Any salesperson has had this experience: a prospect or existing customer ignores your efforts to engage for months, and then suddenly one morning you get a call or an email when they need something right away. In an instant, you go from a total nonentity to the most important person in your prospect’s life. Or maybe you’re giving a presentation about your product, when suddenly an audience member perks up and says “tell me more about that,” and what you thought was a minor detail might be the missing piece to the big sale.
These familiar experiences underscore the importance of the pull principle in lean communication for sales. In lean thinking, pull is the idea that the customer dictates the rate at which the product is produced and delivered. You need it in selling as well, because no matter how well prepared you are, you will never know exactly how the customer is going to react.
Using pull in selling is about three things: timing, credibility, and responsive listening.
Timing. In lean thinking, pull means that the customer dictates the rate and timing of production, and the goal is to produce only what the customer needs when they need it. Transferring that idea to communication, it means that you provide just the right information the listener needs when they need it. Of course, to make this work, you have to be extremely responsive. When they want their questions answered, they want them answered right away. As Andy Paul says, responsiveness = information + speed.
Extending that idea to sales conversations, it means that you don’t “sell” until the customer is ready to buy. For example, if you lead with a description of your product and the benefits it brings, the customer may not be ready yet to hear that. What Churchill said about learning, “I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught” applies equally to buying. Most people don’t like to be sold, but they do like to buy. That’s another way of saying that they like to be in control of the rate of information they receive which helps them arrive at a decision. Give the customer the sense of control that will make them comfortable with their decision by using pull. Don’t “Always Be Closing”, but always be ready to close.
Credibility. Pull is not simply about passively responding to your customer’s questions or requests for information. You can use pull in the other direction as well, by asking questions to gently pull the customer’s thoughts in certain directions. Who does your customer find to be the most credible person in the world? Themselves. Whose opinion does the customer trust above all others? Their own. How do you get them to express that opinion? By asking questions.
That means that if you can get them to tell you the story you want them to hear, they will believe it because they told it. For example, if they acknowledge they have a problem but don’t seem to recognize the impact that problem has on their business, you have a perfect right—even an obligation—to ask questions to focus on the costs. In fact, questions can be more lean that direct statements. If you tell them directly about the consequences and they accept your statement, of course that is extremely efficient. But more often than not, you tell them about the consequences and they don’t believe you, or they push back, or they ask for clarification, or they agree superficially but don’t stick to their agreement later when they’ve had a chance to think about it, in which case it can become very inefficient. But ask someone a question, watch the lightbulb come on in their mind as they ponder the answer, and you not only get the effect you want faster, but it’s stickier.
Responsive listening. Just being a good listener is not enough. You can be the best listener in the room but it won’t do you any good unless the customer realizes it. In other words, your listening has to be real, and it has to be perceived by the customer as real. That means that in addition to listening closely to what the customer is saying and not saying, you also have to indicate physically that you are paying attention, reflect what you’re hearing and probe when appropriate.
But more importantly, you have to respond meaningfully, which in lean communication means that you actually do something with what you’ve heard. Responsive listening is about sharing the second conversation that is going on inside your head, so that they know they are being heard and their words are having an effect on your thinking. For example, if the customer mentions a concern, don’t simply use that as a cue to deploy your objection-handling algorithm; tell them how you will handle the issue or how you will accommodate that need. When they know their words are having an effect, they will likely open up even more.