In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the protagonist, Willy Loman, is an ageing salesman at the end of a less than stellar career.
Unable to accept that he is becoming obsolete, he instead blames his failings on an ever-increasing population. ‘There’s more people! That’s what’s ruining this country! The competition is maddening!’, he laments bitterly at one point.
For many, Loman is symbolic of the millions of white-collar employees who have outlived their corporate usefulness. Despite being written in 1949, modern parallels with Loman’s story are becoming increasingly recognizable.
In a world where technology has transformed whole industries practically overnight, businesses (and, especially, businesspeople) are judged on their ability to evolve and adapt. Eerily, Charles Darwin’s frequently misquoted adage is more relevant than ever; ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change’.
Nowhere was this change more overdue than in sales.
For well over a hundred years, sales scripts have dominated the way that companies do business. As early as 1884, John H. Patterson (founder of the National Cash Register Company) required all his salespeople to memorise identical sales scripts with which to stultify would-be customers.
As the NCSR grew, so too did the length of these sales scripts, burgeoning from a brief introduction entitled ‘How I Sell National Cash Registers’, into a 200-page monstrosity that wouldn’t have looked out of place next to a copy of Hamlet.
This is only a slight exaggeration. Not only did these scripts give salespeople a word-by-word guide of what they should say, they even included stage directions, marked with asterisks. These indicated that at that specific moment, the salesperson should pause to point at a particular feature of a product.
Over time, similar scripts began to creep into sales departments across the world. In an era where salespeople held all the cards, they performed very well indeed. Moreover, for large corporations that emphasised uniformity, they were a perfect fit.
Unfortunately, that era has come to an abrupt end. Salespeople no longer possess a monopoly on knowledge about a product, and a quick Google search allows a would-be customer to garner both reviews and an idea of what similar products are on the market. The proverbial playing field has been well and truly levelled.
With prospects now in control, the most successful salespeople of the 21st century have radically overhauled the way they communicate with their customers. The stable conditions that made selling via a script so appealing have been replaced with unpredictability. In this environment, the safety net offered by a script has all but disappeared.
When every conversation is different, salespeople are forced to think on their feet. The best have learned have turned this process into an art form:
They have learned how to improvise.
“When every conversation is different, salespeople are forced to think on their feet. The best have learned have turned this process into an art form: They have learned how to improvise.”
If you’re like most of us, the word ‘improvisation’ probably fills you with dread. Depending on how theatrically minded you are, it immediately conjures one of several images. For some, ‘improvisation’ reminds them of a time where things didn’t go according to plan and, in a state of panic, they had to try and make something up on the spot. For others, it reminds them of a cringe-inducing theatre troupe, desperately trying to solicit laughs from a decidedly unimpressed audience. Both of these views have more than a little truth to them.
Improvisation is, by definition, chaotic. But the best improvisers know that it’s possible to add at least some semblance of order to the chaos. In his bestselling book; To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink recommends that salespeople can achieve this by always adhering to three key rules:
1) Hear Offers
If you’ve ever seen decent theatrical improv, you may have found yourself doubting that they are actually making it up on the spot. The plot-lines flow so naturally, and the cast seem so in sync that it’s easy to believe they must be following a pre-rehearsed script. How can something entirely unplanned turn out so slick?
The answer, counter-intuitively, lies not in what improvisers say but rather in what they hear. They listen to one another.
As simple as this may sound, it is sometimes astounding as to how bad most of us are at listening to others. As Pink points out, ‘for many of us, the opposite of talking isn’t listening. It’s waiting. When others speak, we typically divide our attention between what they’re saying now and what we’re going to say next – and end up doing a mediocre job at both.’
Ever since sales first became a professional discipline, salespeople have been taught how to ‘overcome objections’, when dealing with customers. This represents the antithesis of good improvisation. Whereas ‘overcoming objections’ involves forcing your point of view onto a customer, hearing offers necessitates seeing the world from their perspective. According to the rules of improv, the aim should always be to listen without listening for anything in particular, and take in anything and everything someone says as an offer to be acted upon.
Like many salespeople, I’ve done my fair share of cold (or at most, lukewarm) calls. My first job out of school saw me attempting to convince skeptical alumni to donate money for various building projects. I discovered that often, the hardest part was simply keeping them on the phone. Perhaps understandably, many were not overly pleased to receive an unsolicited phone call from an eighteen-year-old upstart asking them to part with their hard-earned cash. Learning to ‘hear offers’ gave me the impetus to deal with common rejections in a new and powerful way. ‘Sorry, I can’t talk right now’ suddenly became an offer to call them back at a more convenient time. ‘I can’t afford to donate £500’ became an offer to donate a smaller amount instead. Even ‘I hated that school, why would I want to donate any money?’ was an offer for me to ask about their grievances, and explain how much it had changed.
2) Say ‘Yes, and…’
The second rule for improvisation is perhaps the most well known, the concept of ‘Yes, and….’
‘Yes, and…’ involves latching on to something that another person has said and running with it. The result is that the conversation can quickly take an unexpected turn. An incredible example of this in a theatrical context can be seen in the improvised sketches from Drew Carey’s ‘Improvaganza’.
Whether or not you find the sketches entertaining, you have to admit that the sheer speed with which they respond to one another is impressive. In a comic environment like this, the benefits of a ‘Yes, and…’ approach are obvious, but this technique also holds advantages for salespeople looking to influence others.
When you are following a sales script, the conversation is inherently artificial – it can only go in one direction and there is absolutely no room for deviation. If, on the other hand, you simply run with what a customer is saying, you can uncover information that you would have otherwise been oblivious to, thereby opening a new dimension to the conversation, and relationship.
Imagine speaking to a customer, and as an aside they tell you that they’ve just been on holiday. Whereas this detail would be totally irrelevant to a salesperson following a script, for an improviser it is a potential goldmine. Diverting from the ‘point’ in the conversation for a few minutes might reveal, say, a shared love of skiing or a shared hatred of flying. Knowing these small, seemingly pointless details about a customer are critical in developing a relationship. All of a sudden, the conversation becomes less of a pitch and more of a, well, conversation.
Importantly, ‘Yes, and…’ builds positive momentum. This is in contrast to its much commoner and more destructive sibling: ‘Yes, but…’. Whereas the former keeps moves the conversation forward with you both aligned, ‘Yes, but…’ does the opposite. The focus is suddenly on where you disagree, rather than what you have in common.
3) Make Your Partner Look Good
When on stage, actors know that if their performance bombs, it makes the whole cast look bad. When actors improvise, the threat is even more acute. It is all too easy to inadvertently back your partner into a corner through what you say and how you act. Once you reach this stage, the performance is as good as over.
The same is true in sales.
If a customer raises objections, the worst course of action is to rise to the challenge. Instead, experts suggest that the best course of action is to use neutral terminology. Concerns about a product or service can be countered by asking questions to try and identify why the customer feels that way. As Pink writes, the aim is not to ‘defeat’ your conversation partner, but to learn about why they hold a certain point of view. With learning as the conversation’s objective, any sense of competition suddenly vanishes.
In the modern world, the words of Alfred Fuller, are more poignant than ever:
‘Never argue,’ he wrote. ‘To win an argument is to lose a sale’.
By Callum Woodcock (@CDWoodcock)