The third article in this three-part series focuses on some "sales don'ts."

Oct. 1, 2003
In trying times, with customer budgets thin and sales volume down, a wise salesperson will set aside sophisticated strategies and concentrate instead

In trying times, with customer budgets thin and sales volume down, a wise salesperson will set aside sophisticated strategies and concentrate instead on the fundamentals of successful selling. Parts one and two of this series of articles on getting back to basics covered several of the capital Dos; this third part focuses on some of the Don''ts.

Don''t forget. Professional salespeople often find it necessary to make promises to customers. These promises may include anything from checking on the status of a special-ordered item, to digging out application information, to determining whether a better price is available for increased volume. When a salesperson makes a promise, the intention is to fulfill it. Unfortunately, none of us are infallible; we can forget. But the customer rarely forgets a promise made by a salesperson!

Broken promises irritate customers, and they also encourage customers to see salespeople as unreliable. A customer will also frequently see a broken promise as a personal assault on the image he is trying to project. Each of us wants to feel important; all too often the customer will take an unkept promise as evidence that the salesperson holds him in low esteem. This problem is one that many salespeople create for themselves. One way to avoid alienating customers is to carry a pocket-sized notebook and make a written note of every promise made — preferably in the customer''s presence, to make it clear that the promise is being taken seriously.

The trouble is, this tactic only works as a “string around the finger” if the salesperson remembers to read the notebook every day. And without some sort of structure to serve as a reminder to check the notebook for promises, the chances are that sooner of later the salesperson will forget — and pay the price in embarrassment when the customer remembers the promise and asks about it. If the act of checking the notebook can be linked to some other unavoidable daily ritual, the chances of forgetting will be much less.

Don''t put off an action that can be made on the spot. When possible and tactically wise, a salesperson should try to respond to a customer''s request immediately. For example, a salesperson might say, “Let me call the office and get someone checking on that so that I can get an answer for you as soon as possible.” Not only does this sort of approach reduce the chance of forgetting, but it also helps to create a good impression on the customer.

Don''t make a promise that you can''t keep. It''s organic to the buyer-seller relationship for the customer to make requests and for the salesperson to respond to them — if possible. But there are occasions when that won''t be possible.

Decisions by company officers may take the matter out of the salesperson''s hands. Or hard, cold facts may simply rule out satisfying that particular request. For example, a customer may want immediate delivery of a new product the distributorship has just begun carrying. But the salesperson knows there''s no way to jump that customer over the list of customers already waiting for that product.

Saying “no” is difficult, but dodging that chore with diplomatic band-aids like, “Let me see what I can do for you when I get back to the office,” or, “I''ll let you know as soon as I check with my boss,” are recipes for trouble. Should the customer discover that the salesperson knew the request couldn''t be granted, any credibility the salesperson has built with that customer is very likely gone. Painful though it may be, it''s better to face the facts, present them to the customer now and explain why you can''t satisfy the request. Then — and this is important — the salesperson should try to find an alternative solution.

By keeping a promise, a salesperson is showing respect and nourishing a customer''s need to be valued. Promises kept help reinforce the mutual respect that must exist if, over the long run, the salesperson is to keep the customer''s business.

Don''t bluff. When a customer asks a question the salesperson can''t answer, there is a tendency for the salesperson to see that as a problem and try to bluff through it. Don''t!

There is no problem until you try bluffing. Customers respect salespeople who admit that they don''t have the answer to a question but who take immediate steps to find the answer. On the other hand, trying an unsuccessful bluff is a quick way not only to annoy a customer but also to lose his respect. Obviously, if salespeople find themselves too frequently responding “I don''t know” to customer queries, there is a problem with the salesperson''s product knowledge. Salespeople who know their product lines, know competitive offerings and know what''s going on in the market won''t have to bluff.

Don''t introduce politics, religion or any other controversial subject that has nothing to do with the product. If customers bring up such subjects, it''s best to let them do the talking.

Years ago, I worked for Dr. Roy Fugal of General Electric. In addition to being a fine human being, he was a brilliant psychologist. As a young man joining his staff, I was quick to express my opinions on many subjects. I always left his office elated because he had agreed with my views. It wasn''t until I left that organization that it dawned on me that he never actually agreed (or disagreed) with me. His comment, delivered with a thoughtful expression, was always, “That''s very interesting.”

A salesperson who knows the customer well and knows that he and the customer share, for example, the same political views, may run little risk by agreeing with this opinion about some politician jointly liked (or disliked). The sense of shared views may reinforce in the customer''s mind the feeling that the salesperson is a “sound” person.

It''s easy to make a mistake, though. For instance, a salesperson might share with the customer a keen dislike of a specific congressman. Knowing that, the salesperson might feel safe in voicing irritation over a vote the congressman had recently cast only to find that he has broached the one issue on which the customer and the congressman agree! That''s an uncomfortable position for everyone concerned and it''s one that salespeople can dodge simply by avoiding “hot” topics entirely.

Don''t tell risky jokes. Customers see what a salesperson projects. A smart salesperson wants to be seen as capable, knowledgeable and dedicated to the needs of the customer, not a court jester whose chief claim to fame is knowing all the latest jokes. That kind of selling should have gone out with village stores, cracker barrels and traveling “drummers.”

There are, admittedly, some who can tell jokes effectively. However, it''s a tendency each salesperson must make an effort to curb. All of us have seen the telling of one joke begin a seemingly endless round of, “Can you top this?” The problem is that somehow the jokes degenerate into ethnic, religious, racial and sexist humor, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of both tellers and listeners.

We all know how destructive ethnic or racial humor can be; even those of us who occasionally surrender to it know that it''s basically tasteless and wrong. Being present at that sort of stereotype-bashing session can make us uncomfortable — a bit at odds with ourselves but even more uncertain of others who took part (it''s always easier to blame others). That kind of other-directed discomfort can permanently taint a selling relationship.

Off-color jokes are nearly as dangerous. A salesperson pleased at the response of an off-color joke may not notice that one or two people didn''t laugh. Those people may not be in the customer''s organization; but they may be friends or associates on whose opinion the buyer may ultimately depend in making the decision to buy or not to buy!

Stereotype and off-color humor ought to be out of bounds in selling situations. If a customer likes to tell that sort of joke, listen politely until the first moment the conversation can conveniently be steered back to discussion of the product of sale.

Promises to Keep

There''s more to keeping a promise than simply keeping your word. A number of positive advantages can stem from that simple act. I was reminded of this when, in a large gathering, I happened to mention to a supplier an item I''d like to have. He immediately said he would get it for me. I knew that for him it was a minor item on which he would make no profit, and I didn''t take his promise seriously.

A week later, this same supplier singled me out at an industry function and handed me the item he had promised to obtain. I was amazed that he had remembered me and had kept a promise made in so offhand a fashion. I was impressed by this man and will remain impressed.

When salespeople keep a promise, and especially when they do so promptly, it makes the customer feel important, nourishing and underscoring the salesperson''s respect for the customer. Mutual respect must exist for a salesperson and customer to continue to do business. Promises kept reinforce that kind of relationship.