PaperChain: Framing Your Sales Message
The writer and diarist, Anais Nin, was a keen observer of human behavior. Her understanding of how we interact with one another led her to write, "We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are." In recent years, psychological research has determined the accuracy of her observation.

Psychologists and communication experts have dubbed this phenomenon, "framing." As we go through life, we use our individual life experiences to build a "frame" which shapes how we see and understand the world. No two lives are exactly the same, even identical twins raised in the same home by the same parents, experience life in slightly different ways. Because no two lives are the same, we all have a unique way of looking at the world.

Breaking Through the Frame

The fact that we filter everything we encounter through a personal frame makes communicating with each other a challenge. We need to find common ground, to identify points where our "frames" overlap to get our point across. This makes how we say something at least as important as the content of our message. Noted communications consultant and pollster, Dr. Frank Luntz describes this challenge as,

"You can have the best message in the world but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices and preexisting beliefs...the key to successful communications is to take the imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into your listener's shoes to know what they are thinking and feeling in the deepest recesses of their heart and mind."

It is easy to find a practical demonstration of framing in today's polarized political environment. Sit with a group of people with a new report or political speech on the television. The same sounds will reach everyone's ears, but what each individual "hears" will be impacted by their political leanings. The way a person interprets what is being said will be colored by their preexisting beliefs. A Republican listener will be predisposed to doubt a liberal speaker and vice versa.

Framed as a Salesperson

Consider the impact of framing when calling on a prospect or making a presentation. From the moment you identify yourself as a salesperson, everything you say will be suspect. Prospects know that a salesperson's job is to paint their products in the best possible light. They also know that many salespeople are not above bending the truth to accomplish this goal. Until the prospect is convinced otherwise, you will be framed as the stereotypical, fast talking anything-for-a-buck salesperson.

Most people consider stereotyping, putting people in a box instead of judging them on their personal merits, as a bad thing, but we all do this.

In psychological terms a stereotype is a "heuristic." A heuristic is a mental short cut which allows us to act without taking the time to think. This explains how we can jump out of the way of an oncoming bus before we realize what is happening. If we took the time to think, "There is a large bus coming this way, I am standing in the street and will be hit if I don't do something I will be killed, perhaps I should jum..." we would have tire tracks down the middle of our flattened body.

Psychological frames are built out of very tough material. They are virtually impossible to destroy or to alter. The odds of convincing a prospect to abandon their beliefs about the veracity of salespeople make winning the Powerball look like a sure thing. It is far more effective to convince the client to switch frames to one that is more favorable.

If their "salesperson frame" says that these untrustworthy characters talk about themselves and their products all the time, talking about them and taking an interest in their needs may make them wonder if they've pulled the wrong frame out of their bag. Perhaps this person would fit in a "consultant frame" or even better a "friend frame," perhaps I should listen to them and see which one works best.

Straightening Your Own Frame

To put framing to use, it is wise to begin by examining your own frames.
A frame is a shorthand version of how we see the world and our place in it. It is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of our environment. It defines our mission in life and how we think about other people. As sales people our story should be about how we can help our customers achieve their goals. As advertising professionals, our mission is to bring together people who have something to sell with the people who need their products to the benefit of both parties.

We will never be able to convince prospects that we are genuinely interested in helping them if we do not truly believe this in our own minds. If we frame our clients as "idiots" or "cheapskates," these opinions will taint every interaction we have with them. We need to see our clients as who they are, hardworking people trying to run a business in a challenging business climate who both need and deserve our help.

Our species has lived in social groups for millions of years and we have evolved a highly developed "B.S. detector." The only way to be perceived as genuinely interested in the welfare of our customers is to be genuinely interested in the welfare of our customers.

We need to think about how we present our products to our prospects. Any discussion of our products should be directly linked to how they will advance the customer's agenda. For example, when discussing readership, instead of simply saying, "we have X number of readers," it is better to say that, "we have X number of readers which means that you will reach thousands of potential customers all within a few miles of your location."

It is important to realize that working in the industry gives us a better understanding of how advertising works than the prospect is likely to have. We need to spell out exactly how our products work in the context of their business. It is unreasonable to expect them to understand advertising as well as we do; it is our job to help them to do so.

Peeking Inside the Customer's Frame

As discussed above, frames are an ingrained part of the prospect's psyche and virtually impossible to change. Pressuring someone to abandon their frame and accept our worldview is not effective, but will cause the other person to dig their heels in and hold on to their position ever more firmly.

Since we cannot change a prospect's frame, we need to show the prospect how what we are proposing fits into it. To do this we must first try not only to understand their situation, but also how they see themselves and their business in it. This goes beyond traditional " just the facts ma'am" information gathering on a sales call. You not only want to know about their products and customers, but also how they think about them.

Understanding the customer's personal motivations and how they see themselves is critical to knowing how to sell them.

The first step is to research the customer and learn as much about them as possible. Go to their website, look at its design and what is featured on it. Do the same for the customer's Facebook page and any blogs they may have. Try to "read between the lines." What does the information they choose to put online tell you about what is important to them?

Their mission statement or goals provides another piece of the puzzle, as does the types of photos they post. Look beyond the factual information for insights into the business owner's personality. Do the same when talking to their employees and customers. Think about what the physical layout and design of their business says about them. Everything we do is an expression of our personality. Customers leave their "fingerprints" on every aspect of their business. Use these clues in planning your sales approach.

For example, if a prospect's website and storefront are simple, neat and well organized, chances are that they will be impatient with a salesperson who is disorganized and rambles. On the other hand, a customer who post lots of pictures of their employees, their customers and even their pets and who shares a lot of personal information online will probably want to engage in small talk to build a relationship and most likely will reject a more direct approach.

So, Tell Me a Little About Yourself

During an interview with a prospect, a sales person should ask "what" questions to learn about their business and "why" questions to learn about them. The goal of these questions is, to use Dr. Luntz's words, to "stuff yourself right into your listener's shoes to know what they are thinking." It is far more important to understand why they decided to go into business than to know that they opened in 1999.

The "why" question provides insight into their decision-making process and their life goals. This information is invaluable when it is time to close the sale. You can frame your recommendation in alignment with their goals. For example, if they told you that they "always wanted to own a friendly neighborhood café and coffee shop where people could relax and de-stress," you can talk to them about an "Oasis in a crazy world program to share their vision with their neighbors." This will dovetail with the prospect's frame, their personal vision of what their coffee shop looks like, and make them more inclined to buy the program. If they opened the shop to, "escape the greed and stress of the corporate rat race," an appeal to "driving traffic and profits," may counterintuitively strike them as undesirable, even though they need to be profitable to survive.

Frames are deeply personal. Using the one-size-fits-all approach to presenting your products is the sales equivalent to rolling dice-sometimes they will land just right, but most of the time you will lose. Using probing to gain insight into the prospect's thinking and decision making process will greatly improve your closing ratio.

The Framework of Selling

The real work of selling takes place not on the phone or in the prospect's office but between their ears. Selling for a living is a challenge because we need to accomplish the difficult task of inserting our ideas into another person's frame.

You're Selling to Captain Kirk, Not Mr. Spock

Many times in my career, I would talk to a salesperson after a big presentation and I would hear, "I laid it all out. I showed them the research; I gave them the numbers to prove how much money they could save. All the facts were on my side, but they still wouldn't buy the program!" What these frustrated sales people missed was that buyers, like all humans, are primarily motivated by emotions rather than logic.

For centuries, economic theory was based on the behavior of "rational actors." Rational actors make decisions based on verifiable facts and always opt for the course of action which offers them the most lucrative return on their investment. Like Star Trek's Mr. Spock, the rational actor makes decisions based purely on logic.

In the last few decades, brain science has found that we are much more like the mercurial James T. Kirk, whose decisions were driven by emotions and intuition. Our frames are built on emotion. A good example of this can be seen in how many people are afraid to fly versus afraid to drive. If we looked at the facts, we should want to charter a plane to go to the corner drugstore-there is a 1 in 11 million chance of being in an airline crash while there is a 1 in 5,000 chance of being in a car crash. While this fear is irrational, it is very real. After watching airline crashes on TV where they are portrayed as major disasters with flames and multiple casualties, we build a psychological frame that says air travel is dangerous. Because we have experienced many uneventful trips by car, we frame auto travel as safe and mundane. Feel free to share these facts with a fearful flyer-I can virtually guarantee you that you will not change their attitude toward the friendly skies.

If you are trying to sell airline tickets, it is unlikely that you can change people's fear of flying. The best you can do is to tell them your airline, "has the best safety record in the industry," working within their frame and positioning your carrier as giving their passengers the best chance of survival.

Push the Envelope; Don't Tear it Apart

Legendary designer Raymond Loewy was the author of the M.A.Y.A. principle. M.A.Y.A is an acronym for "Most Advanced Yet Acceptable." Loewy understood that no matter how much better a product performed than the one it was intended to replace, the public would not accept it if it were completely different than what they were used to. This is why I am typing this on a laptop with a keyboard designed to keep the keys on a mechanical typewriter from jamming.

Since we "frame" our decisions on what has happened in the past, a product that is completely new makes us uncomfortable and fearful. To sell something we need to take "the same thing-only different" approach.
In 2008 I was asked to take over the leadership of our automotive sales team. This was the height of the recession when the government had to bail out the major car companies. I met with my team to brainstorm a new sales approach.

The team told me that their dealers would not advertise in our Pennysaver. They told me while the dealers liked our zoned coverage, that they really hated our "small" flexie magazine format. We worked with the art department to design a four-page broadsheet insert for a local Chevy/Honda dealership. We produced a spec of the "John Smith Chevrolet Gazette" to present to the dealer. This piece looked very much like the daily newspaper ads the customer had run for years. Using the "same thing only different" approach, we explained that his customers would quickly recognize the ad, and he could still run separate pages for GM and Honda cars "just like always."

We knew that the client, like most auto dealers, had a powerful ego and liked to be in control of things. We used this understanding of his personal frame to close the deal by putting his name and photo on the "masthead" and letting him use our zones to choose his coverage. Once we closed this sale we showed this piece to the other dealers in our area and many of them adopted the program. By presenting the "same thing only different," we turned the worst year in US automotive history into the best year ever ($1 million+) for my auto team.

You'd Be Paranoid Too, If Everyone Was Out to Get You

Two Israeli psychologists, Tversky and Kahneman, were in the forefront of researching how the human brain operates. The cornerstone of their work is "Prospect theory." Prospect theory is concerned with how people view their "prospects" for the future. Their research found that the fear of loss far outweighs the hope of gain in the human psyche. This has a big impact on how we frame issues.

One of the main purposes of psychological frames is to protect us from making bad decisions. Frames are inherently "paranoid," they perceive staying the course and not trying new products as safer than changing course and sailing into unfamiliar waters. This is why many prospect's default setting is, "keep it the same" even when you are presenting them with a clearly better option. The danger of this can be seen in typical attitudes toward advertising.

Research conducted by the Dun and Bradstreet Corporation and the Small Business Administration has found that the #1 cause of business failures is a lack of customers. In spite of this factual evidence, most business owners fear increasing their advertising budget more than the fear of not promoting their enterprise.

The key to overcoming the bias toward changing their advertising approach is to minimize the risk of advertising and to maximize the risk of not doing so. For example, if a prospect is happy with their current advertising program, getting them to drop it to go into your product will be difficult-they are unlikely to drop a "sure thing" to go with your product. It may be more productive to frame what you want them to do as an "extension" of their current program than as a change.

"I'm glad to hear you're getting great results from the daily paper. If the daily could expand their circulation to reach another 3,000 people, how much do you think that would improve your bottom line?"

"If they could do that, we'd probably pick up an extra two hundred a week or so."

"Well Mr. Customer if you're really interested in reaching those people, we could run your same ad in our paper and reach those people for far less than $200 a week."

Note that the phrase "same ad" engages the M.A.Y.A. concept. You can engage the prospect's natural fear of loss by framing the decision to not advertise as a risk. This is best accomplished with a question.

"Can you put a figure on the business you lose when potential customers are lured away by your competitor's advertising?" Or, "You say the big box stores are taking your customers do you plan to counter their advertising in this market?"

Choose Your Words Carefully

Military commanders know that the general who chooses the battlefield usually wins the battle. (The Union Army didn't find themselves on the biggest hill near Gettysburg because they liked the view!)

In sales, the battlefield is the words we use and the subjects we discuss. We want to migrate the discussion to areas where our products have a strong competitive advantage. Prospects are inclined to discuss price. It is to our advantage to change the subject to the value offered by our papers.

For instance, if a client says, "I can get an ad in the XYZ for a lot less money than what you're quoting me!" Don't respond by trying to tear down the competitor; let the client do that. Ask them, "That's true, why do you think that is?" This changes the discussion to a comparison of the merits of both products. A good follow up question is, "Do you have competitors that undercut your prices? Do they offer the same quality and service that you do?" This causes the customer to do an apples-to-apples comparison and to see your point from inside his or her own frame.

In the last decade our industry has lost a lot of business to online advertising media. Online sales reps talk about page views and the low cost of each impression. If we try to fight online ads on their terms, we almost always lose. Rather than trying to fight them on the "exposure" battlefield where they have the upper hand, we should talk about "customer engagement" and "results."

There is a great deal of research that shows that people have "banner blindness" and take little notice of online ads, while they are far more engaged with print advertising. Customers may not be moved by these statistics, so talk to them about their own online experiences. Ask them, "What was the last online ad you were exposed to and what was it promoting?" Most people are online daily, but have trouble naming any ads.

Follow this up with advertiser testimonials or success stories from your products. Since it's hard to compete with free, we will always lose out to Facebook if we try to compete on price. Again, a good question is the best tool to stimulate the customer's thinking. Asking them, "I'm a big Facebook user myself and it can be an important part of your marketing mix. I'm sure you want to expand your customer base. What are your doing to accomplish that and increase your followers on Facebook?"

This accomplishes several things. First it validates the customer's own beliefs. By saying they made a good decision, you are working within their frame. This statement also positions social media as "part" of their mix rather than a complete program.

Finally, it gets the customer thinking about the key weakness of social media with its limited appeal to people not already familiar to some extent with the prospect's business.

Make Every Word Count

Selling print advertising today is harder than it has ever been. It is a challenge just getting in front of a prospect for even a few minutes. When we do get an appointment, we have to convince them that we deliver more value than many other companies fighting for their advertising dollars. We need to use every tool and trick at our disposal to achieve our goals and serve our communities.

Working to understand framing and "getting inside the customer's head" is a powerful way to close more sales and grow our papers.

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