Salespeople will periodically find themselves in situations where customers are flat-out wrong in their beliefs about a product. At times like those, it's the salesperson's job to gently redirect the customer - to provide an escape hatch. Of course, a salesperson has many roles to play in the job. From teacher to politician, from counselor to consultant, the goal of the job is to convince the customer to buy.

This series, which began in January, outlines 33 techniques that help salespeople meet their goals. Although some of the 33 techniques are simply common sense, a refresher is always a good idea. This is the final installment in the nine-part series.

30. Give escape hatches to customers who are in error. At times, customers will be in error. So will you. When they (or you) are aware of that fact and it hurts, they enter the "Ouch Area." At that point, customers will often seek an escape hatch, trying to find ways to avoid admitting to themselves (and certainly to you) that they made an error.

Some people do sometimes tend to become aggressive or defensive when they realize they have been in error. The more vocally they expressed opinions, the greater their efforts to find excuses for having held and stated these opinions, even though they now realize the opinions were wrong. There are exceptions. Some people, after realizing they have been in error, will laugh and say, "How stupid of me!" or something similar. That's the kind of customer you love to have.

Incidentally, when caught in an error in a selling situation, admit it. You will enhance your image in the customer's mind as a "nice person." To deny that you are wrong when the customer knows you are is a sure-fire path to a lost sale or, at least, a tarnished reputation.

A customer who holds an incorrect opinion will continue to do so until you, the salesperson, present unassailable facts that cause him to realize gradually or suddenly he has been wrong. If the point is a minor one or if the customer has not strongly defended the erroneous opinion, no problem may have been created and you can continue with your presentation. If the customer has strongly supported his erroneous opinion, however, you must remain alert. It's often a mistake to assume that the customer will merely change his mind and subside so that you can move on to another facet of the sale.

Remember, a rat in a maze, when frustrated, attacks the walls of the maze. The customer may see you as the maze that trapped him when your presentation makes him realize he is wrong.

Some customers feel that they will lose face if they must admit that they were wrong. Often they will seek some acceptable reason to explain (to themselves as well as to you) why they were in error. If they blame some other individual not present with having supplied them with false information, you will be in luck. But if no one else can be blamed, they may try to place the blame for their erroneous opinions on you. They may claim you failed to supply them with information that would have prevented them from forming the wrong opinion. Or they may charge you with any one of numerous reasons that resulted in their being wrong. To repeat, for emphasis: Customers will see you as the "maze" that caused them to have been in error.

It's essential that you act as fast as possible to prevent the customer from resorting to any of these actions. It's important to give such customers acceptable and logical reasons for having held the opinions they sought to sustain. In previous articles, we presented some tactics to employ to avoid debates. They will prove effective in preventing the situation you now face from becoming a debate. We present them again here with an amplification of the reasons why they work.

Depending on the nature of the customer's error, there are a number of tactics you can use. Don't limit your choices to those discussed below. Add others that occur to you.

It will be helpful to develop escape hatches for the customer who is in error. For example, you can use such statements (if appropriate to the situation) as:

1. "I can readily understand why you felt as you did. I held the same opinion until I became aware of the facts I just presented."

2. "Believe me, many of my customers held the same opinion that you held until more information was supplied to them."

3. "It seems to me that I should find a way to give more information to my customers before they form opinions on this subject (naming the subject of disagreement)."

In tactic No. 1, you reduced or eliminated the "Ouch" by indicating that, for good reason, you formerly shared the same opinion as the customer has held. In other words, anyone could make the same mistake.

In tactic No. 2, you have indicated the customer's opinion is one that has been held by other intelligent people. People rarely "lose face" with themselves if they find that other "intelligent people" have made the same error they did.

In tactic No. 3, you have taken some of the blame for the customer having held the wrong opinion. This approach must be handled with care so that the customer will not be tempted to place all the blame on you. We have all seen politicians break campaign promises by stating that the promises were made before adequate information was available. We are all tempted to "adjust facts" to justify actions. In selling, you will encounter customers who will claim that if you had given them full information, they would not have formed erroneous opinions. In taking that position, they put themselves in the same category as the politicians who supply themselves with excuses for changing their minds after being elected. If the situation is not acute, the salesperson may sometimes want to take a minor share of the blame; it can help reduce tension.

Ghengis Khan rewarded the harbingers of bad news by killing them, hollowing them out, filling them with sand and sending them back. This had a salutary effect on others. Hitler, at the end of World War II, fired, and sometimes liquidated, generals who dared to tell him about bad conditions on the Eastern Front. Hitler undoubtedly realized he had been wrong. Punishing the generals did not erase the fact that he had been wrong; but through aggression, he tried to erase the troublesome error. You are not in danger of being "hollowed out," but you can lose a sale if you do not relieve the pain a customer may feel for having looked foolish in his or her own eyes and in yours.

The harder a customer may have fought to defend an error, the more aggressive he will become unless you remove the pain. It should go without saying that once you have helped customers bridge the "Ouch Area," you should never return to it. If the customer brings up the subject later in the selling situation, indicating how wrong she was, your only retort should be, "Join the club. I've formed opinions before I became privy to new information." Then change the subject.

If you do not recognize that customers are in the "Ouch Area," you may lose the sale because the "psychic price" is too high even though you offer an attractive price for your product or service.

31. Make your idea the customer's idea. Don't insist on getting credit. Two ducks were about to fly south, leaving behind their friend, a frog, facing the need to burrow in the mud for the winter. Then the frog decided that if he tied a rope to a leg on each duck and held onto the rope in his mouth, he could fly south with them. All went well until a farmer, seeing the trio, said, "What a wonderful idea that was. I wonder who thought of it?" The frog opened his mouth and said, "It was my idea." The ducks landed and gave the frog a decent burial.

In the process of persuading a customer, you may find as you move into the latter part of your presentation that he makes a statement that indicates he was the author of your idea. When this occurs, it is essential that you let the customer take credit.

It's almost certain the customer knows it is your idea. But there are times after a conversation when you and I may be left feeling that an idea developed was ours. Later, we may sense some guilt or uncertainty as to who really did produce the idea. This type of thing takes place at home, too, when a husband and wife each claim that a successful action was his or her idea. Note, too, that the same thing often occurs when the idea was a failure. Then each may blame the other for being the author of the idea.

You should give the customer the benefit of the doubt - assume that he really believes he came up with the idea. In any event, you can be comforted by the knowledge that your idea was responsible for the customer's decision to buy from you.

If the customer makes a statement that indicates the idea was his in the presence of others in his company, and one of them jocularly or otherwise tells the customer that he's stealing an idea that's yours, you cannot afford to sit idly by. You need to protect the customer's self-image by, for example, seizing upon some statement the customer has made that led up to the idea you presented. Make it appear that if the customer had not made earlier statements, the idea would not have been born. Or you can say, "There's nothing new about the idea, and it is consistent with many things Bill (the customer) has said before." It is essential that you save face for the customer.

32. Ask for the order. Get a commitment. Once I was watching a group of salespeople in a company's training program. Each participant was assigned to take turns acting as salesperson and as customer. Each was subjected to a critique of his or her selling style. One salesman gave an excellent performance, one that seemed to deserve applause. But when he finished, one of the observers said, "You didn't get the order."

The salesman said, "Why not?

"You never asked for the order," the critic replied.

The salesman insisted that he most certainly had asked for the order. It was necessary to replay the videotape of the role-playing session to prove to him that the critic was right!

It may seem obvious, but you must remember to ask for the order. In most cases, you will ultimately have to ask for it - unless the customer surprises you by suddenly placing the order.

It's possible, though, to ask for the order too soon. You should not ask for the order when it appears that the customer has become emotionally involved. Neither should you ask for the order before you have given the customer an opportunity to react to your presentation. You should not ask for the order before you have answered all the customer's questions.

You can preface asking for the order by using statements such as, "Have I answered all of your questions?" or "Do you have any other questions now?"

If you are certain that the customer has no questions, you can ask questions that imply you are sure the customer is going to place the order. These questions might include: "When do you want me to have (product) delivered?" or, "Which color should I specify?" or, "Of the models we have discussed, for which one do you want me to place an order with my office?" or, "Do you want us to make the installation or do you prefer having that done by your people?" The point is that you must develop the wording of the questions to imply that you feel he is going to place the order.

If the customer indicates that he has not made his decision, you can make such statements as, "Oh, you must need additional information, so fire away and I'll be happy to supply it." Nothing has been lost by doing so, and you have thrown the ball into the customer's court.

The main thing to keep in mind is that you must not ask for an order before you feel your presentation has been completed. But ask for it, you must. If the customer then indicates that he is not yet ready to place the order, you, as shown above, need to alter the situation so that you are now waiting for the customer's next reaction.

33. Quit while you are ahead. Express thanks and leave. I have seen orders lost a few minutes after customers placed them. Situations such as the following may take place: 1. Someone else from the customer's company enters, learns that an order is being placed and immediately presents arguments against it, supplying information of which your customer had been unaware. 2. After placing the order, while the salesperson is still in the office, the customer begins thumbing through the catalogs of other models and becomes confused about the value of features contained on models other than the one he had just ordered. Immediately, he stops the order and says he wants more time to analyze other models. Unfortunately, during the following days he compares the item he had just ordered with competitive offerings. Result: Lost sale.

In the department store business, it's common to compare today's sales with "yesterday" - a year ago today. What they're asking is, "Are we running ahead of last year?" In one instance, after the order had been placed but before the salesperson had left, a young store employee came in and handed the manager the figures for today and a year ago today. They were bad, and the manager immediately said, "Put a hold on that order until we see what is going to happen to our sales."

In one company where I was employed, we found that we could almost always obtain money for a project if the day's sales were good. We learned to steer clear of the manager on "bad days" and call on him on "good days." It never failed to work.

In selling to other companies, it may be impossible to determine how the customer's business is today; but you can often determine if his business is doing well and try to seek orders at such opportune times.

In several of the cases above, it is a safe bet that if the salesperson had left after getting the order, the customer would not have canceled or delayed placing the order. You should take the order, then leave the customer's office before unexpected or unpredictable situations arise.

1. Consider facts that should influence the timing of your call.

2. Encourage the customer to state his or her views.

3. Seek reasons why the customer holds the views he does. Probe carefully.

4. Identify the customer's primary psychic need (to be rich; powerful or famous; to have life easier; to feel secure.)

5. Identify the customer's product or service need and/or problems.

6. Seek and find a point of mutual agreement.

7. Isolate areas of disagreement.

8. Avoid and eliminate semantic traps.

9. Clarify the customer's stand by restating it. Listen to his or her reaction.

10. Rephrase and overstate the customer's objections.

11. Concede minor points; let the customer be partly right.

12. Obtain minor agreements to produce a good climate.

13. Narrow down the areas where the customer's opinion and yours diverge.

14. Avoid anything that will appear as a challenge.

15. Show respect for the customer's views. Don't attack motives.

16. Avoid "red flag" words, people and/or subjects.

17. Get the customer to agree on a premise.

18. Think before agreeing to a premise the customer presents. What will it imply?

19. Be sure of your facts. Don't ever bluff!

20. Don't counter the customer's emotion with reason. It won't work.

21. Don't become emotional. Anger blows out the lamp of the mind.

22. When you are wrong, admit it without equivocation.

23. Don't demand immediate agreement. Give the customer time to think.

24. Avoid a defensive position; shift the burden of proof.

25. Restate and modify your position to reflect your concessions.

26. Never interrupt a customer. Wait!

27. Listen - really listen. And listen with your eyes, too!

28. Don't debate. If you win a debate, you could lose the order.

29. Reinforce your points. Recap and summarize.

30. Give customers who are in error an escape hatch.

31. Make your idea the customer's idea. Don't insist on getting credit.

32. Ask for the order. Get a commitment.

33. Quit while you are ahead. Express thanks and leave.