Observations and Insights on Selling

The SalesPractice blog offers weekly observations and insights for sales practitioners pursuing the highest levels of performance in personal selling.

This Week's Post:

The Core Challenge in the Practice of Selling

Gary Boye

The core challenge in the practice of selling is RESISTANCE.

I doubt that there are many people engaged in sales who aren't continuously aware of that reality. If resistance wasn't omnipresent, we could surrender to take-a-number dispensers, or, better yet, get a job selling them. Why, I wonder, is the topic of resistance so narrowly slotted into the topic of "handling objections" as if all we have to do is apply some fly swatter technique to a prospect's issues and concerns, and then get on to the bigger and better act of closing sales?

When a sales practitioner reaches that point in her journey where she realizes that selling is more a holistic experience than one of linear connectedness, she will be on the very cusp of mastery. When that happens she knows that the attainment of a desired outcome is found in the whole, and interdependence, of the factors involved. Those parts, so often referred to as the approach, the qualifying, the questioning, the presenting, the handling of objections, etc., are all contained holistically in one another. They are inseparable. To separate any factor as if it were self-contained is to distance oneself from the holistic experience, and, it will lose sales that otherwise could be attained.

Earlier we defined closing of sales as a progression of consent. I think of it as a process of maintaining MOMENTUM. It would be ideal if we could create such a dominating position in which people don't even challenge us. But, obviously in sales, this is rarely possible. We are continuously challenged.

Momentum is a force. In sales, we use creativity to bring that force into the sales conversation in such a way as to transcend, or defuse, resistance. We can distinguish ourselves from "just another salesperson" by creating a favorable experience, asking creative questions that result from creative listening, and preparing ourselves with effective ways to move forward. It is, however, not creativity alone which counters resistance. The supreme force that drives the force of momentum is INTENTION.

INTENTION IS THE ANTIDOTE FOR RESISTANCE

It would be horrible to allow that statement to get swallowed up in a sea of semantics. More so than thinking of intention as a target, objective, or plan, we use the word with an almost spiritual nuance worthy of the designation, "supreme force." The plan, or objective, is to CONVEY THAT INTENTION.

What then is the intention that we need to embrace, and, convey, to a prospective buyer that can act is a force against natural resistance? Certainly, a master practitioner of sales knows that people naturally resist pressure. Even "low" pressure creates resistance. Simply battling for success against reluctance doesn't work. It's a safe assumption that our prospects are as capable as we are in protecting their own self-interest. What we want is for the prospect to arrive at a better place. We want our prospective buyer to reevaluate the conditions, issues, and circumstances that cause her reluctance. We want her to rethink her position so that she becomes more receptive to our influence: an influence which has her best interests at heart.

Sales creativity requires tailoring the sales conversation so that it is no longer about making a sale (or resisting one). Instead, it focuses on our prospect as an individual. We control the conversation by improving the conversation. Choosing to have a "smarter conversation" with the prospect is not a tactic; it's a moral decision. We build and maintain momentum focused on her wants and needs. And, when the obvious benefits of our solution become compelling, the issues and concerns that feed the resistance become weakened.

I don't like the word "objection" as it is used in sales education. Frankly, it has been splattered around since the first sales guru put crayon to paper. It is usually joined at the hip with the word "overcome" and there are thousands of suggestions in books, courses, seminars, and, on the Internet which attempt to address "How to Overcome Objections." Frequently such guidance commences with the guide offering his chosen definition of what an objection really is. It always reminded me of how we're supposed to remind ourselves, while watching a scary film, "It's only a movie... it's only a movie."

I prefer to think of issues, conditions, and, circumstances when I discuss the topic of buyer resistance. If we insist on using the word, we need to understand objections for what they are, and, it will help if we empty our minds of some of the common misconceptions about them. Contrary to the popular expression, objections are not a "request for more information." Yes, it's true that sometimes they can be treated as such. They are not "a request for assistance" as some would have us believe. Those assumptions are not notions that get us where we want to go. Objections can only become opportunities if they are viewed in the correct light. I want to shine that light.

It might help to start with what a dictionary has to say on the subject:

objection [əbˈdʒɛkʃən]
n
1. an expression, statement, or feeling of opposition or dislike
2. a cause for such an expression, statement, or feeling
3. the act of objecting

Collins English Dictionary - Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

In the practice of selling, and, with the intent of getting better at the practice, the only thing we have to focus on is the definition in the middle, which references objection as "a cause."

I don't ever want to completely devalue semantics, and, I am attached to the importance of context in all discussions. The meaningfulness and context in which we want to examine objections is one where we should address the topic as Stances of RESISTANCE which do come in all shapes and sizes.

I promise that we are going to come back to the using the word "objection", (I don't know how to get away from it), but first let's dive into the factor of resistance that men and women who sell for a living face every day.

In my early years, an old pro "knight of the road" took me aside and shared some insight. He said, "You know, it seems for every salesperson out there, there's someone called a sales manager whose only function is to utter 'How'd you do?' when you get back into the office from a call."

Although his comment was unfair, I have to admit I smiled every time I ever heard "How'd you do?". Maybe at least a few of those managers never progressed above that demonstration of skill level. Two things are certain. First, I have never been able to trace any value to the words. Second, if the boss was asking a question, good, bad, or indifferent, one is obliged to furnish an answer. Not surprisingly, the majority of answers are appraisals of the prospective buyer. Not all of the appraisals are kind.

And, of course, it's been said that "perception is everything."

We only "know", or, think we know, what we perceive. The perceptions of buyer resistance usually fall into one or more of the following categories as shown in the chart below. Whether or not the perceptions are accurate, it doesn't hurt to put them in slots. In fact, it helps us examine their validity. Our natural impulse is to search for the dissimilarity between these categories. But, I encourage you to look also for the sameness, or the commonalties.

PERCEPTIONS OF PROSPECTIVE BUYER RESISTANCE

DISMISSAL INDIFFERENCE RELUCTANCE CONCERNS
The person does not want or need what you are offering, does not want or need to do business with you, and, has no desire to reconsider. The person shows no interest or inclination about your product, service, presentation, conversation, or his circumstances which could be affected by what you offer. The person participates in the conversation while exhibiting an attitude of reluctance. Her participation seems in conflict with your own. The person has specific concerns about moving forward with your offer, sometimes expressed, sometimes not.

Regardless of the disparity between the categories shown, each represents a perception of a condition, or, set of circumstances in which the prospective buyer will not move forward at the particular moment. It's understood, of course, that the first category (DISMISSAL) doesn't seem like it would contain "prospective buyers", but, for right now, we'll delay disqualification. Obviously, stances can be altered or we would all be out of work. I'm sure there have been at least one or two salespeople who have reported "She threw me out!" in lieu of the more academic depiction in the chart.

How do we know where to put who? In other words, where do our perceptions come from? Don't we need information to form a perspective? Of course we do. When we embrace and apply the understanding that honest, intrinsic, questions are the building blocks of a sale, we can just simplify it by saying, "If you don't know, ASK."

We start the conversation by engaging and listening. We ask questions. We listen actively, not reactively. We give the other person undivided verbal and nonverbal attention. Reactive listening, whether covert or verbalized, will often make a situation contentious. To put it simply, we spend our time actually hearing what the other person is saying rather than thinking about what we're going to say next as a response (or reaction).

Let's look at the category of CONCERNS because it resembles the popular designation, "objections." First, we want to discern what I believe is a misconception in some traditional sales training. It has been widely taught that an objection and a "condition" are not to be confused with one another. With that viewpoint, a condition is thought of as a circumstance that we are less likely to change or remove, as compared to an objection which we are supposed to overcome or remove. Unfortunately, that very assumption is confusing in itself. The fact is that an objection IS a condition which certainly can affect the completion of a sale, until such time as it is transcended. Concerns are circumstances.

The quest for an answer for how to "overcome objections" has gone on for years. Why do they keep asking, and, why do the experts keep offering their magic if the secret is out?

Perhaps it's time to consider this: An attempt to overcome an objection by a prospect is anti-strategic.

What do we really want to accomplish that is in the interest of both parties? Is our goal to overcome or remove an objection, or to dispense with one, or, win a debate? That's hardly the case. We sell when we TRANSCEND OBJECTIONS, not when we beat them down. In reality, objections often remain, right through the act of purchasing. But--they become less of concern, because they have been weakened by comparison to the advantages on the table of doing business (NOW).

Killing an objection can easily kill a sale. We can apply the "baby with the bathwater" metaphor or refer to the old sage of strategy, Sun Tzu, when he wrote on bamboo strips, "Keep the defeated army whole."

The message: Other factors can tip the scales so that a prospect's concerns are deflated.

"Your price is more than I wanted to pay." is an objection.

"Your price is more than I wanted to pay. Can you put this together to fit my budget?" is a request for assistance that comes as a result of conditions of mutual trust and respect.

"Your price is more than I wanted to pay, but I need to get this done, and I'm inclined to have you do the work because of your reputation for service." is an example of a weakened objection transcended by other factors.

Resistance exists in all areas of life, and nature itself, as one force among other forces. In business, all products, ideas, and services are subject to concerns. Once they take the stage, almost all are subject to the same common objections repeatedly. Rarely do they make up a long list. Many salespeople would find that they face the same six to ten objections throughout the course of their workweek. Does it not make sense then for consummate sales professionals to know those concerns, and, be prepared to cover those issues BEFORE THEY ARISE? Preparedness IS the most important skill in selling.

It's important for me to make something very clear. It would be blatantly presumptuous of me if I was to provide you with words to respond to your prospects' common concerns. Sales education does not come on flash cards for us to memorize. A top producer for a manufacturer of fine cutlery would not be drawing from the same pool of words as someone addressing both the needs and resistance akin to selling freight services. Key phrases, and, clever wording, can be useful in any conversation, but they can also be manipulative. The use of generic rebuttals is for amateurs. Manipulation by definition is not inherently bad. However, in the practice of selling, manipulative tactics are usually used to repair mistakes and omissions which came before. My point is that educating yourself in the nature of your prospects' common concerns is as important as educating yourself with product knowledge. Then, be thoroughly prepared to cover those issues, ideally before they arise.

Sometimes the most important questions we can ask are the ones we ask ourselves. "What do I say when the prospect says my price is too high?" is a question born out of frustration. "Where should I have covered, and gained accord, on the issues of budget or costs?" is a question that gets to the heart of the matter.

No discussion on the topic of objections in selling could be worth its salt without including the topic of The "Think it Over" Objection. It seems no obstacle presents such a challenge to so many in sales. But, actually it's not an objection in almost all cases. It's usually a deception. So let's examine it.

When a prospect says, "I want to think it over", or something similar such as "Let me sleep on it," it signals one of three things in almost all cases:

  1. It's a convenient way to stall and not reveal the REAL objection or concern which is often the costs involved or the budget available
  2. It is representative of an ingrained part of an individual's buying process that requires hesitating before making a final decision. Many couples or partners actually have a pact to do this when considering purchases, even when they are faced with an obvious need to make the purchase.
  3. It shows a of lack full confidence which is more a fear of making a bad decision rather than a goal to make a good decision. Most so-called "shoppers", a label used often by retail salespeople who fail to make a sale, shop out of such a fear.

In none of the above does "thinking it over" play a part. But the resistance is real.

Let's work with each category:

  • First let's examine "the stall" described in the first case. Have you ever heard that people have two reasons for doing, or not doing, anything? It's said that there is the REAL REASON and the REASON THAT SOUNDS GOOD. To be effective, to get to the heart of the matter, we need to address the real reason. And, follow this, please. We need for the prospect to acknowledge the real reason.

    Now, in this discussion, is a great time to re-visit, and probe deeper into one of The Four Applied Understanding for success in selling. It says: Honest, intrinsic, questions are the building blocks of sales.

    An honest question is one that is asked because we want to know the answer. It is not a rhetorical kind, which is really just a statement in disguise. It is not a question that we already know, or think we know, the answer to. An intrinsic question is one that seeks to dig to the heart of a matter. As authentic professionals, we cannot deny ourselves the right to ask such questions.

    Why do I dwell on the above? Our studies have revealed that there is a common and transparent "technique", designed to ferret out real objections, which is still taught in countless training courses and books on selling. It consists of a series of questions that are supposed to lead to an admission by the prospect that the real objection is about money. That tactic is simply not consistent with the honest and intrinsic nature of the type of questions we should be asking.

    If you believe that the issues are about budget or money, or anything else, then ask about what you want to know, honestly, and, intrinsically; direct and to the point. There is no reason to suspend your instinct which might guide you towards asking the right questions, but don't rely on assumptions.

  • In the second category we have prospects that adhere to a personal policy of hesitating before they make a final decision to buy. In my own experiences, I have detected a strong personal belief in that buying habit among those who practice it. Years ago, I made a personal decision to honor their beliefs. Looking back over the years, I can say that I have no regrets for that decision. I focus on creating the best possible experience I can for a prospective client. I do not focus on challenging the core beliefs of the person I choose to sell to.

  • The third factor, relating to lack of confidence, and, fear of making a bad decision, has become more prevalent as the variety of choices for products, and, accelerating advances of technology have become a sign of the times. Conditions of mutual trust and respect play a huge part in transcending a buyer's lack of confidence. Just as important is the overall experience you provide that person. It pays to continuously re-visit the first of the Four Applied Understandings. In one form or another, we must ask the intrinsic question of the prospect, "What would you like to accomplish?"

Let's review some ideas that we discussed so far. I began with the statement that the core challenge in selling is RESISTANCE. We looked at the perceived categories. I have made frequent use of the word, "objections", because of its common usage in sales training. We noted that the elements of selling, for a master practitioner, can be described as holistic-always connected.

On that last point, we want to further the notion by explaining that nowhere is the interconnectedness more evident than in the topic we now embrace, QUALIFYING THE PROSPECT.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the generations that came before that continued to pass on what may be the best piece of advice anyone ever gave another person. I will do my part by forwarding the wisdom here with full knowledge that you, the reader, may have already heard the advice, and, tried your best to live by it. I have tried, mostly succeeded, and regret the times I did not follow the advice.

LEARN TO ASK A LOT OF QUESTIONS.

I thought that inclusion would be a good way to continue our discussion on our core challenge in selling, RESISTANCE, and on the holistic nature of our art which becomes clear when we examine how QUALIFYING plays into just about everything we want to accomplish in front of a prospect.

It's always helpful to start with a definition, so let's throw the first question on the table. What exactly is "qualifying?" For a partial answer, we can turn to what most primers on selling have taught for years. They explain that qualifying consists of determining whether a prospect is ready, willing, and, able to buy.

Ready, willing, and able? That's an acceptable model. Let's spend a little bit of time probing it deeper, and then the choice is yours whether you want to dwell on it or not. We can do this by throwing some questions on the table, and, we don't need to answer them here. But, I recommend that you think about at least some of them.

If it has been determined (not assumed) that a prospect is ready, willing, and able to buy, are you ready to sell? Are you willing to sell? Are you able to sell? Are you ready to offer the best possible solution for the client? Do you want him as a client? Are you able to sell what he wants? (Do you have the goods?) Could you hurt your position with an existing client if you brought this client aboard? Is there a conflict of interest? Would this new client need such high maintenance that the profit would diminish or even produce a loss? If a person promises something in return for a price concession, is he ready, willing, and, able to keep the promise?

Have I muddied the water with those questions? I hope not. I have one reason for that potpourri and it is not to rain on your parade. I mentioned that the ready, willing, and able model is acceptable. It is, and remains an accepted qualifying standard. But personal standards differ from person to person, and, company standards differ from company to company.

In my library, I have an excellent, somewhat autobiographical, book on selling by David Cowper, titled Mega-Selling: Secrets of a Master Salesman (Published by John Wiley and Sons). In the text, Cowper, a hugely successful insurance professional, shares his standard for qualifying. Whether or not his standard becomes your standard or my standard, it can serve to deepen our understanding of the continuous qualifying responsibility in selling. Here are Cowper's five questions for evaluating a prospect:

  1. Will I do business with them?
  2. Will they do business with me?
  3. Do I realize their need?
  4. Do they realize their need?
  5. Can they pay the freight?

How do you choose your standard for qualifying? Whatever your decision, it's important that it is based on another decision to spend your precious time with the activities and people and prospects that will give you the best results.

With all that said, this is where we address the category of resistance that we referred to as DISMISSAL. A good place to start is to finally mention the word that some people have said is the most powerful word around: NO!! (Exclamation points mine with the hope it gets the right effect.)

If I'm to follow my own advice which is to choose my own standard for qualifying, I should share my own belief that "no" may not be the most powerful word that we use or hear, but it can change relationships. It can pull people apart. It can bring people closer. Most importantly, for the sake of these discussions on selling, it can point us in the right direction. "Maybe" rarely points us anywhere.

In the DISMISSAL category, the following description was used:

The person does not want or need what you are offering, does not want or need to do business with you, and, has no desire to reconsider.

The accepted standard of qualification, ready, willing, and able, disqualifies that individual on the basis of unwillingness and non-readiness, and, we don't even know if he is able.

My personal standard for qualification would not see me waste time trying to sell this person. Can he be sold? Possibly the answer is yes. Do I attempt to transcend the resistance or do I move on? If I focus my energies on converting that non-buyer, or not-buyer (take your pick), I'm spending time in an area with the least return over the long run. Qualifying really looks an awful lot like disqualifying, doesn't it? I have yet to have an argument with anyone who casually described selling or sales prospecting as "sorting."

The great sales authority of years gone by, Fred Herman, put it so wonderfully when he quoted The Good Book, "Why seek ye the living among the dead?"

It's time to get among the living. We have much resistance to transcend. Can we enter the world of the INDIFFERENT prospect and find ways to meet that formidable challenge?

Or-does that world really exist?

For years, the topic of the indifferent prospect has been the most difficult area to explore in sales education. The experts will give us blank stares, or perhaps excuse themselves because they're running late to teach a seminar. Could it be that the display of an attitude of indifference is really a stylized form of reluctance? The chart showing the categories of resistance referred to perceptions; no mention of reality.

We should choose carefully our dictionary definition on this topic. We want to stay in context and the following works quite well:

Indifference: Marked by impartiality: unbiased

I don't view that circumstance as particularly scary. If my mental image of indifference was one of smugness on the part of the prospect, it has dissipated. I see no "dismissal" rearing its head. As a matter of fact, I really like what I see. As a competent sales practitioner, I am, after all, a change master, aren't I?

What if we viewed all prospects at the time we first encounter them as unbiased; neutral? Would that make the task ahead of us harder or easier? Here's a better question: Would that perspective bring us more into focus and ensure a greater effectiveness? The answer to that second question is an unqualified yes.

The next conversation you have with a prospective buyer will occur for one of two reasons. Either you found her or she found you. You might think that the person who comes to you is a hotter prospect than the one that you had to go out and find. And, of course, "hotter" would appear to calibrate very low on the indifference scale if you still believed that such a scale exists. However, what you believe about such matters is a huge factor in how well you're going to do in your sales career. We hear a lot of talk about the importance of attitude in selling. Too often it's described as if it were a tool; something we can keep in our briefcase to take along on a sales call. And, it's easy to think that we need to adjust our attitude to fit the prospect at hand. But, attitude is not so much a tool as it is the sum of our personal beliefs. Therefore it's not something we can alter, should we be apprised of the need to alter, unless we are willing to examine our beliefs and discern them. Trust me; the process will bear more fruit than the more common practice of faking it.

A wise person once said that the first step towards wisdom is calling things by their right name. Does it seem possible now that with all those questions, and, very few answers, about indifference in selling, the sales training experts were chasing a red herring? Hasn't it been about RELUCTANCE all along? And-isn't reluctance usually about resistance to change; about the traps of inertia where prospects want to keep doing what they have been doing all along, even it's nothing.

Inertia is a word many of learned in high school physics class. It refers to the resistance of a body to changes in its momentum. In our practice, it translates well into the prevalent factor of complacency. "But that's what we've always bought." Says the prospective client who perceives no distinction or value between what you are selling and their existing product or service.

Reluctance is not based in logic, but lies entrenched in your prospect's perception. In approaching reluctance, the sales professional cannot be expected to understand the psychological considerations that are tied to changing an attitude. We are not psychologists. What we can do is gain permission to ask honest questions that that will increase our understanding of the prospect's specific needs and wants. Even more important are the questions that examine the status quo, and, the problems that may exist because of the status quo. What's working? What's not working? Is the prospect open to change the latter? What would motivate that willingness to change? This strategy lies at the heart of consultative selling.

Intrinsic, honest questions raise the level of awareness of a prospect's satisfaction and dissatisfaction with his current circumstances. Such an approach identifies the cost of leaving things unchanged, and, promotes the desire to facilitate change. This is momentum in motion. The master practitioner in sales seeks alignment between the prospective buyer's desires and the products, service, and, ideas that make up the seller's portfolio.

So what does all this mean?

I've given you no fancy tactics, no clever words, no ingenious rebuttals to use in the perceived battle for your prospective buyer's mind. Instead, I've shared understandings that took years to manifest in my own mind. Even some journeyed practitioners are sometimes faced with having to muster up the courage to make the next call. Fear of rejection it's called, a subject that's beaten to death. But there are better ways to show our courage and the best way is to summon up the artists within ourselves, express what we need to express, and let the cards fall where they may.

I have a story to tell. I once wrote to a man I admired, a leader in sales education, and asked for his participation on a project I was working on. I closed with "Best regards," two spaces above my signature. He wrote back, regretting that he was unable to help. He made a point to thank me for my "regards."

Ouch!

He closed with "I appreciate you," two spaces above his signature. That's a closing that I have used in all my correspondence since.

I look back on the words I've written here, and, what I said about intention being the true antidote for buyer resistance. And, I revisited those things I wrote about dismissal, which might be the toughest form of rejection we have to face in our work. It prompts me to offer the reader a proposition. I propose the following experiment for bringing out that sales artist within you. The next time you face that dismissal, and, as you are about to walk away, turn around and say to that human being, "I want you to know that I came here with the very best of intentions."

Live and work to make that statement true.

I appreciate you.

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