11 Tips to Master Effective Selling Conversations
Tactics and best practices for profitable sales conversations
A 2020 study in Review of Managerial Science found that, when trying to assess the personality and needs of a given customer and thus develop a tailored approach to a sales conversation, 80% of surveyed salespeople claimed to rely only on their intuition and knowledge gleaned from past personal experiences.
Start a conversation before the sales conversation
Building rapport can start before the sales conversation even begins. Sales reps will often find themselves in contact with the sales target before their meeting or call officially starts—maybe you’re in the elevator together on the way to the conference room, for instance.
Optimize those free moments by kindling small talk to put the client at ease and encourage them to lower their guard.
Adopt the contingency approach
After you’ve both loosened up with some pressure-free, low-stakes chatting, it’s time to dip your toes into the waters of the beginning of the sales conversation. Before you dive in, though, remember that researchers across the board agree that the number-one rule of effective sales conversations is adaptability.
Professor Baron Weitz codified the term “contingency approach” in his landmark study, “Effectiveness in Sales Interactions,” in which he makes a case for adaptability as the key to forming a sufficient bond between client and salesperson. Though written in the 1980s, Weitz’s “Effectiveness” paper is still a gold standard in sales and marketing research today.
The contingency approach entails first identifying what kind of consumer your sales target is—that is, determining their personality type and their specific needs. The sales rep must then adapt their approach to cater to that personality and those needs uniquely.
We’ll get more into how to flexibly and effectively respond to each unique customer during a sales conversation in the following points. Still, it’s also important to note here the value-add of AI-driven technological solutions to enhancing a sales rep’s knowledge base, in turn allowing them greater adaptability.
Tools like Accent Technologies’ Marketing Insight platform give salespeople next-level, data-driven insights into their sales leads and how they respond to different types of content and information so that they can more effectively tailor their conversations.
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Pose different types of questions throughout the sales conversation
Asking questions is an all-around safe and efficient approach in sales conversations. It’s helpful for better understanding prospect pain points and leading future customers to come to their own conclusions.
It’s paramount that you consider what types of questions you’re asking and when you’re asking them. Researchers have identified three main types of questions, each of which has its own purpose at various junctures in any given sales conversation:
As the name implies, open questions don’t have “yes” or “no” answers but rather are structured in such a way as to allow the customer to respond freely, using their own information, references, and interpretations.
Let’s take the tourism industry as a case in point. Examples of open questions posed by a sales pro in this field would include: “What’s your favorite type of vacation?” or “How long are you planning to travel for?”
Open questions are vital in building rapport at the beginning of the sales conversation, which is when you want to establish joint attention on a shared topic of conversation and to gather the info that you need to influence your approach to the rest of the discussion.
Open questions also tend to get the prospect talking, which is excellent for sales qualification purposes.
Follow-up questions are more specific questions that help the sales rep narrow the focus of the sales conversation by zeroing in on one particular topic. Leverage these more focused questions after establishing rapport but well before getting to the “hard ask” phase of the conversation.
Closed questions are the highest-pressure type of inquiry—they demand concentrated, specific answers and encourage the customer to address the task at hand and make decisions.
Reps should use these questions sparingly since they can induce stress and feelings of antagonism if the sales target is not sufficiently prepared. As a general rule of them, leverage them toward the end of the sales conversation.
Some examples of confident yet respectful closed sales questions are:
- “Given everything we’ve talked about, would you be interested in setting up a date to see a live demonstration of our software?”
- “I think it’s clear that we’d make a good fit. Can I price out an invoice and send that over, then we can chat again tomorrow?”
Empathy goes hand-in-hand with adaptability.
By making your client feel understood, and that their opinions, qualms, and needs are all valid, you’re going to both build the groundwork for a trusting relationship and also help the client be more open and receptive to your solutions.
Here are a few fundamental techniques for employing an empathetic approach to a sales conversation:
Pay attention to nonverbal cues
If customers hint at something, even without saying it (such as frowning, taking an anxious pause, etc.), consider that as you progress with the conversation.
Focus on “solidarity” actions
Simple, empathetic acts like laughing at a customer’s joke, acknowledging and affirming a customer’s response, calling the customer by name, and showing approval of a customer’s choice all assist in developing a friendly bond.
Another simple and effective way to demonstrate your empathy is to observe your sales target’s behavior and mirror it back to them.
Lean in when they lean in; if they’re in a joking mood, keep the banter light and humorous. If they’re more serious and apprehensive, then take a calmer, more measured approach to the conversation.
Paraphrase your customer’s statements back to them to demonstrate that you’re hearing and understanding them effectively.
Share your knowledge
Knowledge asymmetry is probably the number-one cause of stress and distrust in a sales conversation, as demonstrated by Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof in his industry-defining paper, “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.”
Today more than ever, sales reps are called on to act as knowledge brokers—potential customers want sales reps to provide them with high-value information so they can play on an equal playing field, as opposed to feeling the sales rep has all the cards in their pocket and are trying to take advantage of them.
There are several effective tactics sales reps can employ to address knowledge asymmetry during the sales conversation, which will help the sales target feel safer and more comfortable with the interaction:
- If you notice someone doesn’t possess the right amount of knowledge to hold up their end of the conversation, add information to bring focus and make it easier for people to understand what you want to say.
- Put what you want to say in a broader perspective to explain what you mean.
- Make sure prior to the conversation that you well-understand the industry context in which your customer operates, and use examples from that context to add missing information during the course of the sales conversation. This is another area where tools like Accent Technologies’ Marketing Insight and CRM Supercharger platforms can really add value, by arming sales reps with in-depth knowledge about their leads that they can leverage at this point in the conversation.
- Don’t shy away from total transparency about your product, its price, and your company’s reputation, even if some of that information could potentially be to your detriment.
- Occasionally summarize for customers what has been said up to a given point in the sales conversation to help keep valuable information fresh in their minds.
- Provide opportunities for the client to fact-check your claims: refer them to customer reviews, third-party articles, or other reputable sources with hard facts that back up your assertions.
Keep your emphasis on socio-emotional comments
It’s easy to become overly focused on “task”-oriented comments during the sales conversation—i.e., to stick to questions and statements designed to gather specific information from the client and orient them toward your proffered solution.
But “socio-emotional” comments are just as important as, if not more important than, those more assertive types of speech.
- An effective sales conversation is one in which the sales rep repeatedly:
- Acknowledges the customer
- Agrees with and validates the customers’ perceptions
- Makes comments in support of the customer
- Relieves pressure or tension from the situation, such as by cracking a light-hearted joke
Give suggestions, not opinions
Research has shown that customers do want sales reps to offer them knowledgeable advice. However, they absolutely do not want to be told what to do! In one study, customers reported that when sales reps made statements that the customers categorized as “giving an opinion”–type assertions, they were less likely to make the sale.
An example of a “giving opinion”–type statements would be something like: “I think that software program might be a problem for you, and you should try an alternative.”
On the other hand, a comment like, “Several past clients have tried this other software program and really enjoyed its benefits, you might want to look into it” would be interpreted as a “giving suggestions”–type statement. In that same study, these lower-pressure “suggestion” statements were positively related to successful sales conversations.
Share your personal experience to help customers reach their own conclusions
This point builds on the last one: sales reps who share their past personal experiences with other customers to support the solutions they’re offering report higher-performing sales conversations.
Researchers postulate that by laying out these analogies and case studies, sales reps are actually subtly shaping the beliefs of their potential clients, by helping them to reframe their understanding of their own needs and imagine other possible solutions to their problems.
Appropriately modulate your speech behaviors
It’s important to adapt your speech patterns and behaviors to match those of your clients, as we discussed when we touched on “mirroring behavior” above, but only to an extent. Studies have found that in the course of any given sales conversation, customers consistently respond best to sales reps who:
- Speak confidently
- Do not speak too quickly
- Do not interrupt the customer
- Do not take pronounced verbalized pauses (i.e., who avoid punctuating their speech with words or sounds such as “ummm…,” “like,” “you know…”)
- Speak at an appropriate volume
- Speak in complete thoughts
- Emphasize key points with changes in voice pitch and volume
The key to an effective sales conversation? Listening.
Any sales training manual is going to trumpet the virtues of listening during a sales conversation—but are there actual techniques to optimize one’s listening skills? Fortunately, the answer is yes! In fact, moderating how you demonstrate that you’re listening to your client is just as important as modulating your speech behaviors.
Here are the three main building blocks for demonstrating active listening during the course of a sales conversation:
- Attentiveness – Use short, affirmative words and phrases to show you’re listening (i.e., “I hear you,” “uh-huh,” “go on,” “I know what you mean!”)
- Perceptiveness – Continually attempt to understand what your client is saying throughout the course of the sales conversation, such as by paraphrasing their statements and asking clarifying questions (i.e., “So what you mean is…”)
- Responsiveness – Show your client you care about what they’re saying by responding to them using full, complete sentences, instead of just saying “yes” or “no.”
Build and practice emotional resilience
The final “best practice” for maintaining effective sales conversations may be one of the most difficult: building your emotional resilience. Emotional resilience refers to a person’s ability to remain genuinely calm and friendly even during stressful interactions—this is key especially when the client reaches the “objections” phase of the sales interaction.
Sales reps with higher levels of emotional resilience show higher probabilities of perceiving an objection or other negative stimulus from a client as a challenge, as opposed to a frustrating obstacle—and these salespeople demonstrate a greater level of confidence in addressing that challenge, leading to better outcomes than their peers.
Building emotional resilience doesn’t happen in a day, but consistently practicing mindfulness, empathy, and compassion for your customers will ultimately lead to greater resilience over time.
Adopting these 11 best practices is going to enhance the effectiveness of any sales conversation, regardless of the field or industry.
We’ve also touched a little bit about how these practices can be enhanced with the support of tech-driven solutions, such as those offered by Accent Technologies. Learning more about these AI-powered programs can help sharpen the competitive edge offered by the above techniques even further.