By Biff Matthews
I recently read Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. The book addresses how to communicate more effectively in our business and personal lives - specifically, how to prepare for high-stakes situations, transfer anger and hurt into dialogue, be persuasive rather than abrasive, and perhaps most notably, make the atmosphere safe for people to talk about virtually anything.
From a sales standpoint, of course, every conversation with a prospect is critical. And "safety" is paramount. That means first asking a current or prospective customer, Is this a good time for you and I to talk?
With permission, all else is possible.
The second tenet is the most effective tool we have: effective listening. This is defined as listening to the views of others, clearly understanding and stating your objective (remember Stephen Covey's Habit No. 2: Begin with the end in mind) and being respectful.
With mutual respect and an agreed-upon goal - such as to determine if a given solution is worth exploring - you're off to the races. However, when the environment becomes "unsafe," the result is tense silence or even a verbal altercation. At that point, participants either withdraw or verbally pounce. Providing tools for managing such unfortunate but common developments is part of the book's mission.
Unfortunately, humans are hardwired to compete and, at best, cooperate primarily with fellow tribe members - sometimes to the exclusion of others. Evolution has not served our 21st century selves very well when it comes to creating harmony. We have to work at it, but those who master it truly have power. So the first idea is to clarify the objectives - starting with your own. The idea the authors advocate is to "start with heart." Ask yourself the following:
As a salesperson, the right reason for engaging in dialogue is to benefit your prospective customer.
With effective listening comes effective observation, which is a bit like being a third party. To do this, you must be distanced from your own point of view, aware of the present and sensitive to the particulars of a situation. Effective observation lets you see when tensions are rising and determine when safety becomes an issue as both you and another person grow increasingly stressed.
Few of us respond optimally when trouble starts to brew. Effective listening and astute observation are acquired skills. Mastering them requires commitment and practice. The alternative is to always be on either the offensive or defensive, both of which are counterproductive.
One major key to the authors' shared philosophy is the idea that we communicate and reach decisions in four essential ways: We command, we consult, we vote or we build a consensus. Everything in life involves decisions. How these are managed determines how successful we will be.
Whether you're dealing with a boss or a child, the fact is you are selling your ideas. You have strong feelings, and in your opinion, there are good reasons for your point of view. But to make your case, large or small, you must first make it safe.
So tell your prospect or customer you'd like to take just five minutes to exchange some ideas. Emphasize that if the prospect would like to explore things further after that time, you will do that together. Establish that your primary task is determining whether there is good reason to move forward.
The underlying idea is that you are there to show your solution because it is right for the prospect, and you won't make money unless your prospect saves money. The purpose behind the conversation is to identify mutual benefits. And if you can't find a common purpose, nothing will happen.
As sales professionals, we need to take the lead in showing the way to meaningful conversations. In a sales environment, simply state the facts. Start with the easiest ones first: Tell your story.
If prospects resist, let them create another path by way of what the authors call "talking tentatively." Ask them, If I do x, could we do y? Even with a child, it is not about the journey; it's about the destination. That applies here. If two people agree on a conclusion, how they get there is somewhat immaterial.
If a merchant says he or she cannot break a contract for POS equipment, ask whether you'd be able to move forward together if you found a way to take back or program the equipment so the merchant's investment would not be diminished. After all, the goal is getting the processing business - even if you give up the equipment, you both still get to the goal.
Some of the concepts in Crucial Conversations reminded me of the Sandler Sales System. Sandler suggests that salespeople state up front: "I have found a process that helps us reach a logical conclusion quickly - a conclusion that's right for you. Do you mind if we go through this process?" This may seem formulaic, but it's highly effective, and when practiced and personalized it does not sound like a packaged technique.
Crucial Conversations is a good book. Warning: If you read it fast, you may feel like an anaconda that has just swallowed a large mammal. There's lots of digesting to do and lots of practice required. You need to take what's there, make it personal and practice it.
One final thought. There's a chapter in the book called "Yeah, but": Yeah, but my situation is different; yeah, but I made a change just last week; yeah, but, I don't have time for homework. People have come up with dozens of reasons why "crucial conversation" skills won't work in a particular situation. The authors describe 17 such instances, none of which is more compelling than the ones we stare in the face every day.
Remember, when resistance is in the air, good tools are powerful.
Biff Matthews is President of Thirteen Inc., the parent company of CardWare International, based in Heath, Ohio. He is one of 12 founding members of the Electronic Transactions Association, serving on its board, advisory board and committees. Call him at 740-522-2150, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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