The Ultimate Guide to Handling Objections in Sales
Let go of generic advice and delve into the science behind the best ways to handle sales objections
How does objection handling fit in, and why is it so important?
It’s probably obvious that you’ll never make it to the fifth step, closing the deal, if you don’t know how to handle customer objections appropriately.
If trust is at the core of a successful sales relationship—which multiple studies have shown to be the case—the “handling objections” stage is where trust is most likely to be formed or broken.
For that reason, it’s one of the most challenging parts of the sales profession. Think about it: the salesperson needs to:
- Demonstrate in-depth knowledge of the customer’s needs
- Have the fortitude to view and approach this stage as a temporary challenge to be overcome, as opposed to a frustrating obstacle to success
- Practice empathy with the sales prospect
- Use intentional language that helps the prospective client feel understood.
That’s a lot going on at once! If the sales process were a movie, this phase would be the plot’s climax, and it takes a tremendous amount of skill and insight on the part of the salesperson to bring about a happy ending.
Sales management studies: Problems in the field
Here’s the problem, though: most run-of-the-mill training programs on handling objections in sales just aren’t up to the task.
They tend to either be overly generic (proffering guidance like, “try listening”) or idiosyncratic. The advice most of this training provides is only applicable to one specific sales situation.
For instance, claiming there’s a firm rule about how many seconds a salesperson should pause in the conversation after hearing an objection.
The truth is, handling sales objections is a remarkably understudied component of sales management. This is a shame given how crucial it is to the process.
It’s only since the early 2000s that academics have made more concerted efforts to deconstruct this process and extrapolate best practices.
That’s why typing “how to handle sales objections” into Google inevitably cues up so many of the same-old parroted tips and tricks that self-proclaimed sales gurus have been slinging since the 1980s.
And it gets even worse: a paper studying sales-customer relationships in a North American B2B sales context, titled “Handling of Prospective Customers’ Objections by Salespeople: A Double-Edged Sword?” found that objections-handling techniques that were perceived to be manipulative, overly assertive, or solidarity-threatening were severely detrimental to the sales process.
Even more problematically, their study found that even high-level, top-performing salespeople tended to neglect foundational steps, such as researching customer needs and anticipating prospect objections, in favor of an over-reliance on their objections-handling techniques.
The study revealed that, unless the prospect found the salesperson both to have a very high level of expertise and were profoundly oriented toward the customer’s needs, the buyer would become alienated by the salesperson’s objection-handling strategies and lose trust in them.
In other words, trying to strong-arm or manipulate prospects into a sale without a deep understanding of their pain points isn’t sustainable. I love Al Pacino’s iconic performance in Glengarry Glen Ross as much as the next guy, but those tactics just don’t work in reality.
The above study clarifies that though businesses and training programs alike push salespeople to focus on handling objections above all else in the sales process, that strategy can end up doing more harm than good.
Salespeople must first invest the time and effort in obtaining a high level of expertise in the very nuts and bolts of the goods or services they are offering.
Also, researching and anticipating the needs of their sales prospects is just as important.
It turns out that the adage isn’t quite right. After all—selling begins, albeit in a far more sensitive and nuanced way than is usually appreciated, well before the customer gets the chance to say anything at all.
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New approaches to handling objections in sales
All of this is not to say, however, that sales leaders should just throw the objections-handling chapters of their playbooks out the window.
The point is the opposite: it’s crucial for salespeople to finely hone their skills at handling objections, but based on actual science- and data-backed studies.
Now that we have a better understanding of the critical importance of this step of the sales process, it’s time to get down to some actionable techniques.
Recent academic advances in the field have given industry actors greater insight into the behavioral science behind the objections stage of the sales process.
Luckily, we can avail ourselves of this data to develop new best practices to build customer trust and bring about a satisfying resolution for both parties.
Delaying objections by building trust: The development of the sales rep–customer relationship
In their frequently cited 1987 article, “Developing Buyer-Seller Relationships,” first published in the Journal of Marketing, F. Robert Dwyer, Paul H. Schurr, and Sejo Oh identified five primary phases relationship between the sales representative and the prospective customer.
Most professionals accept these five standards as the industry standard, and it’s vital to understand them before we jump ahead to start thinking about customer objections.
Here’s the seller-buyer relationship breakdown:
Awareness: This is when the salesperson first gets a lead on a potential sales prospect and when a potential customer first learns of the sales representative’s businesses and the goods/services they are offering. This phase occurs without any interaction between the two parties.
Exploration: Also known as the “search” phase, this is when the salesperson first learns about the prospect’s needs and begins proposing the best and most effective way they can meet them.
Likewise, this is when the potential customer assesses and evaluates what the salesperson is offering. As both parties review the costs and benefits of a potential relationship, the salesperson must begin building trust with their prospect for the relationship to continue.
Buildup: After the sales rep starts earning the prospect’s trust, the salesperson now focuses on strengthening the potential client’s commitment to the relationship. Further trust is built through negotiation, compromise, offering incentives, and so forth.
Maturity: The customer has explicitly signed on and committed to their relationship with the salesperson. Both parties now work together to try to create a win-win deal.
Dissolution: The (hopefully satisfied) customer now no longer has a need for the salesperson, as they have already obtained their goods or services and will now be interfacing with another department in the business (customer service, etc.)
Objections will arise right in that second, exploratory phase of the relationship, which is also exactly when the salesperson is supposed to begin building trust.
It is therefore of paramount importance that the sales rep not employ any methods or techniques that could be interpreted as conflictual, adversarial, or manipulative, as that would hurt the further development of the relationship.
Some sales reps manage to avoid having objections arise during the exploration phase at all. These sales reps have seriously done their homework, well understand the sales prospect’s operations and needs, know how to present themselves as completely oriented to those needs, and anticipate potential hesitations to the sale by offering solutions in advance.
To get to this level requires some pretty sophisticated understanding of behavioral science and social cues—more on that next.
Another possibility is that the prospect has already been “warmed” up by sales enablement content and pre-qualified by automated systems. This scenario is every sales rep’s dream. The prospect is primed and ready to purchase. All that’s required is a gentle nudge from the rep.
Of course, this is only possible with a robust revenue enablement strategy, including AI-driven content recommendations.
Before the objection: Sometimes, they say it best when they say nothing at all
A 1994 article published in Discourse & Society titled “Managing Customer ‘Objections’ during Real-Life Sales Negotiations,” offered a fascinating finding that came out of an in-depth study of sales calls recorded at a diverse range of businesses in the UK.
The authors discovered that well before any objections are explicitly expressed, the vast majority of sales prospects prefer to invoke other, subtle, often non-verbal ways of expressing their reticence—and the most successful sales representatives are those that understand and appropriately react to these pre-objection hesitations.
Here’s a detailed analysis of what they uncovered. After the sales rep would invite the buyer to make a decision on the pitch, in 92% of the sales calls, the first expressions of misgivings were not explicit objections, but instead one or a combination of the below.
Subtle types of implicit objections:
- Silence or a lack of engagement
- Verbal delays (utterances such as “hmmm,” “ummm,” etc.).
- Repeating the salesperson’s speech back at them, often in the form of a question (such as, “So you’re saying the price is $19.99 a month?”).
Other types of implicit objections:
Checking the time – This study only concentrated on sales calls, so body language wasn’t in the authors’ purview; but for face-to-face interactions, some visual clues can also imply resistance to the pitch, such as if the prospect is frequently glancing at their watch.
Fidgeting, playing with something on the desk – If your prospect can’t seem to sit still or seems more interested in fiddling with their paper clips than in making eye contact with you, that’s another clear sign of discomfort with the pitch.
The authors of the study note that in mainstream sales training programs or how-to manuals, sales reps are told not to consider these implicit behaviors as actual objections—sales gurus often say customers use these types of delays to show they’re thinking a proposal over or to signal that they’re undecided.
But this study found that in actuality, if a customer gave this type of implicit response, and it was ignored by the salesperson, then the customer would always follow up with an explicit objection.
Here’s the lesson to learn from this: People almost always prefer to figure out their problems in a non-confrontational, non-explicit way that lets them maintain social solidarity with the person they’re speaking to.
Your sales prospects are pretty much guaranteed to prefer to voice their hesitations about the sale by staying silent or expressing verbal delays than by telling you outright that they have a problem with your offer.
It’s kind of common sense: most of us don’t enjoy confrontation (even when it’s essential), and would rather not rock the boat given the choice.
The fact that so many sales reps are instructed to ignore or stream-roll over these first implicit expressions of objection is a huge loss.
If salespeople recognize these expressions for what they are and respond to them sympathetically and effectively, they can avoid explicit objections altogether. Addressing these implicit objections early and often can very well be the difference between winning and losing the deal.
The two-step process for overcoming implicit objections
Here’s how Clark, Drew, and Pinch recommend dealing with implicit objections in a sales call (this also, of course, applies to face-to-face interactions):
Step 1: Show your prospect that you understand
When the customer feels you understand them—without them having to venture into anxiety-provoking, potentially confrontational territory—you’ll reap major rewards in terms of accruing trust.
You can demonstrate recognition of their hesitation by countering their silence (or verbal delays, etc.) with a question such as, “Do you feel that price is too high for you?” or whatever wording is appropriate for your situation.
Step 2: Meet them where they are
Once you’ve inferred the problem with a question like “Is that price too expensive?” then immediately follow up with a solution.
The client will feel like you’re a proactive leader who is taking care of their problems. Their trust in the relationship will amplify, and they’ll be far more primed to make a sales decision in your favor than if you had ignored their tentative expressions of doubt.
To expand on this example, a good next step might be to take a diversion from your current presentation and spend some time on the price objection.
A great way to take this objection to its logical conclusion is to figure out how much the prospect’s current practices are costing them.
Once you open their eyes to the cost of their pain points and how your offering helps, they’re likely to be much more receptive to investing in a solution.
Saving the relationship: What to do when the objections hit
The above breakdown presents a strategy for handling sales objections before they’re directly expressed, and the cited study shows this strategy is extremely effective.
But the thing is, no matter how intuitive and anticipatory you may be, every salesperson is going to end up hearing explicit objections at some point in a sales process—and they need to be ready to handle them in a calm, reasoned, empathetic, and effective manner.
Here’s a quick primer on the best practices for handling explicit objections in sales:
Study up on the types of sales objections
It’s been said that the sign of a seasoned writer is the ability to anticipate and preemptively answer objections. The same is true for the best sales reps.
Sellers can sometimes feel like they’re presented with new, unheard objections on a daily basis. But data shows that as idiosyncratic as their objections may seem in the moment, these objections almost always fall within a set of well-established categories.
If you can anticipate the kinds of objections you’re likely to encounter, you’ll be better prepared when they pop up, and hopefully will be able to anticipate them even before your prospective client does.
The most common categories of sales objections
The competition-related sales objection
As the name implies, this type of complaint encompasses any statements expressing the potential customer’s preference for a competitor, such as:
“We already work with company X.”
“Company Y does the same thing for less money.”
“We’re already locked into a contract and not looking for a change.”
The time-buying sales objection
Here, the customer is most likely indecisive or unwilling to entertain your pitch at the current time but doesn’t necessarily want to say no.
The fence-sitting may be because they’re actually interested in your product or service, or because they don’t want to be confrontational. Discerning between the two is tricky. Examples include:
“Call me back next quarter.”
“Can you send me your materials, and I’ll get back to you later?”
“Our organization has a lot going on right now, let’s revisit this when things are calmer.”
The budgetary sales objection
This is definitely one the most common forms of objection in a sales call or meeting, simply because it’s often true that your prospect simply hasn’t budgeted for the product or service you’re pitching.
It’s your job to show them why it would be financially advantageous to reallocate resources for your product.
Budget-related objections will sound something like:
“There’s no budget for [your product] in this financial year.”
“I’m uncomfortable locking into such a long-term contract.”
“We can’t afford that.”
“We’re downsizing” or “We’re being bought out.”
The details-obsessed sales objection
Some sales prospects want to wade deep into the weeds before they decide that they trust you enough to take a chance on your pitch.
These eagle-eyed, detail-oriented types will offer objections in the form of a barrage of in-depth questions about your goods or scope of service, such as: “Can [your product] do X, Y, or Z?”
The fitness-analysis sales objection
You’re also going to encounter plenty of sales prospects who won’t be convinced that you’ve done your research and adequately understand their operations and needs.
They’re going to challenge you on whether your product or service is the right fit for their organization. Here are some common objections along these lines:
“We’re already excelling in that arena, we don’t need any help there.”
“We need help with X, but [your product/service] doesn’t offer that.”
“[Your product] doesn’t align with our business plan.”
“We’re not looking for a change right now.”
“It would create more work for us to implement [your product].”
The conflict-avoidant sales objection
Because sales professionals tend to be confident, outgoing, highly social individuals, they may forget that many people are shy, uncomfortable talking on the phone (if you’re doing sales calls). Introverts are drained by social interaction, especially interactions in which they need to take a stand or say something potentially confrontational.
Instead of lobbying objections that actually have to do with their business or your product, they may try to stall with avoidant statements like:
“Now’s not a great time, let me check my schedule and get back to you later.”
“Can you send me your materials and let me think about it?”
“Let me refer to you another employee who might be able to handle this better.”
The gatekeeping sales objection
The person you manage to get on the phone for a sales pitch is often not the person authorized to make purchasing decisions on behalf of the company, so be prepared to address objections along the lines of:
“I can’t sign off on that.”
“I’ll pass your information on to my boss.”
“These decisions are made by our buying group.”
The cold-blooded brush-off sales objection
This is the one that can sting—the objection that seems to preclude any future conversation, that can often be downright rude, that can make a salesperson feel like they’ve just wasted their time.
This is where sales leaders need to really be on guard against frustration. We all know what a brush-off looks like, of course, but just to list a few for the sake of example:
“Dead air”: The prospect simply hangs up on you.
“I don’t have time for this, just send me an email.”
“Take me off your list.”
“How did you get my contact information?”
Objection handling examples: A sample script
Now that you’ve got a handle on the most common categories of objections in sales, it can be useful (and kind of fun) to take a look at some role-playing scenarios to see how some of those objections we just reviewed might get leveraged by a customer, and how an average salesperson might respond.
Below is a sample script from a popular Inc. Magazine sales-training video, “Dealing with Buyer Objections.” After we take a look at this representative interaction, we’ll delve into what worked and what didn’t in the conversation, and then take a look at some best practices for handling objections.
Sales Rep: “What kinds of things would you look for, John, before you’d make a change in your draft beers?”
John: “Uh, you know, Dock Street I’ll tell you quite frankly moves pretty well here, and one of the reasons we like carrying it is because, as you know, we do get a lot of tourists and a lot of them will say ‘What’s the local beer?’ We can’t say Schmits, we can’t say Woodley, so we say Dock Street…We carry that on draft and I think I’d be kinda making a mistake to take it off draft and replace it with Samuel Adams and…You know I’d have to really look at my sales and see if any of those are dogs so to speak.”
Sales Rep: “Would profitability be a consideration in the draft at all? If we’re making a change, if we sold at least as well as maybe your slowest seller and we’re more profitable would Samuel Adams be worthwhile putting on?”
John: “Well that would certainly be something to think about, that’s what we’re here for.”
Sales Rep: “I don’t know how or what it does, but I was going to show you based on a chart that I put together for the Philadelphia market and the prices…” [continues discussing price data for several minutes]
John: “So you know maybe some time at the end of March, maybe you can get back to me and we’ll think about it.”
It seems John wasn’t that enthused about making a change in his draft beers—he seems to have ended the exchange with a combo of procrastination (or “time-buying”) and conflict-avoidant objections.
What any sales representative actually wants to see is a swift progression through the negotiation and closing phases of the sales process.
What mistakes do you think the sales rep made here? Were they attentive to John’s needs? Did they make John feel listened to? Let’s think about what our fictional sales rep could have done better by reviewing some best practices in handling sales objections.
Basic methods used for handling and overcoming sales objections
All of the studies cited so far in this breakdown of handling sales objections have stressed how essential empathy and affiliative, non-confrontational language are to building trust in the sales rep/sales prospect relationship, and ultimately overcoming objections.
Do you think either of these qualities was evidenced in the sales rep’s lines in the sample script above? Note how they didn’t respond to John’s concern about tourist demand for a local beer, for instance, which seemed pretty important to John.
So what does all of this actually mean in terms of concrete practice?
Here’s a basic rundown of some tried-and-true steps for overcoming objections in sales (we’ll be drilling deeper into some more advanced techniques in a little bit).
Plan for objections
As we’ve already touched on above, the best offense in handling sales objections is a good defense: if you’ve already anticipated your buyer’s objections before they have the chance to express them, you’ll have won half the battle.
Here are some tips to help you plan before a conversation with a sales prospect:
- Maintain a document that has a running list of the most common objections you’ve been hearing when pitching your product or service, as well as unexpressed objections you have identified yourself in the thorough research of your lead.
- Classify those objections according to type (ie, by price, delivery time, company, etc.).
- Pick your colleagues’ brains and document their advice on dealing with common types of prospect objections.
- Record your successes and failures in handling those objections in each sales call or meeting.
LISTEN: You really need that commission, you’re just so enthusiastic about your prospect, you’ve got a lot on your plate to get through that day—there are so many excuses for not taking the time to stay quiet and listen, truly listen, to your prospect.
But you’ve got to resist the temptation to push forward with your pitch—don’t do things like finishing your buyer’s sentences for them, or even worse, cutting them off.
Practice mindful, active listening—not only will that allow your prospect to feel heard, but it’s the only way you’ll find out what’s really important to them, and be able to handle their objections accordingly.
ACKNOWLEDGE: Once your prospect has expressed an objection, don’t just try to steamroll over it—acknowledge it, and make them feel you believe their concern is valid.
For instance, in the script above, when John mentioned how important local beers are for tourists, a good sales rep would acknowledge that with a statement like, “Absolutely, authenticity and local products are definitely so important for an establishment like yours. I understand your concern.”
ASSESS: Don’t try to convince (or, even worse, manipulate or strongarm) your prospective buyer to see things your way—help them feel like you’re working with them to solve their problem. Open a dialogue to learn more about their concerns, and show empathy as they express themselves.
RESPOND: Once the customer knows that the sales rep fully understands the objections at hand, the salesperson can formulate a thoughtfully, sensitively worded response to the objection, one which should contain a solution.
CONFIRM: Finally, the sales rep needs to ascertain whether or not the prospect understood their response, and if it appropriately met their concerns. Ask confirmatory questions to make sure.
A sociolinguistic approach to sales objection handling
So that’s all very sound, tried-and-tested general advice, but any salesperson worth their salt will (hopefully!) already be putting those methodologies to use.
Once these basic principles have become second nature, it’s time to get a little more granular and really dig into the nuances of some science-based strategies for handling and overcoming buyer objections.
In Kim Sydow Campbell, Lenita Davis, and Lauren Skinner’s incisive, field-pioneering inquiry, “Rapport Management during the Exploration Phase of the Salesperson-Customer Relationship” (published in a 2006 issue of The Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management), the authors made a compelling case for applying sociolinguistic theory to the sales process, specifically at the juncture of dealing with objections.
The authors stress that social-context-informed linguistic cues are essential to building a trusting rapport between the client and salesperson during that second, exploratory stage in the sales process.
Sales manuals and most training will often argue that objections are actually hidden signs of interest on the part of the prospect, or just a bargaining technique, or even attributable to a plain dislike of salespeople.
But the authors of this study argue that in fact, objections almost always arise out of a lack of trust—and, as the sample sales dialogue above demonstrated, you can’t build trust just by relaying information.
As we saw in the previous discussion, most people are highly conflict-avoidant, and thus you need to have effective trust-building communications strategies in place in order to resolve the inherent conflict that always occurs during the exploratory phase of the sales process (the conflict being that you want the prospect to buy, and the prospect doesn’t want to.)
This is why, in reality, it’s pretty tricky to give specific advice on handling sales objections, because in order to build trust with the buyer, you need to:
- Recognize the specific needs of each individual customer
- Adapt your communication strategies according to those specific needs
- Modify your speech and behavior to be in alignment with those tailor-made communication strategies
Because every client is going to be different, there simply is no one-size-fits-all approach, which is why the fundamentals of objection management we went through above might feel a little bit generic.
But that being said, the authors of the study on sociolinguistic approaches to handling objections in sales did provide some broad guidelines that definitely have real applicability to a variety of sales situations.
Objection-handling techniques that threaten customer trust (avoid these)
To build trust, you want your client to feel that they have autonomy and equal rights in your relationship and that you both understand and validate their concerns. Your prospective client also has to be shielded from direct, conflictual language, which can make them uncomfortable and lower their trust levels.
That’s why you need to employ language based on compromise and collaboration.
The following techniques have often been recommended in sales training programs and manuals, but, because they are not based on compromise and collaboration, the authors of this study recommend abandoning them altogether.
The “pass-up” technique
Let’s say your customer’s primary objection has to do with lengthy delivery times. In this scenario, an example of the “pass-up” technique would be for the sales rep to respond to that objection with a statement like: “Many of my customers are worried about delivery times, but let’s focus on the product’s benefits for your organization.”
This might seem like a useful technique since it avoids a direct rebuttal of the client’s objection and refocuses attention on a positive attribute.
But in actuality, it offers neither a compromise nor an opportunity for collaboration with the client—nor does it show them that the sales rep is seriously assessing their concern and trying to find a solution.
The “dodge” technique
As its name would imply, the “dodge” technique involves never directly addressing the objection in question. It’s sort of like the “pass-up” technique, except it goes even further.
Again, this might seem like an advantageous strategy, because it eschews adversarial language or direct conflict with the objecting client.
But it ultimately leads to a breakdown in trust, because the client does not feel validated like they have been heard, or like they have autonomy in this dynamic. Even worse, they may feel that the sales rep is being deliberately duplicitous or manipulative.
Now, here are some gold-standard best-practices for handling sales objections. Rooted in strategies of compromise and collaboration, all of these techniques have academic evidence backing up their efficacy.
Objection-handling techniques that build customer trust (implement these)
The “compensation” technique
This technique involves acknowledging the prospect’s objection and then countering it by pointing out other mutual goals that both of you have agreed on, like productivity.
For example: “I totally agree with you, our delivery times are just too long. But once the product is in hand, productivity has been shown to increase by an average of 20 percent.” This is an example of compromising with the potential buyer.
The “question” technique
This technique is an example of collaborating with the sales prospect, by engaging them in more conversation about their objection through the formulation of thoughtful, friendly questions.
For instance: “You feel our delivery times are too long?” This helps the sales prospect feel more autonomous in the interaction.
The “buffer” technique
This is a subtler technique involving the sales rep taking care to vary the directness of their speech.
When addressing the fundamental conflict at the heart of the exploratory phase of the sales process, a direct denial or rebuttal of the client’s objections could be perceived as rude or aggressive, and thus threaten the client’s trust and rapport with the sales rep.
Instead, salespeople are encouraged to utilize indirect speech in their responses to a given objection, to encourage the client’s sense of validation and comfort with the interaction.
It’s also recommended here to pick up on the keywords being used by the client and repeat them in your response, further to foster a sense of mutual trust and understanding.
The power of data: How CRM can help you better overcome objections in sales
And now we come to our final, and most technologically advanced, study-backed strategy for effectively handling objections in sales.
In their 2008 peer-reviewed article, “The Sales Force Technology-Performance Chain: The Role of Adaptive Selling and Effort,” authors Adam Rapp, Raj Agnihotri, and Lukas P. Forbes looked at sales teams that employed sales force automation (SFA) and implemented customer relationship management (CRM) software systems.
Data gleaned from 662 sales reps, 60 sales managers, and a wealth of archival data revealed that CRM usage in particular had a strong positive correlation with the productive handling of sales objections.
The authors postulate that the enhanced access to customer information enables sales reps to hone their adaptive selling skillset—they are thus even better forearmed to receive and overcome objections in the sales process.
A great CRM is just the beginning. To deliver the best experience to your prospects and scale your business effectively, you need a robust sales funnel, effective sales enablement content, and data-processing tools (often powered by AI).
We’ve just spent over 5,000 words unpacking how to deal with sales objections. This is only one piece of the sales enablement puzzle. Accent Technologies exists to help organizations develop a comprehensive revenue enablement strategy, providing prospects and sales reps with benefits at every stage of the sales cycle.
For more information on how Accent Technologies can help you pre-qualify your prospects, warm up your potential customers, and maximize your profits, sign up for a live demo today.