Five Truths About Sales—That Just Ain’t So


Will Rogers once said, “It isn’t what we know that gives us trouble—it’s what we know that ain’t so.”

There’s plenty of “what we know” in sales. Unfortunately, much of it is based on anecdote, theory and belief—not evidence. And some of our most cherished beliefs, it turns out, just ain’t so.

Here, for example, are five well-known selling “truths” that don’t stand up to the cold hard light of scientific inquiry:

#1: When you ask a buyer for something, offer a reason

That advice is based on a classic 1978 study, in which researchers approached people standing in line for a photocopier. When the experimenters simply asked to cut ahead in line, 60% of people let them. But when researchers attached a reason (such as “I only have five copies”), an astonishing 93% said yes.

But that’s not the whole story. If you read further into the report, you’ll find that this tactic only worked when the stakes were low. When the request was likely to cause some inconvenience—for example, asking to make 20 copies—it made absolutely no difference whether an explanation was offered or not.

And a recent study discovered that when you’re negotiating price, “reasons why” can backfire. When experimenters added a justification—as in, “This apartment costs $190,000 and it’s in a great neighborhood”—they got lower counteroffers than when they simply named the price and shut up. The justifications backfired, the researchers suggest, because buyers felt pushed into a corner. So they pushed back with things they didn’t like about the apartment to even the score.

#2: Surprise and delight your customer

Oceans of ink have been spilled promoting the idea that the way to win your customers' trust and loyalty is to ply them with over-the-top service. (I wish someone would tell my cable company.)

But if you dazzle them today, what will you do for an encore? You’ve simply created a new expectation that will be even harder to meet. It’s a game you can never win.

Fortunately, you don’t have to. A recent study revealed that buyers weren’t whiny two-year-olds who constantly needed to be cajoled and entertained. All they really wanted from the sales relationship is for their expectations to be met.

Not surprisingly, buyers whose expectations weren’t met tended to be less satisfied and less loyal. But all it took to earn high marks from customers was to meet their expectations. Going the extra mile didn’t earn salespeople any extra loyalty.

Don’t relax just yet.

Unfortunately, the study also found that most salespeople weren’t meeting expectations, much less exceeding them. The problem seemed to be more a question of communication than laziness: most salespeople didn’t truly understand what their customers wanted from them.

Fortunately, there’s a simple fix to that problem: Just ask.

#3: If they say they want to “sleep on it,” don’t let them walk away

Conventional sales wisdom says that buyers who hesitate have a “hidden objection” that must be ferreted out and vigorously countered. If you just let them walk away, their doubts will only grow over time and ultimately sink the sale.

A recent study suggests the opposite: The more time a buyer takes to make up his mind, the more likely you are to win the sale.

A series of experiments found that when people are forced to make a decision immediately, they’re more likely to stick with what they know. Give them time to mull it over, however, and the odds shift in favor of the change option (which is usually what you’re selling). Buyers start thinking of all the things that are wrong with the current situation and why it needs to change.

There are times, of course, when buyers say they want to think about it as a ploy (for example, to seek a better offer elsewhere). But if the buyer is sincere, don’t push for an immediate decision. Time is on your side.

#4: Polished presenters win more sales

Have you ever noticed that some of the most effective salespeople don’t look and act like salespeople? Maybe they trip over their words, or seem a little goofy, or mumble when they speak.

Brain research suggests that their offbeat approach may actually give them an advantage over their more polished counterparts. Here’s why: When the brain is confronted with new input, it looks for a way to quickly categorize it. It uses what scientists call a “schema”—a set of shortcuts to evaluate information and make decisions.

According to one study of customer behavior, buyers use schema to put a salesperson into a category. And once they’ve got you pegged, they stop listening.

The study showed that you can break this schema by doing something unexpected. For example, when salespeople opened the sales conversation with an unexpected statement, people recalled 17% more of what followed.

When you sound too “professional”—that is, too much like other salespeople—you make it easy for buyers to stop listening. They’re more likely to pay attention to a stumbler or mumbler—salespeople who don’t fit the schema.

#5: What your angry customer wants most is for someone to listen

When a customer is steaming mad, how should you respond? Should you ooze empathy? Play therapist? Let them vent?

Angry customers want more than a sympathetic ear. What they’re really looking for, according to a study from Babson University, is someone who can make a difference.

The study discovered that customers use their anger as a prod to get the organization to take action. It doesn’t mean buyers are pretending—they really are mad—but they “believe they can potentially alter and/or seek a remedy for a negative event.” Which is good. It means these customers still harbor some hope that you can help them.

So when you’re dealing with an angry customer, don’t just try to soothe them. Let them know that you are the person who can get the problem fixed. 

6a019b0217ad68970d019b02259588970b-120siMichael Boyette is the Executive Editor of Rapid Learning Institute. You can connect with him via Twitter at @TopSalesDog or read his sales blog, the Top Sales Dog.




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