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How to Be an Effective Seller #3: Play Dumb

Don’t Act Like a Salesperson

Have you ever been in charge of buying anything for a company? 

Ever been in a situation where salespeople call you every day?  I have.  And I can assure you, very quickly, you build up a shield of armor. 

I can also say, from personal experience, the salespeople who break through this armor are those who persist, and are thoughtful, and show vulnerability.

If clients don’t view you as threatening, they’ll feel more comfortable and be inclined to meet with you.

When a client is comfortable, guess what, they are more willing to share their problems, problems you can hopefully solve. 

Vulnerability Builds Credibility

You have a huge advantage early in your sales career by not being an expert, or having any product knowledge, something you may think is a disadvantage. 

But it’s not.  

It’s why I place this rule of “being dumb” so early on my list of effective selling tips.

Before you become an expert in what you sell, before you learn the industry jargon, and technical specifications, and the features and benefits, you’ll do something much more important with your clients:  You’ll listen.   

Even more important, you’ll disarm them by not acting like you know everything.  This vulnerability triggers a natural instinct in people, and they will try to help you. 

Avoid Confusing Language  

In just about every industry or profession there are terms and language unknown to the outside world.    

I worked in the media industry most of my life.  Have you ever heard of a CPM (cost per thousand), or CPP (cost per point), or HUT (households using television), or AQH (average quarter hour)? 

Probably not, yet salespeople in my industry commonly use these terms to sound smart in front of clients.

And clients may nod their heads acting like they understand, but they don’t, they just don’t want to look stupid. 

The use of industry jargon and technical words creates discomfort and confusion. 

And the net result of confusing anyone in the selling process is no sale.  

Learning and Listening

I will never forget a story from my sales training many years ago.

A department store hires a young salesclerk and assigns him to the section of the store selling portable heaters and other hardware. 

It happened to be a frigid winter and there were a lot of customers trying to keep their homes warm. 

This kid was far from an expert in portable heaters.  So, instead he listened intently to his customers, seeking to learn from them. 

He worked patiently with each person to figure out the best heating option for their home.

Eventually, they would figure out the right solution together and the customer would make a purchase, no closing necessary. 

As a result of his disarming nature, patience, and willingness to listen, his sales skyrocketed.

His numbers were so good the store manager enrolled him into their management trainee program.  There he learned all of the latest sales techniques and product knowledge.   

And next winter, another cold snap, and our new management trainee was ready to sell.  No one had more technical know-how on portable heaters than this kid.

But a funny thing happened, instead of listening to his customers, he spent more time trying use the techniques and share the knowledge he learned in training.

Instead of making customers feel more comfortable, their guard went up, because now it felt like they were being sold to.

His sales cratered, even in a record cold winter.  Because nobody  likes to be sold to – people only like to buy. 

Be Like Detective Columbo

You might remember a popular television series starring Peter Falk as Detective Columbo, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. 

If you haven’t watched it, and are serious about a career in sales, I strongly encourage you to check it out. 

Detective Columbo had a unique approach to solving crimes. He wanted suspects to believe they were smarter than him. And instead of treating them with disrespect, he established rapport with them. 

He was chatty, often sprinkling in details about his personal life.  He was unfailingly polite and would address everyone as “sir”, “ma’am”, or “miss” .

He wasn’t socially polished, and his demeanor was unassuming. He presented himself as a simple man easily impressed by the West Coast movers, shakers and celebrities who were his suspects. 

He wore a wrinkled beige raincoat over his rumpled suit and tie.  Instead of a police issue sedan, he drove a beat-up convertible. 

He didn’t even carry a gun. 

His suspects were dismissive of Detective Columbo after their first meeting, because he didn’t look or act like someone capable of catching them – they saw him as inept.

Suspects became comfortable around him, and his relentless curiosity allowed him to tease out incriminating evidence.

Often, they were so exasperated by the end of his investigation they would end up confessing. 

You should act like Detective Columbo when selling.

You don’t have to wear messy clothes or drive a beat-up car.  But you should recognize the psychological advantage of disarming your clients by not acting like the typical salesperson. 

You should swallow your ego and allow the client to be the big shot in your conversation. 

This is how you truly uncover pain and learn what solutions are needed to close a sale.

Nobody was threatened by Detective Columbo, and when their guard was down, suspects would willingly share information, secretly thinking there’s no way this dumb detective will ever figure it out, and then he’d arrest them.   

Clients don’t have to believe you are dumb, just that you’re there to learn, and when they feel you are there to learn, they’ll teach you how they like to buy.    

If you’re a new salesperson just starting out, you should feel empowered by your lack of experience and knowledge and just go out and learn from as many clients as possible.

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