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The Adversarial Trap

When salespeople start "overcoming objections," they are placing, by definition, themselves in conflict with their customers. At best, this sets the stage for polite disagreements and respectful differences of opinion. At worst, it turns the sales process into a battle in which the seller must somehow conquer the buyer to win the sale. You can hear this in the language that appears so often in sales training and in the conversations between salespeople and their managers. Words such as persist, insist, persuade, and convince all imply aggressive behavior.

This problem is inherent in the conventional sales process. Because it focuses solely on making the sale, any reluctance on the part of the customer translates into a direct threat to the salesperson's success.

The conflict between buyer and seller is exacerbated by the frustration that results from the miscommunication engendered by the conventional process. Salespeople are presenting professionally packaged data complete with executive summaries that their prospective customers find either unintelligible or unconnected to their situation. Confused and with no sound basis on which to evaluate the information, customers respond negatively. Conventional salespeople, who are overestimating their customers' level of comprehension, interpret this as an objection to be overcome and swing into action. "No," they say, "you don't get it. You do need our solution and here's why ..." Now the salespeople are arguing with their customers.

What happens next? If the customers don't shut down the presentation altogether, they may offer a second negative response. Another round of verbal sparring ensues. The customers' frustrations turn into exasperation. But now the sale is in doubt and the salespeople know that the customers need the solution, so they escalate their efforts. The downward spiral accelerates. Repeatedly, we have witnessed all of this occur in the most polite and respectful terms. No matter how civilized the exchange, the net result is that the salespeople and the customers have become adversaries. The sale has turned into a battle ... a battle in which customers always have the final say.

There are unfortunate exceptions, but, for the most part, salespeople using a conventional approach aren't purposely trying to beat up their customers. They are simply following the accepted dictates of a conventional sales process that generates statements such as:

  • Whether they know it or not, every "qualified" prospect needs your products and services.

  • Persuasion is the key quality of successful selling.

  • If you are persistent and pursue the customer at regular intervals and with increasing intensity, you will eventually get a sale.

  • An objection is a signal that the customer wants to be convinced to buy.

  • The real selling doesn't start until the customer says no.

There is a kernel of truth in each of these statements, but they are also the source of many of the sales techniques that customers find most irritating. They turn selling into a game where someone, either seller or buyer, must lose.

We are not saying that the adversarial mind-set won't produce sales. It will. We call it "Sales, James Bond style." Every sales organization has a James or Jamie Bond on the payroll, and too many managers are looking to hire more of them. You can drop the Bond-style salesperson out of an airplane into any territory, any prospect, any product, any quota, and you know they will come back with the business.

There is a problem, however, with the Bond approach. There will be a lot of collateral damage. People are going to get hurt on both sides of the table. Many salespeople, and even managers, try to rationalize this away and depend on their service and support functions to repair the damage. But customer relationships are fragile, memory is long, and customers have options. The service person's saying "I'm sorry, you know how salespeople can be" may not cut it. Further, in the real world of business, where margins are tight and a few percentage points of additional cost turn a profitable order into a loss, the Bond style can quickly become a major liability. Promise what you can't profitably deliver or coerce customers to do something they aren't sure about and you either lose customers or rack up the red ink. With today's instant communications, negative perceptions spread very quickly, which can make new business acquisition more difficult.


The topics covered herein concern solution sales, consultative sales, and consultative selling.

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