The Art and Science of Objection Handling
Part A: Steps One to Three
Objections are Important
Objections from customers’ stakeholders are inevitably going to be something that Customer Success Managers will come across from time to time. Perhaps one potential way of telling the mature Customer Success professional from the inexpert beginner is in how these objections get managed. Whilst the less confident CSM might try to avoid objections in the first place and handle them poorly when they cannot be avoided, the well-seasoned CS professional will recognize an objection not as a difficulty to be ignored or avoided but as a welcome opportunity to engage with a stakeholder about something that interests them and that they care about.
Handled well, an objection will provide the CSM with an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding about the customer’s needs and desires, to develop the relationship further with the customer’s stakeholders, to submit evidence that proves potential and/or actual value and perhaps ultimately even to form part of the market research that helps to refine and improve the product or service itself.
Handled poorly, an objection can leave the customer with unanswered but potentially very important questions, can be a source of frustration and a cause of increased risk levels in the eyes of the stakeholder, and can act as the trigger point for poor decision making, including the decision not to proceed with an initial purchase or subsequent renewal of a contract that would otherwise have successfully gone ahead. It is therefore essential that Customer Success Managers understand what objections are, when and why they occur, how to identify them and classify them into their basic types, and how to deal with them in an efficient and effective manner.
Part A of this article will review Steps One to Three of our six step process for effective handling of objections. In Part B we will continue our discussion on best practice steps for dealing with objections by reviewing Steps Four to Six.
What are Objections?
The word objection simply means a disagreement with or disapproval of a proposal or a statement. So for example if Person A states that strawberry ice cream tastes better than chocolate ice-cream, Person B might object to that statement because they happen to think that chocolate is the superior flavor. Of course in the business world the types of objections we are interested in are objections to business proposals (such as the proposal to renew a service contract for example) and/or to business-related statements (such as the level of anticipated return on investment from the implementation of a business initiative for example).
Generally speaking, people will only object (or raise an objection) when they disagree or disapprove and when they think it’s important enough. So for example let’s say that a proposal is being discussed for Project X. If Person A thinks that Project X is a very risky project that is likely to turn out to have disastrous consequences for the company if it goes ahead, that person is (on the whole and all other things being equal) much more likely to object to Project X than if they think that Project X is basically sound but just not quite as good as they would ideally like it to be.
Of course this is only a general rule. Some people have much higher or much lower boundaries when it comes to raising objections than other people, and this in itself can be for all sorts of interesting reasons, such as that person’s status in the company and their confidence around that status, that person’s belief in and attitude towards risk taking, and that person’s comfort levels around handling conflicts of opinions. Someone with a lot of personal confidence and who does not mind conflict might therefore be more comfortable to raise an objection than someone else who is less confident and/or less able to handle conflict well. This is important to understand, because raising an objection implies bringing that objection to the attention of others.
In point of fact it is generally much easier to deal with stakeholders who are prepared to state their objections out loud than with stakeholders who are not prepared to do so. This is simply because an explicitly stated objection becomes known about and can then be dealt with, whereas an unaired objection remains unknown about and therefore it never gets dealt with.
In a very real sense then, part of the role of a good quality CSM is to ensure that they form the types of trust relationships with customer stakeholders that will enable those stakeholders to feel sufficiently confident around raising their objections, so that the CSM can then learn what those objections are in order to be able to then deal with them.
Types of Objections
This might not work for every single objection but I think generally speaking we can classify objections into three main types; concerns, misconceptions, and excuses. Let’s look at these objection types one-by-one in more detail.
A concern is where there is a difference between the proposal or statement being made and the need or desire of the stakeholder. So for example, the proposal might be to provide Service X for twelve months at a cost of $100,000, and Person A (the stakeholder) has not yet been convinced that Service X will return sufficient value to their company to justify that sort of spending.
A misconception is where there is a misunderstanding on the part of the stakeholder that leads them to think that the proposal or statement is something other than what it actually is. This happens surprisingly often, and can occur for all sorts of reasons or indeed for no particular reason at all other than the fallibility of humans. An example of a misconception might be where again there is a proposal to provide Service X for twelve months at a cost of $100,000, and Person A (the stakeholder) thinks that this does not include maintenance, management and support, which makes it a non-starter for them, whereas actually it does include those things. There are many ways in which this sort of thing can happen. Perhaps this erroneous belief is simply an assumption based upon previous dealings with other suppliers, or perhaps it is based upon something they have misheard or misread, or perhaps they have actually been told it by someone who themselves got it wrong.
An excuse is in fact an objection that is not really a legitimate objection. It is something that the stakeholder has made up as a fiction to present to the CSM as truth, in order to hide something else. Think that doesn’t happen? I’m afraid it does happen, and indeed it happens a lot. Humans are social animals, and most people do not like conflict and/or do not like to look bad, and will go to quite extraordinary lengths to avoid these things. Let me give you a not uncommon example using the same scenario of providing Service X for twelve months at a cost of $100,000. In this scenario, the stakeholder finds nothing wrong with the proposal and in fact thinks it’s actually the best deal for their company. However, perhaps they also think it’s not in their own personal best interests for their company to proceed with the deal since they think that it will lose them some of their own power or prestige within the organization if it goes ahead. Of course they cannot state that as their real objection, so instead they invent a different objection, such as that Service X is too expensive, or too risky, or does not include all the functionality they require, or is less good than some of the other services being offered by alternative suppliers.
Dealing with Objections
The good news is that whilst it can be very useful to recognize where an objection is coming from, regardless of what type of objection it is, the way in which to deal with it is pretty much identical. It becomes significantly easier to deal with objections when the CSM has a process for dealing with them. The following process will make objection handling much easier, and may even turn it from a painful experience into an enjoyable and highly satisfying one:
Step One: Listen
Before you can respond to an objection you’ve got to know what that objection is, and the start point for that is to listen to what the stakeholder is telling you. Listening is simple to do, yet we all know that it is also something we can easily forget to do when we are under pressure. So step one in the objection handling process is to deliberately and consciously give the stakeholder as much time as they need to completely state their objection. Actively listen to them and absorb what they are saying and do your best not to interrupt them or rush them. Instead extend to them the courtesy of letting them have their say whilst you in turn are paying attention to what they are telling you.
If necessary invite them to explain further, or to provide examples of what they mean, or ask qualifying or discovery questions to uncover more information about their objection. In short, play a pro-active role in listening to their objection and making sure that you have heard it and understood it.
Step Two: Acknowledge
One of the things that is sure to annoy, frustrate or even anger even the very nicest and kindest of stakeholders is when that stakeholder feels they are not being taken seriously. A stakeholder who takes the time and trouble to tell you their objection is almost certainly a stakeholder who wants you to take that objection seriously. Even if their objection is a misconception and you can easily show them why they are wrong, do not rush your response. Remember that first of all the stakeholder needs to have their concern acknowledged. They need to know that you listened to them, that you understood them, and that you respect what they have said as a legitimate cause for concern.
Depending upon the circumstances, this could be achieved by saying something as small and simple as “I hear you bro”, but oftentimes the process of acknowledgement should be a little more content rich. The general recommendation for acknowledging an objection is to paraphrase the objection back to the stakeholder and invite them to either acknowledge you have got it right or if necessary correct your understanding further. So for example you might say “Let me make sure that I have understood you. What you are saying is that you are concerned that whilst Service X itself is OK, it will take a lot of time and effort from your IT team to implement the service, and right now that would make things difficult because they are already very busy with the implementation of other major projects which you cannot take them away from. Is that correct?” The final question there gives the stakeholder to either confirm your statement of their objection or to amend it for you. The whole thing serves as evidence for them that you were indeed listening to their objection and taking it seriously.
Step Three: Repeat for All Objections
Perhaps surprisingly, Step Three is not the moment to respond with your answer or answers to their objection. Instead, now is the time to find out if this initial objection is the only objection, or whether there are more. This is because if there are more objections it’s going to be better to know them all in advance. That way you can make a better quality tactical decision about how (or even whether) to deal with them all, based on more complete information. For example if the stakeholder has a large number of objections or indeed for that matter not that many but just some very high quality ones that perhaps taken as a whole would be difficult or impossible for you to overcome right there and then, you might decide to play for time and gain the stakeholder’s permission to take their objections away with you to prepare your responses before returning to provide those responses at a later date. This could legitimately done with all objections, but you couldn’t keep uncovering each new objection and going away with it – you’d take forever! Also you might decide that the objections need to be re-ordered with the most important ones dealt with first, since if they cannot be overcome, there really won’t be any point even attempting to overcome the more trivial ones. Additionally, it prevents the stakeholder from holding back one or more objections as negotiating positions (more of which later).
To perform Step Three, take the initiative and proactively ask the stakeholder if this is there only objection, or if not then to let you know their additional objection/s. Repeat Step Three until the stakeholder confirms that they have now revealed all of their objections to you. This might take a little while to achieve, so be prepared to be patient and to allow sufficient time to thoroughly listen to and confirm back each objection. There is no need to make this process of uncovering all the objections seem confrontational or uncomfortable for the stakeholder, and in fact there’s no need to mention the word objection at all. Instead you can ask for their objections using more everyday language, such as “Is the concern that you have just described to me the only problem that needs to be resolved, or do you have any other concerns about [the proposal] that also needs to be addressed?” Remember to repeat this (perhaps using slightly different wording) until the stakeholder has explicitly stated that they have now revealed all of their objections to you.