Why Listening to Sales Experts May Be Hazardous to Your Sales

A sales expert, I’m not. A trust expert, I think I’ve become. And it turns out, there’s a big overlap.

One of the interesting points in Neil Rackham’s classic SPIN Selling is that certain techniques developed for small-item selling – notably closing – actually backfire when applied to larger, more complex sales. In other words, “sales expertise” of a certain kind may actually be hazardous to your sales health.

That may not seem like much of an insight more than 25 years after the book’s publication. Since then, we have seen major growth in thinking about B2B sales, as well as the transformative impact of the internet on the sales function. Nowadays no one would be caught dead trying an “assumptive close” in a modern B2B sales interaction.

But does that mean all sales expertise these days works more or less? I don’t think so. In fact, there’s a glaring assumption at the heart of almost all sales systems, which, if not properly understood, will actually decrease your sales effectiveness just as much as improper closing techniques.

It is the assumption that the point of selling is to get the sale.

What Is the Point of Selling?

That may seem like a stupid question, with an obvious answer. What else could the point of selling be except to get the sale? And I’m not talking about the difference between single transactions and repeat business either. I’m talking about the very purpose, the underlying goal, aim, and objective of the salesperson, sales process, and sales function. What else could the purpose be except to get the sale?

The alternative purpose, may I suggest, is to help the customer. That is not a trivial distinction; it’s a meaningful one. It’s also a powerful distinction, and it’s one easy to achieve. But if you do achieve it, you’ll do better on many dimensions – including sales.

To see why, let’s first explore what it would mean to have a different purpose for sales – a purpose other than to get the sale.

Design Implications of Helping the Customer as a Goal

Suppose your primary purpose was to help a customer.  Just suppose, just for a minute. What exactly would you do differently?

You’d be less concerned about whether you won or lost the sale. You’d spend a little more time on situations where you thought you could help – and a little less time where you thought you couldn’t. You’d take more time with leads to help them determine the best way for them to get help. You would often end up referring them out to other related-service providers where you thought they might get better help.

You’d seek out slightly different leads and targets than if you focused solely on where you thought you could sell. You’d view your competitors differently – as alternative offerings to help your customers get what they need. You’d give up your time and expertise on occasion if you felt it would help your customers advance a key cause. Conversely, you might be quicker to embrace value-billing in cases where you clearly bring value to the table.

You’d talk less about your own capabilities, and more about what would be good for your customer. You’d be naturally curious about what your customer needed and what would make their business better. Your curiosity would extend outside and beyond your company’s service offering to include those of other firms.

If your organization similarly supported a goal of helping the customer, then the metrics you operate under would be changed as well. Instead of an emphasis on quarterly sales results, progress against closing, and forecasted probabilized backlog rates, you’d see consumer-focused metrics that speak to customer performance and result of that performance. Noticeably absent would be much of the fine-toothed combing by lawyers enumerating the thou-shalt-nots of the relationship.

Operationalizing a Customer-Helping Goal

Looking at the above statements, you’re probably having one of three thoughts:

  • “Those aren’t that bad, actually. We could do with a bit more focus like that.”
  • “Yes, but you have to make money.”
  • “Yes, but you can’t let customers just take advantage of you.”

Note that thoughts two and three have an implicit assumption: that if you don’t focus on getting the sale, you probably won’t get the sale. And that’s where the miracle happens.  Because precisely the opposite is true.

People don’t like to be told what to do. People don’t like to feel controlled. People respond positively to a sense that they are being listened to, and to people whom they feel have their best interests at heart. We respond positively to generosity, and we respond negatively to greed. We tend to return favors and avoid those who have burned us.

In short, we reciprocate. The lessons of game theory, marriage therapy, and political organization all point in one direction: favors done, attention paid, and interest shown all beget the same in return. This simple truth is deeply embedded in our simplest human interactions (think handshakes and smiles) and our most complex ones as well (cultural affinities and political alliances).

The main result of reciprocation is – more reciprocation. If you listen to me, I will listen to you. If you treat me well, I will keep coming back. If I buy from you and you respond well, I’m likely to keep buying from you.

Unless, that is, the seller gets selfish. All bets are off to the extent that we perceive the seller as self-oriented, selfish, manipulative, and driven only by his own needs. If we as buyers feel objectified, treated solely as walking wallets by the seller, then we reciprocate. We coldly calculate the value of the seller to us and become willing to walk partly because we also feel insulted by such behavior.

The Paradox at the Heart of Great Selling

The best sales come from interactions where the sale is not the goal, but a byproduct – where the sale is a natural outcome of an attitude of other-focus, genuine concern, and focus on the other. Where the attitude is long-term, not transactional, and built on an assumption of win-win rather than of scarcity.

There’s a paradox here. You do your best selling when you stop trying to sell, when you simply focus on doing right by the customer. That doesn’t mean you turn into a non-profit charity. There is still a role for profitability metrics, CRM systems, and funnel statistics. But they must become subordinate to the broader goal: helping your customer. Dial them back 90%, lengthen their timeframe, and don’t think of them while interacting with customers.

Are there customers who’ll take advantage of you? Sure, though not nearly as many as you think. And those who act that way are the ones you gift to your competitors.

If you help your customers, they’ll help you. That’s a rule that doesn’t need your thumb on the scale to work. Don’t force it. Make customer help your goal.


Giving Prospects the Confidence to Hire You

When it comes to selling – many of us focus on our fears.

“Will they buy?”

“Are my services priced right?”

“What are they looking for?”

“Will they go with me?”

These questions inevitably lead to a dance that involves both buyer and seller, a delicate tip-toeing around the heart of the matter. We try to talk about needs, solutions, benefits, values.

But a buyer is not looking for those things alone. Above all else, a buyer is looking to feel confident that they made the right decision; that their business or needs are in the right hands.

Are you giving your prospects the CONFIDENCE to hire you?


A western journalist visiting the old Soviet Union, so the story goes, asked a worker if he was being paid well. The worker said, “It’s all pretend. We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”

Do you sell consulting? IT services? Accounting? Financial planning? Legal services? Then you too play a game of pretend – with your would-be clients. They pretend to care about your qualifications. You pretend to listen to their questions. You pretend to write a unique proposal. They pretend to read it. You pretend to sell. They pretend to buy.

All the while, behind the game of pretending, an unspoken and important vetting process is taking place.

For example, a company about to spend big on a CRM system, or make an investment in leadership training, or change its sales approach, will ask about the benefits of what’s being sold. The prospect will want to know the answer and they will pretend it matters most.

But what they really want to know is – will we have the confidence to sleep well at night given the choice we make?

And yet, this search for confidence – the thing that matters most – isn’t what’s actually discussed during the sales process.

Instead, prospective clients have been seduced by the trappings of “hard business.” They think “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” and they try to reduce decisions to metrics. That’s how we end up with clients wanting to know all about our qualifications – despite the fact that our qualifications were what already got us in the room in the first place.

And so, we all pretend that buying and selling is about talking. About words and numbers. About qualifications.

But it’s not. The fact is, clients make huge, complex, intangible decisions very much on the basis of gut, emotion, feeling, opinion, Kentucky windage, call it what you will.

As sales guru Jeffrey Gitomer says, people buy with the heart, and justify with the brain. It’s not about rational decisions, but about decisions rationalized.

The truth is this: people vastly prefer to buy what they need from people they feel good about. People they trust. People who they believe have their clients’ interests at heart, not just their own. People who make an effort to honestly listen to their clients. People who actually seem to care.

This goes beyond “people buy from people they like,” or “people buy from people similar to themselves.” It’s way more than schmoozing and finding out common interests.

It gets to the guts of the matter:

  • Do you actually seem to give a damn about me?
  • Do you act like you care about me?
  • Are you working your own agenda, or will you actually listen to mine?

Sales process designs won’t get you there. Metrics and CRM systems won’t get you there. Motivational speeches won’t get you there.

But two things will.

1. Genuine, Honest-to-Goodness Listening

That’s listening for real. Listening not to find out data, but to find out about the client. Listening not to make or confirm a hypothesis, but to understand another human being. Listening not to find out client needs, but to find out what makes a business and a person tick. Listening not so you get answers, but listening so that at the end of it, the other fellow feels heard. Listening not to provide great answers, but listening to earn the right to offer those answers later.

I’ve heard this called yellow-pad listening; no proposal or talking points in front of you, just a blank pad ready to take notes if necessary as issues come up. Whatever you call it, remember another old truism that is still true: People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.

2. Sample Selling

People don’t buy ice cream from verbal descriptions; they buy it from taste. Referrals may get people in the door, but samples sell them. We don’t use samples selling nearly enough when it comes to selling the intangible.

Give people a taste of what you do. Assume you’ve got the job, and start working it in the early stages. Don’t say how good you are at tax planning, grab hold of some business issues and show them how you do it — on their data.

If a voice in the back of your mind (or your boss in the front) says, “don’t give it away,” recognize that they are wrong. There is an inexhaustible supply of problems in this world. Giving away a few solutions doesn’t diminish your value — it earns you the right to solve more of those problems.

If a client shows a pattern of stealing ideas from you, quietly drop them. After all, that’s the kind of client you’d prefer your competitors to have. Place your focus instead on those clients who want relationships of mutual benefit.

* * *

Listening and sample selling. These are actions, not thoughts. Deeds, not qualifications. Results, not process designs. Most of all, they demonstrate your devotion to your client.

After all, would you rather buy from someone who says, “Trust me”? Or, from someone who shows you why you should?

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Bleeding Trust from Every Sales Interaction

If there’s one guaranteed head-nod, bromide, platitude that most marketers and salespeople would agree to, it’s that trust in the seller positively affects buyer behavior. Conversely, companies we don’t trust are adversely affected by a lack of trust. Pure data to support this claim is tricky to come by, but it’s a commonsensical proposition most of us are willing to buy on the face of it. And rightly so.

And yet – the degree to which modern companies bleed trust (hemorrhage might be a better word) is astonishing.

And I’m not just talking about the egregious mistakes – auto emissions software, blown drilling platforms, rigged interest rates. I’m talking about the myriad little, every-day, seemingly trivial ways that add up—ending in a virtual bloodbath of lost trust. In no particular order, let me identify a few.

Customer Tales of Woe

In Goodbye Avis, Hello Uber, danah boyd chronicles death by a thousand cuts at the hand of Avis Car Rental. Her rental car got a flat tire at 10 p.m. in Los Angeles, just seven miles from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). A customer service phone rep said he didn’t know how long it would take to get an exchange. He said he’d text her. An hour later, she had not received a text, so she called again. They said it would take four hours. Outraged, she pushed back. OK, they said, 90 minutes.

They then suggested she leave the car with the keys in it and get a taxi. She left the car but got a ride from friends to her destination. Avis texted that they’d arrive at 4 a.m. They didn’t. She called again, and Avis blamed the towing company. They said it would take 30 minutes. Ninety minutes later a tow truck arrived.

At 4 p.m. the following day she called to make sure Avis had gotten the car. Nope. They said she was still liable. Roadside assistance told her to call customer service, who said to call the LAX counter directly, who passed her call on to the manager, whose call went to voice mail. He didn’t return the call. And, it went on.

The Avis tale may sound exceptional. But I bet you have your own horror stories to relate that are just as bad. And you probably reacted the same way danah did—by changing suppliers, even though she’d been a loyal customer for years.

One Cut at a Time

Not all customer horror stories have 15 fails in a row in a 24-hour period. But it doesn’t matter. Like little cuts, they can add up, and each one adds its own traumatic toll.

  • I recently went to trade in a car. We had a deal until the salesman noted a discrepancy on the CarFax report. I said I’d fix it. It took six weeks to fix, but I did get it fixed. However, the salesman never called to ask how things were coming along, so I bought my new car elsewhere.
  • A friend went to a store at 5:55 p.m. The manager was inside, locking up for the evening. When my friend pointed to the “Hours: 8AM – 6PM” stenciled on the door and pointed to her watch, the manager shrugged his shoulders and turned away.
  • At my daughter’s recent wedding, I asked if we could borrow a golf cart for 20 minutes to ferry the bride and groom across the wet lawn for photos so as not to get her wedding dress wet. “Sorry, we can’t afford the liability,” was the answer we received.
  • A friend who does small group communication training sessions is routinely asked by large companies to purchase liability insurance to indemnify MegaCo Inc. against any possible harm or claim of harm from anyone for any reason arising out of his delivering a half-day communication training session. (Many of you face the same exact extortionate policy of your customers offloading “risk” to you and having you pay for the privilege.)
  • Some years ago I had a great first sales discussion with a client about doing training to increase trust in their sales process. At the end of the call, he said, “This is great, we have a deal. Now, I presume you’ll grant us our customary 15% discount?” This after having discussed how to help his salespeople to stop cutting prices.
  • I’ll never forget the brokerage office head who, on hearing about my upcoming talk on being a trusted advisor, said, “Hey, anything that’ll increase my share of wallet, I’m all for it!”
  • I constantly receive offers to write articles for my blog in return for links. Ninety-five percent of the time, they show no awareness of the subject matter of my blog, much less a sense for what quality levels of content might be expected.
  • Customer service scripts are increasingly being loaded with fake empathy and inappropriate apologies: “Oh, I am sure that must be terribly frustrating for you,” “Oh, I do apologize for the power outage you experienced. …” Don’t pretend-feel. An acknowledgement is critical, but apologizing for things you didn’t do is phony.
  • Yesterday a corporate online feedback site was generating error messages, sending me “not-deliverable” emails. Acting the good business citizen, I called the corporate 800 customer service number to tell them. The customer service rep told me, “The feedback page is not our department.” When at my suggestion she connected me to that department, they insisted on giving me an incident number so I could track my concern going forward. My concern?
  • On a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Charlotte, North Carolina, two months ago, two aircraft were taken off the gate due to equipment problems. The third aircraft finally left three hours late. I emailed the airline. I got back a generic apology and a voucher redeemable against future miles—no acknowledgement of the particular issue, much less suggestions about dealing with it. (That reminds me of my cable company: after showing up three hours late, they’re trained to quickly offer you a $20 rebate—a fair deal if your time is worth less than $7 per hour).

I could go on and on. And so could you. The cut-cut, drip-drip of such low-level, tedious violations of basic customer relationships adds up. It results in listless relationships at best and cynicism, surliness, and passive-aggressive hostility at worst. Finally, we customers jump ship when the opportunity presents itself.

This isn’t “just” about customer service. There is a steel cable linking all customer experiences—sales, service, whatever—with future sales. How everyone treats customers in all ways at all times is a big driver of trust and thus of revenue.

But you already get that point. The more urgent point is this: how can you be sure you’re not imposing such semi-conscious bloodletting on your customers? Here are two ideas.

1. Follow the 10% rule. At every customer interaction point, take 10% more time to close out the interaction in a trust-creating way.

  • If you couldn’t help someone after a five-minute call, then take 30 seconds to suggest an alternate vendor.
  • If you’re going to spend 15 minutes writing an exploratory letter, then spend another two minutes to find some value-add to include in it.
  • If a potential customer walks out the door after an inconclusive interaction, take a note about a content-specific way to follow up in two weeks with an email or phone call.

You think you don’t have 10% more time? Please. Consider how much you put at risk the other 90% of time you didspend by failing to leave a trust-based impression.

2. Personalize responses in some way. Buying is emotionally triggered, and that’s as true for B2B sales as it is for B2C. Don’t let your last impression be the customer seeing dollar signs in your eyeballs.

  • Responding immediately, or in some hugely fast way, is a powerful tool for showing you’re paying attention when someone reaches out to you. Just don’t automate the response. Fast and customized is a powerful combination.
  • If you are responding to an error, then over-respond. Don’t minimize it. Acknowledge, explain what must have happened, and—most important—say what you are going to do on your own to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Sales don’t just happen during selling. They’re a predictable result of your entire mode of relationship with your customers at all times.

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