Embracing Conflict is a Natural Part of Sales

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Part I

Twenty-five years ago I was going door to door working for a consumer protection organization in Boston. Every day we would meet about 3 pm go over a little training and then walk

the neighborhoods in and around Boston from 5-9 pm. In my time there, I met a fellow who was a master canvasser which in the non-profit world basically means a master door to door fundraiser. He was an ex-Harvard Law grad who had found his niche in the non-profit world of canvassing. It was not uncommon for him to come back to our office with $300 or $400. Though the amount may seem small, this was not easy.

From the savant canvasser I learned the art of persuasively communicating enough  information in a couple of minutes that  resulted in people reaching for their  checkbook. He would tell me that you do not  want to be so overly friendly at the door that  you forget why you’re there. He would  emphasize and share, “You are not their friend,  a little tension is OK, sometimes this is  what it takes for them to make a decision.” Now  over two decades later, I deeply  understand his teaching that tension and even conflict are normal and a natural part of selling.

Today, the salespeople I work with and coach struggle immensely with this concept. Many feel the need to go overboard ingratiating themselves to the customer.  It’s unnecessary if they are clear about the value their solution will provide and willing to ask tough questions.  In these moments, people reveal critical information that helps sales professionals understand their customer’s situation and how their organization operates.

Gathering this type of information gives the salesperson an incredible advantage over competitors who choose to avoid these questions.  In fact, great salespeople look for these moments and embrace them. They welcome deep significant conversations which reveal the true reality of their prospect’s situation.  This enables them to offer solutions that take into account the customer’s real problems.

Being liked is not the secret ingredient that produces sales. The secret recipe of my success is asking tough and probing questions, a willingness to embrace tension and conflict and solving real problems for my customers.

Part 2

I was on a teleconference yesterday talking with the COO of a $90 million dollar company.  This particular company buys an amount equal to the total sales of my client.  Landing this customer would be a huge win for us.  We have been chasing this company for numerous years and have met with them a handful of times.  We have quoted doing 3-4 of their projects.

We talked for about 15 minutes and the COO was clarifying some of the details about the quote.  The conversation was part negotiation and part him expressing his company’s position.  As the conversation was winding to a close, I asked him if he had any more questions.  He said that he didn’t and then I asked him,

“Are you going to give us this business?”

The purpose of our efforts over the last 5 years culminated in this question.  The moment of truth arrived.  My client and I sat quietly waiting for his response.

I was absolutely interested in his answer and was hoping for a resounding “yes” but I also asked the question for other reasons.  Whenever we begin establishing a relationship with a new prospect, we are committed to laying a foundation where our customers/prospects can be honest with us and tell us their unvarnished opinion.  I would rather have concerns or critical feedback communicated directly to me rather than left unsaid.

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock…..

I was asking for the order but more importantly, I was opening us up to hear information we may not want to hear.  When I say to other salespeople that they have to embrace conflict or embrace bad news, this is the point. Have the courage to ask tough questions.

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock…..

When people feel like they can answer your questions honestly and openly they start to trust you.

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock…..

I am not going to tell you how he responded; this would obscure my point.  The point is to ask clarifying questions throughout the sales process – not just when you are asking for the business.  Send the message to your prospective customers that they can say what they need to say regardless of whether this is good for you or not.  Be willing to hear bad news and embrace disagreements. Professional sales is the byproduct of strong relationships.  Strong relationships happen when people feel like they can say what they need to say.

Part 3

The willingness to ask questions and to artfully challenge or question preconceived notions is critical for your success in sales or executive management.

Just recently I was in a meeting with a prospective customer for my company. We were meeting with the president and the VP of Sales. One of my sales guys had arranged the meeting on a cold-call so the two we were meeting with did not know much about us.  We help companies grow by bringing in new customers so if you are the sales manager for a prospective customer you may not be enthralled with meeting with us. A sales manager can and many times does see us as a threat or an admission that he/she is not doing a good job, however, this is many times not the case. There are many reasons a company may not be growing and attracting new customers and in many instances, it is inaccurate to simply blame the salespeople.

In this particular meeting, the VP of Sales was clearly unenthusiastic about our visit. After the meeting had lasted about 30 minutes and we had a pretty good understanding of their situation, I said to the VP, “Obviously you are skeptical?” I then finished my sentence and turned to him to allow him to respond. His body language and the way he participated in the meeting was shouting out that he resented being in this meeting with us. He responded saying, “I am not skeptical” and then he said a few more things and realized that he was not being honest and admitted that he was very skeptical.

There you have it, the importance of embracing conflict and dealing with the obvious. When I spoke directly to the situation I gave him the opportunity to verbalize the information that he was feeling. He commented on a few concerns, many of which I had frankly heard before. I did not address his concerns at this point in the sales cycle. It would not have made a difference. The important thing was to get him to put those concerns on the table. By doing this we established a precedent:  We will address the obvious and we are not afraid of bad news. 

The significance of doing this cannot be overstated. Success in sales is dependent on gaining trust. In this simple act, we sent a message that we understand that discussing significant organizational challenges starts with a willingness to deal with the obvious. Break through success does not happen by avoiding conflict but by embracing it.

Now, I have no idea whether this prospect will turn into a customer. We are just beginning so time will tell. I can say with certainty though, we made an impression and our chances of doing business with them are significantly higher because of how we handled ourselves in this first meeting.