The great lie Featured

9:59am EDT July 22, 2002

I am sick and tired of having prospects mislead me into believing they are interested in my products, only to string me along. Why won’t they simply tell me the truth?

The problem you describe is one that many sales reps face. In fact, if you thought about it, I imagine that even you have misled salespeople on a few occasions. Most people believe lying to a salesperson is okay.

Prospects generally lie to salespeople for one of three reasons. Some lie because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. It’s the same scenario as when you’re standing at the doorstep at the end of a rather unexciting blind date. You’re afraid to tell your date you never intend to see him or her again, so you lie and say something like, “I’ll call you.”

Others lie because they’re afraid if they tell a salesperson it’s over, the trained salesperson will pour on the pressure. Most of us have experienced some form of that when buying a new car or talking to a salesperson about a home water purification system. The truth is that it’s easier to get rid of a salesperson by telling him you’re interested than telling him you’re not. While the optimistic, misguided salesperson runs off to prepare a proposal, the prospect can go into hiding behind receptionists and voice mail.

Finally, some prospects lie because they want information, most often in the form of a proposal or free advice on how to address a specific problem. Armed with this information, the prospects can solve their problems on their own, shop for a better price or drive a better deal out of their existing providers.

The expertise salespeople bring to the table is valuable. Prospects want this information, they just don’t want to pay for it. I refer to this dilemma as “unpaid consulting.”

Regardless of the prospects’ motive for misleading you, it’s your fault for not taking control. You can’t blame the prospects for doing something you failed to tell them they couldn’t do. Quit giving proposals without getting a commitment that they will give you a firm decision one way or another, with a clear understanding of what “yes” means.

More important, tell prospects up front that it’s okay to say no. Explain you would love to have them as customers, but if they aren’t comfortable saying yes, you will happily accept a no and, with their permission, close their files. Oh, and by the way, if they need to think about it, you’re going to have to assume there really isn’t a good fit and you will take that as a no.

Don’t be arrogant. Don’t be tough. Be sincere and nurturing, but firm. The wrong tone will sound like sour grapes. Help them to help you end it.

When it’s time for prospects to give you a decision, don’t back down and accept a think-it-over. If they try to give you something other than a yes or no, remind them of your prior agreement and confirm again that it’s okay to say no. One of two things will happen: they will actually tell you no or you will get to the truth of why they are hesitating. If you get a no, accept it.

The fact is, while most salespeople say they would like to hear the truth, they actually avoid it when they think the answer might be no. Crazy as it sounds, many salespeople would rather hang on to a familiar prospect long after a deal is dead rather than pursue a stranger who might actually buy.

Larry Lewis is president of Total Development Inc., a Pittsburgh-based sales training and consulting firm. Send him your comments and questions via fax at (724)933-9224 or e-mail him at LTLewis@totaldevelopment.com. He can be reached by phone at (724) 933-9110.