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When Sales Go Sour: Managing Messy Calls

There’s nothing wrong with getting chummy on a sales call. You’re trying to sell a product, and we are in the business of relationships. Cracking a joke, talking sports, and being casual on the phones can determine the success of a sale or setting an appointment, essential to any sales toolkit. But there’s a reason that call scripts exist. Communication is fluid, but can quickly go all sorts of places, many of them bad. Although most common with B2C sales and to a lesser extent small businesses where language is less enforced, some customers are going to bring you to uncomfortable places that put you in a tight spot. Outsourced sales can hit both of these types of businesses frequently. Knowing how to divert pitfalls and focus on the business at hand determines the success of a salesperson.

What do you mean “bad places?”

There are more mild cases of “bad sales conversations” that are worth mentioning. Sometimes you can get so caught up in chatting with a customer that the subject veers wildly off topic and you are no longer making a sale, but a friend. While good for networking, this is essentially a waste of time – you are here to build rapport, and then use that rapport to make a sale. Talking about sports can be a great way to connect, until you are spending half the day talking about your March Madness bracket. While I like to have good relationships with my customers, these sorts of asides are best kept to a length of about a minute or two.

Alternatively, one of my customers went on a ten-minute brag about the kinds of clients that he has had in the past. Quite frankly, while it may be interesting that you did work with Ringo Starr or Lady Gaga, it hardly warrants an excessive brag that takes up time I could better spend elsewhere. The type of sales that I do largely relate to customer satisfaction, making conversations that waste time difficult to exit without sounding rude. The best solution for these situations is to listen in to what they are saying, finding a comment that is related to your product, and using that to drag the customer back to the topic at hand: your sale.

While these types of problems are more common, you will stumble into bigger problems. There are all sorts of sales horror stories out there – you’ve probably encountered a few yourself. I’ve seen customers go off on bigoted rants about various people they have dealt with. I’ve spoken with a few people whose loved ones have just died, and they are still in the process of mourning. Sometimes, a customer’s anger might even get transferred onto you, the salesperson.

The various ways that a call can go south are as numerous as the solutions that you may have to come up with for dealing with them. In general, it is good to take a step back in these moments, and remember that a while customer’s issues may affect you directly, they are not necessarily directed at you. The following tips are meant as a rough guide for whatever strange behavior might come your way, and how to either get back on track or end the call before there are irreparable consequences.

Dealing with Extremes

Empathy is a powerful tool to have, but being too empathetic can have its downsides as well. While having the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes can be great when you are able to share in the joy and success of another, it can have detrimental aspects when things get sour. Consider these two scenarios:

Having spoken with several of my coworkers, we have all had situations where we have had a customer who has told us that one of their close family members or loved ones have died. While more insidious sales strategies might view this as an opportunity for some products, it is best in this situation to find another time to call back. We will all have to deal with death at some point in our lives, and this time is often the worst period to call about something completely unrelated to their emotional state.

Being able to recognize this and find another time to reschedule this call will not only save you from entering an emotionally tricky conversation, but also put you in a better light in the eyes of the customer, who will recognize that you are able to respect their time. It will also allow you to avoid getting caught up in the drama of the caller, which can potentially damage the efficacy of calls that you will have later in the day.

There are also instances where you will reach a customer that not only wants related to your product, but will vent their surplus anger onto you as a punching bag. While these customers might benefit from your product, their primary interest is in causing pain to whatever they can in order to relieve themselves of the psychic stress they are currently experiencing.

Remaining on these calls for too long will make calls that you have later in the day more difficult due to the latent trauma of these earlier calls, so exiting them is an excellent choice. Whether that be through deflection or trying to source the main point of their pain, find a way to assuage their pain. Sometimes these people just need to vent – putting them on hold can be an excellent solution for this so that you don’t find yourself saying something back that you might regret. Another strategy – disruption – can sometimes work, but has potential to backfire.

In both cases, it is important to remember to take a step back. Whatever anger or sadness exists in these peoples lives is unrelated to you. Words sting, but ultimately you are in charge in deciding how these issues affect you.

This is Water

In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech that gets to the root of how we interpret the world around us. He describes instances where we find ourselves perceiving others as wronging us, and encourages us to interpret the world from their context. In one passage, he states:

“…most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider.”

Our world is often as simple as the things that are immediate to us: I need to get to work, I have a deadline to meet, I am hungry. When obstacles come in the way of achieving these things, we react unconsciously rather than thoughtfully. The philosopher Simone Weil once described the terrible migraines that she had and how, during these times, she felt the incessant need to punch people in the exact spot where she hurt on their forehead. Allowing yourself the proper emotional distance to react to customers and their unpredictable situations will allow you not only to retain your composure after a difficult call, but in the office, in your family, and in your life.

Peter Wear
Sales Executive