Really Sick Story

I was waiting in line for a sandwich the other day at my local Whole Foods store.  In front of me was a mom with her five or six-year-old son.  It was obvious that the boy was sick as he coughed repeatedly in the direction of the sandwich fixin’s. I watched the spray of saliva and other fluids glaze the Plexiglas barrier.  Unfortunately, his mouth happened to be right at the level of a gap in the plastic shield, so he was covering the lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and sandwich meats with a healthy dose of goop.

I looked at the boy—and I looked at the mom.  I looked back at the boy—and back at the mom.  She absent mindedly watched him cough all over everyone else’s food—and did nothing.  Finally, I spoke up.  “Son,” I said, “Please cover your mouth when you cough.”

The woman snapped out of her reverie, and looked at me with an expression of shock and anger.  “How DARE you?!” she said.  “How DARE you speak to us that way??”

Confused (and a little bit scared of her) I began to back away slowly.  “You B*****D!” she shouted.  “You don’t have any children, DO YOU??” At that point, I made a dash for the cereal aisle, my appetite for sandwiches completely ruined.

Later on, with time to reflect, I had an epiphany.  That crazy little scene had been a totally botched sales job – and even if the woman was a bit…high strung, I was the one who had botched it!

Here’s why:

1. I had directed my appeal at someone who was not the decision maker.  The child was not really the one who was going to make the call on this topic—it was (and should have been) his mother.  Quite simply, my “ask” had gone to a person who did not have any decision-making authority.

2. I had made poor assumptions.  It seemed obvious to me that the mom would not want her child to cough on other people’s food—but I hadn’t bothered to notice all the obvious indications that my assumption was wrong.

3. I did not make a credible case for the sale.  I could have led the mom to a better conclusion by first expressing sympathy for her sick child (“Poor guy.”  “That doesn’t look like any fun!’)  Then I could have asked how he caught his cold. Was it other kids at school who were coughing too?  (See where we’re going with this?)  A few well-placed questions might have led her to realize that junior was infecting yet more people—without having to “accuse” him (or her) of inappropriate behavior.

4. I lacked empathy. It’s almost certain that my voice carried a tinge of annoyance when I spoke to the boy.  After all, I was irritated that he was giving my food a germ bath.  But being irritated, annoyed, or grumpy is never the proper way to make a sale.  I needed to get my mind around the difficult day that this harried woman had probably experienced, and then convey my thoughts to her with genuine empathy and understanding.

If I had practiced these fundamental sales strategies, would I have achieved a better outcome?  There’s no way to know for sure—but it certainly would have increased my odds—and it might have saved everyone from an uncomfortable scene.

Most importantly, it’s worth remembering that every interaction we have—whether it be with strangers, family, or friends is a good opportunity to ask questions, to practice empathy, and ultimately to hone our skills—both in sales and in life.

Why People Lie

A friend of mine likes to say, "All prospects lie - it's in their nature." But is it? 

So why do sales people assume that their prospects are being untruthful?  We think they are fibbing about their project schedules, their budgets, their decision-making authority, and all manner of other things.

Here's a radical proposal about this phenomenon—and a few  keen observations.

1. People lie less because of their own motivations than they do out of what they perceive to be your motivations.  They distort the truth because they think it will please you—or keep from offending you. 

Which means that in every sales situation, I make it clear that the process is not about me.  My only interest is in how my actions will affect the prospect or client.  My clients understand that I expect them to do whatever is best for them—not for me.  Keep in mind that I said “Best for”, which is not always the same as, “Most convenient for.”

2. People are much more truthful than you give them credit for.  Most people squirm when they have to tell a lie.  Make it easy for your prospects to be truthful by not squirming yourself when you hear the truth.  You may not want to hear that an anvil is about to fall on your head—but being ignorant of that fact is not going to save you.

3. You get at the truth more quickly through specific questions—as opposed to open-ended ones.  “Tell me about the challenges you are facing,” is never going to get as solid a response as, “Why are you having trouble making your revenue goals?

Use those specific questions to move the conversation in the direction of the answer(s) you are seeking.  It’s not, “When are you going to make a decision by?”  It’s, “What events/mandates are driving the decision?” 

Ask questions like; “Has your Board ordered you to do this?”  “Is your old equipment is failing?”  “Do you need to take the tax loss or realize depreciation?”

Once you know the answer to your prospects' business-specific questions, you should ask, “After what date will that problem be unsolvable?”

From there, we can determine how necessary the project is, and if a hard-and-fast date really exists.  By understanding the prospect’s pain, you can help him keep better track of his goals—and yours as well.

Nice Guys Finish...First?

Your manager lied to you.  She told you that nice guys don’t prosper in sales. In fact, she was pretty sure that nice guys don’t prosper anywhere...ever.

Encouraging research from Dacher Keltner (Author of, “Born to be Good”), suggests otherwise.  According to Keltner “People give authority to people that they genuinely like.”

Studies by Keltner and others show that this phenomenon holds true from university campuses, to the military, to global corporations.  In almost all cases, individuals who score highest on measures of agreeableness and extroversion are the ones who rise to positions of power and respect.

But here’s the weird thing; other organizational surveys indicate that the vast majority of rude and inappropriate behaviors (such as yelling and cursing), come from the offices of the people with the most authority (quick, hide your phone—here comes your boss!)

The dichotomy of nice people rising to the top—and then going totally berserk is what psychologists call “The Paradox of Power.”  Of course it’s really just a variation of what our old friend Lord Acton said in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

So what does all this have to do with selling?

Simply this; if you are a genuinely decent person, your clients and prospects will reward you with respect—and with the authority to advise them on their purchasing decisions.  But here’s the really great thing; prospects aren’t promoting you to CEO of their company, or even hiring you to be the manager of a project team.  In other words, you get all the advantages of trust and approval that come from being a nice guy—and none of the “crazy cussing” that comes from being the boss.

In fact, the prospect/salesman relationship is almost always one of unequal power—with power skewed in the direction of the prospect.  Unless you’re selling something for which there is limitless demand and a very small supply, you are in the position of supplicant.  The prospect decides if he buys, and ultimately if you get paid. That means he’s in charge.

The unfortunate corollary to this phenomenon is that individuals who are granted even a little bit of fleeting authority often exhibit symptoms of, “The Paradox of Power.”  Which is to say, they can sometimes behave poorly. 

Power tends to make people less sympathetic to others, more inclined toward hostility and impulsivity, and (this is important), less sensitive to the quality of arguments that contradict their beliefs. In other words, they make decisions based upon what they already believe to be true.

So does that mean that the trust and credibility that you’ve built up by being a decent person are all wasted on a “powerful” prospect?  Not at all.  It simply means that you can quickly learn and understand the arguments that will be most persuasive to him.

If he tells you that automobiles are destroying the planet, are you going to try to sell him a Camaro—or a Prius?  That one was easy—but what if he tells you that Microsoft products are junk—but the only thing that you have to offer him is a software system built and based upon Microsoft tools?

First off, you don’t want to directly contradict him.  We already know that he is primed to ignore or discount arguments that directly oppose his preexisting views.  Instead, you want to get to the core of his opinion.  Does he just hate Bill Gates because of the man’s vast wealth?  Is he a programmer who feels that he must at all times be publicly committed to Linux?  Or is he perhaps simply mimicking the beliefs of his manager?  Knowing how he formed his opinion is crucial to helping him see past it.

Take Control of Your Sale, Take Control of Your Life

You answer the phone—and a person you don’t know starts bossing you around.

You know the drill; a potential prospect is telling you that he and/or his selection committee are close to making a decision on their product purchase.  They need you and your entire team on-site for a demonstration next Tuesday.  And it’s already Thursday of the week before.  Oh yeah, and if you can’t make it on that day, don’t bother coming at all.

In response to his request, you describe the the elaborate and time-consuming process that you’ll have to go through to prepare his demonstration. 

 He says that he doesn’t care.  It’s next Tuesday, or never.

First off, it’s important to understand that in probably half these situations, you’ve already lost this deal.  Generally, the “selection committee” has already done all the selecting it intends to do—and your participation (such as it is), is merely window dressing.  Better stated it’s “Due Diligence.”  Every public-sector organization, and the vast majority of private enterprises have certain purchasing rules that they must follow.  And usually that includes obtaining information and pricing from a variety of vendors.

Most of us intuitively know these facts—but we’re not sure how to proceed or how to uncover the truth.  Here’s a novel idea; ask the person.

You’ll be amazed at the amount of (mostly) truthful information that you can elicit with simple, direct questions.  One reason that people will answer you honestly is because you have the element of surprise.  People just aren’t accustomed to a straightforward, authoritative question. It’s like when cops pull people over and ask, “Have you been drinking??” 85% of the people who have been drinking will say, “Yes!”

Meanwhile, your competitor is probably saying something like, “Has there been a long range planning session to determine the optimal value factors that impact the final decision as pertains to our involvement in the process?”

Please.  Just ask the questions to which you really need immediate answers.  They are as follows:

       1. What is driving your rapid deadline?

      2. Which other vendors are involved in the process?

      3. Is there a preferred vendor at this time?

      4. Why did you select us to participate?

You’ll find that some folks will refuse to answer the first three—and possibly all four questions.  Why?  Is there some sort of national security issue involved?  

As far as I’m concerned, the only reason they won’t answer you is because they have something to hide.  And almost always, the thing they are hiding is that a decision has already been made, and you are simply along for the ride.

If the prospect asks, let him know why you need answers to these questions. 

The answer to question number one is particularly important.  Is their timeframe so tightly compressed because they (or their bosses) were simply poor planners?  Is it because they are facing an unforeseen crisis that needs to be immediately resolved?  Did one vendor drop out, and they need a replacement quickly?

The answer to that question will be extremely useful to you.  If they’re simply poor planners—and they don’t care about any inconvenience or craziness that they cause you, is this really an organization with which you want to do business?  If, on the other hand, they are facing an emergency, you may be just the person to help.

When you know the answer to the second question (“Which other vendors are involved?”), you may be able to tell him that one of those other providers is in fact a better fit for him.  I’ve been in a number of situations where I’ve directed prospects to other firms.  I know that our product is either too expensive, or too complex, or too…whatever for them.  Even if they selected us they would fail at implementation.

The answer to the third question (“Is there a preferred vendor?”) lets me know if there’s any running room at all.  If the preferred vendor is clearly not the right fit for them, you can ask additional probing questions to determine why they think it is.  If they like that firm because it’s owned by the guy’s brother-in-law, you also have all the information that you need.

To the final question (“Why did you select us to participate?”), I will sometimes append a further question; “Did you include us mostly because you needed to fill out the roster—or was there something uniquely interesting about our company?  This will show you whether they even know anything about your company in the first place.  If they don’t, you can be pretty sure that you are simply filler.

If it seems either implicitly or explicitly clear to you that the person (he’s no longer a prospect) is just using you to complete his due diligence, your best bet is to offer the same thing that you offer everyone—which is to help him.  Let him know that you’ll be happy to point him to promotional materials and white papers. You'll conduct a 30-minute discovery call. You may even provide him with a generic pricing template.  That way you both get what you want.  He gets to add another company to his file, and you get to go about your business.

 Some might ask, “Why would I spend 10 cents on this guy, when I know that he’s not a prospect?”  The answer is simple; would you rather spend ten bucks on him—or $6,000 for airfare, hotels, and rental cars for you and your entire team?  Would you rather that he consider you (and, of course, by extension your company) to be total jerks—or would you rather generate the good will that comes from cooperating with him and helping him to achieve his goals?  ‘Nuff said.

If you’ve read Tim Feris’, Four-Hour-Work-Week (, you’ll remember how he “fired” his most unproductive and abusive clients.  This strategy is similar.  You can also “fire” a prospect who isn’t really a prospect—while still sowing the seeds of good will and collaboration for the next time you may meet. Oh, and every once in a while, they may be so impressed with the way you conduct yourself, you will actually get the business!