If you think about the best conversations you’ve had with other people, you’ll likely find a few common aspects that made them memorable and good. This applies to conversations where you are mentoring or coaching someone, and those where you are being mentored. Sales is primarily a teaching or coaching interaction if it is done correctly, and teaching and coaching are best done in an environment of equal status. Dominating someone makes you a poor teacher and a poor student, and so does being subservient or diminished.
So, the setting we want with our customers on sales call is one of participating equals, with a balanced power status. We don’t bully them, but we also don’t allow ourselves to be bullied. That’s the balance you want.
One of the main ways human beings defer power to someone else is through what linguists call “mitigated speech”. That is any effort at downplaying the importance of what is being said to the other person. In other words, prioritizing being polite over telling the truth. If you focus on “not ruffling feathers”, you are likely diminishing the impact of the message, and trust me when I tell you this is costing you business. Not because you’re not “closing”, but because you are not enabling prospects with qualifiable and solvable pain to connect to that pain.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers , he discusses a study that was done with airline accidents. Mitigated speech loses money in sales, but in this study, they found that it actually cost lives in the airline industry. The study started based on the data showing that a majority of human error based airline crashes were happening when the Captain was at the controls. This seemed odd, since the Captain is typically the most experienced crew member able to fly the plane. Why would most crashes happen with the most experienced flyer at the controls? The researchers listened to the flight data recorders searching for answers. What they found came down to some very basic human behavioral patterns. The recordings showed that when a junior officer was at the controls and started to miss things, the Captain would make comments in an assertive, even blunt manner. They outranked the other person and provided direct, honest feedback. But when the captain was at the controls and started to make errors in judgement, the junior officers provided their feedback in a much more mitigated way. They hinted. They didn’t challenge the authority of the more senior pilot. This element was an especially powerful factor in cultures that put an emphasis on respect for authority or social status. Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede did some work for IBM’s HR department in the 60’s and 70’s and identified something he called the Power Distance Index, (PDI) as a way to measure how much a culture values and emphasizes respect for authority. In cultures where there was a low PDI, people feel more comfortable speaking the truth to authority. Gladwell details the story of Korean Airline crashes being unusually high for a certain time period, and makes the convincing argument that as a culture with high PDI, junior officers barely challenged Captains even in obvious cases of human error at Korean Airlines. The problem was fixed when the airline specifically brought someone in to change the PDI culture within the airline (companies have cultures as well, right?). In this case, the pilots, especially the junior pilots were trained to embrace a different cultural norm than the Korean one. The crash and accident rates plummeted once the issue was addressed.
I’ve written and spoken about “scripts” that we get from our moms that don’t work in sales before. It’s likely that one of those for you is mitigating your speech. Most often that is because we see our prospects as having a higher status in the conversation than we do. That thinking is likely not costing anyone their life in your world, unlike in the airline business, but it is likely costing you sales.
Reflecting on this data when I read it, it became obvious to me that my low PDI has contributed to my success in sales. I’ve been a challenger of authority my entire life. Most likely influenced by my father and mother, both of whom are naturally suspicious of authority, I developed a skepticism of most “accepted” norms. Ask anyone who’s ever been my boss. I ask hard questions, and poke and prod at the answers I get almost by default. I actually enjoy that process. NOTHING makes me happier than a client CEO’s perplexed reaction to one of my questions followed by a “No one has ever asked me that before.” I don’t fear making people uncomfortable. Matthew Dixon would label me a “challenger”, and his book identified that as the top behavior pattern for generating sales results.
Sales as a profession has room for all personality types. Behavior is programmable. You can choose your PDI level. One of the best sales pros I know is an introvert, and genuinely prefers fly fishing by himself than having a conversation with anyone. Yet, as one of my mentors, he has challenged my thinking in Gaussian proportions compared to anyone else. His natural default personality isn’t contrarian (like I am) but he chooses that challenging behavior and executes on that choice far better than I do.
Choose to believe that you are of equal status with your prospects. Choose to tell them the truth. You might not save any lives, but you’ll get more sales.