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Elements of Persuasion -- Part 6

June 1, 2003
Although bluffing your way through a sales call may add drama to your day, it's not going to get you the sale. By the same token, getting emotional when

Although bluffing your way through a sales call may add drama to your day, it's not going to get you the sale. By the same token, getting emotional when dealing with angry customers can bring a sales relationship to a screeching halt. This month, we explore these notions and provide techniques to help salespeople turn these situations to their advantage. The series, which began in January, reviews persuasion techniques that help salespeople build solid relationships with customers.

19. It's a big mistake when salespeople make unsupportable claims to a customer for a product or service. Of course, salespeople must present product information to customers to motivate them to buy, but sometimes they get carried away with enthusiasm and have no facts to back their contentions. Be prepared to supply proof if you make claims to a customer. When customers ask for evidence and it's not forthcoming, they tend to view other claims as lacking in merit.

Wide-sweeping, all-encompassing claims about entire offerings are hard to defend. Well-defined claims for specific product or service features are easier to support with facts than overall claims. If you work one point at a time, gaining the customer's acceptance to each, you build a good case for your product. Start with one provable claim. When the customer has "bought" your claim about the one feature, present additional claims.

If the customer doesn't show feelings one way or the other about your statement and you're sure he heard you, move to the next buying benefit. Don't mistakenly try to stick with the claim until you get the customer's agreement. The point may be unimportant to the customer, or he may not have formed an opinion yet. Or, he may be saving his questions until you finish your presentation. Sometimes by the time you reach the end of your pitch, the customer has forgotten his earlier question. Other times, all the offering's benefits cause the customer to dismiss the point on which he has a different opinion.

You don't have to obtain unquestioning agreement to every case made during the selling situation. Debating each minor point the customer does not accept is a big mistake. If the point really matters to the customer, he won't let you move ahead until he's satisfied with your claim. In advance, decide the points important enough to need agreement before you move further into your presentation.

All of this underscores a point: You, the salesperson, must know the facts about the product or service you sell. Come to a selling situation primed to answer questions. Don't go in ill-prepared, assuming you can bluff your way through. That is one of the most dangerous errors a salesperson can make. Often, the customer later discovers you didn't know what you were talking about and faked an answer. You'll probably lose the sale, and you'll definitely lose credibility in the customer's eyes. As a result, all your company's business with the customer may be imperiled or lost.

When asked a question you cannot answer, try converting the situation to an advantage. For example, say, "I honestly can't give you an answer, but if I may use your phone, I can get the information you need."

If you can't get the information by telephone, you can say, "I don't have that information at my fingertips, but I'll get an answer. Let me make a note of it." Then, take out a notebook and jot a reminder to yourself asthe customer watches. You should also ask the customer how soon he requires an answer, making a note of the day or time. It then becomes essential to keep the promise. Customers don't expect salespeople to have all the answers, but they do expect them to obtain the information needed.

Another tack to take when lacking a ready answer is to say, "I'm sorry I failed to anticipate your question. I see the information is important to you, and I'll move fast to get it for you." People rarely get angry with someone who sincerely admits an error - in this case the error of not coming prepared with the answer to a reasonable question. On the other hand, people get furious with anyone who tries to bluff.

When it comes to technical questions, sometimes the customer may be better informed than the salesperson.

If that's the case, don't hesitate to admit you don't have the answer. Just make it clear you'll get that answer. In some cases, it will flatter the customer if you ask for the go-ahead to call your technical people and say, "I'm going to ask you to talk directly to (name), our technical expert, because you talk the same language. He can give you the facts, and I can and will supply the service." Note the word "will" instead of "would." "Will" implies you expect the order.

Sometimes the best way to control a selling situation is to make the customer feel he's managing it. When possible, let the customer do most of the talking (other than at the time you must present product or service information or answer queries). Customers feel in charge when they're asking the questions and putting the ball in the salesperson's court.

Welcome customers' questions. Those questions will reveal the nature of the problems customers may have with the presentation. Often, that knowledge enables salespeople to overcome problems they might otherwise never realize existed. Sometimes salespeople are so centered on the product they fail to be sufficiently sensitive to customers' fears, concerns or frames of mind.

When a day's call on the customer is one of many that will have to be made before a sale results, questions also let salespeople know what information they must obtain before the next meeting. Advance notice prevents the salesperson from getting into a situation he might be tempted to bluff his way out of.

Extroverted salespeople often resort to bluffing as a way to stall for time. When dealing with an introverted customer, that's a sure route to disaster. Introverted customers want details and will settle for nothing less. Often they'll test a salesperson by asking questions they already know the answers to.

Introverted customers hate sweeping generalities, and they usually rule out emotion (except for anger when they sense a salesperson does not see them as individuals with unique problems). Almost all customers see themselves as unique, but extroverted customers are often willing to admit others have the same problems or needs. Extroverts might not take exception to salespeople who generalize when making product or service claims, but introverts will fiercely resent it if they suspect the salesperson is treating them the same as everyone else.

By considering in advance questions you may be confronted with and then preparing answers and gathering details, you should be able to tailor your answer to the customer. Extroverts want answers but resent being drowned in details. They like getting directly to the bottom line. Introverts, however, will insist on detailed information.

Although these are generally good rules to follow, all rules have exceptions. Few people, including your customers, are 100% extroverted or 100% introverted. Affected by problems or fears, they and you will sometimes react in ways different from normal. Watch the customer's reactions throughout your presentation. After you're more familiar with him, you'll know how he reacts under normal conditions. Craft presentations to what you've learned his probable attitude and reactions will be. After all, selling is like a good mystery; detecting clues is paramount.

20. Don't counter customers' emotions with reason. It won't work. When dealing with customers' emotional outbursts, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Keep such flare-ups from occurring, if possible, by anticipatory selling. Anticipate before meeting with the customer any problems he may have had that could provoke anger, then decide on actions and words that would ease the situation.

Often, however, even with advance planning, salespeople find themselves in hot water with a customer because of human nature. People tend to see situations from their own point of view, failing to realize the other party may be taking a perspective 180 degrees opposite. So, if you have even an inkling the customer may be angered by a situation, try in advance to see the situation as he may see it.

Sometimes you've caused a problem for the customer - or he or she thinks you have - but you don't take it seriously because you've been in a similar experience with other customers who have listened to reason. That frame of mind can produce disaster. Customers are unique human beings. You can't assume that because Customer A was reasonable, Customer B will be, too. It's better to consider the customer's alternatives, then plan the actions you'll take if the customer gets angry.

The No. 1 rule when dealing with angry customers is not to react with anger. Yes, there will be times when the customer is absolutely wrong and/or unfair. Nonetheless, salespeople must keep in mind their immediate goal is to obtain the order and their long-range objective is to get the customer's future orders. If you exhibit anger or even annoyance, you may win the debate and lose the sale.

And, don't think you can combat anger by proving the customer wrong with cool, calm logic. If you use solid facts, two things can happen: The customer will become more angry because you have proven him wrong, or the customer won't hear your words - he'll just hear your voice. By proving the customer wrong, you push him into a psychological corner, and his emotional reaction may intensify.

Salespeople must keep in mind the adage, "Anger blows out the lamp of the mind." Angry customers don't act rationally. Salespeople who get angry often say and do things that differ totally from their actions when they're calm.

What to do? Stay cool. Do not get angry yourself. Let the customer's anger run its course. Don't interrupt even when he makes an incorrect statement. Let him finish venting his fury. Then, and only then - reply to his remarks. Even if he is being unfair, you must try to find words that show you have sympathy with his plight.

Another cardinal rule is "Never interrupt." Most people become angry when interrupted. Sometimes a customer may make a comment so wrong or so unfair that you want to break in to defend yourself or your company. Nothing will be lost if you wait until the customer vents his fury. At that point, he may be more able to think straight. He won't think or listen until he's been given a chance to unload his feelings.

In the course of his tirade, if a customer makes a statement that is wrong but of minor importance, most of the time it's best for you to overlook it. Instead, direct the customer's attention to other benefits you can offer. If you bring up the false but minor misstatement made by the customer, it may rekindle his fury, and you won't be able to guide the conversation back to the essentials.

If it's vital that he be corrected on some point, wait until he has finished, then direct your remarks to any incorrect statements he has made. Use language such as, "If I were you, I'd be furious, too, at (mention the erroneous claim). There's one thing you said that I, too, would have said if I did not know..." Then bring into the discussion information the customer may not have possessed that serves to take the fire out of the situation.

Even if you succeed in getting the order and now feel calm and happy, don't be tempted to take a parting shot or get in the last word by reminding the customer he was wrong or by bringing up some minor error of his. You may walk out with the order, but you may have also jeopardized future business. The hardest words to say are often, "I was wrong." Avoid situations that force customers to say these words. Of course, some customers will be big enough to admit when they're wrong. Nonetheless, try to not force them into saying so. You want an order, not a win at debate.

Customers have a right to be angry once in a while. If you handle an emotionally charged situation with care, the (now calm) customer will seek ways to re-establish his image of himself as a fair person or, in some cases, as someone who was in error because he was not given all the facts. In the end, that means you will come out ahead.

21. Don't become emotional. When salespeople think about "emotional" customers what comes to mind first are people who are angry. But emotion can run the famut from hatred to love, and interactions in a sales relationship can vary from anger to warm regard.

You probably do not think of yourself as "loving" any customer, but you may develop a good friendship with some. You may even find yourself giving concessions that you would not grant other customers to those "friends."

When that happens, you put yourself in a precarious position. If you allow emotion to rule your actions and you give special treatment to a customer you "like," word might get around to other customers; and you'll have created a problem for yourself. Salespeople would do well to be guided by asking themselves, "Is it fair to all concerned?"

Some customers try to play on a salesperson's emotions. They may bestow favors on a salesperson in expectation of special treatment in return. One such customer comes to mind. He made it a practice to take certain salespeople to lunch at a very exclusive club that they would never have had the chance of entering on their own. Such customers realize some salespeople will be swayed by such treatment.

Salespeople have a tendency to feel the customer views them as a friend and the favor resulted from friendship alone. Although this is the case sometimes, customers also use favors as psychological tools to maneuver salespeople.

Professional salespeople sometimes face hard decision before accepting any unusual favor from a customer. A good question to weigh the balance is: "Would I give other customers, some of whom I dislike personally, the same treatment that this 'friendly' customer may come to expect from me?"

Salespeople also tend to think of emotion in a sales situation in terms of the customer's behavior. They rarely acknowledge that they can also be ruled by some emotion. Yet with the goal of achieving an order, a salesperson can rarely risk an emotional response to a customer.

In one case, a salesperson met every shout of the customer with one of his own. The customer badly needed the product the salesperson was selling and eventually gave him the order. On the street, after leaving the customer's office, the salesperson said, "I've taken as much from that guy as I can take, and today I decided to tell him off!" The postscript to this event came later when the customer called the main office and said to send a different salesperson if the company wanted anymore of his business. The question is "Who really won?" (To be continued)

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