PaperChain Link & Learn: Handling Objections

Part One: "An Ounce of Prevention"

One of the biggest challenges in writing a monthly column like this for more than a decade is coming up with fresh subjects to cover. Therefore, when I am doing a conference or doing consulting work, I always ask salespeople what they want me to cover. Invariably, the first thing I hear is, "Objections, we need help handling objections!"

Objections are a fact of life for anyone who makes their living selling anything. If the truth be told, objections are the reason that the world needs sales people. If there were no objections, companies could just send out order forms, sort of a symbiotic relationship with objections, much like lions and gazelles. Individual gazelles hate lions but they need them. If there were no lions the gazelles would soon eat all the grass and disappear. Likewise, the lions wish the gazelles would just stand there and not run away when it was time for the lion's lunch. The swiftness of the gazelles keep the lions fit and sharp. They must work for every meal they get.

Handling objections keeps salespeople sharp. Objections provide an opportunity to learn about their prospect's concerns and how to demonstrate the value offered by their products. In this month's Link and Learn we look at objections - overcoming them and preventing them.

The dictionary defines "objection" as "1) A reason or argument, offered in disagreement, opposition, refusal, or disapproval. 2) A feeling of disapproval, dislike or disagreement." Anyone who has spent more than twenty minutes as a sales person may have a few more words to add to this definition. Unpacking this definition offers some insights into handling objections.

At its core, an objection is disagreement between two people. The sales person feels that advertising in their paper will produce more than enough revenue to justify the purchase, and the prospect is not so sure. Theoretically, countering an objection is a simple matter of providing evidence of your product's value to convince the prospect to change their mind.

This is where we run into the second part of the definition, a "feeling" of disapproval. We like to think of ourselves as a logical, thoughtful species, but we are much more like Captain Kirk than Mr. Spock. Psychologists have found that our emotions play a much larger role in the human decision making process than most of us are willing to admit. Our emotions hold veto power over our decisions. This is why customers will still say no when all the facts support a decision to purchase the proposed program.

On the flip side, people almost never go against their "gut." Even when faced with an over- whelming preponderance of data to the contrary, we seldom will make a decision that doesn't "feel" right to us. We must win both the "hearts" and the "minds" of our prospects if we want them to buy from us.

A study conducted by Huthwaite Inc. found a direct relationship between the number of objections offered by a prospect and the success of a salesperson calling on them. This is not surprising, but the Huthwaite study also found that the skill of the salesperson in countering the objections had no impact on the outcome of the call. They found that rather than countering customer objections, the most successful salespeople were able to prevent objections during the sales call.

The Huthwaite study, which was conducted by observing thousands of sales calls, found that the most effective sales people employed a strategic approach to selling. They used a proactive approach which nipped objections in the bud by addressing the customer's concerns before they came up during the call.

Money may not be the root of all evil, but it is the root of all objections. If we were in the business of giving advertising away, every edition of our papers would all be about a foot thick.

Going into a call, a salesperson's goal is to get the prospect to spend their money on an ad, and the prospect's goal is to hold on to their hard- won cash. This does not mean that prospects are unwilling to spend their money; it means that they need to believe that it will be well spent. To "believe" means that they not only "know" (in their head) that buying advertising is a good idea, but they also "feel" (in their gut) that they are making the right decision.

As salespeople, we are under a lot of pressure to "get it done," to close the sale, to achieve our sales goals. On a call, we are impatient to know if we are going to make the sale. I've observed thousands of sales calls as a manager and sales trainer. The most common mistake I've seen salespeople make is trying to close before the customer was ready to buy. This is a critical error.

Once you have thrown out a price and the customer has said, "NO!", it is extremely difficult to get them to change their mind. Clever prospects know this and will set a trap for inexperienced sales people by feigning interest and saying, "How much is an ad?" Rookies interpret this as a buying signal and quickly quote a price. Even if the sales person says, "a full page is only three cents," the prospect will say, "that's too much!", leaving the sales person with nowhere to go except out the door.

In sales, as in life, timing is everything. In the scenario described above the experienced salesperson will not allow themselves to be boxed into a corner by prematurely quoting a price. They will respond to this trick by saying, "I'm glad to see you're interested in my paper, but I can't possibly give you a quote until I know a little more about your business and your needs. Let me ask you a few questions and I'll be able to propose a program that is right for you."

Experienced salespeople know that selling is a sequential process. The first step is to introduce yourself to the customer; the second step is to probe the customer to discover their business needs; the third step is to propose a solution to the customer's problems; finally, the sales rep can close the sale. A good sales person does not allow themselves to be distracted from following this structured process.

The advantage of following the sales process is that it removes the "flashpoints" where a customer may bring up an objection. Objections occur when the salesperson tries to impose their will on the prospect. They may choose not to talk to us, so objections can crop up during the call opening. (This will be addressed in Part 2.) When done properly, there is little risk of getting an objection in the discovery and solution steps. Rather than giving the prospect a "pitch," these two steps engage the prospect in conversation.

The goal of the discovery phase of the call is to learn about the customer' s individual situation and needs, so they should be doing most of the talking. The salesperson should listen carefully and direct the flow of the conversation with good questions. In addition to gathering the informa- tion needed to formulate an advertising program, this process builds rapport with the prospect.

Letting the customer talk and listening to them demonstrates your respect for them and your interest in their problems. Everyone likes to talk about themselves and their interests. Letting the customer do most of the talking gives them a positive feeling which will be transferred to the sales rep. Reps who dominate the conversation will be perceived in a negative light.

The "solutions" stage should begin with a recap of the needs uncovered during discovery, "Mr./ Ms. Prospect, thank you for giving me so much information about your business. Just to make sure I understand your situation, please let me review what you told me. You said..." The phrase, "Y ou said," gives the customer ownership of the problem and will increase their desire to find a solution. This stage could also be described as "selling in principle." Before offering a specific product and quoting a price, the sales rep should secure the prospect's agreement on need for a solution.

For example, rather than saying, "I recommend a quarter page ad with a BOGO coupon for X dollars," the rep should say, "Mr./Ms. Prospect, you said that you are very slow at the beginning of the week. Do you think if you offered a discount good Monday through Wednesday that you'd attract more customers?" If the customer nods in agreement, they have been sold on the idea of advertising and all that remains is hashing out the details of the program.

By following the process, you can use the customer's words to close the sale. "Mr./Ms. Prospect, you said that you've been slow early in the week and that you believe a BOGO offer would help you turn this around. Here's what I would do if I were you, I'd run a quarter page featuring a coupon for buy one dinner, get one, good only Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Our paper reaches thousands of diners right here in Ourtown, so I think this would really bring in a lot of new customers. Don't you agree?"

Note the number of times this sales rep refer- enced the customer's remarks. The customer will be much less likely to object to something they have said than something they've heard from a sales person. This statement does not include the price of the recommended program, which requires the prospect to ask, "How much would that cost me?"

At this point in the call, asking for the price is a genuine buying signal and offers the rep a chance to position the value of their product.

"Mr./Ms. Prospect, you can reach over X thousand homes with your BOGO offer in a big quarter page for only X dollars. That's just pennies per home. Do you want to start your ad next week?" You may still get an objection at this point, but they are generally easier to address. If the customer has been sold in principle on advertising, objections are more likely to be negotiating points rather than "deal breakers."

We've all heard the old proverb, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." This is especially true when it comes to handling objections. Having the discipline to stick to a structured sales process in the face of internal and external pressures is the mark of a true professional. By following the time-proven sales sequential process and resisting the powerful urge to jump ahead to the close, we can greatly reduce the number of objections we receive and increase the number of sales we close.

Part Two: "Winning Hearts, Minds and Dollars"

In Part One, we discussed how using good sales techniques to position the value of your products can address a prospect's concerns before they come up as objections. Although adhering to a sales process that engages the customer and encourages them to reveal business needs that your products can solve will greatly reduce the number of objections, unfortunately, it doesn't always work. Sales people need to be prepared to respond to a customer's objections.

Note that you should "respond" to a customer's objections rather than try to "counter" them. Your goal is not to "win" an argument, but rather you should seek to "win over" the customer. Taking an adversarial approach will only alienate the prospect, force them to defend their position, and strengthen their resolve not to purchase advertising. The sales person must never forget that the prospect always retains the right to say "yes" or "no." If we are to make a sale, we need to help the prospect see the issue in a different light so that they will change their mind on their own.

Objections arise when the sales person asks the prospect for one of two things, both of which they value greatly: their time or their money. Objections often occur at the very beginning of a call, sometimes before the sales person has even identified themselves. We walk in the door and are greeted with a stern look and a "not interested."

In saying this, the prospect is not referring to advertising in your paper. They are telling you that they are "not interested" in talking to another blankety-blank sales person. Our pros- pects are constantly besieged by hundreds of sales reps offering them a wide variety of pro- ducts and services. If a prospect took time out to listen to every sales person that called on them, they would have little time left to run their business.

Furthermore, most of the sales people that they do agree to meet have little to offer them. The majority of sales reps launch directly into a sales pitch, touting the virtues of their products and telling the prospect why they should buy them. They do not show them the respect to inquire about their business needs and their concerns before offering to "rock their world."

If someone appeared in your home uninvited and began ranting about how great they are and asking you for some of your hard-earned cash, you would most certainly show them the door, so it is understandable why most prospects are "not interested" in talking to salespeople.

The key to handling an immediate "not interested" objection is to differentiate yourself from the typical salesperson. The instinctive response to this objection is to try to push through it, "Mr. Customer, I'm sure if you allow me to show what we have to offer, you'll see..." This old school "foot in the door" approach only hardens the prospect's resolve to see your backside going out their front door.

A less confrontational approach is much more effective in dealing with these call-opening objections. Since you have not proposed anything as yet, this is not a true objection. Even the prospect has no idea what they are objecting to, they simply do not want to suffer through another sales pitch and you should give them exactly what they want. Let the customer win this one by saying, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, but I know that advertising in my paper isn't for everyone. I appreciate your honesty and that you're not wasting my time."

This shows respect for the customer, and that you are accepting rather than challenging their statement. You are also praising them for being upfront with you. This practice also demonstrates that you are not interested in wasting anyone's time. Since most sales people will try to push through this objection, your passive response will surprise the prospect and put them a bit off balance.

The next step is to "notice" something in their place of business and open a discussion. For example, when calling on a restaurant you might say something like, "Something smells delicious. Do you offer carry out at dinnertime?" By doing this you begin to engage the customer in a conversation that allows you to slip seam- lessly into probing them for their business needs.

It helps to do your research before the call so that you can open with something like, "I saw something on your website (customers love it when you mention their website) that I was curious about. Could you tell me..." You'll find that you will get very few objections during the discovery portion of the sales call. Most business people like to talk about their business and themselves. You will begin to meet resistance when you propose a program and try to close a sale.

As a young salesperson (a long time ago), I was taught the "Feel-Felt-Found" method of handling objections. "Ms. Prospect, I understand why you FEEL our prices are too high. Many of my customers FELT that way in the past, but they FOUND that our products are really a great value considering the results they got from their ad." Though this technique is a bit simplistic for today's sophisticated prospects, it is based on a sound understanding of sales psychology.

I FEEL Your Pain

Legendary business consultant Peter Drucker once said, "The biggest problem with communi- cation is the illusion that it has taken place." It is vital that before responding to an objection, that we fully understand what the customer is saying and how they feel about the issue.

For example, I was working with a salesperson when their prospect said, "I advertised in the XYZ Gazette (our competitor) and I didn' t get a single phone call. It was a huge waste of money." Our sales rep quickly launched into a list of reasons why businesses should advertise. When the customer spoke, she heard, "Advertis- ing isn't worth the money," but I wasn't so sure.

I jumped in and asked him, "You said the XYZ didn't work. Why do you think that is?" He told me, "Well their papers are delivered all over the area, while my customers come from around here and they don't hit a lot of homes in this neighborhood." I followed up with, "Do you think if you could target your ad to all of the homes in this neighborhood, it would produce results?" When he answered affirmatively, I went on to explain how, as a direct-mailed community paper, we could do just that and closed the sale.

Before attempting to answer an objection, you should ask questions to confirm that you fully understand it from the customer's point of view. Many people tell you one thing when they actually mean something else.

One of the most common objections is, "I don' t have the money to advertise." This is sometimes the case but more often the customer is really saying, "I don't see the value of what you're offering." This explains why simply lowering the price or going to a smaller program seldom wins the sale. They use the "price" rather than the "value" objection because it is hard to argue about how much cash they have on hand, theoretically making this an "unbeatable objection." Also, most people are too nice to insult you by telling you they think your product is worthless.

Since many emotions play a big part in the decision-making process, it is just as important to gauge how a prospect feels about an issue, as it is to know what they think about it. Asking good questions gives you all the information you need to address the objection. This process also makes resolving the objection a cooperative rather than an adversarial process.

It is also important to pay close attention to the customer's tone of voice. Their tone indicates how they truly "feel" about the issue at hand more so than the literal content of their words. An angry or confrontational tone indicates a much deeper problem than a concern over pricing. In this case, you cannot proceed until you discover the root of their feelings toward your products.

The direct approach is the best way to handle such emotionally charged situations by saying, "Mr. Customer, I sense that you have some serious concerns about our paper. May I ask what they are?" This shows the customer that they have your full attention and you are genuinely interested in their concerns.

Others Have FELT That Way

The second part of the process serves several purposes. First, it further validates the customer's feelings that, "they are not the only one who feels this way." This step also opens up the possibility of change for the customer.

Very few people are so enlightened that they willingly admit that they were wrong. This, coupled with our natural dislike of being told what to do, makes getting a prospect to say "Yes" to you after they have already said "No" extremely difficult. Even if the prospect sees the value of your offering after they have turned you down, they will stand firm to protect their ego. This is why it is important not to force a prospect into taking a firm position, which they will defend like it was the gates of the Alamo. By describing how others felt the same way and changed their mind makes doing so far more palatable. The customer must believe that they have changed their mind of their own free will.

What They FOUND Was...

Plumbers, electricians and other repair people all drive vans or trucks packed with the tools of their trade and the parts they need to handle any problem they might encounter. Likewise, smart sales people always carry with them everything they need to "fix" a problem. Rather than hammers, pliers and valves, our tool kit includes research, our products and testimonials.

You should always have your audit and circu- lation information within easy reach to present to a customer. Most people think in terms of stories and not in numbers, so it is important to present your data in a narrative form.

For example, instead of saying, "60% of our readers have an income in excess of $60K," you should say, "Since our circulation includes Richburg and Bucksburb, our readership is very desirable and quite affluent. Did you know that over 60% of our readers make more than $60K?"

This bias towards information in a narrative format is why testimonials are your most powerful tool for responding to objections. Prospects are understandably skeptical of any- thing a sales person says. They are much more inclined to believe their fellow business people.

You should equip yourself with a battery of testimonials from your company's satisfied customers. You can deliver these orally, but written testimonials are far more effective.

As a sales person, I often asked my regular customers to give me testimonial letters to use on sales calls. I kept these in a notebook paired with photos of my customers and their businesses. This notebook proved to be my most powerful selling tool.

Bring It All Together

Here's how this process works:

Customer: "I don't really want to spend the money right now."

Rep: "Ms. Prospect, I can understand how you feel. Many of my customers tell me that they are careful where they invest their money these days. I sense that you have some other concerns about our paper, may I ask what they are?"

Customer: "Well...I'm not sure that many people still read a local paper anymore. Every- body seems to do everything online these days."

Rep: "I can understand how you feel. My whole life is on my phone, but my customers tell me that a lot of people still use the paper to find local businesses. Take a look at what Mike at the Jones Hardware told me."

It's a Tough Job But...

Every sales person encounters objections from their prospects and no sales person can overcome every challenge. True sales professionals are prepared for anything their prospects throw at them. They take the time to listen to their clients and try to understand the situation from their point of view. These top performers know that if they use good sales techniques to respond, rather than react, to the roadblocks put in their way, they will be able to overcome most objections and close more sales.

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