A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: The Art of the Sales Script

As I mentioned in my wrap-up of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg films, I’ve spent the last few months doing political canvassing for the Colorado elections. You know those people with clipboards who knock on your door just as you’re sitting down to dinner, who want to ask you all sorts of questions about your personal political beliefs? That was me, and if you live in the Denver area, there’s a good chance you slammed your door in my face at least once. But there’s also a good chance you talked to me- in an office with over 100 people, I was among the top 5 in collecting pledges to vote, and I started about a month after most other people in the office had been hired.

The job was fairly basic, and reminded me of my time as a telemarketer more than anything. In both jobs, you’re given a script that you’re expected to go through, and you’re supposed to stick as closely to the script as possible. Both are essentially sales jobs, even though political canvassers don’t ask for money, and your managers will tell you that you should stick to the script because it’s “scientifically tested” to guarantee the maximum amount of sales. Which really raises a bunch of questions: how did they test the script? Did they call large numbers of people with different scripts? Did they adjust the call lists for factors like income, race, and age? Did they have a control group that called people and said nothing? Did some company agree to run the test selling their product, knowing that the vast majority of sales scripts people used were likely to be sub-optimal?

I find all of these scenarios unlikely. But I have lots of experience in sales, and this has entailed a fair amount of training in the skill, and I’m pretty sure I know why sales scripts work: they simply teach the people memorizing them to do everything an experienced sales rep would do naturally. I am no natural salesman – I tend to withdraw from contact if given the chance, and my favorite place to be is in nature, as far from the general population as possible – but one reason I tend to excel in sales jobs is that I analyze and break down my interactions with people, and really try to understand where I connected with them and where I lost them. And so reading through a sales script, I can begin to understand how it’s trying to get those connections with prospective customers (or voters). There are at least five things that all good sales scripts do:

1. Turn the pitch into a conversation
Every script I’ve ever had begins with some little bit of conversational filler: “How are you?” “What’s going on this evening?” “Just wanted to see how you were feeling about your current ISP/Encyclopedia Collection/Governor.” This question usually doesn’t have much to do with your main pitch, and half the time people ignore it or look at you weird when you ask it. Any time I’m observing a beginner salesperson, they’ll start to skip over this bit after about 10 rejections. Which makes sense, right? If you say “How are you?” and the person says “No thanks” and slams the door, you’re better off with a pitch that gets right to the point, right?

Wrong, actually. The scripts begin this way because all salespeople worth their salt are going to begin a pitch by relating to someone, by getting to know them, by appearing interested in their lives- actually, odds are they’re genuinely interested in their prospects’ lives! If you can explain exactly how a product is likely to help a specific person with a specific problem, you’re much more likely to land a sale. And even if you get no pertinent information, starting out with a “How are you?” is going to make people more likely to respond to you with humanity. Go up to a random person on the street and say “How are you?” and chances are, even if they look confused or offended, they’ll tell you how they are. It’s basic social programming: we respond to questions almost automatically, and if we begin speaking to someone, we’re more likely to continue speaking to them- even if we realize halfway through that they’re just trying to sell us something.

2. Frame the pitch in positive terms
Ask someone to try selling a product without giving them any guidance or sales training, and odds are they’ll say something like “Do you want to buy [product]?” or “Do you want to vote for [product candidate]?” Which, again, seems natural, but is problematic: it’s the salesperson’s job to get the customer to want the product, and a neutral pitch like that gives them too much opportunity to reject it. Sales scripts either have pitches that emphasize what the product can do for the customer – “Can we speed up your internet connection with Cox today?” – or emphasizes the customer’s importance – “Can we count on your vote in this election?”

A similar strategy is to assume the customer has already agreed to buy the product: “How many issues of Guns & Ammo can we sign you up for?” In each of these pitches, the burden is placed on the customer to explain why they aren’t willing to buy the product. And there’s social programming at work again- if you act like you believe the customer wants the product, the customer is more likely to actually want the product.

3. Draw attention to the person doing the selling
“You’re not selling the product, you’re selling yourself” is such a cliche at this point, you’d figure most people would have internalized it by now. But people just starting out at sales jobs often don’t even think of this- they think that all they can do is offer the product to people, and those people will take it or leave it. That’s true in a generalized sense, but the truth is that people are much more willing to try something out if they like the person that’s telling them to try it out, and it’s a lot easier to like someone if you can relate to them.

The best sales scripts I’ve seen all have parts that draw at least some attention to the salesperson’s goals: “I’m here to show you what you’ve been missing with your store-bought vacuum cleaner,” “My Girl Scout troop is trying to raise $2500 for our annual trip,” “I’m trying to find 15 people in the neighborhood who are planning to vote Libertarian this election.” This way, the customer isn’t just rejecting the product- they also have to reject the goals of the person selling it, which is way more personal and therefore more uncomfortable.

It’s at this point that I’ll mention something that I hear a lot as an objection to these details- the idea that if it’s scripted, it will sound fake. That’s usually true when you’re first starting out, but one of the major selling skills you can learn by working with scripts is how to infuse the words you’re saying with emotion and sincerity. It’s actually decent training for an actor, too- you’ve got to memorize the script, but you have to learn how to make it sound natural while dealing with the occasional unexpected response.

4. Don’t take the first “no” for an answer
Again, extremely basic stuff that it’s extremely difficult to get beginners to do effectively. The vast majority of people are going to object to a pitch, and the ability to address that objection and ask a second time is the difference between a decent salesperson and a great one. Sales scripts generally have strong second pitches that acknowledge the customer’s issue (“I understand your hesitance”), reiterate why it’s a good idea (“however, if you sign up for AOL now, we can get you a much better price than you would have to pay when you renew in 6 months”), and give a forceful close (“So can we help save you money by renewing your subscription for a year at $15 a month?”). This helps even the most robotic salesperson sound caring, confident, and reasonable.

5. Always angle for the up-sell
When you get your first sale of anything, it’s always followed by a flood of endorphins and relief. Chances are, you took longer than your employers said you should take, you had a patient customer, and you just managed the sale by the skin of your teeth. The customer is starting to look at you like a guest who is overstaying his welcome, so of course your first instinct is to book it down the stairs or hang up the phone, just get out of there before they can call you back and demand you get rid of their information.

While it’s true that good salespeople use social cues to their advantage, like asking a customer how they’re doing to strike up an initial rapport, the truth is that we’re vulnerable to these social cues as well. Someone picking up the phone with an icy voice might make us fumble our sales pitch, a flat look and robotic nod from a prospect who is clearly going through the motions of politeness might cause us to go through the motions of a sale without selling strong, and a person who has just been talked into buying something generally wants you to leave soon after.

The difference is, it’s our job to recognize these social pressures and fight through them. If someone signs up for 12 months of a magazine, ask them if they’d like 24. If someone buys your vacuum cleaner, ask them if they’d like the deluxe attachments. If someone agrees to vote for your candidate, get their e-mail address so you can send them information about other election issues.

I opened this by mentioning that I’m not a “natural” salesman. I know some natural salesmen, and they tend to be voraciously social, the kind of people who can strike up a conversation with a stranger on the subway and get off three stops later having made a new friend. I can’t do that; heck, I wouldn’t really want to. But because I’m less gregarious, I’m also a little less needy- I don’t mind committing a social faux pas if it means I can tell someone what they need to hear, and I’m completely fine with talking to someone who wants me to get off their porch if it means they think about their vote when they normally wouldn’t. And the biggest advantage of starting out with sales scripts was that I learned that this straightforwardness could be effective, that I could actually grow my sales numbers simply by being myself. Taking an existing idea, and learning how to make it into something only you could say- that is the essence of salesmanship.

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This entry was posted on 7 November 2014 by in Life and tagged , , , , , .
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