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Elements of Persuasion

March 1, 2003
In almost every facet of our lives, we encounter people who do not agree with us. In many such situations, we eventually find that there's no hope of

In almost every facet of our lives, we encounter people who do not agree with us. In many such situations, we eventually find that there's no hope of changing the other person's mind. So we either change the subject or walk away, wondering how other people can be so stupid or so unyielding or so uninformed.

But walking away is not a course of action that will produce the desired results in a selling situation. Salespeople must turn instead to some proven techniques of persuasion.

When a customer disagrees with something a salesperson has said or done, or when the customer balks at taking an action the salesperson recommends, some tension may enter the interchange. There's also a chance the customer may feel his judgment is being called into question. Here are some ways to eliminate or dilute the growing intensity of the situation:

Seek and find a point of mutual agreement. How? One method is to home in on some areas of the discussion upon which both parties do agree. Then it is often possible to make statements like, "You and I are certainly in agreement on that point" or "The important thing is that you and I are in total agreement on a major point. You want to fill a need (or solve a problem) and I want to help you do so. " (Be specific in naming the need or problem.)

At least two desirable things take place: 1. The salesperson takes the heat out of the situation or forestalls it from becoming acrimonious, and 2. It prevents the customer from feeling his or her judgment has been challenged. By naming the problem or need the customer has, the salesperson changes the focus from disagreement to agreement. He makes the customer realize that both of them have the same desire-to solve a problem. Once on common ground, it's possible to move on to other subjects of mutual agreement.

If that technique does not eliminate the problem, this one may:

Isolate areas of disagreement.

If the salesperson can cause the customer to concur that the two of them agree upon many points, the climate of the selling situation will improve. How can one achieve this? One method is to say, "You and I are in agreement on many points and there seem to be different views on only one point. It may be that I haven't made my reasons clear. Perhaps you could tell me what you understand me to have said. Or maybe I failed to understand why you feel as you do. It might be helpful to both of us if you can go over the reasons for your views again. Or maybe I need to rephrase or clarify statements I made. In either or both cases, you and I can help each other."

Notice that one never says, "There seems to be a disagreement of opinion in this area." The only thing the salesperson has said is, "There seem to be different views only on one point." Views can be changed if both sides make an attempt to see the situation anew. Opinions are harder to change. There is a difference. Salespeople should develop their abilities as wordsmiths.

Above all, if there's a disagreement on only one or two points, the salesperson must not make a major cause out of it. He should move ahead to other facets of the offer. It's possible the customer may be attracted by other elements of the offer and either forget the point of disagreement or be moved to compromise. Or it may be the salesperson who compromises. But an all-or-nothing situation is to be avoided whenever possible.

People rarely like making compromises, but compromises can produce victory. It should go without saying that salespeople should never demand total surrender on a point of minor importance.

During such exchanges, salespeople should be on the alert to their own body language, especially facial expressions. It's important to remain congenial no matter how wrong the customer seems or how annoying his attitude. Anger and annoyance blow out the lamp of the mind.

Words have great power. They can be used to persuade a customer--that is, motivate him to buy. Words can also turn off a customer. They can even create a chasm between seller and buyer so wide and so deep that a sale will be irretrievably lost. When a customer disagrees, salespeople will find it helpful to try the above techniques, as well as the following ones:

Avoid and eliminate semantic traps.

At times, different interpretations of words or phrases cause an unwitting disagreement between two individuals. One old example is that of a factory foreman supervising the work of a mechanic. The latter was about to tighten a nut onto a bolt when the foreman said, "Make it fast." The mechanic got angry, thinking the boss was telling him to hurry. The foreman was actually telling the worker to make sure the bolt was tightened well. One word with two very different meanings. And there are many other such words in the English language with multiple meanings that can create problems.

In written communications with a customer, typographical errors can cause serious difficulties. For example, a big problem may result if the word "now" is typed incorrectly as "not" (or vice versa) and each of these words can make sense in the sentence, as is often the case, but only one of them communicates the intent of the writer. Whenever there's written communication with the customer, it's essential for someone to proofread it carefully-and that someone should be a person other than the one who composed or typed the letter.

Another slip of the lip can occur in situations like this: As a salesperson nears the end of his presentation, he says, "I'm telling you that this will solve your problem." What's wrong with that statement? The answer is that none of us like to be told anything. The salesperson would have been more effective had he said, "I can assure you that this will solve your problem" or "I can promise that this will solve your problem."

Many times at home or on the job, a statement made conveys a thought that's perceived as something quite different than what was intended-and a conflict results. When a customer disagrees, a salesperson should not feel compelled to rush in with a response. He would do better to take a few seconds to consider which words to use to change the customer's point of view.

In that vein, he should never say, "You didn't understand me." Much better is, "I didn't make myself clear." (Obviously not, if the customer heard something other than what the salesperson wanted him to hear.) Following that statement comes one such as, "Let me put it another way..." and then a modified version of the remarks that caused the problem using very different words.

If it becomes apparent that a problem has been caused by semantics (the customer heard what was said in a manner different than that which was intended), the salesperson should stall for time by asking questions that will enable him to decide what it was he said that caused the misunderstanding. Then, when appropriate, he should restate the point he made that caused the problem, using different (and better) words or phrases.

Clarify the customer's stand by restating it. Listen to his or her reaction.

Sometimes it's best to get a firm focus on the point of disagreement. A salesperson can use such statements as, "I think I may have misunderstood what you said or I may have misinterpreted it. I thought you were saying, (then repeat what the customer seemed to have said)." What will result?

1. The salesperson may indeed have misunderstood the customer's remarks, and this approach will lead the customer to clarify his comments.

2. The customer may respond with, "No, that's not what I said (or meant). Here is what I said (or meant)." He will then restate his view and the problem may disappear.

3. The customer may say, "Yes, that's what I said." If that's the response, nothing has been lost-and the salesperson at least has a clear picture of the objection and gains some time to determine how best to meet it.

Rephrase and overstate the customer's objections.

When a customer has made a wide, sweeping criticism of a salesperson's company and/or product, another technique that can be used is to put a slightly different twist on what he said. For example, a customer may have said that deliveries from the salesperson's company have been bad. The response can be, "I may have misunderstood, but did you say that our deliveries are always bad?" People generally do not wish to be accused of making exaggerated statements, and they will often reply with, "I didn't say always, but you've been late a number of times recently." In most cases, the customer's response will be watered down considerably from his original statement, even if he had not used the word "always."

Two things have been accomplished:

1. The problem has been reduced to proportions the salesperson can handle. There may have been recent conditions that affected deliveries; and by explaining them, the salesperson can dilute the intensity of the customer's complaint.

2. A short delay has occurred, one long enough to enable the salesperson to think about what to do next. To be continued.

The Big Picture

A sale runs through phases. Although many people try to reduce the process of making a sale to a series of steps, there really aren't any. It works in overlapping phases:

1. Contact.

2. Establish and maintain a good climate.

3. Gain customer confidence.

4. Gain agreement.

5. Establish priority (causing the customer to see that the need you can fill is more important than other needs he may feel he has).

6. Gain preference for your product or service. (This will include predicting and overcoming objections as well as helping the customer overcome his fears, like the fear of making the wrong buying decision.)

7. Ask for the order!

It can be a costly error to think that these phases of a sale stand independent of each other. For example, in the early stages of a sale you may capture the customer's attention, only to find that it has diminished during a later stage of the sale. You must then find ways to stimulate that interest again. Likewise, early on in a sale the customer may indicate a preference for your product, then something causes him or her to reconsider competitive offerings. Your job then becomes to reestablish preference for the product you want to sell.

As you examine each of the phases above, you will see that during some selling situations there will be a need to backtrack to gain agreement or reestablish priority, etc. You should watch for indications that such may be necessary.

It should also be obvious that, when possible, you should do pre-sale preparation to predict problem areas and have solutions ready. "Off the cuff " solutions can cause real problems, so you should not depend on your ability to come up with an answer on the spur of the moment. It gives the customer the impression that you have not thought the problem through. Worse yet, the customer may have agonized over the problem, giving it hours of thought; and if you produce a fast answer, he or she may be annoyed that you solved it on the spot.

Pre-sale planning often enables you to avoid such situations. You can mention the problem before the customer does, then give the answer. That approach causes the customer to feel that you really have studied his situation and given his problems as much thought as he. Persuasion is a major element in each phase of the sale.

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