I've Conducted More Than 500 Sales Calls Over the Past Few Years. Here Are 5 Tips for Having Better Sales Conversations.
I recently found myself on a sales call where I was the potential client rather than the salesperson. The offer was for a five-figure fee, so the stakes for the salesperson were pretty high.
But within only a few minutes, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
This wasn’t because the offer was particularly ill-fitted to my business, but rather because of how the salesperson conducted herself.
The salesperson — let’s call her Sally — made a series of mistakes in how she ran the call, which essentially amounted to her attempting to manipulate me into being in a buying mode so as to more successfully make the sale.
Frankly, this made me feel like I needed a shower. But not only that, I left the call feeling frustrated, because over the years I’ve observed many people who believe that the only way to make a sale happen is by manipulating them.
Needless to say, I didn’t buy from her.
In contrast, I’ve been on the receiving end of a number of sales pitches that weren’t remotely manipulative and of course led to me very easily saying “yes” to the offer in question — even if the offer was priced at five figures.
The difference? I actually believed that the sales person wanted to help me to grow my business.
Of course, in many of those situations, I already knew I wanted to receive the service in question. Then it just came down to chemistry.
However, that’s just me and my own temperament as a buyer. This philosophy turns out to be effective on a wider scale as well: In conducting over 500 sales calls in the last couple of years myself — and receiving a “yes” from about half of those to whom I offered my services — I’ve come to find that effective sales has little to do with manipulation.
And has everything to do with being of genuine service.
Manipulation vs. service
I’ll admit that, when forming the concept of this article in my mind, I felt a bit blocked by a conundrum: Is it possible to advise on an approach to sales without promoting manipulation?
After all, what follows this section of the article are five tips on how to improve your own sales conversations. Aren’t the methods I’ll be offering just their own kind of sales tactic meant to help a salesperson’s bottom line?
Yes and no. Committing one’s sales methods to being an act of service can certainly be interpreted as a way to be more successful at making money. It could even be said that all deliberate communication is manipulative in nature, because techniques like asking certain questions or telling emotionally charged stories as a public speaker or author could be considered their own form of affecting people to a certain end.
Ultimately, the difference between acts of manipulation and acts of service comes down to the salesperson’s intent. Two salespeople might both want to demonstrate to their potential client the viability of an offer and commit to the exact same actions. They tell the same stories; they even ask similar questions. But imagine if their intents are totally different.
The first salesperson tells a story that will make their potential client feel intense amounts of fear and hope all mixed together. This heightened emotional state will make them both want to get rid of the fear and perpetuate the hope. They then want to buy, because they believe that the offer in question will lessen the fear and raise the hope. They’ve been manipulated.
The second salesperson, however, tells a similar story that teaches the potential client the significance of the work the offer represents. It demonstrates what the potential client can expect from working in this way, and where it can potentially go off the rails. It will show the potential client that the subject of the story got the results they did as a way to demonstrate what would be expected of them should they engage in a similar process. The story has helped the potential client to experience greater clarity around the offer, and if they do buy, it’s because they’ve been educated.
This difference between manipulation and service draws an admittedly fine line, because we could theoretically do very similar things on the surface but have fundamentally different intentions underneath. This is why I’ve provided the tips I’ve already mentioned on having better sales conversations.
Below are five ways you can navigate this gray area and turn sales into an act of service.
Tip #1: Start with where
Many of us have heard how important it is to build a rapport with our potential client at the beginning of a call. This usually takes place in the form of conversation that isn’t about the potential client’s needs or how our offer might help them to fulfill those needs.
I believe in the value of building rapport at the beginning as well, because it lessens the feeling that the conversation is merely a transaction. We begin our act of service by simply treating them as a person rather than a prospect.
But what many people do to fulfill this task is ask a general, open-ended question like “What’s your week been like?” or even “How have you been during the pandemic?” Others will simply resort to discussing mundane things like the weather.
Rapport is more likely to happen, though, when you as the salesperson express genuine curiosity about something specific in their lives. At the same time, this is a potential trap. If you wind up being too specific — such as studying their Facebook profile and finding out something super personal — you’ll come off more as a creepy stalker.
This is why it can be simple but powerful to start with where they live. If you’ve already found this out from somewhere online or their phone number’s area code, then you can simply say “You’re in (location), right?” If you don’t yet know, you can ask something like “Where in the country (or world) are you?”
This might seem just as banal and useless as talking about the weather. But the difference is in what you ask next. With the geography out of the way, you then get to ask why they live there. You could ask something like “Did you grow up in that area, or are you a more recent transplant?” Then, based on their response, you could ask them another follow-up about their family (if they said they wanted to stay close to family) or how it compares to what it was like when they moved there (if they moved there several decades ago).
The point here is that it starts very simply but then moves into a more substantive dialogue where you actually learn something about who they are and what they value. In this way it’s meaningful conversation disguised as small talk.
Tip #2: Frame the call
Imagine if you went to see a surgeon with a health issue, and the surgeon signed you up for surgery without even telling you what they were going to do while you were on the table.
You’d spend the time before surgery in as much darkness as you’d spend while under anesthesia, which is likely to cause you to feel tension and anxiety.
But this is like what happens when someone delves into a sales conversation without first framing the call. Without setting up the potential client with clear expectations for what the call will entail, they will spend much of the time unsure of where they stand. This will cause them to keep their guard up, which will erode any of the rapport previously established. Conversely, if you frame the call around what they can expect and then completely fulfill those expectations, you’ve shown them that you are a person of your word and that you’ll continue to inspire that kind of trust moving forward.
This act can take shape in many ways, but I like to say something along the lines of, “So to be sure we’re on the same page, what I intend to do is ask you about (insert topics), and then if it seems like this would be a good fit, I can show you what it will look like for us to work together. But if something else would serve you more, then I can discuss that with you instead. Does that sound alright?” If you say that last part about discussing a different course of action, then it is of course imperative that you honestly intend to steer them toward a different solution if working with you isn’t a fit.
Tip #3: Make the conversation an investigation rather than a performance
Remember that old Kohler commercial when a couple visits an architect at his fancy firm, and the architect spends the whole first half of the commercial touting his firm’s many accolades and credits? Finally, in the last few seconds before it cuts to the Kohler logo, the wife of the couple tells him to design a house around one of their faucets that she’s been keeping in her bag.
As absurd as the conclusion of this commercial might be, the first half of it is exactly how many people approach a sales conversation. They make it about themselves.
When we transitioned past the initial conversation, Sally commenced with the meat of our call by telling me about herself — she spent several minutes telling me her life story.
She then asked me to tell her what I loved about the company she worked for. She essentially expected that I had already formed all sorts of good opinions about it.
But based on my research, I actually had more questions about the results it claimed than any feelings of adoration or love. If anything, answering that question simply confirmed in my mind that I wasn’t really sold on the company more fundamentally.
These behaviors were a problem to me for many reasons, but most of all she committed the most basic sin of sales: She made the call about herself and her company instead of her potential client.
An act of service by its very nature is going to be about the other person, and yet I’ve seen one salesperson after another who believes that the way to convey value is to talk about themselves.
Instead, quite simply, drive the entire conversation forward as being an investigation into their world — how they came to be where they’re at, why it’s important for them to solve the problem you help people to solve, and why they feel now is a good time for them to try to solve it. On the other side of this inquiry, you’ll not only help them to feel seen and heard in this experience with you, you’ll be able to determine if they’re a good fit for your services.
Tip #4: Demand questions rather than ask for them
After describing her offer, Sally asked me if I had any questions. This might seem like a standard practice, and I’ll admit to having asked potential clients this myself in the past. But now I know of a different way of managing the transition from describing the offer to revealing the price that actually allows the potential client to hear the price when they’re ready.
Charles Gaudet is the founder of Predictable Profits, a business coaching firm. Though he has a team of folks who conduct sales calls alongside him, in April 2021 he himself closed 78% of his potential clients.
“After describing our services,” Gaudet says, “I simply say to them, ‘Ask me a question.’ I do it this way, because if we did our job right during the sales presentation, they will ask for the close. By asking for the close, they won’t feel like they’re being sold to. And if they don’t ask for the close, they’ll ask a question related to an objection that would stop them from doing business with us. After we answer the question, we repeat, ‘Ask me a question.’ As salespeople, we are often wrong at guessing when they are ready. When they ask for it, they are telling you: ‘I’m ready.’”
We serve the prospective client more by waiting until they are ready rather than expecting them to be.
Tip #5: Make the offer instead of asking permission to make it
Earlier in this article, I compared the act of a sales call with performing surgery. It's similar to performing a medical procedure, because as someone who will potentially provide a service to the person with whom you’re on the call, you are the expert in the situation. And we call what you’re providing a “service” because, well, it will serve the other person when they receive it. Their life will be enriched by what you know and understand.
Yet in my experience — not just on that call with Sally but with many different people who’ve pitched products and services to me — people continually ask for permission of the potential client to make their offer.
They say something like, “Do I have your permission to make my offer?” or “Is it alright for me to make my offer?”
Can you imagine if your arteries started hemorrhaging blood in the middle of surgery and the surgeon brought you out of the anesthesia to ask you for permission to stop the bleeding? That would be ridiculous.
However, after spending what is sometimes nearly an hour building rapport and authority, many salespeople feel that if the potential client gives permission they will be more amenable to saying “yes” to the offer.
You might be uncomfortable with the idea of demanding questions like is suggested in tip number four, and indeed, that same discomfort might be inspiring you to ask for permission to make your offer in the first place.
But the reason why tip number two suggests that you frame the call as it does is that it prompts you to ask the potential client if the proposed structure of the call sounds alright to them. That’s the only time it’s appropriate to get buy-in from them until it’s time for them to decide whether to invest in your offer or not. If the structure doesn’t sound alright to them when you’ve framed it initially, then you end the call. But if it does, and after you complete your investigation you believe they will get powerful outcomes from working with you, then you’re basically obligated to make your offer. Permission has nothing to do with it.
No thank you
Since my conversation with Sally, I was the potential client of a service that likewise cost five figures. And I said “yes” without even flinching. But before I said “yes,” the salesperson had simply driven the entire conversation with curiosity about my goals and intentions and not burdened me with sales tactics that wouldn’t have had my best interests at heart.
In other words, had Sally simply asked me about me, had she asked for my impression of her company instead of forcing me to say nice things about it, I would have trusted her more.
I would have seen greater value in the idea of working with her.
But instead, I ended the call saying “No thank you.” It was necessary for me to be brief, because extending the call any further would have meant prolonging the time between the moment I responded to the offer and when I could finally take that shower.
If your offer really will enrich the lives of those who consume it, then providing it is ultimately an act of service.
Which means that selling it to others is an act of service as well.