There’s an art to selling, and part of it involves the art of conversation. Sales pros need to get their prospects talking so they can learn their problems, their needs and their desires, and so they can pick up on the cues that will get them to a deal farther down the sales process.
Unfortunately, sales pros often think of the wrong definition of selling, the version that’s an active verb instead of profession, which leads them to do the majority of the talking in a sales conversation, bombarding the prospect with pitches and product features and sucking all the air out of the room. That generally leads the prospect to disengage, wait out the presentation, and excuse himself from the sales pro’s presence. That’s usually the end of the deal.
These conversations, whether they take place on the phone or in person, are really interviews. The sales pro is seeking to get answers and, where appropriate, provide information that can help drive a sale. But, primarily, it’s should be an interview with the prospect.
Those of us who have done interviews in journalism recognize that it’s a tricky task. Personal chemistry, the setting, and many other factors can influence how well things go. But there are some interviewing tactics and skills that can make an enormous difference.
No one embodies those skills better than National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, whose been hosting the interview program Fresh Air for more than 40 years. She’s conducted over 5500 interviews in that time with politicians, actors, writers, musicians, spiritual leaders, business influencers and athletes. Some sales people may listen to her in their cars between sales calls; some may have never heard of her at all. All of them should take lessons from her ability to engage with the people she interviews. Here are a few lessons she can teach sales people:
Do your homework
Nothing is more painful in a conversation than asking a question and then discovering that a key premise of the question is wrong. “I see you were a Sales VP at Epicor,” the sales pro asks. “Actually, I was the CMO at Epicom,” the prospect replies. Or, “So, you sell into the medical supply industry…” “Well, really, we sell to the medical trial industry – it’s a totally different space.” If you’ve ever been in that situation, you know how awful it feels – on both ends of the conversation.
If you want to avoid that, do what Terry does: get deep into the background of the people you’ll be talking to before your meeting. If it’s an author, she reads his or her book, and at least reads about past books, seeks out articles about the author online, and tries to know as much as possible before writing her questions. Terry has a staff who finds the materials, but she stills spends the time with them to know what to ask to get the most from the interview. The investment in time pays off.
Know when to leave a pause pregnant
During conversations, our natural tendency is to jump in and fill empty space. But empty space in a conversation may simply indicate that your interview subject is thinking. While radio orthodoxy is that “dead air” is anathema, Terry has learned to use this to her advantage. By not leaping in when subjects pause, she prompts them to think and continue to answer, often resulting in more thoughtful, introspective and revealing answers.
Sales people can use the same technique. The first part of this is realizing that when your prospect is talking, it’s time for you to listen, not time for you to think of the next thing you’re going to say. The second part is to be confident in the conversation. You as the sales pro are not there to make sure there’s a constant flow of verbiage – you’re there to learn and, when possible, educate.
This is a technique you can practice in your daily conversations. When there’s a pause, maintain eye contact – and keep quiet. You’ll be surprised how readily your conversation partner takes the cue and adds more details to his or her last comments.
Terry often asks questions that might be considered out of bounds, but which are still germane to the conversation. For instance, she asked actor Chiwetel Ejiofor about the scar on his forehead – something that many would shy away from. He told her he’d received it in a car crash that killed his father, a traumatic event which led directly to his choice to become an actor.
Sales pros are always looking for powerful insights into their prospects needs and drivers. They want to know what’s keeping prospects awake at night. They want to understand what prospects see as threats to their jobs and to the survival of their businesses. You don’t get those by asking polite questions.
Make the other person the star of the discussion
Most interview shows are billed with the interviewer’s name – Barbara Walters, Charlie Rose, even Bill Moyers. Not so for “Fresh Air.” "The show isn't about me, and it shouldn't be about me," said Terry. "When I interview somebody, it's about them. My job is to draw them out."
This is something sales pros need to keep in mind. From the prospect’s point of view, a sales conversation is not about the sales pro, or the sales pro’s company. It’s about the prospect, his role, his business and his business’s needs. You may be a glib sale whiz gifted at turning a phrase and spinning a yarn – but stow it until you’re certain you’ve given the prospect a chance to be the star of your conversations.
You know your objective
“You need to come in armed with the points you want to get across. But you don’t want to sound like they’re talking points; you want them to sound spontaneous.” That sounds like something a sales coach might say. It’s a direct quote from an interview with Terry, and it illustrates the fact that interviews have a direction that’s initially guided by the interviewer, regardless of whether the subject is a prospect or not.
The prospect has an objective in talking to you; while it’s important that you help the prospect achieve that objective, don’t lose sight of your own objective in the process. That can be as simple as identifying a few take-aways you want to communicate and ensuring the prospect leaves the meeting knowing more about your offering – and, better yet, more of what prospect wanted to know about your offering.
An abiding curiosity in the people you talk to is critical if you’re going to make that meeting productive. That’s not always easy. “Sometimes I wake up and I’m not feeling that curious,” Terry said in an interview, “and I have to come in and get into being really interested in someone else — and maybe I’m not even interested in myself that day. You know those days when everything is just kind of gray. The nice thing is that one of those gray days can easily change into one of the good days because if the guest is really good, I get really excited about it immediately.”
Sales pros need a similar capacity for curiosity about the people they sell to in order to establish a connection and discover information that can help turn them into happy customers. You may come into work dreading the possibility of talking to yet another prospect about the same old issues. Look for the unique aspects of that prospect and key on them – an unusual line of business, a great back story, remarkable personalities, and so on. These details can turn your dread around and get you engaged – and in turn help you get your prospect more engaged.