Smile and Dial

. . . but watch out for phrases that put a glitch in your across-the-wire sales pitch.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the August 1999 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Since sitting down to write this article, I've already received two phone calls from telemarketers. One asked if she was speaking to the owner of the house ("Yes," I thought, "but you won't be speaking to him for long"). The other assured me he wasn't trying to sell me anything--which, of course, he was. Although I'm not a particularly tough sell, neither salesperson got the order.

With a rejection rate of close to 85 percent, it's no wonder that even sales pros hate selling over the phone. Still, telemarketers and others required to sell by phone can make it easier on themselves--and those they're calling--if they carefully choose their words. "Selecting the right phrase can mean the difference between coming across as helpful or obnoxious--even if you're basically saying the same thing," says Sandy Herman, director of marketing at Transcom USA Inc., a Carmel, Indiana, teleservices company. "And a lot of it is common sense."

The following phrases are those your sales staff should avoid when selling your products or services via telephone:

  • "How are you this evening?" If answered honestly, the person will probably say "Fine, until you called." Besides, what will you say if the individual says "Not well"? Are you then going to make the transition into a discussion regarding his or her well-being? Will it really change the outcome of the call? Make it easy on yourself and the person on the other end of the line: Don't ask. Of course, you should be polite, but get to the point. Don't waste their time or yours. The quicker you spark the individual's interest by stating what you have to offer, the quicker you go from an annoyance to a call the person is glad to have received.
  • "Is this a good time to talk?" The answer you're most likely to get, of course, is no. This question also leaves the person on the other end in the dark about you and your business. Instead, tell the prospect what you do, and quickly explain the benefits to the individual, or his or her business. As you're doing so, stay away from phrases such as "Would you like to save some money?" Not only is the answer obvious, but the question will immediately make the person suspicious. It's a cheesy come-on and the sales equivalent of approaching someone at a bar and saying "Don't I know you from somewhere?"
  • "Hold on." Should you need the person to hold, avoid using this phrase. "It sounds too informal," says Herman. "It's not professional and assumes a personal relationship that you probably don't have with the individual you called." Instead, she suggests saying "I can get that information for you."
  • "I can't." Don't tell a prospect or customer something can't be done. Instead, offer them a series of options. Tell them what you can do for them. "You're giving them choices," says Herman. "You're not just saying no to them, and you're giving them some control of the situation."
  • "But . . . " As with "can't," it's negative and can make the prospect or client defensive. Try substituting "and" for "but" to smooth the statement: "We can ship it overnight, and I'll have to add a $25 delivery fee" vs. "We can ship it overnight, but it will cost you an extra $25."
  • "I don't know." Say "I can find out." It's more positive and proactive, and makes you sound like you care.
  • "The only thing we can do . . . " This statement is not only confrontational, but it will likely illicit a defensive reaction. You're not giving the client any options. In this situation, Herman suggests you say "The best option is . . . " This makes the person feel like he or she has a choice and gives the individual a sense of power. When using this phrase, you're honestly advising the person, rather than saying "Here's your choice. Take it or leave it."

Bill Kelley is an Arcadia, California, business writer and former editor of Sales and Marketing Management magazine.

Contact SourcesTranscom USA Inc., (888) 408-7267,

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