Trust-based Selling, the Advanced Course

Hand The Ball Over, See What HappensI had lunch the other day with Jack S., a client from 5 years ago. At the time, Jack managed a sales organization in the reinsurance business. (If you think insurance is complicated, try understanding reinsurance!).

Since then, the industry has consolidated; Jack works for one of the top three reinsurance brokerage firms. His job has evolved into a sort of senior advisor  to the 100 or so consultative salespersons. As we talked, I realized he is operating at the very top of the trusted advisory, trust-based selling world. See what you think.

Charlie: How do you get asked in to see customers?

Jack: Each salesperson has about 5 clients, and typically at least one is having problems. Since I’ve got deep expertise and experience, and the reps trust me, they invite me in to meet the client.

Charlie: So, you get invited in as an expert? What happens then?

Jack: Yes, the rep typically tells the client I’m some super-expert. They introduce me with a big pitch, my resume, all my qualifications and so forth.  Then they hand it over to me, and that’s when I surprise them.

Charlie: Yes?

Jack: I just ask the client to tell me what’s going on. I can always feel the rep beside me screaming inside his head, “What!? That’s all you’ve got? I pitched you as an expert, where’s your demonstration?”  But I’ve found this works much better.

They can tell pretty quickly that I’m totally paying attention, and that I’m nodding in all the right places. Just a short question or comment from time to time is all I really need to show that I know what I’m talking about, and I always make sure we turn the conversation right back to them.

Charlie: What a concept – open by letting the customer talk!  Any other best practices or tips about how to do that?

Jack: Yes. I frequently ask the rep before we go in to resist their temptation to fill empty spaces in the conversation – to just follow my lead. You know, when you’re trying to sell something, a lull of even half a second in a conversation can feel like an eternity, and you’re worried about filling that gap, keeping the momentum going.

But if you let the customer fill the silence, they almost always will. And they seem to interpret it as permission to go a little further, to tell a little more about the situation.  Which happens to be great – they’re sharing much more with us, and I haven’t said a word.  The rep is often amazed when we leave, “I can’t believe he said that, he’s never talked about that before.”

Charlie: Brilliant. Now, what about failures?  Aren’t there some times where you don’t have a major new insight, you can’t solve the problem?

Jack: You know, I’ve learned there really aren’t any “failures.” Maybe a quarter of the time it turns out that the client is already doing everything they can, I can suggest a tweak or two, but basically they have to just bear down and wait out the situation.

If that’s the case, I just say simply you’re doing the right thing, you’re not missing anything, there is no silver bullet you haven’t found, or at least I haven’t found it either.  And that actually makes them feel better. Because they’ve been fearful and guilty, and I’ve given them permission to feel OK. They could already handle waiting for things to clear up, but they really appreciate the relief that comes from knowing they’ve done what they can.

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I’ve written quite a bit about trust-based selling. Besides the book itself by that title, here’s a good article from a few years ago called Three Strategies for Creating Customer Trust.  As I scanned it after writing Jack’s story, I realized he touches on all three of those strategies.  Jack is really teaching the advanced course.