The Art and Science of Objection Handling
Part B: Steps Four to Six
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 looked at 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.
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. Following a process will make objection handling much easier, and may even turn it from a painful experience into an enjoyable and highly satisfying one. In Part A we examined the first three steps of our objection handling process. In Part B we will conclude with the final three steps…
Step Four: Negotiate Outcomes
Now that you know the entirety of the stakeholder’s objections, you have the opportunity to propose a way forwards. Of course the general expectation from the stakeholder will be that you will provide a response to the stakeholder’s objections and indeed it is highly likely that you will want to do this. However, you might decide having heard all of the objections that one or more of the objections are in fact legitimate and insurmountable objections that might necessitate you acknowledging that this is the case and perhaps either making an amended proposal or statement that takes this objection into account or maybe in extreme situations even accepting that the proposal or statement should be rejected outright.
In most situations however, what you will want to do is respond with further information (and preferably with hard evidence that backs up your statements) to show the stakeholder how each objection can be overcome.
But before you do this, in many circumstances now will be a very good moment to negotiate the outcome from you doing so. In most such situations the outcome that you are looking for is the other party’s commitment to moving forward with whatever the proposal is if all their objections can be satisfactorily overcome. You don’t want to go to all of the trouble of dealing with these objections only to find out that in fact these either were not all of the objections and there are still more objections that need to be overcome (and which may or may not even be overcome-able) or were actually false objections ie excuses for not proceeding. If it transpires that either of the above is true then it may be the case that spending time and effort responding to the objections you have gathered would just simply not be worthwhile, or at the very least may require a different approach in the light of this knowledge.
To test the sincerity and completeness of the stakeholder’s stated objections, you can use Step Four to negotiate an agreed outcome if all objections are overcome to the stakeholder’s satisfaction. This might be in the form of a question to the stakeholder such as “If I am able to deal with each of the issues you have raised with a response that satisfies you that all of your concerns are fully dealt with, would you then be in a position to proceed with [the proposal]?”. If you feel that saying this would come across a little too pushy or too “salesy” for the situation you could soften it by asking them what the outcome should be rather than suggesting what it should be yourself. This might look something like “If I am able to deal with each of the issues you have raised with a response that satisfies you that all of your concerns are fully dealt with, what position would we then be in with regard to moving forwards with [the proposal]?”.
Pre-negotiating an outcome in this way can be very powerful. Firstly it uncovers objections that are really excuses and allows you an opportunity either to get to the real objection/s or to an understanding that there is no point in proceeding further much more quickly and efficiently than would otherwise be the case. Secondly, it provides you with a commitment of some type from the stakeholder that you would not otherwise have. The art of negotiation (which we are only touching on in this conversation and which I deal with in more detail elsewhere) is very much an art of exchanging or trading value with the other party in order to gain value for all parties. In this case, rather than simply giving away your responses to the stakeholder’s stated objectives (which may help them but does not necessarily move you any much further forwards with your own needs) you are trading your responses for whatever it is you are asking for – most likely for the stakeholder’s commitment to either proceed with the proposal or at least to move to the next stage in the conversation.
In this situation what you are trading is information (ie the evidence and explanations to negate their objections) and what they are trading is commitment to move forwards with the proposal. You therefore have to negotiate this trade now before you provide them with your responses to their objections, as otherwise you have already given them what they are looking for and have nothing with which to trade for their commitment.
Step Five: Respond to Objection/s
In Step Five you can now (finally) respond to the stakeholder’s objection/s. Depending upon how many, how detailed and how complex their objections are, you may be able to respond there and then, or you might need to go away and gather information, consult with colleagues, prepare evidence, and so on. Even if you can deal with all objections in a sufficiently comprehensive manner right there and then, you may still decide that you are tactically better off delaying your response – for example you might want to invite an additional stakeholder who is more positive towards your proposal to also be present in order to help influence this stakeholder’s views and opinions. On the other hand you may well wish to go straight ahead and deal with the objections now so that no further time is wasted and the stakeholder is immediately satisfied. Circumstances will dictate which tactic to apply.
If you do decide to delay your response, the recommendation is to seek permission from the stakeholder to do so, and to make sure to explain why you need the time so that the delay is justified to them, as you do not want to have them frustrated by what they may perceive to be an unnecessary delay. Reasons for delay might include gathering information, preparing a report, consulting colleagues, and so forth. Whatever the case, what you are looking for here is their acceptance of the delay and an agreement as to when you will meet to provide your responses, plus in what format that meeting will occur. So for example next Tuesday at their office at 3pm is much better than simply “sometime” next week. Naturally, if you are going to respond to the objections right now you do not need to agree the details of a further meeting, you can simply go ahead and respond now.
As a general rule, it is better to deal with each objection fully and completely before moving on to the next objection. An objection is only “dealt with” when the stakeholder says they are happy that their objection has been fully overcome, so remember to test for this and do not just take it as a matter of faith. Remember that what may be as clear as crystal to you may still be unclear or uncertain to them. Explain your information, provide your evidence and then be prepared to discuss it with them. Invite questions, and proactively ask them if they are completely comfortable that their objection has been overcome before moving forwards. This prevents misunderstandings and also prevents them coming back later to an objection you thought had already been overcome and using it as bargaining leverage over you.
Also as a general rule, start with the biggest/worst/most difficult to overcome objection first. Dealing with the “elephant in the living room” first makes a lot of sense for two reasons, Firstly because it is probably going to be the hardest objection to overcome, so if you find that it cannot be overcome (in other words that your response is not satisfactory to the stakeholder) then you may have saved everyone the time and effort of going through a whole bunch of other objections that will be irrelevant to overcome anyway. Secondly, the stakeholder’s mind will probably be at least partially focused on this “elephant” anyway whilst you are discussing other objections, and will therefore not be fully listening to or engaging with you as you deal with the other, less important objections.
Ideally your responses should be clear, concise and evidence based – preferably with independent (ie third party) evidence rather than or as well as your own. Be honest and open, and make sure you are clear and unambiguous wherever possible (for example state a specific value rather than a range if you possibly can). If your explanation is necessarily lengthy and detailed, make sure you pause every now and then and check that your audience is still following you and “getting” what you are saying. Also, make sure that you position your response in a way that is non-confrontational to the stakeholder and that does not humiliate them or make them look at all foolish for having raised the objection. Try if you can to make them look the hero for having raised a very sensible point that you are very glad to have had the opportunity of dealing with (which incidentally should actually be a fair summation of the reality of the situation) rather than a timewaster who has made everyone’s’ lives a little harder by wasting everyone’s time with irrelevant objections. Always be aware of the emotions and feelings of others, and if you sense their disagreement or frustration with your response then stop responding and invite them to contribute with their thoughts.
Step Six: Complete the Deal
Ideally what you are looking for is consensus commitment from everyone in the room both that all objections have now been identified and discussed, and that every one of these objections has now been responded to, to the complete satisfaction of all concerned parties. As soon as you have that consensus commitment, stop responding and move on to the Completion stage. Do not fall into the trap of continuing to discuss problems when there is no further need to do so. Always keep your own clear objectives of moving the proposal forwards in mind.
Of course it may sometimes be the case that during the process of responding to the objections either new objections are uncovered, or flaws or gaps in your responses are identified. If this occurs (and it can often do so) do not be alarmed or get frustrated. Do not try to force matters through to get a consensus commitment, as this can lead to a reduction in trust if the stakeholder perceives you trying to do this. Instead return to the earlier steps and take the time to fully uncover each new objection and if necessary renegotiate a new outcome. Also if necessary (ie if you cannot respond now to these new objections) agree a date and time for you to meet to respond. Then at this further meeting you can repeat this process we have been going through in Step Six – hopefully this time with a satisfactory conclusion.