What people hear when you speak                                   

Managing Expectations

 Human tendencies can become very predictable to the professional sales pro or negotiator. The dance becomes a series of “questions and answers”, the content of which can become quite familiar. Top performing sales professionals and business persons do something that the normal everyday professional either fails to do, or fails to do enough. By keeping in mind the mindset of the listener, they (the top performers) do a superior job of “managing the expectations” of those they encounter. Another way to say it is, they “set the stage properly.” This can be a sales person’s best protection against “buyer’s remorse.” 

Allow me to set the stage correctly for this article. This writing in my Google docs, before I migrated it over to our WordPress, is ten pages (a full glass of wine) long and chock full of common sense about psychological positioning. It is not short but a very worthwhile investment in time if you have an interest in sales protocols and their subsequent effect on sales activity outcomes.   

Most sales pros are so concerned with getting the sale, they fail to realize that their need for the sale is dictating their demeanor. Remember the old cliche,” under-promise and over-deliver?” It couldn’t ring more true anywhere than in the sales arena. The worst thing a salesperson can do for a consumer of goods or services is to make them feel like they are buying something sufficient when they aren’t. Remember this old saying coined by Benjamin Franklin? – “The Bitterness of Poor Quality Remains Long After the Sweetness of Low Prices are Forgotten.” Every company and sales person has the choice of building their reputation on quality or price. There are times when quality and low prices do intersect, but the universal truth is that price and value are most often two different things. Value is also more important depending on what you are selling but always remember, whatever you are selling, you are selling yourself. This is the same as stating that how you sell is the chosen foundation of the reputation you build.

WARNING: I must now recuse myself on a topic. That topic is “high volume and low margins.” Most of my life has been selling service and marketing products,  most of my clients have targeted the middle and/or top of the market. I said that to say this – I know little about, and have even less interest in, low margin/high volume selling therefore, please don’t take head to any advice I give where that topic is concerned. I am grossly inexperienced and am not the Walmart of the marketing world. 

During the three decades I sold targeted direct mail to businesses, my clients knew they were not getting the lowest price. I paid more for better materials, placed a stamp instead of an indica on the mail, got exceptions from mailing requirements to get rid of extra automation coding that schlocked up the look of the mail, had my production folks book our own logistics, and purchased the most accurate and targeted information available to mankind. My focus was performance and delivering the high end buyer, not how much mail I could get out inside a specific budget. Our goal was to move the top and/or middle of the market and typically it was a specific subset of such. I may have been consistently more expensive but just like a high performing instrument or vehicle, our stuff ran better. We delivered results you couldn’t buy at a lower price point. I therefore have instinctively learned to manage expectations and for those who sell professional services and fine consumer goods, that is a critical habit to program into oneself.    

I learned to start talking about uniqueness, performance and quality early on in the dialogue with a new client to set the tone and separate myself from the low bid, in fact – I did not bid. If someone wanted to compare performance to performance I would engage, but I never tried to be the low bid. It has always been about performance, not price. That holds true for Prospects International and the way Joey and I have built this company which dominates an entire industry in providing lead generation. We always made sure to pay ourselves to justify the hours of brainstorming and innovating that are needed to keep a firm such as ours out in front of the pack. We never want to, as they say in D.C., “lead from behind.”  This means that we are not the perfect fit for every person we call on or who inquires, but that’s ok; niche marketing is highly profitable. We want to be the best at what we do and don’t pretend to be “all things to all people.” Being “all things to all people” runs in diametrical opposition to managing expectations. Some business models endeavor to be all things to all consumers of goods or services and if their volume is high enough, that can be a profitable paradigm. The fact is though, that most businesses are not even attempting to build a corporate empire, the majority of us are entrepreneurs, “moms and pops” so to speak, attempting to carve out our own slice of the American dream. This means that margins are critically important and once more, the first cousin to healthy margins is selling value over price and performance over savings. Price never goes away and with all the online proclivities to publish every conceivable price, “value selling” takes a bit more talent and commitment than before but it is still the best way to make what you do manageably profitable.   

Let me backtrack and address the title, “What People Hear When You Speak.” Knowing how you are perceived is more important than your intentions because it is possible to have good intentions but not communicate them well. Positioning, body language and the nature of the prospect’s responses are all key indicators of what they hear. People are good at filtering out many things and extracting what fits their personal need or view, so if you want to influence someone to move over to a side of an opportunity that benefits them (even if it is coincidentally the side you recommend), you must be aware of their filters and some basic fundamentals.   

Let’s take for instance an example of a husband and wife (or significant other) on the floor of an appliance store. They are in need of a washer and dryer because they are tired of paying repairmen to resuscitate their old units. The wife hates not being able to choose how much water she uses because of the new government restrictions. The husband wants something that will last a while but not cost an arm and a leg. These two are kind of on the same page because their belief is that if they get a less expensive set that the water controls, where the unit weighs the clothes and disperses the appropriate amount according to regulations, won’t be in play. They have concerns, misconceptions and really don’t enjoy a salesperson looking over their shoulder while they make decisions, which makes this a little more tricky of a retail sale then some encounters are. It’s definitely not a “lay down” and the couple has set aside the day to get this homeowner issue resolved so she can get back to her regular routine of keeping the laundry “done up” (they must live in the south).

Job number one, if you want to get a prospect diffused, is to always greet them in a non-threatening way. This will separate you from 70% of the retail sales folks who, even when they are trying, present themselves as looming.   

Here is exactly what not to do:

“Hello, my name is Joe. What are we looking for today?”

The problem with this approach? There are more than one… Firstly, they don’t know exactly what they want and secondly Joe hasn’t done anything to make the prospect feel like he is anything other than another looming salesman who’s trying to get into their wallet as fast as possible to get credit for a sale. He has not diffused or made himself non-threatening. Finally, Joe has not established any company or personal credibility before beginning his fact finding. Unfortunately this is common on retail floors. 

Here’s how sales staff should be trained to treat and greet prospects:

“Hello, welcome to Flannigan’s, the friendliest place in town to learn about appliances! May I have permission to tell you how we serve folks who are looking for appliances?”       

Why is this approach better? For several reasons and in the spirit of explaining why I’ll dissect it from a sales fundamentals standpoint. Here are the reasons, one after another –  First off, “welcome” is a friendly word which infers that the person greeting you actually likes and is proud of where they work. What a nice change from the rampant “put-out-ness” of most of the world who act like they can’t wait until closing time when they can go home. 

Secondly,friendliest place in town” is a diffusing phrase, we all know that the friendliest place in town won’t be pushy.  

Thirdly (is that an actual word?), “learn about appliances!” means you, as the consumer, aren’t necessarily expected to purchase today. It means that this store is concerned that you have all the information (which is all you really want) you need to make a good decision. This positions you as a concierge, not an order taker. 

Fourthly (I really feel like I’m making words up now), the word “permission” empowers them, not you; it makes you appear subservient, and puts them at total ease that you know you can’t do anything unless they allow it. It is also a great segue into further dialogue where you can deepen the relationship, and people love to buy from people that make them comfortable.  

Fifthly (now I know I am),  the wordserve” reinforces all the previous non-threatening positioning and really sets them at ease.

Sixthly the phrase folks who are looking for appliances?” is very informal and promotes the friendliness aspect mentioned in the first line.  

Overall, this script takes control of the sales process and positions the person who works at “Flannigan’s” (could be any company) to acquire permission to ask the next question. Question based selling is absolutely the best way to serve and sell and very seldom after you make a person feel in control, as you take control, will they refuse to give you permission, because they feel non-threatened by someone asking permission. It is a powerful and underutilized word. By scripting a well thought out approach, you are already light years ahead of most organizations who allow their sales staff to shoot from the hip and approach folks “however.” You are already giving your floor traffic or online visitor a statement that has some safeguards regarding what they hear. My point is not to use the provided script example verbatim, it is simply to be well thought out and fundamentally sound.

Online visitors? Yes, this same approach needs to be applied for online selling because dialogue is not assured (as it is on some level, in person) but is the desired result nonetheless. When I say “you need to take control of the sales process”, do not misunderstand me as advising you to do most of the talking. The initial encounter is to get them to open up, to drop their walls and defenses. That is how you take control… by giving it up and getting them to talk. Here are some powerful quotes to consider about listening and being heard:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ― Stephen R. Covey, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”Bernard M. Baruch

“We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”― Zeno of Citium, as quoted by Diogenes Laërtius

“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.”― G. K. Chesterton

“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.” ― William Hazlitt, Selected Essays, 1778-1830

“The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” ― Alfred Brendel

What people hear you say depends heavily on the chemistry you achieve with them. One more quote that I’ve used repeatedly from Teddy Roosevelt – “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”

Years ago as a young sales pro, when I was bouncing around the walls of a large corporation (Cox Communications), I sat through a board meeting where a very well prepared power point had just been delivered to a mid-sized potential client in a boardroom in Atlanta. Much was made about the size and power of our company, it’s growth accomplishments, vision for the future etc., etc., etc. It was an impressive “rah, rah!!!” type of a presentation, meant to wow the new potential client into wanting badly to have such an impressive company on their side. At the end of the presentation, the potential client exchanged niceties with the presenter and the supervisor of the division courting his business and left. He asked no in depth questions or for any additional information, just thanked us for a nice presentation and went back to where he had come from, never to engage again. 


I could see the angst, surprise and frustration on the team’s face and in their demeanor. I went to the presenter and complimented him on the quality of the presentation and asked him a direct question, “Are you surprised he didn’t want to know more?”                                          “Shocked,” he replied.                                                                                                                                                                                                                      “May I have permission to tell you what he heard?”, I inquired.                                                                                                                                     “Sure, I don’t get it, I spent a lot of time dressing this up to make it impressive!”                                                                                                            “It was a beautiful display about graphics that told him a lot about us and only about 25% of it about him, identifying with his needs and the way forward. He heard from a company very confident and proud of their identity but he saw no way to create reconciliation between who we were and what he needed. He almost felt overwhelmed and maybe not even worthy, but certainly saw no tracks headed toward where he needed to go. It was a whole lot about us and a little bit about “companies like his.” That is what he heard and that is why we won’t hear back from him.” 

The moral to this story? You can easily concentrate too much on what you want to get said and not enough about what the prospect needs to hear. It happens in exchanges everyday and is a blight on our profession. “Telling ain’t Selling” is a layman’s way to put it.  

What people hear is influenced by their preexisting beliefs. Job number one is to get them to be comfortable with where they are shopping and with you. Job number two is to do a fact finding which allows you to learn about, and sell to their preexisting beliefs and current needs. Most sales staff do a good job of knowing their product but most also leapfrog over the friendliness and diffusing steps and jump right into the product conversation mode, shooting their closing ratio in the foot. The way to remedy this as a company is to consistently remind your sales staff that your reputation in the marketplace is dependent upon how they approach the consumer and that they are expected to treat them in a particular fashion. That every consumer interaction either reinforces, or puts a chink in the good reputation armor and goodwill you have built in the community. 

If you build into your sales culture the element of examining and learning how to manage “what people hear” you will be in the perfect position to manage their expectations. Before I close, allow me one story that illustrates what not to do… it is a paraphrase of an experience I’ve had multiple times with weekend sales events. 

In the retail world, in many SIC’s, holiday sales and weekend sales have been a staple as you well know. All the major holidays are credible excuses for a sales event. Sometimes sale validations such as “Container Sales”, “Discontinued Product Liquidations”, “Factory Authorized Clearance” and other themes have been used as a credible reason to throw a sale. Joey and I were a part of a sales theme that an event specialist took across the country. It was an EXTREMELY successful series of sales that helped the dealers and manufacturers move a lot of product BUT this event specialist (and therefore us as the marketing support mechanism) were never invited back for a repeat performance… surprisingly, not one. 

Why? Because of what the dealers of the products that were being sold were told in the sales process. Years ago, I heard a real estate salesman use the term “puffing the goods.” I thought it was ingeniously descriptive and remember it and use it from time to time. The event specialist, when selling his services to help throw successful events, quoted some huge dollar figures, the largest ones he could justify to the clients. The gross dollar figures he told the dealers that they could expect to see sold during these weekend sales, were inflated. He was “puffing the goods. Here’s an example: In one instance he told the luxury market dealer items to expect a million dollar weekend. He didn’t set the expectation level properly but instead, he verbalized the best case scenario. He wanted the prospect to become a client very badly so he sold the dream, not the eventual reality. He KNEW they would hear the big number and bite, but this came back to bite him. 

The sale grossed a little over three quarters of a million dollars. The investment was $65,000 dollars in ads, travel expenses and moving fees to set up the sale. In today’s economy if you gross 10 X’s the investment you have executed a successful event. My weekend sales specialist did this. His client received $11.53 back for every dollar he spent BUT he wasn’t happy!!!! Why? Because the event specialist made sure he heard $1,000,000.00 loud and clear so he could be sure to nail down the gig. A million dollars, or a $15.39 return for every dollar invested, was the expectation so even though the luxury market dealer took a 42% margin or $315,000 after expenses to the bank, there was disappointment and no future invitation to do business again would be had. What he heard and what he received were so different that his definition of success was tied to not success itself, but whether or not the person performing the sales did what he said he was going to do. 

What people hear and inwardly digest is their barometer, not necessarily common sense. The sad end to this true story is that it happened time and again – running upstream against my warnings and this person, because he didn’t manage expectations and set them intentionally too high as a part of his sales protocol, is no longer even doing weekend sales events for a living.    

The take-away from this article should be two-fold. If you pay attention to the details of what the person who you are selling is hearing and don’t simply “play it by ear” or “shoot from the hip”, you will be in a better position to influence what they hear and to manage their expectations. It is extremely helpful, since selling is your profession, to role play and mess around with different approaches and scripts with your colleagues so that you learn how you “pull off” to the prospects in front of you. All great musicians had teachers, athletes have trainers and past coaches, successful business people have mentors and role models. They all took time to educate themselves and to practice their craft. Sales professionals should take a cue from those cultural scenarios and practice so they can ply their trade more successfully. 

In paragraph two, I mentioned the basic length and subject matter of this writing. I hope you trust the author, who has sold many, many millions of dollars of marketing services over the past three decades, as a dependable source of inspiration and advice. I also hope he delivered as promised, properly set and met your expectations.

Happy Selling!                                                                                                                                                                                       Jack           


Jack Klinefelter
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