it would be to have our team ready at all times to respond instantaneously; that would be the epitome of client service.”
Now, there’s no question that you do honor and respect the request, and that your subsequent response will be your legitimate best shot at providing a satisfying solution. In our next blog, we’ll talk about saying “no” to this specific request and turning the conversation toward other ways of meeting the client’s underlying needs.