I got a question from a past colleague last week around having a strategy to handle objections based on prior negative experience (PNE). How do you handle winning back a customer that had a bad experience with your company?
The key is not how you fix the issue, but what you do and say BEFORE you fix the issue. I use a process called LOC to handle PNE objections, but before I share the details of that process, I want to challenge you to re frame how you think about these kinds of objections.
Keep a couple things in mind.
1 – The odds that you are going to be in actual physical danger from such an encounter are really low. Our limbic brains tend to drum up adrenaline and activate the “fight or flight” responses in such situations, but in modern day society you are actually really not in danger most of the time, so checking the fear, emotions and anxiety in these scenarios is really important. Keep calm and carry on. Even if the other party isn’t keeping their cool, YOU can still choose to be calm and collected.
2 – PNE’s are not actually the most difficult sales situations to handle. The odds are on your side. A customer with a past gripe is emotionally involved in the conversation. It might be negative emotion, but at least it isn’t indifference. Out of all the potential clients I have had to face in my career, the hardest ones to convert have been the ones that have absolutely no emotional involvement in the sale. An angry past customer is “leaning into” the conversation. They have emotional skin in the game, because if they didn’t, then they wouldn’t be angry, or sad, or whatever. That “leaning in” gives you leverage. It demonstrates the presence of pain, and pain can be solved.
Once you’ve re framed your own thinking on a PNE objection, you have the proper strategy. Tactically, the LOC process has served me well over the years.
LOC stands for LISTEN, OWN, CHOOSE.
LISTEN – First and foremost, you need to relieve the pressure cooker by listening to what they have to say. Don’t interrupt. Don’t try to solve anything. Let them vent. They want to be heard before they will be open to any kind of solution. Part of their pain is most likely related to them feeling that they were not heard the last time around, so repeating the same mistake your company has already done once is a sure fire way to turn them off. If you feel you have to speak, only say things like “uh huh”, “Oh no”, “That’s not good”, or “I see”. You’ll know this step is over when the prospect comes up for air or asks you a question. A question like, “Why would I ever work with you clowns again!!?”.
OWN – This is the hardest step for most people. It is so tempting to start offering solutions at this point that a high percentage of sales people do just that. Before you do anything else, however, you need to own it. Own it even when, and especially when you personally had nothing to do with it at all. It is irrelevant that the last sales rep before you caused this issue. You represent your company, and even if it was just in failing to properly train and manage the last sales rep, your company messed up. You are the one who will benefit from a new sale, so it is on you to accept ownership of the issue. Let them know that even if no one else is, you are accountable. Buyers love accountable sales people. They don’t have enough of them in their lives.
“Mr. Smith, before I say anything else, let me offer you a formal apology on behalf of our company. The way your situation was handled was not right, and was not to our standards, and for that, I apologize.”
Please notice that the apology is not conditional. It isn’t based on me gaining anything. As much as the client needed to be heard, they need to feel vindicated. Give them that win. It is a good step towards creating a new win/win.
CHOOSE – You can easily lose all the ground you have just gained by assuming a fit at this point. The correct way to get them to come back into the conversation is by giving them the power to CHOOSE to come back in. You are sending a message that they are the ones who decide if it makes sense to move forward, and that you recognize that power. Conveniently, you are doing all of this prior to negotiating terms or price. The purpose of this step is to re-level the playing field, and make them choose between walking away, or working together as equal parties seeking a win-win.
“I am sorry things were handled this way, and if our company has lost any chance of potentially serving you in the future, I certainly can understand that. You won’t find anyone else more motivated to make it right by providing you excellent service than me, I assure you, but again, that depends on you being willing to give us another chance, and that is entirely your decision. What do you want to do?
As counter-intuitive as that approach is, it works extremely well. When it was first taught to me, my brain assumed that every client like this would choose to not forgive and take me up on the new idea to never work together again. Realistically though, the clients already had the option to never work with us again. All I was doing was acknowledging that reality, not creating it.
I first learned this approach after taking over a sales territory that had been extremely mismanaged. The previous sales rep (I’ll call him George) had spent more time working on his Multi Level Marketing business than doing his job. When the company caught on and let George go, that territory had gone down over 50% in revenue in two years. Using the LOC process, I tripled that territory in about a year, and eventually became the go to guy for difficult or angry clients. My manager at the time relied on me to handle the touchiest win-backs, including winning back a large hospital that had been one of the company’s largest clients in the past.
The LOC process works because it allows the client to opt back in after feeling heard and vindicated. Deep down, we all want to be heard and we all want to feel in control and make a choice, instead of being pushed into something.