Here's a sure-fire way to win over customers who doubt the benefits you present without putting them on the defensive.
In selling there are three main objections salespeople face, objections being defined as obstacles put up by customers to impede their commitment or buy-in. The three types are the drawback, indifference, and skepticism. For decades first Xerox and then Learning International, Inc. made teaching salespeople how to handle these three types the mainstay of their foremost seminar, Professional Selling Skills.
In selling, a drawback occurs when the customer insists on an un-meetable condition being met by the salesperson prior to committing to the sale. Often the drawback has to do either with price or delivery. For example, the customer insists on a two week delivery when the earliest possibility is an eight week delivery. Instead, indifference occurs when a customer communicates no need for the salesperson's benefits. There are two kinds of indifference which I have decided to call objective and subjective. Objective indifference, because it is justifiable, should be honored by the salesperson. For example, a customer wishes to buy a mattress but not the box spring because she intends to use the mattress on a bunkbed. She is justified in claiming no need for a box spring. Subjective indifference, on the other hand, because it is based either on the customer's unwillingness to examine her true needs or an inability to do so for lack of information, or on both, should not be honored. It should be further probed into to help the customer become aware of and admit to unmet needs. The third type, skepticism, occurs when the customer doubts the validity of the salesperson's benefits, that is, the customer doubts a product or service can live up to its claims.
In this article, the first of a three part series, we shall discuss how to handle skepticism. To start with, it is necessary to point out that the skeptic doubts benefits, not features, despite the fact that Learning International, Inc. states in one of its training manuals that the skeptic doubts both. In my opinion, that statement appears to misunderstand the very essence of skepticism, namely, that the skeptic doubts not the existence of a feature but its ability to provide the benefit for which that feature exists. True, customers often don't understand that a feature exists. That is a misunderstanding as when a customer tells a salesperson, "But your people don't deliver in my area," and the salesperson knows they do. In fact, Learning International, Inc. is the only training company I know of that has taught salespeople to handle the misunderstanding by first confirming it as a need, next acknowledging it as such, and then supporting it with relevant features and benefits. The skeptic is aware of the salesperson's features all right; he simply doubts that they can provide the benefits the salesperson claims they can.
For example, a customer needs a durable fabric. The fabric on the last sofa she bought just didn't last, although the salesperson said that it was Herculon and would wear like iron. Now she has found a new sofa she really likes and asks the salesperson; "Will this fabric last?" The salesperson answers; "Lady, it's Herculon and will wear like iron." This customer doesn't doubt that the fabric is Herculon; she doubts that it will give her the benefit she needs. She is skeptical.
How should salespeople handle the skeptical salesperson? In my book, "Winning Bragging Rights," I pointed out that in 1989, when I completed this work, Learning International, Inc. was not handling skepticism quite well enough in its "Professional Selling Skills." At that time on its Chart Six it clearly directed salespeople to offer a proof statement whenever a customer expresses doubt. I suggested that to do so was to shoot the customer with the evidence and thereby put the customer on the defensive. Since then, in its current version of "Professional Selling Skills," the salesperson is first directed to "acknowledge the concern" and then "offer relevant proof," an improvement somewhat but not quite enough. For as Learning International, Inc. has always taught, acknowledging should follow a clear statement of need. The skeptic rarely includes a clear statement of need when he expresses doubt; he does however always imply a need. A need for what? A need for the proof statement. The steps I therefore propose in handling skepticism are: Use a closed probe to confirm the implied need. Acknowledge the need. Support the need with the proof statement or statements. The following role play based on a customer's skepticism regarding a bedding manufacturer should prove helpful.
SKEPTIC'S ROLE PLAY
Customer: I never heard of Primavera mattresses.
Salesperson: What I hear you saying is you're looking for a mattress set whose quality and service you can depend on, right?
Customer: (Nods, The nod confirms the need).
Salesperson: (Acknowledges) I look for the same things whenever I shop. Let me show you why you can depend on Primavera's quality and service. (Salesperson then offers proof statements).
Note how different this approach is from the one that shoots the customer with the proof statement by belittling him for having dared to say he never heard of Primavera. Instead, the approach I suggest starts out by winning the customer's agreement on need, the very stuff that all selling relies on. Then and only then, the salesperson acknowledges that need before going on to support it with a benefit in the form of a proof statement.
Finally, I'd like to end this article on handling skepticism with a recent observation of mine. I used to direct salespeople to pre-empt all frequent objections, that is, bring something up about their product or store service as a benefit before the customer would bring it up as an objection. I now believe that the only objection salespeople should pre-empt is a frequently brought up drawback. Why? Because a drawback always contains an un-meetable condition, and it is much wiser for salespeople to bring something up as a drawback. More about that in the following article on drawbacks.
Skepticism, which most often contains the deep hurt of a prior trust that was betrayed, should not be pre-empted because, provided salespeople have the proper proof statements, they ought to want to hear the skeptic's doubts. Why so? Because the more deeply felt is the skeptic's hurt, the stronger the buying signal salespeople will hear once the skeptic is won over. Note that I said won over. Too many selling systems are still using the word overcome. Objections should not be overcome; they should be handled and the customer who does the objecting must be won over.
Read this article again and again until you have mastered the principles of handling skepticism. Mastery of this technique will help you avoid shooting your customers with proof statements.
Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at firstname.lastname@example.org.