Gauging from what’s happening in politics this season, fact-based persuasion has gone woefully out of style. And it’s not just politics—one of the most common themes in the sales and persuasion blogosphere is that emotion rules persuasion. You don’t need to have a detailed grasp of the facts to make your case, because anyone can look up the details. Impressions and emotions sway decisions, numbers and details simply bore people.
But when you tear yourself away from a computer screen and pay attention to what’s happening in the real world, it’s clear that having a deep command of the facts—and being able to speak them at the rate of normal conversation without having to use your slides as a crutch—still has tremendous persuasive power. In fact, when everyone else is relying on vague, unsupported emotional appeals, those who state their case calmly, but with airtight confidence based on a tenacious grasp of the evidence, can stand out because hardly anyone does it anymore.
I’ve seen this phenomenon repeatedly over the past several months, as I’ve been involved with a group that has been fighting a battle against overdevelopment in my city. Our little band of dissidents lacks the money or influence that the developers and politicians have, and we’ve learned the hard way that emotional appeals at City Commission meetings are simply ignored. But we’ve also figured out that we can get attention by carefully researching the issues and backing up everything we say.
We’ve also learned that nothing is drier than too many numbers in a presentation, right? Actually, I’ve seen that if done correctly, rattling off a series of numbers from memory can have an enormous impact on the minds of your listeners. Paul, a member of our group, is a master at this. When we met with the editorial board of our local paper to make our case, Paul began explaining the public safety impact that the project would have, citing numbers such as response times, traffic delays, number of incidents, etc. Halfway through his spiel the paper’s editor interrupted and said: “You have an amazing grasp of the numbers!” That’s when I knew we had made our point.
In another public meeting, Paul’s detailed analysis of the weaknesses in the developer’s traffic study was so devastating that when the traffic expert tried to rebut his testimony, every time she mentioned a number, she looked at him as if she needed approval.
These examples point out another benefit of fact-based persuasion. When people are already emotionally invested in their own opinion on a matter, it’s extremely difficult to change their minds with an emotional appeal; they will simply dig an and defend their point of view even harder. Even if they agree with you, conceding your point may make them lose face. But if confronted with irrefutable facts, this “new information” gives them an honorable way out of their position, and they can show themselves to be reasonable people by changing their minds. This is especially important if you’re challenging those who are more powerful; a torrent of facts can be your best protection and surest way to succeed.
There is one key to keep in mind if you want to use details to impress and not to simply bore people. State the bottom line up front and then support it with numbers. As John Medina says in his book, Brain Rules: “Meaning before detail.” People will lose interest if they don’t know what your point is right away. When they grasp the meaning, they can much more easily pay attention to and absorb the necessary detail.
To clarify why clarity is important in selling, let’s go back to the purpose of lean communication: to improve the listener’s RoTE, or Return on Time and Effort. By being clear in your sales communications, you help your buyers by reducing their effort to receive and process your message in the way you intend. So, by being clear you make it easier on your buyer and you reduce the risk of misunderstanding at the same time.
As if the benefit to the buyer were not enough, clarity in your communications will also help you sell in three ways: it will increase your personal believability, make your message more convincing, and make action more likely.
Your personal believability goes up; you will sound authentic for the simple reason that you will be authentic. People can sense when you are being yourself rather than a sales persona put on for their benefit, and they will respond to that. At the same time, if you have trouble explaining something simply, others may infer that you don’t understand it yourself.
Second, as Daniel Kahneman tells us, easy = true. This is shorthand for saying that things that are easy to grasp are equated in our minds with truth. The easier it is to understand something, the more it sounds like “common sense”. No one likes to work any harder than necessary, and if the “package” your message comes in is hard to open, they may not make the full effort.
Finally, clarity will make action more likely in two ways. In the sense of simplifying the choices for your buyer, clarity increases the likelihood that they will buy. You may be familiar with the experiment in which researchers set up a jam tasting table in a grocery store. When they had 24 flavors on display, more people stopped to try a sample; when there were only six choices, fewer people stopped by, but they were more likely to purchase and to report greater satisfaction with their purchase. And in B2B sales, if you want someone to be a champion for you internally, it’s going to be much less likely if they find it difficult to grasp the complexities of your message.
How to be more clear
The first rule of clarity is to be candid and direct. As I’ve written before, candor is a choice about whether to say something and directness is how you should say it. As a salesperson, want to present your solution in the best possible light and you don’t have an obligation to expose every single wart or deficiency—your competitors will do that for you. But if asked about a weakness, you should answer the question candidly and directly without dancing around; and you can also earn a lot of respect by bringing it up yourself before being asked about it. (presponse)
In general, lean communication is biased to being as direct as possible, but directness is a trickier matter in sales conversations for two reasons. First, if you know that your competitor’s offering has a glaring weakness, it might be more professional or prudent to be less direct about it. Second, it’s easy to provoke a backlash by being too direct and telling the customer all the reasons they should buy from you—it’s usually better to make it their own idea by leading them to conclusions indirectly through questioning.
The second rule of clarity is to employ user-friendly language. Put it in terms they will understand, and just as importantly, remember when it comes time to make a decision. When things are vague or abstract, they are less likely to be understood and remembered. Make your key points easier to grasp by using Q-SAVE:
Quantity: Although numbers may seem like the ultimate abstraction, they are actually the best way to make something real and meaningful. You can say your solution speeds up their process, or you can tell them it makes it 17% faster, which translates to $3.4 million in additional revenue. And try to use their own numbers when possible for rock-solid believability.
Story: A story is the leanest communication tool you can use, because it can pack the most power into the fewest words—as long as you select the right one and tell it right. In sales, the most convincing stories are those about similar customers who faced the same situation.
Analogies: Analogies make foggy ideas clear by connecting them to the familiar, and a well-chosen one can snap your listener into instant focus. The most powerful analogies are those that compare something to the buyer’s own company. For example, when pressed on price, you can use the analogy of their own sales force with their own customers to stress the importance of selling on value.
Visuals: The cliché, “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true: despite the common misconception that people have different sensory preferences, the fact is that we are all visual. But that also means that you should be very careful about what pictures you put into presentations. Drop all the canned and posed pictures of products and satisfied customers—they won’t add any value but they will be remembered.
Examples: Examples clarify by making things real in the buyer’s mind, and they make you more credible. A good example of this is DILO selling, where you show how using your solution will make specific improvements in the “Day In the Life Of” the end user.
Previous posts in this series:
 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 62.
The purpose of this third article in the Lean Communication for Sales series is to show you a way to make your sales conversations much more effective, pleasant and efficient, and my hope is that after reading this, you will adopt a top-down approach in all your sales communications. I will first explain what it sounds like in a sales call, and then discuss why a top down approach provides more value with less waste in all your sales meetings.
How to use top-down communication in sales calls and presentations
Lean communicators get to the point immediately. They don’t begin with a lot of background to provide “context” or set the stage. They answer the question on every listener’s mind: what do you want me to do and why do you want me to do it? What this means to you is that you deliver your message from the top-down: state your main point and then support it as necessary. In lean communication, sovaldi sale we call it Bottom Line Up Front, or BLUF.
In a sales call, here’s what top-down organization goes in this order: why, what, how. Tell them why you’re there (value proposition), what you hope to gain from the meeting (action statement), and how you hope to proceed (agenda). It might sound like this:
“I’m here to explore an idea that can take costs out of your design process while improving product performance; (pause) my expectation is that if it makes sense, you will recommend a presentation to your Product Council (pause) To make sure I’ve covered everything, I’ve put together an agenda that will keep us on track, but please let me know if there is anything you would like to add.”
There are a few important considerations and caveats to keep in mind. First, your action statement is a statement, not a question. In other words, you don’t say, “if it makes sense, will you recommend a presentation to…” Why? Because you haven’t earned the right to ask yet. They don’t have enough information so their default answer will be no. Plus, it makes you sound like you’re selling a used car.
Second, be flexible; realize that despite your best preparation, you can be off track. Maybe your value proposition is not what’s important to the buyer, or your action is the wrong one, or your agenda does not address some issues they consider important. After you’ve delivered your BLUF, pay close attention to what the buyer says and does, and be prepared to ask questions and/or offer to modify your approach. But that’s the beauty of making your intentions plain: your buyer is much more likely to make their own intentions plain, so you can get things out on the table and then work together to produce more value, more pleasantly, and with less time and effort.
How top-down helps
BLUF works for three reasons:
- It produces more value,
- In a more pleasant atmosphere,
- With less time and effort
It produces more value
A top-down approach works because it gets both parties working toward a common goal. In complex sales, two heads are always better than one because neither you nor the buyer has all the answers, but together you have the highest chance of producing the best solution. It’s like each side has a half of a treasure map; when you’re open about what your destination is, both halves of the map can come together, smoothing the path to the payoff.
It makes a more pleasant atmosphere
Top-down organization improves the atmosphere in two ways: it dispels suspicion and puts you on an equal footing. Put yourself in the buyer’s shoes for a minute. When someone comes into your office and starts telling you how much value they can bring you or how great they are, what’s going through your mind? You know they’re going to ask for something, but every minute they don’t get to the point, the more your suspicions grow, and the less likely you are to listen to what they have to say. On the other hand, when someone is completely transparent about their motives, you relax. You may not necessarily agree with them, but when their intentions are out in the open, it’s easier to have a real conversation about the issues.
It also puts you on an equal footing with the buyer. You are telling them confidently that you bring value to the conversation, and you expect value in return. If you truly have something of value to bring to them (and if you don’t why are you there?), then you have the right to expect something from them in return. In the very rare case that someone would take offense to that, that’s probably a losing cause anyway, and it’s best to find that out early in the call.
It shortens the conversation
Top-down can significantly shorten the conversation as well. If the buyer agrees with your intentions, it becomes a pretty smooth path to the goal. If they don’t agree, they will let you know and you can probe to understand their reasoning and if necessary, pivot and change your goal for the call, or you might decide to lose early, but either way, you won’t be charging blindly into a dead end.
Your agenda also helps to identify what does not need to be covered. When they see how you plan to proceed, they may be able to tell you what parts they already know or agree with. They can ask questions to fill in their own gaps or to tell you what they consider important.
What I’ve described in this post is just one way to use top-down communication to deliver more of what customers want, without wasting their time or yours. There are several other ways to use the concept in sales, including the structure of your presentations, the design of your slides, how you answer questions, which you can figure out on your own. In this age of shrinking attention spans, it may soon be the only way to communicate!
Previous posts in this series:
In the first post of this series, we learned that buyers avoid talking to salespeople as long as they can, because most of them provide too little value and waste too much of their time. While we will address both sides of that equation in the next few posts, the first and most critical task is to provide value.
Lean communication starts—and ends—with value because if you don’t have something useful to say, it does not matter how concise or clear you are. The same idea clearly applies to selling: if you’re a salesperson, you must be useful to the customer—or they are totally justified in avoiding the sight or sound of you.
Years ago, when I used to train the business sales reps for a wireless carrier, we would role-play sales calls, in which the rep would spend the first few minutes telling me all their great features and what they could do for me, and I would usually counter each one by telling them their competitor could do the same thing. Usually, they would then say something like, “You get me in the deal.” I would then ask, “So What?” Rarely did I hear a convincing answer to that question.
If the customer asks you what value you add to their decision process, would you be able to answer the question convincingly? It’s tough, but if you pay attention to these five ways of generating and communicating customer value, you probably won’t even get the question:
Focus first on the why: You need to boost the why/what ratio in your sales conversations. Salespeople typically focus too much on the what, which is what they want the customer to do, what they want them to buy, what their product does, etc. They don’t spend enough time on the why, which is why the customer needs to make a change, why this is the best choice for them to make that change, and why now. By focusing first on the why, both parties can unpack the necessary elements of value so that they can then figure out the best what. (If this is starting to sound like an Abbott and Costello routine, I apologize.)
That’s why your plan for every sales call should begin, not with your call purpose, (which is what you hope to get from the call) but the value proposition for that particular meeting. Why should the prospect or customer take time out of their life that day to listen to what you have to say?
If you want to be even stricter, ask yourself honestly if the customer would pay to meet with you. It’s probably not to find out about the latest bell or whistle you’ve added to the product, or to check out the new white paper your marketing folks wrote. The only reason a customer would conceivably meet with you is if you have a plausible case that you—and only you—can improve their outcomes in some way.
One more hint: if you can’t think of the value the customer will receive in return for their time—don’t go.
Improve outcomes: This is a detailed and more specific look at the why. To focus on the right outcomes, you research, analyze, and question these four possible areas that might indicate a need:
- Problems: Known issues that are bothering them and/or costing money.
- Opportunities: Improvements in products, technologies, or ways of doing things
- Changes: Ongoing or imminent changes in their current environment they will have to adapt to
- Risks: Anything that could potentially hurt them or prevent the outcomes they want
Answer the question: the main question is “What do you want me to do and why should I do it?”, which is covered in the first two points above. But ATQ also applies when the buyer asks you a question. The whole reason they are talking to you is because despite all that reading of stuff on websites, they still have questions. And when they do have a question, they want someone to answer it honestly, completely, and quickly. The salesperson who is the most responsive in answering their questions will add the most value.
Outside-in thinking: We naturally view the world from the inside-out. We have our own thoughts, desires, needs and aspirations, and we view the world through the lens of how we can get what we want through other people. Outside-in thinking flips that around. It’s about seeing the world through the eyes of the customer, and then working backward to figure out how they can get what they want through us. OIT means that you talk far more about the customer than you do about yourself.
Preserving the relationship: Lean communicators value relationships as much as the next person, but they perhaps define the foundation of relationships differently. It is less about liking that it is about trust. Lean communication is not about “schmoozing” and telling great jokes. Of course relationships are important in sales, but the best relationships are nurtured by the salesperson’s sincere and transparent desire to put the customer’s needs first. If you follow the first four practices, the relationships will take care of themselves, even in those occasional situations when you tell the customer something they might not want to hear. You know the old saying, “Friends don’t let friends (fill in the blank)”, sometimes a relationship calls for one party to say something that the other person does not want to hear. This does not always make for the most amicable or pleasant relationship, but in the long run it’s what builds the most trust and the greatest value.
If you focus first on communicating value, your customers will gladly pay to have “you” as an added feature in every sale!
Other posts in this series: