Please argue with your customers

I have observed a lot of sales professionals over the years. There are three kinds:

Any excuse for a WKRP reference
  • Those who wash out
  • Those who just survive
  • Those who truly thrive.

If you want to know if you are dealing with a thriving sales professional, look to the long-term outcome. Some salespeople are charming, some are not. Hot spells and cold spells come and go. Many have long careers. But over time, the thriving sales professional gains something else: loyalty.

How do they do it? I would suggest they argue.

Charm only gets you so far

Selling is simple–but not easy. While some people may be “born salesmen,” there are as many ways to sell as there are types of people in the world.

Charm certainly opens doors with customers. Some customers might, say, enjoy their objections handled with witty comebacks. Others might appreciate pleasant or deep personal conversation.

But at the end of the day, if the salesperson avoided a customer’s question or concern, if they panic and sweep a problem under the rug, the customer will not ask for that salesperson at next visit. In fact, I have seen them actively request a different salesperson.

And that’s if they come back at all! That charming, personable salesperson just created a one-and-done customer. The business is now leaking profit.

If you have a salesperson who often gets the sale but doesn’t have serious repeat business, is it possible you have a survivor and not a thriver?

Is it possible you are leaking profit?

Another way

There is another way.

Real salespeople have a foundational skill that goes beyond being clever or personable. The skill is conversation. They get to know the customer and her needs, they ask questions to better understand, and they argue with the customer.

In our polarized society, that “argue” word probably seems a bridge too far. But argument, executed correctly, is an incredibly caring thing to do for your customers.

If you don’t believe me, read Matthew Stewart’s “To Be Human Is to Argue.” I’m confident he wasn’t thinking about sales when he wrote his article, a book review. But he makes a wonderful case for why Hip Socket approaches the workplace with the treasures of classical education.

Stewart’s review may be a bit academic for my audience. I’d encourage you to read it. He covers Lee Siegel’s “Why Argument Matters.” Siegel argues (ha ha) that argument–not quarreling–is at the core of our ability to communicate, our ability to think and our ability to grow as humans.

As I read the review, I was constantly reminded of resources Hip Socket has brought to market. We have many of them free on our Resources page. I’ll touch on three below.

The role of emotions

I am in sales. (Your are too–we all are.) My customers are my clients, and sometimes we argue.

Do you know what often happens when the argument occurs during a meeting? People go completely silent. All eyes turn to the arguers. Observers get tense and anxious–you can read it on their faces. After it’s over, they are shocked–shocked–that things didn’t get emotional or out of hand.

But why should they get out of hand?

In our polarized society, emotions can be our masters. The article references Jonathan Haidt’s “elephant and rider” metaphor. Our conscious reasoning is sitting atop this massive elephant (“the emotions, biases, presuppositions, false pattern-making, and stuff of the lizard brain”). The elephant is in charge! Right?

Click on the training article for explanation.

He doesn’t have to be. As we have discussed here, the liberal arts of classical education are to liberate man.

It is incredibly handy in sales training to think this way: see “The Lion, the Witch and the Sales Trainer.”

The liberal arts liberate. We do not have to be slaves to deceptive leaders, poor reasoning from online influencers, misleading marketing–or even our own emotions.

(A related tool to do this–even in addiction situations–is to name those emotions. A deeper dive on that is here.)

The role of caring

Aristotle’s famous definition of the liberal art of rhetoric: “observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Out of its context, that certainly sounds like manipulation–the opposite of what we want here.

“People like to buy,” the old saying goes, “but they hate to be sold.”

The salesman who only offers charm eventually leaves customers feeling manipulated.

Cato the Elder said rhetoric was “the good man, skilled at speaking.”

But the book and book review make the case that argument is “good rhetoric.” it is actually a form of caring. I have heard Andrea Lipinski of the CiRCE Institute describe rhetoric as “decision-making in community.”

If you cared about someone’s decision, you would argue with them. You would not just speak at them but speak with them, and you would do so in a way that helped you both think things through.

As one of my mentors taught me, “Your yes’s mean nothing if you don’t say no once in a while.”

It is this kind of engagement with customers that leads to true loyalty. These are the real influencers, worth much more to you long-term than some social media celebrity.

The art of rhetoric consists of five canons, processes that help you arrive at thought-out, effective communication. Here’s a tool on one of those canons: “Ensure you think things through using the ‘Common Topics’.” You can ask the Common Topics questions of yourself to prepare for an upcoming customer “argument.” Hip Socket has a free download of sample questions here.

The role of wrestling

What I said about sales I can say about argument: It may be simple, but it’s not easy. Disagreeing with someone can cause rooms to fall silent. And in our day and age, the anxiety–even despair–is real.

“Good vibes only,” bumper stickers and t-shirts proclaim. The more you think about what that means practically, the scarier it gets. What are the outcomes of refusing to address problems so we can maintain good vibes? We are asking for a friend to spiral further into addiction. A relationship to fracture. A sale to fall apart.

But it’s absolutely crucial for us to go through the discomfort. Another of the liberal arts is dialectic. It has been described as “wrestling to the truth.” That is, we are going to have to say things out loud, test them, poke holes in them and see what is left standing.

We wrestle with the ideas more than the person. But it still feels like a wrestling match.

And the very best salespeople are absolute fanatics in wrestling with objections. They love to identify the customer’s concerns so they can address them. (Poor salespeople avoid addressing them.)

So what does it look like to engage in this kind of wrestling match? We’ve discussed it here before, mainly from the perspective of an employee team (see “Wrestle to grow“). I would also point you to the fallacies, also referenced in the book review.

Siegel makes the point that John Locke’s philosophical writings underpinned the thinking of those famously liberated men, the Founding Fathers. Locke was the first to draw up a list of fallacies, illogical arguments we are all guilty of making.

Hip Socket summarizes them in a free handout using workplace examples. How many can you identify in your customer’s reasoning? How many can you identify in your sales pitch?

Some more

A few more resources to leave with you:

There are seven liberal arts. Three involved language (including the two mentioned above, rhetoric and dialectic), and four involved number. Abraham Lincoln credited one of those mathematical arts with his success in debate! See “Employees who THINK! (like Lincoln did: thanks to geometry).”

Also, Hip Socket is constantly developing new tools for clients. One way to approach argument with customers is to adapt to their style. This is at least part of Aristotle’s point that we should identify “the available means of persuasion.” It’s not to manipulate–it’s to care. See our DISC resources page for much more on fine-tuning your approach with different customer styles.

Finally: The Greeks would have seen rhetoric as appealing to ethos, pathos or logos. That is, the speaker’s authority, the audience’s emotion or logic. You can make connections with your audience in different ways.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight logos. This Greek word evolved over time and went from meaning “word” to meaning “the overarching principle of the universe.” It’s why the gospel of John introduces the life of Jesus by saying, “In the beginning was the Word. …”

I wrote about it in a Christmas post a while back, and it’s worth thinking about as you clarify your own motivations for using any of the tools mentioned above. You can read it here.

My very best wishes to you as you care for your customers through argument.