Word processors

There are a few subjects I just keep coming back to. Language is one of them, and for good reason: it’s one of the most important tools in sales.

Last month, I illustrated how customers – like all people – use automatic thinking. They don’t analyze what salespeople say and do. They process those things using intellectual shortcuts and stereotypes that they don’t even know they’re using.

This month, I’ll show how the salesperson’s words profoundly affect the automatic thinking customer’s reaction to him or her.

As I’ve pointed out recently, as salespeople we’re battling an inborn disadvantage: the customer’s negative stereotype about us. Our task is to change that customer’s automatic thinking so that when we’re with the customer, the interaction itself is our differentiation – our core value proposition, our source of trust.

The words we use are a critical trigger for automatic thinking. Pick the wrong ones and we’re dead. Pick the right ones, and suddenly the world looks very, very new.

There’s no more obvious example than in politics.

Death and taxes

When politicians working to cut inheritance taxes started calling them “death taxes,” says pollster Frank Luntz, “that changed the course of legislative history.” Luntz helped promote “death tax” in the 1990s, and in the following decade, federal inheritance tax rates have fallen and the amount of an estate exempt from them has gone up.

The subtitle of Luntz’s book “Words That Work” explains it all: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.

And then there were comments that President Barack Obama made after an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: “No matter how much we improve regulation of the industry…” the president said.

The president knew that talk of “increasing regulation” would likely have prompted mixed public sentiment and outright turned off many people. But who can argue with “improving” regulation – which of course meant the same thing?

So the words we choose and avoid can send our listener’s automatic thinking in one of two opposite directions. 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.”

“How are you?”

You’re at your desk when the phone rings. When you answer, the caller, someone you’ve never met, asks, “How are you?”

Your reaction? Whether you’ll admit it now or not, will probably be that you want to say something disparaging and hang up. Your automatic thinking tells you, “This is a salesperson. I don’t trust salespeople.” Your negative reaction is instinctive.

Change the scene. You’re on your way home and stop at the grocery to pick up a few items. In the checkout lane the cashier asks, “How are you?”

The clerk doesn’t know you any better – and probably doesn’t care about your answer any more – than the sales caller. But this time, your automatic thinking reacts differently: this is a routine pleasantry as our transaction gets underway. “Fine, thanks. How are you,” you say with a smile.

Warming up the cold call

Let’s go back to the first scenario – only this time, let’s say you are the sales caller.

How can you change the automatic thinking of the person picking up the phone? Not by adopting some phony, folksy charm. Remember, that act just reinforces the built-in negative image of the sales person.

Try this approach:

“Hi Mr. Jones. This is Mark Williams from XYZ Company. I know I’m sort of calling you out of the blue here, but could I take a second to tell you why I’m calling?”

We’ve been teaching salespeople this language for years to open a cold call. It’s been used on thousands. And about 90 percent of the time, the caller is granted the opening to talk. Once more, it’s the automatic thinking at work.

Interestingly, when one salesman I taught casually changed “could I take a second …” to “could I take a minute…,” his hit rate fell to just 25 percent! It’s not that prospects were analyzing his sentence, doing the math, and deciding they didn’t have time because “a minute” was 60 times longer than “a second.” Something about “got a minute” simply triggered the same response as usual: “Salesman. I don’t trust salesmen!”

Choosing your language with care is key to turning those reactions around and converting the prospect’s response from positive to negative. Just remember: customers don’t analyze what you say, they process it using automatic thinking and stereotypes. So you must learn to adapt your language to that processer.

But there’s a bigger picture. To really change your language – and to make the new language not only effective but automatic in its own way – you really need to change something else: Your mindset.

We’ll talk about that next time.

Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Waukesha-based Stapleton Resources LLC (www.stapletonresources.com). He is also the author of the book, “From Vendor to Business Resource.”

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