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An Easier Way to Sell in Tough Times
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Sales Myths

This series of articles challenges the "realities" most of us were taught about selling: that you need to control customers in order to succeed in selling, that you have to deliver a great sales pitch or presentation to get the customer to say "yes," or that selling is based on what you do to customers instead of what you do with them.

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If establishing "control" is important to you, ask yourself why. What personal concerns or maybe even fears cause you to want to "make things happen your way?" For many people, the desire for control is an unconscious reaction to doubts about credibility, confidence and self-worth. Get together with someone you trust and talk about your concerns. Brainstorm how you could be, and feel, even more successful if you collaborated more and controlled less.

When you try to control customers, what are the results that your behavior triggers in customers? Look for ways to share control with customers by asking more questions, and inviting them to problem-solve with you how you can create a win/win solution to their real concerns or problems.

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Other Articles in this Series

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Recommended Books
Click on titles for more information

Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales

Selling with Integrity

Secrets of Question Based Selling: How the Most Powerful Tool in Business Can Double Your Sales Results

Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

Working with Emotional Intelligence

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials)

The Tao of Sales: The Easy Way To Sell In Tough Times

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't

Sales Myth #1 - Controlling the Customer

The widespread fallacy that successful selling requires you to control customers is easy to understand; it's how most of us were taught to sell. Here's a sampling of "best practices" from widely-read books on sales and sales training programs:

So what's wrong with that advice? Simple - at a conscious, and more likely, at a subconscious level, most people don't like or want to be controlled. Guided, advised, helped, supported, encouraged, even challenged - sure - but not controlled.

So the desire to control customers depends for success on two dubious possibilities:

In either case, if you're successful, you may gain a "one-off" sale, but you certainly won't develop the kind of high-value loyal customer relationship you need to grow your business.

At a deep subconscious level, the feeling that we're being controlled can be so threatening to our self-esteem and sense of personal safety that it triggers a similarly unconscious stress response: "fight" in the form of objections, or "flight" in the form of avoidance and evasion. Most of the time, when the defense mechanisms in our mind take over to protect us, it happens on "autopilot." The stress response bypasses the thinking functions of the brain to launch a powerful physical and emotional gut reaction. Once the stress response takes over, attempts to logically or rationally "argue" customer into changing their minds don't work because the rational mind isn't involved in the decision. A good source to learn how the subconscious mind can shape what happens in a sales call without our - or the customer's awareness - is the discussion of Emotional Intelligence in the opening chapters of Daniel Goleman's Primal Leadership. Goleman is also excellent in describing how to reshape your thinking to help you change your behavior to get better results.

For the same reason, even if you manipulate the customer into saying "yes," that agreement lasts only as long as you're in the room. The verbal "yes" above the surface gets negated by the subconscious "no" below the surface. The Fallacy of "Verbal" Control Over the years, I've worked with thousands of salespeople who focus all their efforts to get customers to say "yes," and use rational arguments to convince the customer that "yes," is a wiser, smarter answer than "no" or "maybe." The first clue that this belief might be a fallacy, and the practice of it a mistake, comes from observing what happens when salespeople say to customers: "I'm right, you're wrong." "I know more about this than you do." (Real message: I'm smart, you're dumb." "I'm logical, you're illogical.") Salespeople who are skilled at using evidence and facts may convince the customer they are right. And customers may say "yes" but that "yes" often turns into a indecision, or even the loss of a "sale."

If you want to examine this thought in greater depth, read what Sharon Drew Morgen says in Selling with Integrity, or see her newest E-book, "Buying Facilitation." newsalesparadigm.com. Jeff Thull, in Exceptional Selling, is also powerful and clear on this subject.

I'll develop this point in other articles but it's important to mention now. The dynamics of a sales call are like the dynamics of an iceberg. The 10% above water is like the conscious, "logical," "fact-based" verbal interchange between the seller and buyer. The 90% below the water represents the customer's unconscious belief system - what the customer believes is possible and appropriate to do, given his or her innate goals and values. So the more the customer is led or manipulated into saying 'yes,' the stronger the subconscious mind may fight back - because one of its "jobs" is to protect and support the basic beliefs that form our sense of who we are. When salespeople push and settle for verbal agreement in the attempt to control the customer, they can make a "Titanic" mistake. It's what's below the water line that sinks the sale.

Sharing control

Sharing control starts with a basic premise: "I will never sell you anything or let you buy from me unless we both believe you'll benefit from the sale in ways that make a real difference for you, personally and/or professionally." The reason you share control with customers is so that at the end, you both come out winners. If what you're selling isn't right for this customer, at this time, the faster you learn that, the faster you can get on to the next opportunity.

What this means to you: Surrendering the desire to control sales outcomes opens the possibility that you and the customer can achieve more by working together than you ever could accomplish by yourself - working against the customer.

Some key questions:

If the answer to any of these questions is "no," perhaps the next question should be, "Do I really want a career in sales?"

What I hear a lot from workshop participants, readers of The Tao of Sales and subscribers to the sales forum I recommend, SalesPractice.com is the question: "But suppose customers don't want to be partners? Suppose they're only interested in the lowest price?"

The answer to that question? Practicing and mastering the techniques that help you clarify the choices customers face and the consequences of those choices to their goals. If you develop the questioning skills that allow customers to examine their choices, the customers you want to work with will start re-considering their own thinking, and begin to be more open to a conversation about value over price. The ones who can't get past their belief that "cheap is better" are the customers you want to walk away from, as quickly as possible. Your time is precious, and they're wasting it.

I'll discuss these techniques in later posts. The simple version is based on questions like:

  • "What do you actually want?" "What would make a real difference for you?"
  • "Why is that important to you?" (Be prepared to explore any answer the customer gives you in greater depth before going on. Remember that you're working below the waterline of the customer's "iceberg.")
  • "What's getting in the way of your accomplishing that?"
  • "What are you doing about that?" "What kinds of results are you getting?"
  • "What other choices do you have?" "What might be the results of those choices?"
  • "How could I help you do that?"<
Both books I recommend in this article, Jeff Thull's Exceptional Selling, and Sharon Drew Morgen's E-book on Buying Facilitation are great discussions of this kind of questioning approach. You'll get back the investment in buying them in months, and capitalize on these insights the rest of your career.

I also hear salespeople bring up the concern that their boss wants them to use sales practices that either don't work, or ones the salesperson doesn't believe in. That, too, will be the subject of a later article, but for now, read the review of Jim Collins'Good to Great for ideas on how to become a great salesperson in spite of your boss.

The bottom line: trying to control customers is a losing game, unless you're really serious about manipulating their subconscious decision-making (on that, see my forth-coming article "the Dark Side of Influence.") As Margaret Wheatley says in Leadership and the New Science, "... seeking to impose control is suicide. If we believe that [sales success] means exerting control , then we cannot hope for anything except what we already have-a treadmill of effort and life-destroying stress. What if we could reframe the search? What if we stopped looking for control and began, in earnest, the search for order?