One of the side effects of today’s more informed buyer is an increase in customer cynicism – even to the point where they’ll, at times, reject purchases that are to their benefit. Therefore, sales reps need to be aware of this built-in skepticism and work to overcome it.
A Harvard research experiment found that almost 80% of buyers were willing to purchase from a computer seller, whereas just 45% were willing to buy from a human seller – even when the transaction would have been to the buyer’s benefit (thereby illustrating the truth of Oscar Wilde’s witticism that “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”). The researchers followed that up with a second experiment, where over 75% of buyers purchased from a human seller where no communication was allowed, compared to just over 50% when communication was allowed. Curiously enough, three-quarters of sellers who weren’t allowed to communicate believed they could sell more effectively if they could communicate.
The implications of this are fascinating and potentially far-reaching if applied to the sales world. It lends credence to the idea that AI will increasingly take over the transactional aspects of sales, as there’s an attendant perception that the AI, being a program, has no ulterior motives and nothing to gain from the sale. This forecast (already occurring in some companies) means that future sales reps will likely need to be focused more than ever on relationship-building and consultative sales – if they’re transactional, they’ll be replaced by the cheaper, quicker, more effective AI. The findings also illustrate that sales reps might tend to overestimate their selling abilities.
But the biggest takeaway is that the very act of the sales conversation can bring cynicism to the table, and sales reps will need to take this wariness into account. More significantly, they’ll have to elevate the relationship to Trusted Advisor status and erase the ingrained cynicism if they want to be successful not only in the short-term sale, but in the long-term customer relationship and earning cycle.
- Let the customer help set the conversation’s pace and flow. One of the most surprising revelations of the aforementioned experiment – even when human sellers revealed all the relevant information and gave full disclosure, buyers were still wary of making beneficial purchases. Thus, the content of the communication didn’t matter as much as whether or not the buyer trusted the seller. From a real world sales perspective, that means not jumping into the sales pitch. In the older sales philosophy, this delay was handled via small talk. We’re more advanced and sophisticated in our sales approach these days, and thus focus on relationship building and discovery in the early phases – a mutual qualification process. Part of trust-building involves letting the customer control as much of the conversation as is reasonable. Of course, as a sales rep, you’ll want to make sure the discussion stays on track, on time, and on task – but giving the customer leeway will make them feel more comfortable and trusting. Much of the skill in navigating the conversation lies in knowing the buyer persona you’re dealing with and how to interact with them.
- Ask relevant questions. While empathy and putting yourself in the buyer’s shoes is important, it’s just as critical to avoid falling into the trap of assuming (insert the old line about what assuming does). That can impair your ability to make the sale, as your assumptions could well prove incorrect. To sidestep that error, ask questions that will draw out information about the client’s thoughts, feelings, and situation. Whether this involves fact-finding discovery questions, taking the temperature of the buyer’s receptiveness, or simply verifying the customer’s understanding of your product and process, questions are a great way to establish trust. Just don’t turn it into an interrogation. Instead, develop a back and forth dialogue and be sure to make it conversational.
- Consider openly acknowledging the cynicism. This won’t work for every scenario and buyer, but one of the most effective ways of talking about the cynical elephant in the room is to acknowledge its presence. You can say something like, “I know you’ve probably had a lot of these conversations with other sales reps, so you’re naturally cautious of all of us. So let’s talk about your concerns and I’ll answer them honestly and openly, because I want to do what’s best for you.” It’s an approach similar to group projects you might have done in school with students you didn’t know. Someone may have directly commented something like, “Well, this is totally weird and awkward to be thrown together like this.”, leading to laughter and a natural follow-up of people introducing themselves. It openly acknowledged the awkwardness and broke the tension in the room.
Buyer cynicism is a factor that every sales rep needs to be aware of and take into account. By seeking to neutralize it as an issue, sales professionals can foster an atmosphere of trust and mutual benefit that leads to more sales and longer-lasting relationships.