Sales: The right words

A few weeks ago I was in a client meeting. There were maybe 15 salespeople, a few managers, and the VP of sales in the room.

Toward the end of the meeting, wanting to lighten things up as the meeting was wrapping toward a close, I deliberately said something that directly contradicted what I had just spent a few hours teaching them. I immediately followed with, “Remember, do as I say, not as I do!”

The VP promptly responded with, “Jerry, in your case, that’s the same thing, isn’t it?”  Indeed it is. 

More than once I’ve made the point in these pages that words are to selling what numbers are to accounting and molecules are to chemistry. Words – not products, not relationships, not personalities – are the basic building block of the business of selling.

And as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.” Never was this truer than it is in selling. 

Everyone knows that salespeople use words to describe their value proposition, demo products and whatnot. Certainly, the choice of words is important here. But the real value of words goes much deeper than this traditional application. 

The words we use to request customer meetings and to frame those meetings up at the start are among the most important – and underleveraged – application for the power of words.

Let’s look at three different types of sales situations to see how words determine success or failure of the interaction.


Situation #1: The Cold Call

You’re sitting at home. It’s been a long day, and it’s dinner time. The phone rings. You look at the caller ID and reads “unknown number.” Reluctantly, you pick it up.

“Hello Mr. Smith, this is So-And-So from XYZ Company.  How are you?”

Darn! You think to yourself, another one got past the do-not-call list!

We all know that there is no worse choice of words for starting a cold call than “how are you?” But why are these words so deadly? Most people say it’s because they’re not sincere. 

Oh really? Nothing personal, but, guess what…when you get a call from any of your friends and he or she opens the phone call with “how are you?” she doesn’t really care how you are. How are you is simply a way of opening a phone conversation with someone you know. There is nothing whatsoever disingenuous about it. It’s just our way of breaking the ice before starting the rest of the conversation.

When salespeople do cold calls, they reason that they need to break the ice and build rapport before getting into their pitch. Unfortunately, every salesperson in history has opened cold calls this way. So over the thousands of years that cold calls have been happening the human race – out of instinct for survival – has trained its mind to recognize that these three words signal a clear and present danger…so they hang up and run for their lives.

I believe there’s really only one way to open a cold call (and hundreds of client salespeople are doing it this way every single day): “Hi Mr. Smith, this is So-And-So from XYZ Company; sort of calling you out of the blue here. Could I take just a second to tell you why I’m calling?” That’s it. I call it the perfect cold call language.

Interestingly, if you change “second” to “minute” the hit rate drops way down. The reason for this is that the word “minute” is dangerously close to, “…Got a minute?”


Situation #2:

Meeting with a current customer

In any ongoing customer relationship there are times when you as the salesperson need to leave the day-to-day conversations with the customer aside and have a meeting whose sole purpose is making sure you’re staying in touch with what’s going on in that customer’s business and organization. 

The words you use to request this meeting are critical. It’s easy to assume that because you know this contact well that you can just start asking the questions you want to ask.  Try this some time…the customer feels interrogated.

Or you might casually say that you’d like to “ask him a few questions about his business.” At which point he says, “What kind of questions do you want to ask?” 

In fact, even though you’re going to be looking for information in such a meeting, if you use the word “information” in almost any context in your request you will find the customer almost suspicious… “what kind of information are you talking about?” he’ll say. Using the word “needs” anywhere in this request ends up being a problem, too because all salespeople say “needs” all the time.

A great way to request (it’s really about positioning the meeting, not just getting it) this customer meeting is to use words something like, “I’d like to take a step back, go into homework mode, and get my arms around the bigger picture business issues here at XYZ.” This choice of words is unbelievably disarming.


Situation #3:

Any customer meeting

At the start or end of almost any meeting with a prospect or customer, salespeople instinctively use words like, “thanks for your time,” or “I know you’re busy.” Despite their best intentions, these words reinforce the default “master/servant” relationship that exists throughout the customer/seller ecosystem, not the “business peer” relationship what we all desire.

How about instead saying, “I’ve been looking forward to our meeting, glad we could get our calendars to connect?” These words sound more mutual, don’t they?

Words matter…a lot. And remember, it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear. 


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