Dead Right -- and 100% Wrong

The temptation to argue with potential customers can kill a sale, which is why smart reps know when to button their lips

By Michelle Nichols

These days, competition is tough. Sometimes it's dog-eat-dog. Other days, it's tiger-eat-dog -- and you're the dog. But have you ever considered that you, the salesperson, might also be competing with your customers? It happens more often than you might think, and it seldom does either party any good. Consider this scenario and whether it sounds familiar:

After fighting to land a face-to-face meeting with Ms. Big, you finally arrive at her office. She allows 15 minutes for you to prove why she should buy what you're selling. Exhaustive preparations have filled you with confidence, the show begins -- and quickly goes astray. You describe a feature of your product, then she raises an objection, and you, in turn, razzle-dazzle her with fancy footwork that, so far as you're concerned, resolves and negates every possible quibble. Then she raises yet another concern -- and you slug that one out of the ballpark, too. This process keeps repeating until the time is up. You're exhausted as you find yourself being shown to the door without a purchase order in hand. Worse, you have sensed that Ms. Big will never again give you an opportunity to make a sale.


  What happened? In a nutshell, you got into a competition with your customer. Rather than your product being the central issue, the encounter was dominated by the question of who was smarter -- which of you was the alpha dog. It's an easy trap to fall into because, if you're any sort of salesperson, you'll know pretty much everything about your product, its applications and benefits, and why it's the perfect solution for your customer's needs. The problem is that you weren't just right, you were "dead right," as I like to put it. By being correct about every little issue and detail that came up in the course of the pitch, you made the customer wrong. Even though, on a factual and technical basis, everything you said was unimpeachably correct, you alienated the prospect and the pitch went nowhere.

Confession time: I made this same mistake only recently. After a day of sales training, the president of the company with which I was consulting made a casual statement about his sales reps while driving me to the airport. Without thinking, I blurted out, "No, that's just not true," and went on to explain my opinion. The customer looked shocked. I still believe I was right, but why couldn't I have just taken a sip of coffee or popped a breath mint instead of shooting from the lip? Instead, I chose to show off how smart I was -- or rather, how smart I thought I was -- and built a wall between the CEO and myself. Ouch! For both of us.

Back in the 1980s, the sales method in vogue was what I call "sales karate." No matter what your customer said, you had a prepared response. Like a karate match, it was attack, respond, attack, respond.

By the 1990s, the prevailing wisdom on the art of selling had witnessed a shift: The goal was to throw your client off-balance. When your customer complained that your product cost too much, you were supposed to fire back with something like, "That's exactly why you should buy it!" This was intended to stun the prospect into silence while you justified your higher-than-expected price and presented as a reason to buy. Again, it was just like sparring in a martial arts dojo.


  If you have ever wondered why some prospective customers aren't shy about indicating their dislike of salespeople, one reason could be that they have simply grown tired of fighting with them! Your customers face enough battles with their bosses, co-workers, bill collectors, and the rest of the world. Unless they have the personality of Rambo, the last thing they want is more combat and confrontation. They may not say it in as many words, but their most fervent wish is for there to be peace on earth -- particularly in their own offices.

Successful salespeople know they must first get on the customer's team, and do so both mentally and emotionally. Then they sell with their customers, not against them. My error on that ride to the airport was allowing myself to relax a little too much after spending a day with the customer and his sales reps.

It doesn't matter whether you're meeting prospects at a networking event or in their offices: Ask thoughtful questions -- and then just relax and listen. Don't plan your response, don't think of something clever or witty to say. Instead, take in everything your customer is telling you -- or not telling you -- with his or her words, tone, and body language.


  Should the prospect say something with which you disagree, as my customer did in the car, bite your tongue and shut up. If it's not going to impact your chances of making a sale, let it pass, as I should have done. If it's important, you can always bring up the subject later and gently straighten out any misconceptions.

And by the way, if you ever get stuck in one of these 15-minute, do-or-die sales situations, don't fall for the bait of trying to sell the customer right then. Instead, let them know what you have done for others in similar situations and then spell out why the prospect should invite you back for a longer visit, when you'll be happy to demonstrate how your product can help them.

These days, as I said, the competition is tough. So never mistake your customers for competitors. Avoid making the mistake of being "dead right." Rather, mentally join your customer's team, see problems through their eyes, and do your bit to solve them. As the saying goes, "Being right is lonely." Don't make your customers wrong, make them heroes. Happy selling!

Michelle Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston, Tex. She welcomes your questions and comments. You can visit her web site at or contact her at

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