February 2, 2010

The Silence Ploy

By William F. Kendy

Most salespeople love to talk. They think their selling proposition is so good that any prospect or customer is just dying to hear it – again and again. Okay, let’s grant that a presentation based on a valid selling proposition is a good sales tool. Even an essential sales tool. But the fact is, no matter how impressive the presentation is, it’s only one tool in the arsenal of closing a sale. And most salespeople have another powerful weapon that they seldom use. It’s the power of silence.

Most salespeople feel uncomfortable during a silence. They get excited about their products and services. They love what they sell so much that it’s hard to believe that other people aren’t as excited as they are. If the customer knew what they know about their products and services, there is no reason why they shouldn’t buy. All the pent-up enthusiasm makes it hard for salespeople to just be quiet. By learning when and how to use silence as a selling tool, the emotional weight of a sale can shift to the customer who wants to fill the silence by talking. And then the salesperson can elicit information useful for closing the sale. Here’s how it works.

To determine where silence fits into the selling process, Selling Power talked to Roger Volkema, chair of the management department at Kogod School of Business at the American University in Washington, DC, and Robert Bly, a consultant and director of the Center for Technical Communications in Dumont, NJ.

There is a long-standing adage that if salespeople talk more than 20 percent of the time, they’re talking too much. “I hate old saws, but part of the reason that they have survived is that they’re true,” says Bly. “The old adage that people have two ears and one mouth and should listen twice as much as they talk is absolutely right. I personally believe that a salesperson, or any person for that matter, should listen 80 percent of the time.”

“Salespeople need to remember that their job is to perform a service and focus the spotlight on their prospects and customers,” says Volkema. “Information plays a major role in selling and the only way to discover what is important to the prospect is by asking questions, carefully listening to the answers, and letting the customers talk.

“That doesn’t mean that salespeople shouldn’t use reaffirmation phrases every once in a while to send the prospect a signal that they are listening, it just means that they shouldn’t ramble and they should keep their chatter to a minimum,” says Volkema. “The less they talk the more they’ll learn.”

Bly has some tips for salespeople to hone their listening skills. “I don’t think that listening is exceptionally hard work, but I do think that salespeople need to concentrate on doing it,” says Bly. “There are some little tricks of the trade to help salespeople become better listeners.

“We’re taught to lean forward when we’re listening, but leaning forward doesn’t make your ears any better. When you lean forward and pretend you’re listening, you do end up listening,” says Bly. “It’s the same thing with responses like, ‘I understand’ or ‘Let me get this straight.’ In order not to get caught mentally wandering by the prospect, a salesperson actually does have to listen.

“Repeating back to the customer what they just said also forces salespeople to listen,” says Bly. “The neat part is that if the salesperson is quiet while the customer is reiterating his or her thoughts, there may be additional gems of information that come out.”

When salespeople are faced with silence, either over the phone or in person, most of them can’t stand the pressure. All they need to do is to patiently wait for the prospect or customer to respond.

“To be quiet for five seconds face-to-face or 10 seconds on the phone is an eternity for salespeople,” says Bly. “And they have to realize that, in most cases, prospects dislike silence as much as they do.

“If a salesperson is in a conversation with a prospect and there are some moments of silence, chances are that the salesperson will start talking first. That puts them at a disadvantage,” says Bly. “I totally believe that in sales or any negotiations, the first person to speak loses.”

Volkema agrees. “In any negotiation, especially in the closing process, when the moment of truth comes and the deal is about to be finished, if there is a moment of silence, the person who speaks first is probably the one who needs the deal the most and is the most likely to capitulate,” says Volkema. “The person becomes paranoid and wants to fill that void and in doing so, sends a signal of vulnerability.”

“The worst part about being the first to talk is that what salespeople may say can open up a new can of worms,” notes Bly. “If a salesperson asks if there is a concern about deliverability, the customer may think to himself, ‘Should I be worried about delivery?’ and that can bring up an unneeded new negotiation point.”

According to Volkema, salespeople should utilize a tactic called “bracketing in silence.” “Bracketing in silence is where a salesperson focuses the prospect’s attention on a specific item or idea. The salesperson is completely silent while the prospect answers and doesn’t say a word until they are completely finished,” says Volkema. “For example, a car salesperson may ask a customer how they would like to be driving a brand new Mercedes this afternoon and then the customer takes off on it. Once you get a customer empowered and talking, you’ll be surprised at what you can find out and how much leverage you actually have.”

“Utilizing silence is both a tactic and a technique, a strategy and a skill, and it has a place in each step in the selling process,” says Volkema. “For example, when a customer airs an objection, leave a silent pause before you repeat the objection back to them in the form of a question. Then another moment of silence after the affirmation lends some drama to the exchange. It puts the responsibility of further explaining the objection in the customer’s court.”