How To Fail At Getting Your Point Across To A Prospect


Saturday, 9.04pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I’ve had a few days where I haven’t been able to write, for various reasons. And that makes things difficult, because the point of a routine or habit is to keep it going. An interruption feels like going backwards, like having to start again.

But we’ve got to do that all the time. Cope with rejection, failure and disappointment and keep going. Interruptions and obstacles are simply part of the process.

So, what shall we look at today?

I’ve been thinking about communicating, about getting your point across.

If you’ve written a document trying to describe what you do, the chances are that you understand every word you’ve written, every point you’re making.

That’s because you’re familiar with everything – familiar with the terminology and jargon and customs of your field.

So what’s actually happening in your mind? What is it that is going on when you try and explain something to someone else?

One of my favourite books is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance and this explains a very important concept in a couple of pages.

Many years ago, I struggled to learn Chemistry. Years later, I found it impossible to understand electrical power systems.

To understand why, let’s see how Pirsig might teach you about a motorcycle.

To understand a motorcycle, he writes, you need to understand its components and functions.

Starting with the components, you can divide them into a power assembly and a running assembly.

The power assembly has an engine with a power train, with cylinders, pistons, connecting rods….

And so on for a page or so. Just like you’d read in a textbook about motorcycle maintenance.

Then, he stops, and explains that there are four things happening here as this description is taking place – actually five.

The first of the five, the one that will turn 98% of the people reading off, is that this is boring, boring, boring. All this talk of functions and components and whatever else. Who needs to know this stuff?

But, if you can get past this point, then there are a few other things that you don’t often pick up.

The first is that if you don’t know what a motorcycle is already, this lesson won’t help you understand what one is.

If you don’t have a picture of a motorcycle in your head – if you can’t see the things that the teacher is referring to – this description will not make the pictures pop into your head.

This is why I struggled with electrical systems. I had never seen a protective relay or seen one in action – and the description and academic discussion about it just made no sense whatsoever.

This is the same problem I have when trying to explain why I use plain text and a command line interface to manage this blog to someone whose entire experience of using a computer is on a Windows platform with a mouse.

It’s the same problem you’ll have explaining your thirty years of marine engineering experience to a graduate student doing his first procurement internship.

If your prospect doesn’t already know what you’re trying to explain, all the words in the world won’t help her get it.

You’ll need to start with words she understands already, concepts that make sense to her right now.

The second thing is that the observer – the person – disappears

Pirsig points out that many descriptions of things completely leave out any mention of people and how they relate to the thing.

Say you’re selling a software product. You might spend lots and lots of time describing all the features of the product, all the things it can do.

How often do you ask to speak with the person that will actually use your product. Or give an example of how a particular person in a different company used your product to make a difference to the way she worked?

You see this with companies all the time. They are too worried that if they inject any personality into what they do, identify any individuals, then they won’t look serious or professional enough.

As a result, they hide behind vague mission statements, promising everything to everyone and never actually clearly saying what they do.

But the fact is that you don’t do business with a company. You do business with people at that company – and the way in which you feel about the company is how you feel about the way the people in that company treat you.

One of the biggest things to remember if you’re selling to someone is to make that person the centre of your focus, not your product.

It’s not about you and your product. It’s about them and their problem.

The third thing is that value judgements disappear

When you’re talking to someone you want to make a good impression. You often want to please them, to make them happy.

The problem with this approach is that you can end up saying nothing really at all – simply agreeing with a prospect and getting forgotten by them later.

The way you stand out in any space is by taking a stand, taking a position.

And that usually means having values – having a view on what is good and what is bad.

The worst kind of place to be is neutral. Neutral means that you don’t care which approach is good or bad – you’ll just take the one that meets your targets or makes the most money or whatever else.

If you’re doing a consultative sale, however, you have a duty to help your prospect make the best decisions for him or her. And that means saying what is right and not just what is convenient.

The argument against this approach is one where you say that your job is to give the prospect all the information and her job is to make a decision.

That’s all very well. The reason you do that, however, is not because it’s a good way to be but because that way you can’t be sued if things turn out badly.

But, if the lawyers had their way, the safest thing for you to do is nothing at all – just don’t do any business and you’ll have no problems – other than the problem of paying their fee.

So… to make a real difference.. get off the fence and have a point of view.

The final thing to notice is that it’s all in your mind

All this talk of structures and components and functions is simply a creation of your mind or someone else’s mind.

It’s not reality. Reality is a collection of lumps of metal and plastic and rubber that combine to make the motorcycle.

So what came first – the motorcycle or its description?

Pirsig calls this a deadly analytic scalpel, so quick that you don’t even realise what’s happening.

It’s easy to assume that systems are fixed – they’ve always been that way.

If you’re doing sales certain methods work – the Challenger approach, the SPIN system.

What you miss is that all these structures were drawn after people saw what happened and tried to come up with a way to describe what was going in.

It’s not reality – it’s a model. It’s not even a model of reality… it’s just a model in your head.

Okay, this is getting a little abstract, so here’s the point.

Let’s take something like racism. You’d agree it’s abhorrent.

A hundred years ago, it was normal.

Seeing women as inferior to men was just the way it was not that long ago. That’s not the case now – although in certain parts of the world men are fighting to keep things the way they were.

The point is that your prospect has certain ways of thinking, certain structures already in her mind. She sees the world in a certain way and describes and justifies how she thinks.

So, if your approach or face or gender doesn’t fit the prospect’s way of thinking, you won’t succeed.

It doesn’t say anything about you… it’s just the way things are in that situation.

Which is why you should pay no attention to results or outcomes.

The only thing you can influence is process – what you do.

Whether you succeed or not, meet targets or not, is simply irrelevant.

If you focus on doing the best you can do, things will work out. And if they don’t, that doesn’t matter either.

Because all that stuff, the results, the outcome, the structure, the system – they’re all constructs in someone’s mind.

They don’t matter.

The way you live your life does.

So, in summary…

If you’re trying to get your point across to someone, start by putting her in the centre of your picture, not the product or service you’re trying to sell.

Try and see things from her point of view, ask questions that help you understand how she understands the world she’s in.

Get clear on what is good and bad – about what you do, and about how you can help.

Finally, try and work towards a common structure and model and description. Don’t try and cut and paste something you’ve done before – create something that both you and your prospect can look at and understand together.

If you can do that, have that kind of conversation, you’ll know what they need and be able to put forward a proposal and a pitch that will work for them.

One that you can win.


Karthik Suresh

ps. As a reminder, this is the tenth post in a series that I’m planning on eventually collecting into a book on Consultative Selling . If you are reading this and are interested in this topic, please let me have any feedback, good or bad, so I can make this as useful and easy to read for you as possible.

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