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The Elements of Persuasion

April 1, 2003
The language that salespeople use can either create-or kill-a sale. Part 4 11. Concede minor points; let the customer be partly right. During the sale,

The language that salespeople use can either create-or kill-a sale. Part 4 11. Concede minor points; let the customer be partly right. During the sale, a customer may voice objections. Salespeople must, of course, overcome these hurdles to get the order. Many times that means conceding some minor points along the way, even when they feel the customer is in error. Being human, salespeople will argue over minor issues and, in doing so, destroy the favorable climate they have been trying to build.

An example that comes to mind may, at first glance, appear far removed from the selling situations salespeople face, but bear with it. During World War II, I was given the assignment to launch a 10-hour-long program in methods analysis that trained supervisors to analyze the jobs they oversaw and to make savings in manpower and material. In one instance, I was called to the Commanding General's office. He was a huge man seated behind an impressive desk. Together they were overpowering. After I described the program's objective, he said, with some enthusiasm, "This is like the program that I had in Omaha."

Immediately I said, "No, General, your people were conducting a 'Work Simplification Program.' I had never before seen a face grow as ominous as his did at that point. I quickly followed up with, "No, General, the program you had would be like training in calculus, while our program would fall in the category of basic mathematics." With that, his entire countenance changed. He actually smiled. From that point on, it was easy to sell the program.

The fact remains that the General was wrong. The streamlined course I was involved with produced immediate and measurable results. The excellent program he referred to produced results months later. The war might have been over before its potential was realized. But arguing this point would have cost me the "sale." I had to surrender on a minor point to get the sale.

It may be distasteful to many salespeople to do something like that, but they must remember their objective is to maintain the favorable climate they have been building. If a disagreement comes about on a make-or-break point, obviously they must find ways to change the customer's mind. But if the point of contention is a relatively minor one, they should let the customer's view prevail.

12. Obtain minor agreements to produce a good climate. The more times salespeople cause a customer to agree with them early in the sale, the better their chances of developing the friendly climate essential to success. Throughout the sale, without using the same words every time, salespeople should make the customer realize that the two of them concur. When the customer has made a good point, salespeople should find a way to express their agreement.

They will want, however, to avoid the experience of one salesperson who earned a reputation for saying the same thing over and over. One customer always referred to him as "Old 'you've got a point there."'

13. Narrow down the areas where the customer's opinion and yours diverge.

Salespeople can't afford to allow small differences in views to grow into sale-threatening disagreements. When such a situation crops up, they can make statements like, "Let's see, we agree on a number of points (name them), but we see this item from different viewpoints. I have a feeling we are not far apart on this. I'm also certain we can find a way to overcome the difference in our views, if there really is one. It may be that we are using different words to say the same thing. Please give me your thinking on (name the issue)."

This approach gives salespeople a chance to:

1. Be sure they are not misunderstood by the customer;

2. Think of solutions;

3. Take heat out of the situation;

4. Determine how they might engineer a compromise;

5. If it's not an important subject, agree with the customer, then move on to the balance of their presentation. Sometimes the best way to handle the situation is to ask the customer how he or she feels the problem can be solved.

Caution: Salespeople should never refer to the difference of opinion as a "small point." It may seem more important to the customer than it does to the salesperson.

14. Avoid anything that the customer will see as a challenge.

Here's an interesting phenomenon: People are more reluctant to change their minds on a subject after they have stated their opinion out loud. Sharply defined expressions of opinion can threaten the climate of the selling situation.

Professional salespeople will find it in their best interests to prevent customers from expressing opinions that are directly opposite from the view they must hold if a sale is to be made. Prevent situations that give customers opportunities to state views not based on fact. Even statements based on fact can present obstacles.

In either case, once customers have aired an opinion disruptive to the sale, salespeople face the problem of changing their minds without creating a conflict.

To avoid the opinion problem, refrain from asking questions that provide customers with an equal opportunity to say something pro or con.

If there is a chance a question can open the door to more than one response by the customer, then salespeople must pose the question in a way that elicits the hoped-for answer. Avoid using questions that cause the customer to take a stand. After a customer takes a stand, anything that conflicts with his stated opinion becomes a challenge.

Salespeople must never challenge a customer unless it's in fun with a longtime account who appreciates a joke. Even in such situations, salespeople should not press their luck. A friendly customer may misinterpret the humor when the subject is one on which he holds strong opinions.

Years ago the late Elmer Wheeler described challenging a customer as "dangerous selling." He said the technique can be used only when everything else has failed. Even so, even if challenging the customer works, the customer will not relish the idea later when it occurs to him that he was challenged and forced to change his views.

15. Show respect for the customer's views. Don't attack motives.

Most of us have been in situations where we hold views that diverge from those of another party, and we fail to convince the other person to adopt our views. When they fail to admit that they are wrong, we sometimes suspect the other person of underlying motives. We know that our motives are good; therefore, any view that collides with ours must be spawned from bad motives or the ignorance of the other individual.

But let's look at it this way: A customer may disagree with the salesperson while having irreproachable motives. Fear, for example, is one motive that may cause a customer to disagree. It may be fear of making a costly buying decision; it may be fear of exposing that he is currently in a poor cash-flow position. It may be that the individual does not have the last word on the purchase involved and does not wish the salesperson to know that is the case.

But because salespeople know their motives are "good," they tend to think those who disagree with them have "bad" motives. More often than not, both parties have good motives, but each is reacting to a different set of pressures. The sale cannot be made as long as salespeople blame the clash on the customer's unsavory motives.

The problems caused by different opinions often can be solved by resorting to "Element of Persuasion No. 3"-"Seek reasons why the customer holds his or her views. Probe carefully. " For example, let's say a customer expressed the opinion that a product you are trying to sell has certain shortcomings; but he happens to be wrong. Or a customer states his opposition to a system you have recommended, saying it has specific faults. What do you do? It would be easy to turn such a situation into a confrontation and ruin the chance of making a sale. Instead, employ disarming questions that will protect the climate of the selling situation and provide the facts needed to address the problem.

Watch your mood and manner very carefully, making statements such as, "I can see what bothers you. To help me, could you give me an example of (the complaint)?" Find out why the customer feels as he does. Once you have that information, you can present the customer with facts that will change his mind.

This probing, done with a friendly attitude, often results in the customer saying that he "heard the complaints." He may even name the source. In many instances, the customer's source used the product in an application for which it was not designed or under conditions in which it should not have been used.

In other cases, the customer may have made up his mind on the basis of something he read. If your questioning uncovers the source, you can then track down the article and study it. You will need to provide the customer with facts that teach him the author of the article was in error.

A more ticklish problem to overcome is when the customer misunderstood what the author intended. In that case, you must proceed with great care, so the customer doesn't feel stupid in his analysis of the article. Employ disarming statements like, "I can see why you drew the conclusions you have mentioned. The author presented his ideas in a way that can be interpreted in two very different ways. If you had not mentioned the article and I had read it, I probably would have come to the same conclusion that you did."

Once salespeople determine the customer is indeed wrong in his opinions, they must provide him with face-saving excuses for having been in error. Words such as " wrong" and "error" must be avoided. They are red-flag words. When a customer hears them, he (like us) tends to become defensive. The hardest words to say in any language are, " I was wrong." Salespeople should never create a situation in which the customer is forced to use those words.

If by some twist of the sale the customer gets placed in a position that gives him no choice other than to say, "I was wrong," salespeople can retort with, "Join the club; I'm a charter member," accompanied by a friendly smile. (To be continued)

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