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I've Conducted More Than 500 Sales Calls Over the Past Few Years. Here Are 5 Tips for Having Better Sales Conversations. Rather than manipulate your potential client, serve them.

By Neil Gordon Edited by Jessica Thomas

This story appears in the September 2021 issue of Start Up.

Osales calls, I'm usually the guy doing the selling. But recently, I took on a different role: I was the client being pitched. The stakes for the salesperson were high because they were trying to sell me a five-figure product.

Truth be told, I couldn't wait for it to be over. The offer itself was fine, but the salesperson was dreadful. She tried to manipulate me into buying, which made me feel like I needed a shower. But even worse, it left me frustrated about the entire sales industry. I've interacted with too many salespeople who think trickery is the only way to land a sale.

It's just not true.

In fact, I have been on the receiving end of several sales pitches that weren't remotely manipulative and successfully led to my saying yes — even if the offer was priced at five figures.

Related: 3 Sales Tweaks That Could Change The Game for Your Business

The difference? I actually believed that the salesperson wanted to help me to grow my business.

That's it.

This isn't just me and my own temperament as a buyer. It's something I've proven in sales myself. I have personally conducted more than 500 sales calls in the past couple of years and received a yes from about half of those people. This taught me that effective sales has little to do with manipulation. Instead, it has everything to do with being of genuine service.

Let's begin by considering the difference between manipulation and service. I'll admit that as I thought about how to write this story, I felt a conundrum: Isn't any sales tactic, even one that's done in earnest, ultimately a form of manipulation that's designed to boost the bottom line?

The answer is yes and no. Sure, a service-oriented sales approach is a way to make money. It could even be argued that all deliberate communication is manipulative in nature because any technique — such as asking certain questions or telling emotionally charged stories—is intended to move people toward a certain end.

However, the difference between acts of manipulation and acts of service comes down to the salesperson's intent. Two salespeople might both want to sell the same things to their clients, and they might do this by telling the same stories or asking similar questions. But their intentions can be totally different.

The manipulative salesperson tells a story that will make their potential client feel an intense mixture of fear and hope. This heightened emotional state may make them both want to get rid of the fear and perpetuate the hope. They may then want to buy because they believe 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 offer. The story may feature a person who first worked without their product or service and then explain what improved when they began using it, and it could demonstrate what this potential client could expect if they engage in a similar process. The story helps the potential client experience greater clarity around the offer, and if they do buy, it is because they've been educated.

Related: 5 Critical Marketing Strategies for Product Promotions

There is, admittedly, a fine line between manipulation and service since we could theoretically do very similar things on the surface but have fundamentally different intentions underneath. That's why I've provided the tips below for having better sales conversations, and how to turn sales into acts 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 the form of a conversation that isn't about the potential client's needs or how our offer might help them fulfill those needs.

I believe in the value of building rapport at the beginning; 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 many people fulfill this task with 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 when the salesperson expresses genuine curiosity about something specific in a potential client's life. This must be done delicately. If you wind up being too specific — such as studying someone's Facebook profile and citing something super personal — you'll come off as a creepy stalker.

That's why it can be simple but powerful to start with where the person lives. 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 is to start very simply but then move into a more substantive dialogue where you actually learn something about who they are and what they value. In this way, it is meaningful conversation disguised as small talk.

Tip 2: Frame the call.

Imagine if you went to see a surgeon because you had 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 would under anesthesia, which is likely to be very anxiety-inducing.

This is what it's like when someone delves into a sales conversation without first framing the call. Without giving the potential client a clear expectation of what the call will entail, the client 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 you 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 all right?" 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: Do an investigation rather than a performance.

Remember that old Kohler commercial in which a couple visits an architect at his fancy firm? The architect spends the whole first half of the commercial touting his firm's many accolades and credits, and then, 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.

Related: Follow These 6 Basic Marketing Rules To Succeed

As absurd as the commercial might be, the first half of it is exactly how many people approach a sales conversation. They make it about themselves.

That's what I experienced on the sales call I described at the beginning of this article. That person opened the call by talking about herself, told me her life story, and then asked me what I loved about the company she worked for. She essentially expected that I had already formed good opinions about it.

These behaviors were a problem to me for many reasons, but most of all because she committed the most basic sin of sales: She made the call about herself instead of her potential client.

If you want your sales conversations to be an act of service, you must make your interaction about the other person. Drive the entire conversation forward as if it's an investigation into their world—how they came to be, where they are at, why it's important for them to solve the problem, and why they feel that now is a good time to solve it. On the other side of this inquiry, you'll not only help them to feel seen and heard, but you'll also be able to determine if they're a good fit for your services.

Tip 4: Demand questions.

"Have any questions?"

Every salesperson has asked something like that. It's a standard practice: After you wrap up a presentation, you invite the client to inquire about it. But there is a far better way to transition the conversation.

You say this: "Ask me a question."

That's a tip from Charles Gaudet, founder of the business coaching firm Predictable Profits. Although Gaudet has a team that conducts sales calls alongside him, his records suggest that in April 2021 he closed 78 percent of his potential clients himself.

Related: Stop Chasing Customers With 'Pick Me' Posts and Other Desperate Tactics

After describing the services he is selling, he says he always transitions with that demand: Ask me a question. "I do it this way," he explained when I interviewed him, "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.

Many salespeople will say, "Do I have your permission to make my offer?" or "Is it OK for me to show you what it would look like to work with me?" 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 being direct, but not setting this container around your expertise from the beginning will likely compromise how well you collaborate in the future. After you complete your investigation with a potential client and conclude that they will get powerful outcomes from working with you, you are basically obligated to make your offer. Permission has nothing to do with it.

Not long after my conversation with that terrible salesperson, I heard from a different salesperson who also tried to sell me a five-figure service. This call went differently. The new person drove the entire conversation with curiosity about my goals and intentions, and did not burden me with sales tricks.

I said yes immediately.

This second person had shown me that his priority was to help me grow my business. The first salesperson could also have been successful in getting me to say yes, but I just didn't believe her company could help me. She gave me no reason to trust her.

Keep this in mind the next time you make a sales call. If your offer really will enrich the lives of those who consume it, then providing it is ultimately an act of service.

That means selling it is an act of service as well.

Related: Customers Don't Care About Your Product's Bells and Whistles. Here's What They Really Want to Hear.

Neil Gordon

Speaking Coach and Communication Consultant

Neil Gordon is a communication consultant who focuses on helping entrepreneurs, speakers and other thought leaders deliver compelling messages. He formerly worked at Penguin Random House with New York Times bestselling authors. 

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