Home > Social Influence > Controlling The Conversation: Is It Ethical?

Controlling The Conversation: Is It Ethical?

I've heard (and not just in sales) that you should control the conversation.

I object to this philosophy as it doesn't seem natural to me and it doesn't appear to have the customer's best interests at heart?

What do you think? - by Wonderboy
What would controlling the conversation look like? - by SalesGuy
I've heard (and not just in sales) that you should control the conversation.

I object to this philosophy as it doesn't seem natural to me and it doesn't appear to have the customer's best interests at heart?

What do you think?
It is ethical if you redefine what you are controlling and understand why. It's not about controlling an individual. It's about controlling our sales process so that it is beneficial to our customer.

Try substituting the word control with direction. You are directing your sales process by asking thoughtful question of your customer to find out how you may best serve their needs.

I understand your anxiety with the word "control". In sales "control" it's how we direct ourselves to follow a process.

Greg - by Gregoire
Wow i wish it was so easy that i could "control" an individual. Look at it this way, a personal trainer controls what you workout and he insures that he helps you and you don't injure yourself because he is the expert. that is the way i view myself. I am an expert in what i sell i insure that people don't overextend themselves finacial or make bad decisions.... - by benjamin-benjamin
Whoever is asking the questions controls the direction of the conversation. No? - by Marcus
Whoever is asking the questions controls the direction of the conversation. No?
Exactly ... The direction of our sales process. It's critical to believe and apply the sales process direction ("control") for the benefit of our customer. thmbp2;

Greg - by Gregoire
Lets put this one to bed straight away.

It is a complete myth that a salesperson can "control" the conversation.

Buyers are allways in control - they sign the cheques!

They may give us the illusion that we are in control but when it comes down to it, we are just facilitators, helping buyers to buy.
thmbp2; - by Julian
Lets put this one to bed straight away.

It is a complete myth that a salesperson can "control" the conversation.

Buyers are allways in control - they sign the cheques!

They may give us the illusion that we are in control but when it comes down to it, we are just facilitators, helping buyers to buy.
thmbp2;
I would disagree with that. I have seen buyers control a conversation with a salesperson and then another salesperson walk in and take control of the conversation.... if a salesperson had no control then anyone could do sales you would just wait for people to sign checks!!! - by benjamin-benjamin
You can't sell anything if the prospect controls the call. They'll immediately go to price, and then you're stuck.

Susan - by susana
Lets put this one to bed straight away.

It is a complete myth that a salesperson can "control" the conversation.

Buyers are allways in control - they sign the cheques!

They may give us the illusion that we are in control but when it comes down to it, we are just facilitators, helping buyers to buy.
thmbp2;
A salesperson can take a leadership role in the sales call and facilitate the sales conversation. Some people might think of this as "control". - by AZBroker
You can't sell anything if the prospect controls the call. They'll immediately go to price, and then you're stuck.

Susan
I disagree. Surely sales is a partnership and our role is to help the person buy. As I see it, short of putting a gun to someones head and forcing them to sign the deal, there is little "control" from the salesperson's perspective.

Also, buyers resort to price objections when we havent done our job correctly. If we are truly working from the buyers perspective, price objections fade away. Trust me on this one. I do it all the time. I can clearly tell when I am trying to get a deal done for me rather than helping my buyer when the price objection comes up. Its a great check.bgwnk; - by Julian
Wow. This post certainly got us going. Here’s my two cents worth. Sorry this is a bit long, but this is a tough question.

How do you “control” a customer? Sure, you can use questions to direct a conversation − if it’s a one-way conversation (heading your way). But if it’s a sales dialogue, then the customer will be contributing his or her own sense of direction. So if you’re trying to control things, what do you do then? Ignore the customer?

If you’re really interested in “controlling” customers, read Kevin Hogan and James Speakman’s Covert Persuasion (Wiley & Sons, 2006). Bottom line: with the right techniques, it’s possible to manipulate (some? most?) people’s subconscious decision-making process to get what you want. That’s not news. Hitler and Goebbels were really effective at it. But it is ethical? And knowing that you could do it (if you master the techniques), do you want to? The authors duck those questions in their book, but I think they’re the right questions.

Ethics first: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” How many of us would be comfortable knowing that someone was trying to manipulate our thinking to influence us to do what they want?

Now practicality: Even if you can manipulate customers, how long before they figure out they’ve been “had?” Once they feel they’ve been used, what happens to the relationship?

Finally, I have a lot of trouble with the idea that it’s OK for me to manipulate customers’ decision-making “if it’s for their benefit” as some of the respondents to this post appear to believe. That strikes me as self-manipulation.

So maybe “control” is the wrong question. What happens if the sales call is about win/win collaboration? (If it’s truly about win/win, then the customer’s you want to work with won’t head right for price.)

Psychological techniques (like those Hogan and Speakman discuss, or like NLP practices) are powerful. Suppose you use them openly and candidly with customers so they know they aren’t being manipulated? - by tom behr
"Controlling" the conversation with questions is commonplace in probably every sales training book I've read. I can't see so many sales trainers suggesting manipulation so there must be a communication gap. - by Marcus
The question as to whether it is ethical to control--or even possible--a sales situation depends upon what you mean.

There are some who advocate using manipulation to control a prospect. That tends to be a "soft" hard-sell where the salesperson is trying to direct a person to a particular decision, whether the prospect likes it or not, without the prospect realizing he or she is being "forced" in that direction.

But there is another type of controlling the conversation which is how most sales trainers use the term. Controlling a conversation is keeping it on track--not allowing the conversation to go off into meaningless tangents and not allowing the prospect to make a decision before they have all of the information they need to make a decision. That isn't manipulation in any sense of the word. It is focus, it is giving the sales presentation discipline and it is putting as much information in front of the prospect as they need to make an informed decision. If at that point, the prospect doesn't feel they have enough information, they'll ask questions--or decline. A declination may simply mean they need additional information or that they didn't understand something--or, it may mean no. That is something the salesperson on the spot must find out.

Again, this isn't to say that there aren't trainers who advocate manipulating people because there certainly are. But that doesn't go for everyone who advocates controlling the conversation. If you can't keep the conversation on track, you're going to be in for many long presentations (meaningless conversations) with prospects who decline the offer.

Just take a look a sales manager who doesn't control the sales meeting--they go on forever with lots of tangents and nothing accomplished--and everyone wishing that it would just end.

Or a professor who doesn't control the class--a wasted hour of chaos.

Is the sales manger who maintains control of the sales meeting manipulating all the salespeople in attendance? Is the prof who maintains control of the class manipulating the students? Or are they simply directing the meeting or the class to a reasonable conclusion and getting the information out in an orderly manner? - by pmccord
I believe that this advice given to me was meant to push (not direct) people into buying or whatever the issue is (my philosophy is to give the customer freedom to say what's on his mind. If it's not on business and when the customer stops talking, only then will I try to redirect him to the business at hand). - by Wonderboy
"...you're going to be in for many long presentations (meaningless conversations) with prospects who decline the offer." Not my experience. - by Wonderboy
Hi Marcus
There’s no doubt that sales authors and trainers talk about control. (I agree with pmmcord that guiding a conversation is not equivalent with controlling a conversation, so long as the guiding is open and collaborative). But that’s not what “control” often means. Here are some samples from leading sales books and training programs:
  • “If you want to maximize your earnings in sales and feel good about calling yourself a salesperson, you’ll need to control every sales call.”
  • “The professional salesperson…is always in control, [and] patiently waits for “the kill.”
  • “Here are the things you seek to accomplish when you ask questions of prospects or clients. First, you ask questions to gain, and maintain, control.”
  • “Don’t give [customers] a chance to think, or the answer they come up with may not be the one [you] want.”
So yes, there’s a communication gap – two of them, actually. One is between the people who “teach” us how to succeed in sales by making customers do what we want –and what we know when we are the customer – we don’t want to be controlled. The other is between us and our customers when we say “I’m here to help you” but what we really mean is “I’m here to use you.”


The disconnect is so great that it’s no wonder people who teach (and practice) controlling customers can slide easily into denial of what their common sense and integrity tell them.


“If we believe that [we have to control others in order to experience success], then we cannot hope for anything except what we already have—a treadmill of effort and life-destroying stress.”
Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science - by tom behr
You can try googling "controlling the conversation" for further discussion on this topic. - by Wonderboy
Hi all-
I don't mean to carry on here, but I did as suggested and googled "Controlling the Conversation" and clicked on "Stay in Control of the Conversation."
Here was the advice from timsalesmlmtrainingnews:

You: “Well, I have something that may help you achieve _______.”
Prospect: “Oh really. How so?”
You: “Well, I’m glad you asked. I have a video that will answer your question. Would you prefer to receive a DVD or would you like something on the Internet you can look at right now?” thmbdn2;

IF I thought I really had an unmet need, and IF I felt the salesperson wasn't just after the order, and IF I wasn't too P'Od at such a blatant, tired old sales tactic, I might go to the internet, for about a minute. More likely, I'd just tell him to get lost. But maybe that's just me. What would you do? - by tom behr
The disconnect is so great that it’s no wonder people who teach (and practice) controlling customers can slide easily into denial of what their common sense and integrity tell them.
Agreed. ;co


“If we believe that [we have to control others in order to experience success], then we cannot hope for anything except what we already have—a treadmill of effort and life-destroying stress.”
Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science
Jackpot! thmbp2; - by AZBroker
In a way a sales call is like the first meeting with a doctor. The patient is a vital part of the diagnosis, but it's the doctor who is qualified to lead the diagnostic process.

Otherwise patients would be in the doctor's office for hours, talking about their favourite pet parrots and grandchildren.

It is the doctor (salesperson) who keeps the conversation on track.

And I think this is not manipulation but merely pragmatism.

The typical one-hour sales call costs (McGraw-Hill study) $259. An out of town sales call costs over $1,000. So, the salesperson had better be on track, otherwise the costs can skyrocket.

Thoughts. - by Bald Dog
I love the fact that we’re digging deeply into a critical issue, in what feels like an open, positive exchange of differing perspectives.

My book (and website) is called The Tao of Sales, which suggests that I approach selling more from the perspective of Mr. Miyagi from “Karate Kid” than, let’s say, Zig Ziglar or Tom Hopkins.

Here are some quick additional thoughts. About sales “experts” “leading” the conversation. (No reason to walk away from “expertise.” Most of us work too hard to develop it. Of course we trust it.) Here’s what Lao Tsu says about “leadership:” When the best leaders do their work, the people say “We did this ourselves.”

What I sense from the conversation about “ethical control” is an “either/or” dilemma. EITHER we, as sales professionals, control the conversation OR it degenerates into time-wasting chit-chat (or a narrow focus on price). That's a "lose-lose" trade-off.

Suppose we approach the same question from a “both/and” framework? How can I BOTH ensure the conversation stays on target AND at the same time, stay totally open to what the customer is contributing to the discussion? (Ask a better question, get a better answer.) Suppose “control” is not something to be seized but, rather something to skillfully share? - by tom behr
Good points, Tom.

I also maintain that if prospects refuse to go through my diagnostic process, I instantly kick them out of the office and reject them as clients.

Why? because if I refuse to open my mouth when I go to the dentist, the dentist will throw me out if his clinic. No begging and arguing. As Trump says, "You're fired!"

What I sense from the conversation about “ethical control” is an “either/or” dilemma. EITHER we, as sales professionals, control the conversation OR it degenerates into time-wasting chit-chat (or a narrow focus on price). That's a "lose-lose" trade-off.
What I've found that real buyers are pretty much on track.

It's pretenders who ask retarded questions like...
  • How do you do it?
  • How long will it take?
  • How much does it cost?
  • How do you measure it?
  • Where else have you done it before? (Even so-called innovative companies want to know this: How can we imitate what you've done before?)
Real economic buyers think in terms of results and ROI, not methods and costs. - by Bald Dog
Tom,

I can't see that we're differing at all. You're goal is to keep the conversation on track and be aware of the customer's contribution. That's the whole concept behind controlling the conversation--only stated in different terms.

Controlling the conversation doesn't mean ignoring the customer or his concerns. It doesn't mean not allowing the customer to contribute. It doesn't mean taking draconian measures to keep the customer in line. It means giving form, substance, and direction to the conversation.

As a sales manager I've gone out with too many salespeople who couldn't control a conversation. We'd show up at the appointment with the VP of Operations, go into his office and immediately the salesperson would start some general small talk to break the ice. We'd talk about everything under the sun for quite some time and then without warning, the guy would look at his watch and say, "I'm sorry, I have another meeting in 10 minutes, so I've got about 5 minutes left. What can I do for you fellas?" Great, enjoyable conversation, nothing accomplished. A follow-up meeting? Probably not as there wasn't enough time left to discover how we might be able to help the prospect, much less get to anything that might interest him enough to spend more time with my salesperson.

Controlling the conversation is simply making the best use of the time. It isn't manipulative and it isn't ignoring the prospect--it's having a mutual conversation with a definitive purpose and direction. - by pmccord
Tom,

I can't see that we're differing at all. You're goal is to keep the conversation on track and be aware of the customer's contribution. That's the whole concept behind controlling the conversation--only stated in different terms.

.
Hi Paul -
We do agree. My experience has been that knowing how to manage such a purposeful conversation with customers -- and having the confidence to do it -- is not a "natural" behavior for a lot of salespeople. I've certainly worked with a lot of salespeople who handle the inescapable tension by either defaulting to a pleasant social interaction (no sale) or getting instantly too pushy (no sale).
Thanks,
Tom - by tom behr
Lets put this one to bed straight away.

It is a complete myth that a salesperson can "control" the conversation.

Buyers are allways in control - they sign the cheques!

They may give us the illusion that we are in control but when it comes down to it, we are just facilitators, helping buyers to buy.
thmbp2;

I totally disagree with that comment. If buyers were in control, than sales wouldn't be the most profitable business to be in. Think about it, you do sales every day for however many years, and your telling me, that someone who comes in to buy is 2nd car in his life has more control over the situation than you do? If thats the case, then maybe you should try being a waiter vs being in sales. There are 3 types of people in the sales industry.

+People that are just in Sales.
This are the people who just sit and wait around till something literally falls in their lap. They are outstanding at writing down orders for what the customer wants, but can't overturn objections. They have the lowest gross and usually only last a few weeks in the business.

+Sales People.
Sales People are a little better at overturning objections. The follow most of the sales process, most of the time and have average to above average paychecks.

+Sales Consultants.
This are the ones that take the job seriously and earn the big bucks. Not only do they know the sales process by heart, they also can help identify the best product for the customers needs and wants, even if the customer wasn't even thinking about that product in first place. They are the one that maintain MAX gross while ensuring Complete customer satisfaction.

Bottom line is a Sales consultant is always in control of the situation. The customer, will do what the sales consultant wants to do because the customer trusts the sales consultant. - by jrboyd
The typical one-hour sales call costs (McGraw-Hill study) $259. An out of town sales call costs over $1,000. So, the salesperson had better be on track, otherwise the costs can skyrocket.
At present, my going rate just to set an appointment in serious B2B applications, on behalf of the seller and (obviously) with a qualified prospect, is $500 per kept meeting that was scheduled by my company.

Since this is either in town or out of town, I would suggest that the cost at $259 - per the above mentioned study - must be an oldish set of figures. Somewhere in the range of 12 years old, maybe older, but this is a guess.

Another way to look at this is to say you earn $200,000 per year, that you work 48 weeks a year, are truly effective for 5 hours each day and that it takes an hour to set up one qualified meeting. If you ignore overhead totally, dealing only with your salary as a sales rep and say that you generated the lead yourself, that it was not a referral or an advertising response and therefore there is no added cost, it cost you $166 of your potential - call it billable - time to accomplish one set appointment - not even one kept one because some get canceled throughout a year's period!.

You have not even driven there yet!

If the meeting takes an hour, the drive to and fro takes 2, the call preparation takes 30 minutes, you now add approximately $584 to your costs, bringing you to a round number of $750 cost per call for salary alone and no overhead!

But we still did not factor in that you drove a half an hour back to the office to get on the phone for an hour to generate that prospect ... see what I mean?

Serious B2B is $2000 a call out of town, more for overseas or traveling across several time zones as well as great distance (relatively speaking) - like from Toronto to L.A..

But whatever the cost, this has nothing to do with ETHICS.

Here is the issue, if you understand professional sales, you must learn what the prospect wants/needs/desires or what PAIN they expereince, while you are with them during the first meeting. If you allow the prospect to control the meeting, answering question after question, how do you direct the prospect enough to understand what is important to them???

I would argue (and I think quite effectively) that to NOT CONTROL the conversation is UNETHICAL because you are the pro, it is yup to you to learn what is important to them and show them how they can get it from what you have ... if they control you then you loose the opportunity to truly help them.

If they don't buy - assuming there was a real need, meaning they were a real prospect, it is your fault.

But was is this CONTROL issue? It is not the same as controlling time, as in this quote;

Controlling the conversation is simply making the best use of the time. It isn't manipulative and it isn't ignoring the prospect--it's having a mutual conversation with a definitive purpose and direction.
Very few buyers will book another meeting in 30 minutes, not in a serious B2B call. And there simply isn’t enough to chit chat about to spend more than about 5 to 10 minutes or so getting to know each other, leaving ample time to conduct the meeting.

CONTROL is about asking the right questions at the right time.

Read that again.

Controlling the conversation doesn't mean ignoring the customer or his concerns.
Yes, Paul is correct ... but that is not quite it. It means finding out what their concerns are, which is primary done by asking the right type of questions!

If the buyer is asking most of the questions he/she is in control and you are not able to get them to talk freely. OPEN PROBES promote a buyer to talk … yes, you could say this is controlling but it is only controlling in that you want to shut up and listen - to hear what is important to them spoken in their own words!

In a situation where the buyer is controlling, you need to gain control; and ask a question, then shut up. To emphasize this point, the saying that is used is; “Telling isn’t selling!”

So, most of the time in a sales call you are controlling simply by asking the right question and then shutting up. If this sounds like an ethics challenge to you perhaps you ought to get a shrink to have your head read? And tell the shrink you may have a distorted view of reality ... !

Seriously, if you are not following my description of MASTERY of SALES … albeit over simplified to a degree ... of asking questions to cause the buyer to tell you what is on their mind …. the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of you; (A) being in the wrong profession, or; (B) have been poorly trained, or; (C) being a novice (meaning just starting out). Figure out which of the three applies - then act accordingly because it is certainly NOT A MYTH THAT YOU CAN CONTROL A CONVERSATION ... not only can you, you must! - by Gold Calling
I think I get the question.Controlling the conversation does not mean you dominate the speaking.Controlling the conversation only means guiding the clients towards the ownership exchange. You do this by asking simple questions of what do you want? How do you want it? What are your expectations? What would you like this to do better? How long have you had this problem? What did you do with it before?Then you quiet down and let them respond to each questions listening to what they say.Preparing a new set of questions convincing the client to move forward with your proposal. - by rich34232
You are getting the right idea Rich.

How long have you had this problem?
This is not typically a great question. Unless you were trying to justify a large capital expense by trying to show the prospect that in the time this was not “fixed” they could have paid for the replacement, then this is likely an irrelevant question.

It is not “how long have they been feeling the pain” that you are trying to uncover, rather; “In regards to what are they feeling pain?” More specifically, because you may not be able to address all of their specific needs (pain), it is the type of pain they are feeling that can be corrected/eliminated/improved by features of your product or service.

[quote=rich34232;37214]Then you quiet down and let them respond to each questions listening to what they say. Preparing a new set of questions …[quote]

I will be a little more direct than "quiet down" ... Shut up. After every question you ask, shut up. Then react to what they say … you know what your benefits are, you need the buyer to tell you what their needs are. Maybe this will help you understand;

Questions can take many forms;

"What problems are you currently experiencing?"

"If I could give you a magic wand and by some miracle you could wave it and thus instantly improve your business, can you tell me how it would be improved after the change?"

"Over the phone you indicated you were experiencing problems, so I can better understand, can please tell me more about them?"

When you get an answer where the person is willing to talk and you are yet unsure if a clear need is expressed, you can encourage more TALK by saying;

"Can you tell me more about that?"

Or even just;

"Really?" or; "Oh?"

The art is in getting them to tell you. Not you telling them. And when they tell you something that you think fits with your product/service you can say;

"So, if I am understanding correctly, if we had a method for _____________, this would be something you would be interested in." (the blank could be "speeding up delivery" or any benefit that your product/service offers)

All the questions except the last one are OPEN probes, chosen specifically to NOT limit the response of the prospect so they tell you what you need to learn. The last is a CLOSED probe, as you want to limit the response. After all, how else will they yes - in their words?


This is what you want to hear BEFORE you explain how the specific feature of you product or service applies to what they are confirming;



"Yes, that is what I need!"

It is far superior to get the prospect to confirm for you what they need than to uncover what you think is a need and then tell them about your benefit and say something like "I am sure that will help you."


In a selling situation that is typical, you uncover three or more needs/pain through confirmign the needs as explained above. However, you may close with only one in some situations - this is feel based and specific to what you sell as well, there


Of course, there are times when you will think you know what they need, go for a CLOSED probe to confirm the need and get “NO, that is not what I mean at all.” This is great, first you did not assume and blow that interchange and, second, you can say, “I am sorry, can you explain what I am missing” or words to that effect – and they will clarify.

When you learn this, you need to learn that sometimes, in some situations or with some personality types, the prospect is asked an open probe and does not communicate clearer, this can be for several reasons but without getting into thefore it is difficult to explain in a forum.


This is what is important to us as sales reps is;

We can't learn their needs unless they are willing to share information with us ... we can't direct conversation to uncover anything without a prospect's willing participation.

There is a skill involved in dealing with this LOW REACTOR or INDIFFERENT PROSPECT ... it is, however, advanced.

At this stage, learn what type of question to ask and when. Think; "Let's see, I need him to talk - ahh; use an OPEN PROBE!"

Or, think; "I think he means he needs faster service but I am not sure - okay; confirm with a CLOSED probe!"

The last one might go like this;

"Are you saying that what you need is faster service on your fork lifts Mr./Ms. _______________?"

You need to take a basic sales skills course. That is my strongest recommendation - in other words, you need to practice this in non selling situations, then apply it immedietly in the field. Only then will you master the art of communication. - by Gold Calling
Controlling The Conversation: Is It Ethical?
I've heard (and not just in sales) that you should control the conversation.

I object to this philosophy as it doesn't seem natural to me and it doesn't appear to have the customer's best interests at heart?

What do you think?

In a B2B sales environment, you concern is valid. There is, however, a difference between controlling the conversation and managing the sales call. One does need to do the latter.

But controlling, if taken literally, is not the path to winning. For example, if you are just talking about what you want to talk about versus want the customer is concerned about - you can do a really good job talking about the wrong thing - no sales there.

In general you must always be trying to get on the customer's side of the table. A good simple measure is who is doing the talking in the call - if the seller is doing most of the talking versus the customer then the call will more often than not turn out to be unsuccessful. - by richard ruff
I agree with Marcus to a point. I believe you are leading your prospect to the place you want them to be by the questions you ask. However you must "listen" so you know which direction to lead or which questions you need to ask. At least that is my opinion. - by MPrince
A good sales person maintains control of the sales process, while giving the prospect the perception that the prospect is in control. - by triadtraining
Martha,

Excellent advice! - by triadtraining
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