Frame the Conversation

Learn how to speak the language of sales more effectively.

In sales, exactly what you say and how you say it can make all the difference to your outcome.

Choose your own words carefully, with an eye toward decoding a customer’s words to uncover underlying issues and present solutions in a way that will resonate with them – a linguistic win-win.

“Smart salespeople are very deliberate and conscious about the words they use and the language patterns that they use, because they know that language is power,”says Gene McNaughton, national sales trainer and president of Elite Concepts Consulting. “There’s conscious communication, where you say things with intent, by design. And there’s unconscious, which you just say. It’s a big difference.”

Steer Clear of “I”

For starters, skip the “I”language. “The most important part of language is the language of ‘you,’”says Kirby Hasseman, owner of Hasseman Marketing & Communication (asi/221824). “I am interested in trying to help. I am focused on what is in your best interest – not mine.”

Be authentic. That’s the lesson Kimble Bosworth learned after dozens of professional sales training courses over the years with various employers. Bosworth found many techniques contrived and fake until one day a trainer took a “completely honest approach to solving customer problems that resonated with me.”

Since then, she’s crafted a selling technique that is direct and honest. With her customers, it’s both effective and refreshing. At first, she lets customers lead with icebreakers and does more listening than talking. When she’s speaking, she asks open-ended questions

“The most important thing is to be truly genuine, or don’t have the conversation or say the thing at all,”says Bosworth, president and COO of Proforma Printelligence (asi/491390) in Nashville, TN. “Truly genuine does not sound scripted because it’s not. Truly genuine is your own language.”It’s speaking as you actually do, not using canned phrases.

Bosworth recognizes that customers have different styles. Some feel their time is precious and they want to get right to the point. So, for them, a statement of agenda works best.

“To make sure we have the same goals for the meeting, I always check with them with a question like, ‘Does that sound good to you?’ or ‘Is that a good use of our time today?’”she says.

These days, conversations begin online through social media, websites and promotional videos. Usually, Bosworth points out, customers know a lot about your background and brand before you speak. In her case, they find a “candid, creative and a bit quirky”company.

“In person, in a sales situation, our job is to learn about the customer’s needs and reactively answer additional questions about us that we didn’t already answer in their research,”says Bosworth, who adds the answer is usually in the form of a story about a past successful project.

“Rapport is the preeminent factor in creating likability and trust,”says McNaughton. Begin initial conversations with rapport-building chit chat. What do you know about the person you’re meeting with? What’s important to them? How did their kid’s soccer game go?

“Tell Me More”

Next, take a few minutes to ask questions so you can understand the lay of the land and the issues this business wants to solve. Be patient – learn if past vendors didn’t deliver on time or supplied a faulty product.

“Three of the greatest words ever to be uttered in a sales conversation are ‘tell me more,’”says McNaughton. “The more you can speak and understand their pains and problems, the more you’re able to customize when you get to presenting your products, your services and your solution.”Only then do you migrate to talking about your products and services.

If Danette Gossett is in her customer’s office, she looks for something they may have in common (perhaps there’s a golf photo). If she’s at a networking event, she’ll ask what brought them to the event and what they hope to accomplish.

“If I know a number of people at the event, I offer to introduce them to others,”says Gossett, who founded Gossett Marketing (asi/ 212200). “That way I’m not just trying to ‘sell’ them my services, but making myself a memorable, valuable asset to them.”

Hasseman says that in that first conversation, he tries to show his company’s true spirit. That means, telling their story with a smile. “Our reputation is a fun one,”he says. “We find that people who enjoy having fun in business are great partners for us. Those that think that it’s all silly are not. So we show our personality right up front.”

Talk “Value” Not “Price”

“It’s hard to stand out if you’re having the price, quality, service conversation,”says McNaughton. Interviews with decision-makers and senior executives show they are constantly thinking about money, risk and time. So rather than the cheapest product, buyers want to make a smart money decision.

“All of us will spend more money if it makes sense,”he says.

He cautions against falling into a bidding or procurement process because you risk looking identical to your competitors except when it comes to price. Instead, be prepared to tell your story. “Have a premium story around your company, your background, client testimonials, the case studies of companies that have worked with you and have gotten the result they’re looking for,”says McNaughton. “If you’re able to tell that story in a way that justifies spending more money, you’re going to have more success.”

Gossett advises clients that her pricing is competitive, “but that we may not always be the least expensive because we bring creative solutions and work with them as their marketing partner to make sure that all the elements work to further their brand.”

Bosworth’s direct approach was beneficial when she was working with a new customer who she knew had an established relationship with another promotional products company. So she talked about it honestly. “I told the buyer, ‘I know you’ve had a relationship with XYZ Company for years,’”she says. “The proposal you’re asking for will take a lot of work up front and could take a considerable part of my team’s time. My biggest fear is that we will dedicate some serious time and resources and you’re really just price shopping us to get your price lowered with them. Can you help me with that?”

The customer explained they still had that relationship, had considered price shopping and were inclined to stay with the previous vendor. However, as Bosworth continued the honest conversation, she found out about other factors that would make the customer comfortable changing vendors.

“It felt like we were negotiating up front, so as to not waste my time, but still get them the pricing and give them the comfort with changing vendors that they needed,”she says. “And it worked.”

She points out that what is important about price varies by the customer. “Is it the best price, best value or best fit with the budget that your customer is looking for? Those types of questions can break the ice and get the price conversation started.”

Passionate, Powerful, Persuasive

McNaughton says the word “imagine”is powerful because it encourages customers to see a successful outcome. For example, “Imagine that you have a quality product, they’re perfectly designed, they show up on time, they’re within the price range you need, and you see everybody who’s using these promotional items is happy.”Use “imagine”to help customers visualize what the end result will mean to their career, their boss’s perception of them and their company’s brand.

Other influential words seem like common sense but McNaughton says, “You would be surprised at how often this simple little element is missed.”Use “please”and “thank you”in person, email and voicemail communication. Even better, use “thank you”in a handwritten note. Also, speak the customer’s name exactly as they give it to you – don’t assume Robert goes by Bob.

While Bosworth is careful with her words, she says they may not matter as much as the passion with which they are delivered. “If someone can feel your passion for solving their problems, they are likely to want you to solve them,”she says.

Another promo products pro moves forward with sincere and friendly words. She’s amazed by the number of salespeople who do not ask closing questions, asked in a way which honors the prospects and are delivered with “the manners that Grandma taught you.”

“It is critical to ask prospects for the sale,”says Sandy Higgins, owner of The Crackerjack Shack (asi/169563) in Ashe Grove, MO. “I like to use phrases like, ‘Everything is really coming together! Are we ready, then, to start your project today?’ or ‘I can’t wait to see your customers using those cool tumblers you picked out! Do you want to get that project going right now?’”

Allay Concerns With Positive Terms

Even when clients or prospects raise concerns, there’s a chance to use positive words to your advantage. “Objections are really my favorite,”says Joel Rico, sales coach for Keller Williams Realty. “If they didn’t want to work with me, they wouldn’t be giving me an objection. They’d say, ‘Thanks for coming. See you later.’ So for me, objections are a good sign. It means we’re one or two steps away from signing the contract.”

To Rico, objections are closing signals and his role is to clear up the questions. While the old paradigm is to say, “I can’t do that because I’ll lose money,”the new phrasing is, “Let’s take a look at what’s possible.”

Higgins teaches her staff that customers assume they can go anywhere to order a product and have a perfect buying experience. What they do not expect is over-the-top customer service when handling difficulties. So when she encounters this situation, she dives right in to create a positive vibe.

“I’ll ask them to tell me all about their reservations –and I never interrupt a customer when they are expressing concerns, frustrations or complaints,”says Higgins. “Often, customers just want to be heard and have their opinions valued.”

Once they’ve had an opportunity to get things off their chests, ask a simple follow-up question like, “We want you to be very happy with your experience with us. What can we do for you to make that happen?”In her experience, customers usually want very little in comparison to what she’s willing to give them to keep their business. By asking them what a “good experience”looks like to them, you can “zero right in on the bull’s-eye without guessing what will make them buy.”

Hasseman says it’s important to let clients know you’re not brushing off their concerns. He uses phrases such as, “I hear what you are saying, and I think it has a lot of value.”Next he moves to discussing their issues with the presentation.

Gossett advises language like, “I understand that something has gone wrong. I am so sorry and will do everything in our power to make it right.”

Rico points out that in customer-centric sales conversations, you can’t solve all problems. If you discover in the first few minutes of conversation that you can’t meet their needs, then offer a referral to someone who can.

“Once they see that I’m coming from the place of generating win-wins or generating solutions vs. attempting to sell them at any cost because I want to make the sale, then, all of a sudden, they love me and trust me and take my referrals and that changes everything,”says Rico. “Most salespeople don’t do that. They’re selling for themselves and I’m from the school of thought of selling from a place of contribution to the client.”

Susan Thomas Springer is an OR-based contributor to Advantages.