Swallowing your pride and admitting mistakes helps build strong relationships. With this technique and others sales people convince customers to buy.

Sometimes making a sale and building a stronger relationship with a customer means swallowing your own pride and admitting that you're human. Admitting to weaknesses and errors may be difficult at the time, but it helps salespeople build stronger long-lasting customer relationships, which propels them toward their ultimate goal: convincing customers to buy.

When you are wrong on a point, admit it without equivocation.

As pointed out previously, the hardest words to say are "I was wrong." Yet for professional salespeople, those three words can be the strongest, most effective statement. Just think of the advantages of using those words.

*It causes other people to look upon you as a fair person.

*It takes the heat out of the customer's attack. Who can remain angry with another individual who admits he's wrong?

*It puts the selling situation on a new plateau. You can now express sincere regret for any problems your error caused, and you have created an opportunity to explain how you will make amends.

Make the "I was wrong" approach even more effective by prefacing those three words with a statement like, "You're absolutely right; I'm wrong," or "You're right, I'd forgotten (name the point), and I am wrong," or "You're right, I'm wrong. If you hadn't raised that point, I probably would have overlooked it." By admitting you're wrong and also paying a sincere compliment to the customer, you have created an image of yourself as someone willing to listen and to admit errors. It also helps you project an image of being open-minded.

Salespeople often avoid admitting errors because they are afraid they'll lose face with the customer. But if you are wrong, the customer will know that anyway; by failing to admit it, you only reinforce the customer's belief that you are wrong - and add to it something worse. The customer will suspect that you are evasive or dishonest. Or he may think you are implying that he is wrong.

If you're willing to admit to yourself that on occasion you have been wrong, why not admit it to others? Confessing to yourself that you've been wrong causes you to take steps to reduce the chances that you will be wrong again. Confessing to customers that you're wrong will produce a similar result!

Refusing to admit you're in error to a customer who knows you are wrong creates so many problems they couldn't possibly be enumerated here. Losing the order may be one of the least of the prices exacted.

Don't demand immediate agreement.

Give the customer time to think.

Salespeople often must change customers' views. Other articles in this series discussed a battery of techniques to change the views of customers. For any of them to work well, however, it's often necessary to add another element - time. Avoid demanding immediate agreement from the customer. The most effective "persuader" is giving the customer time to think.

It takes most people a while to form an opinion. Customers' opinions may be based on any one or a combination of factors, including hearsay, lack of knowledge about a new product's or service's features, fear of change, satisfaction with familiar products or methods, hesitation to change suppliers or fear of potential problems (real or imaginary). Any opinion growing out of one of these factors will take time, evidence and thought to alter.

If a customer doesn't respond favorably to your presentation immediately, there may be any number of reasons why. He may be mentally giving a lot of thought to your views. Or perhaps there's only one point on which his opinion differs from yours and he's weighing its importance; he might decide not to bring it up at all. He may be trying to justify why he held the views he did before hearing your presentation. Or maybe he's admitting to himself that his opinion is invalid; in other words, he's faced with the need to say (to himself), "I was wrong."

Assess the situation to decide what tactic to employ next. Sometimes this means you must present or reinforce certain information; other times it simply means allowing time to pass for the customer to think things through and form an opinion favorable to you. This can be done with a number of tactics. Here are some to choose from:

*If the customer remains silent for a short time after hearing your presentation, it's best to say nothing for a while. Often salespeople believe if a customer is silent, they are losing him. Usually, the customer is simply considering the advantages of the offer and making certain he has not overlooked disadvantages.

Silence is a vacuum, and salespeople often feel they must fill it. Don't give in to this tendency. It creates the impression you are pushing too hard. Instead, let customers think. Wait to see what is on their minds. Customers dislike the vacuum that silence represents just as much as you do.

Think about how often you've heard someone say critically, "He talks too much." You rarely hear an individual faulted with, "He listens too much." Everyone loves a listener, so listen and wait for the customer to speak.

If the situation does not resolve itself through your quiet attention, you may need to nudge it along to a resolution. Depending on the situation, there are a variety of ways to do that.

*If a customer disagrees with you on one point that is troublesome but not of major importance, use statements such as, "I see why you raise that point; but let's put it on hold for a moment and come back to it in a few minutes. I'd like to cover a few other features I'm certain will be of real interest to you."

If the customer doesn't object, present other features you believe will be of such interest to him they'll cause the point he raised to seem minor in comparison. Or the customer may be so impressed with the feature, he may forget his earlier objection.

Conversely, the customer may appear to be impressed with the features (or advantages) you have covered, but he continues to raise the earlier objection. Compromise (if possible) on that point; or emphasize other advantages of your offering so that the objection appears of minor importance.

*If the customer seems to be wavering indecisively but the reason is not apparent, look a little closer. Identify the reason, then use an appropriate tactic to counter the problem. Usually, however, people will hide the real reason for their indecisiveness because revealing it would project an image of themselves they do not wish to expose. Yet it's essential for the salesperson to identify the cause of the customer's hesitation; you cannot solve the problem until you identify its source.

For example, the customer may be weighing your offer against hearsay; none of us likes to think that we base our opinions on gossip. A customer whose attitude has been influenced by hearsay will usually raise an objection you know is not within his experience. It can only have been created by "stories" he has been exposed to.

*If it seems the customer's concerns were created by hearsay, try to identify the source. Was it created by a competitor, a critical article in a trade journal or a dissatisfied customer? It will not be wise to ask the customer the source of his objections; it will be more productive to face up to the problem. If you know the source was a dissatisfied customer, for instance, you can say, "We did have a problem with a customer who used the product in a way it was not intended." Don't name the customer but explain briefly why the customer was critical.

*If you believe the customer's resistance is due to a lack of technical knowledge, make every effort to provide that knowledge without creating the impression you think he's ill-informed. After explaining some points, preface your explanation with comments such as, "As you know..." or "As you undoubtedly are aware..." Some customers will reply, "No, I know very little about this, so start from scratch," making your task that much easier.

While reviewing technical information with the customer, avoid using acronyms, abbreviations and highly specialized terms. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears by watching the customer's body language. If you believe the customer has failed to follow your presentation, repeat your comments using different words. Do not rush. Rather than confining yourself to giving facts, urge the customer to ask questions as you present the information he needs. You can accomplish this by stating at the outset, "Don't hesitate to ask questions at any time."

*If you sense a customer's indecision in placing an order comes from a fear of change, try citing the experiences of other customers. You might even want to name them, but be certain first how the customer regards those whom you will name. If the customer fears that changing to this product will create problems at the installation or in use, emphasize that your company (or you) will be on hand at the installation and that your company's technical experts will be available at all times.

Do not indicate, in any way, that you suspect the customer fears change. Instead, emphasize the benefits he'll receive from the change. When applicable, drive home how your product will meet his needs and make his life easier.

*If the customer shows concern about changing suppliers, emphasize how it will be to his advantage to buy from you. In such cases, avoid naming or criticizing the customer's present suppliers. Instead, concentrate on the customer's needs.

Everyone has many needs that may include desires to be rich (to make or to save money); to be famous (to make decisions that reflect favorably on us); to be powerful (to feel that we can make important decisions); to be secure, either financially or psychologically (to avoid making mistakes); and to have life easier (to avoid problems or reduce our workload).

In a selling situation, make every effort to identify which of these needs is uppermost in the customer's mind. Your task includes not only filling the customer's product or service needs, but also satisfying whichever one or more of these five basic human needs he has at the time.

A customer may be influenced by one of these needs today, but in a future sale, another of the five needs may dominate. Listening to what a customer says will often enable you to sense which need must be satisfied today; it will also help you avoid saying or doing anything to awaken one of the needs that may be as yet dormant. You don't want to do that, unless, of course, it's a need that you can easily fill.

*If you cannot tell why a customer is hesitating, do not assume the problem is price. There are times when price is the barrier to a successful sale, but there are also times when customers will sacrifice price in order to satisfy one or more of the basic human needs.

It's comparatively easy in many selling situations to identify product or service needs. It's far more difficult to identify the human needs that predominate. Test the credibility of that statement by examining some of your own past behavior as a customer. Have you ever purchased an item to satisfy the need to look good in the eyes of others (or your own eyes) when a lower-priced product would have met your product needs? Can you recall buying a product solely to make life easier for yourself? Many customers have similar basic buying motives. There are even many whose motive will be the need to avoid making decisions in the workplace; decisions take more out of us than almost any other human behavior. Take every opportunity to point out features of your product or service that will make life easier for the customer.

Remember - do not demand immediate agreement from a customer. People aren't computers; they need time to process new information. Welcome brief periods of silence during the sale. They give both you and the customer time to think.

Avoid a defensive position; shift the burden of proof.

One of a salesperson's primary objectives is to keep the sale moving forward. When a customer creates a situation that places you in a defensive position, it usually impedes the progress of the sale. If you do not handle the obstacle adroitly, the sale may be lost.

Sometimes, though, a customer's resistance, objections or opinions can provide you with an opportunity to move the sale along more quickly. For example, the nature of the customer's negative attitude may enable you to identify the problem that stands between you and a successful sale. You might not even realize that a problem exists until the customer's comment or attitude alerts you.

An even more difficult situation occurs when customers harbor negative opinions but fail to reveal them. In such cases, the customer may seem to have a neutral attitude toward you, your product, or both, and his response after your presentation may well be, "Let me think it over." Those words can lead directly to an undesirable result because what he may really mean is, "Give me time to see competitive products," or "I don't think this product meets my needs."

The best way to avoid being placed on the defensive like that is to identify as far in advance as possible the objections the customer may raise, the erroneous opinions he may hold, the hearsay he has heard and the problems he has had in the past with your products. There is no substitute for presale preparation.

Often, however, it's impossible to predict every type of reaction the customer may have, so "preparation" must sometimes take place at the start of the sale. Try to get the customer talking as soon as possible, resisting the natural temptation to open by launching into your presentation at once.

Your presentation itself must be based on more than product features and buying benefits. Although of great importance, both these aspects may prove ineffective if you have not identified the customer's possible objections or restrictions on his freedom of choice (his cash-flow position or, in some cases, his need to sell someone "upstairs" in his firm). There may be a great many influences on the customer, all making up parts of his reason for resisting your efforts; and he may not reveal them, even under your skilled probing. For example, the customer may feel that if he buys from you, he will then face the need to withhold business from a firm (or friend) that has been his supplier for years.

When customers disagree outright with something you've said, you are immediately placed on the defensive. They may also raise objections simply in order to control the selling situation or to keep their true views to themselves. But it's essential that you, the salesperson, control the sale while allowing the customer to feel in control. To avoid being placed in - or to get yourself out of - a defensive position, turn the tables on the customer, putting him on the defensive instead.

This can be accomplished by using "who, what, where, why and how." When you use questions, it places the customer on the defensive. In answering your questions, he must do the talking while you listen. Rarely do people learn by talking, but by listening they open the door to knowledge. As the customer talks, you may identify the customer's basic buying need. Is it to meet a product need or a psychic need? Or, you may discover the customer's resistance is due to lack of knowledge or to erroneous information to which he has been exposed. You are, again, in the driver's seat.

However, you should use questions with care. Try not to create the impression that you're challenging the customer. When possible, preface your questions with brief statements applicable to the situation, such as, "I share your concern about the problem you've raised. Have you had that problem in the past?" That's just one way "why" and "when" can be used in some situations.

As customers talk, and you listen, you obtain helpful information and you're given time to decide how to meet the objection or comment that had put you on the defensive.

Your profession entails persuading other people to accept your point of view. Often, you can accomplish that only when you understand both the other person's point and why he holds that view. You will not find out if you do all the talking.

There's one other factor to remember. As you respond to a customer's negative reaction, keep in mind his point of view may be correct; you may be the one in error. By admitting you're wrong, you take yourself off the defensive, and you can then proceed in your sales presentation to subjects not in contention.

Do not, however, make a practice of saying you're in error when you know you're right. Customers are not about to buy from anyone who frequently finds it necessary to say he was wrong!

Sales are often lost when customers who believe they're right are confronted by a salesperson with an opposite opinion who is also absolutely certain that he is correct. It's a good idea to think twice about the reasons for yourposition. How many times have you and I, even in our homes with people we love, found ourselves in a debate because, for example, the same word meant different things to each of us?

You may also find yourself on the defensive because of statements that can be interpreted in more than one way. If you suspect you and the customer may be in a disagreement due to such semantic traps, one effective tactic is to say to the customer, "You and I are in agreement on just about everything we've discussed. I suspect that we may also be in agreement on this point but are, perhaps, having a misunderstanding. Do me a favor, and repeat your viewpoint, then I'll repeat mine." More than likely, you'll find that either you or the customer has used words that could be misinterpreted. You may even be able to share a laugh over it before continuing with your sales presentation.

If that approach does not clarify the situation, you can use this tactic. Say to the customer, "Both of us seek the same thing. I want to sell you a product that meets your need and you want a product that meets a need or solves a problem. We have held different views on one point. "Let's see why our views on this one point differ. Let me tell you why I hold my view, then let me hear why your views are different. Then we can find common ground. Or if the difference of opinion on this one point remains, we can surely find a solution together." This reasonable type of statement can take both you and the customer off the defensive and progress will almost always result.

Restate and modify your position to reflect your concessions.

A concession makes a powerful selling tool, but a salesperson needs to seriously consider when one is necessary. Here's how not to use one:

A staff member of ours made a telephone call to an office supply firm to order some materials. She told the supplier what she wanted. Finding it was on hand and could be shipped immediately, she asked what the price would be.

She was told the price and then, as she paused briefly to consider how large an order she would place, the supplier cut into the silence and asked her, "Will X dollars be okay? " The new price represented something like a 15% reduction.

Our staff member placed the order immediately. But she had been satisfied with the first price the supplier placed on the merchandise; her hesitancy had not been due to any question of that. She had only needed a few moments to decide how large an order to place at the original price.

The lesson is obvious. Concessions should not be made until they become necessary. Silence is a vacuum and, like nature, we try to fill that vacuum. But customers find silence as disagreeable as salespeople do. So you should, when possible, let the customer fill the vacuum. You learn little when you talk, but you learn much when you listen. The more a customer talks, the more you learn.

A second lesson to be gained from this tale is that you should not assume there's a problem and try to head it off by offering concessions in the early stages of a sales presentation. Instead, save them to use only when you feel they will overcome customer objections. Above all, make sure the customer realizes you have provided more than was included in your initial product or service offer.

To make sure all of that happens, you need to do presale preparation. Try to predict the obstacles that a customer may present during the course of the sale, then consider any concessions you may be able to make, if and when the difficulties arise. While planning, consider any long-range problems that granting a concession may create. Will it set a precedent? Will it stir up problems if it becomes common knowledge among other customers? Will it cause this customer to feel that other concessions will be made in the future?

In some areas, concessions usually can be made, however, such as on date of delivery, financial terms, quantity discounts, installation (if applicable), delayed billing and scope of guarantees. You may be able to add others to the list, or you may find that some cannot apply in your marketplace. It will, nonetheless, help if you make a list for yourself of specific areas in which you may make concessions, for use as a checklist in your presale planning.

While compiling the list of possible concessions you can make if necessary, be certain they are promises you can keep. That may mean you have to notify or get approval from others in your company; you also need to make certain that sales support people agree that the concession can be honored. Obviously, all such approvals should be obtained before you enter the selling situation.

If you forewarn your people that it will happen, it often helps to ask the customer to permit you to use the telephone to clear your concession with those in your company who will be required to back up your promise. Customers view that sort of thing as evidence that they are important to your company and that the promises will be kept.

There are some don'ts:

*Don't ever offer a concession without being certain your company can honor it. Unless you have cleared the concession in advance with them, you cannot assume you will be able to get your management's or your co-worker's agreement.

*Don't ever offer a concession capriciously. You must make the customer think the concession has been made only after considerable thought has been given to it.

*Don't make a concession before a problem arises simply because you feel it will arise. Granting a concession in anticipation of a problem wastes its value as a selling tool. Worse yet, you may end up focusing the customer's attention on problems he had not even considered.

*Don't make the mistake of believing a customer will raise objections or mention problems solely because other customers have done so. Every selling situation should be viewed as unique, even though it will have similarities to others you have faced.

As the selling situation advances to the point where you must ask for the order, don't fail to summarize your presentation by subtly reminding the customer that you have made definite concessions. Choosing your own words, use such comments as, "Our offer has been modified and improved since we started today. I have appreciated the views you held and I've found it possible to address your concerns by making these changes in our efforts to meet your needs." Then list the changes you have made. Avoid calling them concessions!

At times a salesperson will know, without a doubt, that the customer will raise a certain objection or problem. In such instances, you may have to bring up the problem yourself, then make concessions to dilute or eliminate the objection the customer will raise.

In that kind of situation - and in that kind only - if you let the customer bring up the objection first, he may conclude that you had not considered it in advance and that the concession was made off-the-cuff. That dilutes the value of your concession. But, to repeat, this course of action should be taken only when there is no doubt that the obstacle will come up. (To be continued.)