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Elements of Persuasion - Part 5

May 1, 2003
Influencing and changing others' outlooks is part of being a sales person. Many salespeople have a knack for dealing with people, but certain persuasion

Influencing and changing others' outlooks is part of being a sales person. Many salespeople have a knack for dealing with people, but certain persuasion techniques have proven to be assets for successful salespeople. This series, which began in January, reviews 33 proven persuasion techniques. With them, salespeople can turn situations around to their advantage.

16. Avoid "red flag" words, subjects and/or people. The right words can persuade a customer to buy, but ill-chosen words can trigger disaster. Certain "red flag" words will almost invariably result in controversy, which salespeople obviously want to avoid in a selling situation. After all, the goal is making an agreement.

There's no avoiding the fact that some words or subjects have a negative impact on customers. Yet it's almost impossible to put together a list of such "red flag" words. Why? To do so would be a Herculean task, and the final list would please no one because any one word or phrase on it could infuriate one customer, please the next and have no impact on a third.

"Red flag" words or subjects awaken immediate and strong negative reactions from some individuals or groups. Some people feel threatened or have painful memories stirred up. Because the same words or phrases have different impacts on various people, it's easy to stumble suddenly and unwittingly into a maelstrom.

Some years ago, I witnessed a discussion between a salesperson and a customer. The salesperson was in the habit of quoting well-known athletes to make a point. In this discussion, he cited Joe McCarthy. The customer immediately became furious and said (with stronger language than can be repeated here), "Who cares what Joe McCarthy thinks about anything?" The exchange became quite heated until the salesperson said, "Joe's record shows that he was one of the best managers in the American League."

The customer broke into uproarious laughter. "You've been talking about the McCarthy who managed the Yankees? I was talking about the senator from Wisconsin."

Unfortunately, salespeople do not always have such an easy way to erase the ill feelings brought on by a poor choice of words. Although it's impossible to make a list of "red flag" words, some phrases should never be used in conversations with a customer. "You must have misunderstood me" is one. "You're wrong" is also off limits. Instead say, "I didn't make myself clear."

To help decide which words to avoid, try them out on yourself first. What impact would a statement like "You are wrong" have on you?

Of course, different people will respond differently to the same words, but using oneself as a sounding board and observing good manners will help avoid many touchy situations.

It's also important to avoid making generalizations and stereotyping people. Judging people by their nationalities, color, religions or political affiliations can be a costly error. For example, a customer may belong to a political party for any of several reasons, but he may not agree with everything the party stands for. Avoid judging customers by the groups to which they appear to belong. Instead, study customers as individuals.

Another taboo is profanity. Many customers were reared at a time when swear words were off limits in business, family discussions and anytime women were present. No salesperson should trust that customers have changed their viewpoints on this subject, even though some of them have adapted to new values. It's a safe bet that customers whose values were formed in earlier decades will not buy from salespeople who use profanity as if it were punctuation. They will equate a salesperson's language with his level of intelligence and moral standards.

I recall a middle-aged man who used profanity liberally, yet he criticized a young salesperson for swearing. It amused me to hear such a comment coming from him, and I asked how he could criticize the young man for cursing when he himself swore almost constantly. (He was not a customer of mine, so I could speak frankly with him.) He responded by saying that young people should show more respect for their elders. Further discussion revealed he had a long military combat record, and the swearing had started on the battlefield. It had become a habit without his really being aware of its impact on others. Fortunately for him, he was buying, not selling.

It's also wise to assume as little as possible. A phrase that seems safe to the salesperson may be heard as anathema to the customer. For instance, when discussing the problems of using a product, a salesperson says, "It's just another example of those silly regulations being cranked out every day by those goofs in Washington." The customer's business has been affected by many regulations, and one would expect that he would resent over-regulation. Instead, he says, "Some of us feel that these regulations are essential if we are going to save our ecology." The salesperson wonders why he lost the order.

The lesson is clear: Assume nothing. Venture into the minefield of surprising reactions by testing the water for possible customer views before expressing opinions.

It may prove helpful to develop a written list of "red-flag" words and subjects to avoid with customers. To compile such a list, consider events that have taken place in your industry over the years, noting confrontations that have left a lasting impression. Then either avoid subjects that will cause customers to remember bad old days, or subtly determine if your customer's views are still influenced by events and debates that took place years ago. Then act as your common sense dictates.

Red-flag subjects not specific to any industry tend to be ones that have been debated nationally. They include the Korean War, the Vietnam War, imports, taxes , Congress and so forth. The best method of averting disagreements on these and kindred subjects is to avoid them.

Incidentally, when dining with customers with no sale in mind, do not let your guard down and discuss red-flag subjects. Don't think that because your views were expressed away from the job, they won't influence the customer. Your views will be remembered.

17. Get the customer to agree to a premise. Using a premise - a statement supporting a certain conclusion the salesperson wants the customer to reach - is a technique that can move the sale forward. Its use can be, and usually is, a perfectly ethical method of obtaining agreement from another person. The customer may also employ the technique to obtain compromises from the salesperson, as you will see in No. 18. Here's how this technique can work for a salesperson.

The situation: Your price is higher than your competition's, but the customer has given your company a good portion of his business over the last few years. On your present call, you find him to be price-conscious because of somewhat shaky economic conditions in the local area. His reactions convince you he wants to buy from you, but price is an obstacle. You must find a way to overcome this problem, but there is no way you can lower your price. How can you get the customer to see price in a different light?

One way is to get him to agree to a premise. Here's one that might work: "Fred, I believe one of the reasons your company has been successful for so many years is because your company has a reputation for high quality. Isn't that so?" Obviously, he is going to say, "Yes." Or he may say, "Well, that's one of the reasons." You're really in luck if he uses the latter response because it provides you with an opportunity to use a multiple premise. Continue with, "You're right, and another reason for your success is your reputation for meeting the delivery date you have promised your customers. Isn't that so, Fred?" Again, he has no choice but to say,


Then you can use statements such as, "Fred, you can buy this item from one of our competitors at a lower price than we offer, but consider that our profit margin is the same as our competitors'. So, if our price is higher than theirs, it's because we are building something into the product that is not found in theirs. Let me show you what that extra benefit is; I'm sure you'll agree it's a benefit you want." Then give him examples of the advantages (to him) that your product offers.

Once you have made that presentation to him, you can refer to the other premise(s) to which he agreed, saying, for example, "You and I know that keeping your word on delivery dates has helped to establish your excellent reputation. I like to believe that we have played a part by never having missed a delivery date to you. Our competitors also may deliver on time, but it's always a gamble."

In the above example, employing premises accomplished two things. You justified your price by causing the customer to realize you're giving him something more than the competition because your profit margin is the same as theirs. You also helped him to realize that changing vendors may pose a risk.

For a different twist on this situation: A customer becomes price-conscious due to poor economic conditions locally, but he sells in many distant areas, too. In this case, you can use the following premise: "Mr. Burbank, I certainly empathize with your concern about business conditions in this area, but I know you sell in many places where economic conditions are good. They haven't been hit like we have in this area, have they?" He can agree with you and he will almost certainly say, "Yes, that is so."

You then say, "You and I can get a bit depressed when we see the situation in this area; however, you are one of the fortunate businesses that sell in areas enjoying good business conditions. I realize you don't have to depend totally on conditions in this area. I sell exclusively in our area, so Imust be concerned about conditions here. Fortunately you can be less affected be cause much of your market has not been affected, isn't that so?" Again, he has been motivated to feel more confident; and he may be less concerned about your higher price, especially if you back it up with the benefits of your product to him. You must then concentrate upon the features of your offering.

The strategy of gaining agreement to a premise works in other situations as well. If the customer shows concern about your company's ability to make delivery on time, you can say, "Ms. Robinson, I'm sure you agree that I want to earn the right to obtain your business in the future, as much as I would like this order today. Isn't that so?" She will almost certainly say either, "Yes," or "Well, I suppose so." You can then say, "I can assure you that such is the case, and I know that if we fail to deliver on time, I would stand a chance of losing future business with you. Therefore, delivering on time is as important to me personally and to my company as it is to you. You can agree with that, right?"

Again the answer must be "Yes." You can then make such statements as, "So, I'm sure you will agree that I'm not about to let you down on delivery. Let me give you some of the other advantages."

Then you move on to other features of the product if she gives every sign that she is listening to the balance of your presentation and has ceased to worry about delivery. If you have already covered all of the benefits of your offering, instead of using the statement above, you can say "Let me quickly review the advantages."

In analyzing the tactics covered above, it becomes obvious that before entering into any selling situation you must stop to consider every possible obstacle you may encounter. By doing so, you are prepared to overcome them by deciding in advance which premises would dilute the importance of obstacles the customer creates.

18. Think before agreeing to a premise the customer presents. What will it imply? Keep in mind that customers, too, may be skilled in the art of negotiation. They may also be aware of the value of a premise. For example, they might use such premises as: "You agree that your price is high, don't you?" or, "You must agree that your competition is located closer to us and therefore will be able to give us better service...provide us with faster delivery...and be more familiar with problems in this area than your people." All of these statements will be followed by, "Don't you agree?" or "Isn't that so?"

You should never reply to any of these statements with a "yes." If you do, the customer will seize upon that reply, and you'll be in trouble.

To the price question, you can reply with statements such as, "Our product is expensive, but let's examine what goes into our price." Then enumerate the features of your product not included in competitive offerings. Conclude by asking, "Isn't it true that these features are important to you?" If the customer agrees, the problem is solved. If he names a feature he doesn't think is important, sometimes you may have the option of selling the product without that feature and offering a price that does not include it. If not, you are in a position where you must change the customer's mind on the importance of the feature he named.

To the proximity premise, you can reply, "Our competitor's business is close to you, but my success will depend on my ability to give you immediate service - because my future business with you will be based on that. For that reason alone, you can be certain of good service."

If faster delivery came up as the obstacle, you can say, "Years ago, that would have been a definite problem for my company, but today, with speedy transportation, we can deliver as fast as any competitor whose business may be geographically close to you. Our business is as close to you as I am right now. It's an advantage to have someone who is dedicated to giving you personal attention. You do agree, right?" Once again, it's you who have used the premise - and you've probably eliminated the customer's premise.

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