Getting the Truth on the Table: Why Salespeople Should Seek Out the Objections They Dread

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No one likes to hear no. That little two-letter word equals rejection, and rejection is painful. In fact, it’s the deepest and darkest of all human fears.

While the menagerie of emotions you feel originate and live in the emotional hub of your brain called the limbic system, rejection activates the areas of your brain that are connected to physical pain. Rejection, unlike every other emotion, mimics physical pain,1 which is why it hurts so much. In fact, scientists have even discovered that taking Tylenol reduces the pain of rejection, while it has no impact on other emotions.2

What does this mean for salespeople? Well, generally it means that we try to avoid hearing the objections our stakeholders are thinking. We do this by talking too much. We do it by beating around the bush or by relying on tricks, silver bullets, and cheesy scripts. We justify our behavior with statements like “I don’t want to seem too pushy.”

But the reality is, avoiding objections makes no sense. What you need to do is get the truth on the table—early and often. Anything else is choosing delusion over reality. It’s making the choice to lie to yourself and lower your standards. It may feel better in the moment, but in the long run, it will hurt your performance.

What you should be doing is encouraging your stakeholder to reveal their objections, difficult questions, issues, concerns, and worries early in the process. This lets you start minimizing their concerns right away. They’re likely expecting avoidance and subterfuge (hey, this isn’t their first rodeo), so when you’re open and honest with them, they’ll start to trust you. This lays the groundwork for the kind of long-term relationship you really want.

And of course, if a sale truly isn’t in the cards, at least you’ll know early. You can cut your losses and move on to greener pastures.

One of the smartest things a salesperson can do is deploy strategies that get objections out in the open right away. Here are four that I’ve found to be highly successful.

STRATEGY ONE: If you’re not sure who the real decision maker is, ask indirect questions to find out. Don’t flat-out ask, “Are you the final decision maker?” If you do, 90 percent of the time they’ll say yes (or at least insinuate it), even if it isn’t true. Their ego demands it. And when that happens, you reinforce the lie with attention. It works great until you ask for a commitment and the stakeholder’s little house of cards crumbles. This is when you hear: “I really like what you brought to the table, but I’m going to need to review this with my boss (or the committee, my husband, wife, friend, peers, etc.) before we can make a decision.”

Instead of directly asking the decision-maker question, come at it from an angle. For instance: “Can you tell me about your buying policies?” or “If you give us the green light, what happens next?” This way, you avoid putting them and their ego on the spot and you’re more likely to get a straight answer. You’ll know where you stand before getting too deeply into the sales process.

STRATEGY TWO: Get BASIC™ and map your stakeholders. When you fail to map your account stakeholders, you leave yourself open to unknown objections that can kill the deal (or at least stall it). Typically, there are five stakeholders you’ll meet in most deals: buyers, amplifiers, seekers, influencers, and coaches. You can remember them with the acronym BASIC. Here’s a quick crash course:

Buyers. There are two types: those who can authorize the deal and those who can fund the deal. Sometimes they’re the same person, sometimes not. For example, the CIO may be able to say yes to a new software purchase, but until the CFO agrees to release the funds, nothing will happen. Knowing the difference between the two types will save you the pain of closing a deal only to see the order fail to materialize because of the funding buyer’s silent veto.

Amplifiers. These stakeholders see a problem or gap your product can fill. You can often leverage them to neutralize the status quo objections of distant or centralized decision makers who are disconnected from the needs, problems, and pain of the end users.

Seekers. Usually these stakeholders are sent to look for info. They have little or no buying authority or influence, yet put up a façade of authority and block access to other stakeholders.

Influencers. They play an active role in the buying process and are the main source of blindside objections. They can be advocates for you, naysayers, or agnostic. Your goal is to develop and nurture advocates, move agnostics into your corner, and neutralize naysayers.

Coaches. These are insiders who will not only advocate for you but will help you with insider information. In any complex deal, developing a coach gives you a huge competitive advantage.

I cannot emphasize how important it is to take the time to map these stakeholders and get in front of them. Tools like ZoomInfo, DiscoverOrg, and LinkedIn have made the stakeholder mapping process much easier.

STRATEGY THREE: Leverage the self-disclosure loop to bring objections to the surface. Stakeholders tend to reveal only a small piece of the big picture. But you can get them to reveal their cards and thus disclose their objections if you can activate the human self-disclosure loop.

Harvard researchers Dr. Jason Mitchell and Dr. Diana Tamir discovered that humans get a neurochemical buzz from self-disclosure.3 In their study,4 subjects were given the opportunity to talk or brag about themselves while their brain activity was being observed. As the subjects began talking about themselves, the area of the brain associated with pleasurable feeling and reward became activated. Each time the subject would self-disclose, this area of the brain would light up like a Christmas tree.

In this study, the subjects were getting a shot of dopamine (I think of this as “brain crack”) for revealing something about themselves. This made them want to do it again. Salespeople can activate the same loop by asking open-ended questions that get the stakeholder talking and just not interrupting. Then, listen deeply and ask follow-up questions to these self-disclosures.

STRATEGY FOUR: Listen with all your senses—eyes, ears, and intuition. This is deep listening and it gets you past smoke screens and uncovers the real objection. Watch the other person’s body language and facial expressions. Really listen to the tone, timbre, and pace of the stakeholder’s voice. Focus on the meanings behind their words and stay vigilant for emotional cues, verbal and nonverbal. This is how you gain insight into what is important to them.

Once you’ve tapped into this sense of emotional importance, ask follow-up questions to test your hunch that an objection exists. For example: “Sounds like you experienced this problem with a past vendor. I’m curious about what happened.” or “What has you worried the most about doing business with us?” Just don’t shy away from a possible objection; you’ll save yourself a ton of heartache by dealing with the issue early.

To put it bluntly, avoiding objections is stupid. They’re just part of the process, and the quicker we deal with them, the quicker we can move on to the next phase. Remember that time is money. Don’t invest yours in a deal that’s doomed to crash and burn.

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Notes:

  1. A 2011 brain imaging study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that social rejection and physical pain both prompt activity in the brain regions of the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula. And a study published in 2017 in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience shows that the posterior insular cortex and secondary somatosensory cortex parts of the brain are activated both when we experience social rejection and when we witness others experiencing social rejection.
  2. A small study from University of Michigan medical school researchers also showed that the brain’s mu-opioid receptor system releases natural painkillers, or opioids, in response to social pain. This happens to be the same system that releases opioids in the face of physical pain. See “Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain” by Ethan Krossa, Marc G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith, and Tor D. Wager, http://www.pnas.org/content/108/15/6270.full.pdf.
  3. Belinda Luscombe, “Why We Talk About Ourselves: The Brain Likes It,” Time, May 8, 2012. http://healthland.time.com/2012/05/08/why-we-overshare-the-brain-likes-it/.
  4. Diana I. Tamir and Jason P. Mitchell, “Disclosing Information About the Self Is Intrinsically Rewarding,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, no. 21 (2012): 8038–43. http://www.pnas.org/content/109/21/8038.full

5 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article! Now, that’s some solid WISDOM and view as priceless. The older I get, the more I realize I’m just having a premeditated conversation the prospect and I innately know where to go. That said, every “younger” salesperson needs a mentor and lots of practice.

  2. Hi Jeb: discovering and managing prospect objections effectively can be difficult for salespeople and sales coaches alike. It’s also an ethical matter. When the salesperson’s assigned objective is to close the deal, how much objection-surfacing and disclosure is appropriate? This question is complicated when the rep’s compensation depends on revenue. Further, is it incumbent on salespeople to broach potential topics of concern that the customer might not thought of, let alone, even care about? If so, how should it be done? These questions are not simple to answer, and they lend don’t themselves to formulas or rules.

    I’ve won deals when being candid about my company’s dirty laundry. I’ve also shot myself in the foot by introducing issues that were not on my prospect’s radar, but became adopted as “showstoppers.” Would these issues have reared their ugly heads later on? I don’t know. But for certain engagements that come to mind right now, my post-activity opinion was – and still is – that I was idiot for bringing them up.

    What guides me whether and how to surface objections is an analysis of past deals (through what some call Win-loss reviews but I call After Action Reviews). If an issue pushed an opportunity off the rails in the past, I catalog that issue and decide whether it matters to introduce it into the qualification process or sales process. And the more times an issue entered the sales engagement, the more advisable it becomes to expose its presence and to address it. Otherwise, it may be better to sit tight and have the prospect take the lead in voicing it.

    So the “right thing to do” truth-wise depends on the situation. I disagree that a salesperson should “start minimizing [customer] concerns right away,” though I think you might mean that once a prospect voices a concern, it should be addressed, and not simply tabled for later on, or swept under the carpet. As you have observed, this is a widespread tendency, often exacerbated by managers who dismiss objections as “whining.”

    Your recommendation to engage in discovery is useful, though I engage differently. I’m disinclined to ask, “What has you worried the most about doing business with us?” because that plants the question in the prospect’s mind that maybe they should be. Instead, I suggest asking more generically, “what are the greatest challenges or risks you see for this project (or procurement)?” The question generally opens a revealing conversation, regardless of a person’s positions or status in a decision network.

  3. Jeb,
    This is excellent. Thank you for sharing. Our sales team will be reading this article.
    Avoiding the no is a major issue in business. It is hard to hear, but it actually is best for all involved. Thanks again!

  4. Two thoughts about Andrew’s reply. The way to approach this technique, as I see it, is two fold: during the discovery process, you encourage he prospect to be honest with you and bring up concerns; you also proactively bring up potential issues if there’s a hint from the prospect that they may be problems later on. You can even introduce issues if they are problems you frequently encounter (ie you know your solution/product is significantly more expensive than your competitors and you’ve lost deals based on this with some frequency). “Get the tues o. The table” as Sandler would say. And if the prospect sees it as an issue, five in and address it

    Secondly, during the closing process—after you’ve extensively bonded and have identified and addressed all the prospects concerns—you bring up to the prospect “what could cause us to lose the deal.” That’s key because this is your last chance to get an objection on the table and address it before the buying process is over.

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