The conversations sales people have with customers are quite complex. They consist of verbal and non-verbal messages that are sent consciously and subconsciously. Successful customer communications are the foundation of all sales, and Heavy Hitters (truly great sales people) naturally speak in the language of their customers. The question is, what do they say?

Language is studied in many well-established fields. Sociolinguistics is the study of language use in society and social networks. Psycholinguistics is the study of how the mind acquires, uses, and represents language. Neurolinguistics is the study of how brain structures process language. Today, an exciting new area of study called ‘sales linguistics’ applies aspects from these fields to the conversations sales people have with customers.

The language of decision-making

The goal of sales linguistics is to understand how sales people and their prospective customers use and interpret language during the decision-making process. The seven principles of sales linguistics are these: every customer speaks in his or her own unique language, sales people build rapport through harmonious communication, the customer will always lie, persuasion requires a personal connection, sales calls should be classified linguistically, sales intuition is language based, and the final decision made by the customer is based upon human nature, not logic.

1. Customers speak unique languages

Each person on this planet speaks his or her own unique language. All the mundane and traumatic experiences of your life have determined the language you use. Just as no-one else has had your exact life experiences, noone else speaks your precise language. Therefore, the language two people use to describe the same situation may be very different.

Unfortunately, most companies arm their sales people with a ‘one size fits all’ company sales pitch. The first premise of sales linguistics is that every customer speaks in his or her own language. It is based upon understanding the customer’s interpretation of your message and its associated psychological impact. For example, reading the word ‘snake’ might cause you to visualise a rattlesnake, a python, or a cobra.

While these are all specific interpretations of the word, they all may naturally evoke fear and negative emotions. Conversely, if you raised a pet snake as a child, you probably have a positive mental association. Since the personal meanings of words can vary greatly, you may even have thought of an unscrupulous business person when you first read the word ‘snake.’

2. Rapport is harmonious communication

Unfortunately, when most sales people meet with prospective customers, they talk in only their own language about their product’s features, functions and benefits. When Heavy Hitter sales people meet with customers, they talk about their problems, plans and personal aspirations. They speak their customers’ language in order to build rapport.

Rapport is a special relationship between two individuals based upon harmonious communication. However, human communication occurs in several different forms and on several different levels. An immense amount of information is conveyed verbally, phonetically, physically, consciously and subconsciously. Heavy Hitters naturally adapt their mental wiring and language to mirror the customers’.

3. Whether inadvertently or on purpose, the customer will always lie

Sales people expect deception from competitors. However, the most damaging deceptions actually come from customers. Sales people are on a mission to learn the ultimate truth:

‘Will I win the deal?’ And they want to find the truth about winning an account as early as possible. Customers will lie to you for a variety of reasons: to protect themselves, to make you feel better about yourself, and to help your competitors.

As a result, customers will say things they don’t mean and mean things they don’t say. When you ask at the end of your sales presentation, ‘Does everyone believe we are the best solution?’ even though everyone nods, the audience may include objectors who will try to sabotage your deal later on.

Lying often occurs subtly, for example, when customers overemphasise the importance of a certain feature or present an irrelevant step in the decision-making process as a red herring to throw you off the scent of the truth. Sometimes, customers will strictly adhere to their selection-process guidelines, never giving any more information to you than they say they’re allowed to give. Usually, each of these types of lies is intended to hide their personal bias toward another competitor.

4. Persuasion requires a personal connection

Sales people are paid to persuade. But what makes them persuasive? Is it their command of the facts and their ability to recite a litany of reasons why customers should buy? In reality, the most product-knowledgeable sales person is not necessarily the most persuasive one because it takes more than logic and reason to change buyers’ opinions. A personal connection must be established.

Persuasion is the process of projecting your entire set of beliefs and convictions onto another human being. It’s not about getting others to acknowledge your arguments or agree with your business case; it’s about making them internalise your message because they believe that it is in their best interests. Ultimately, persuasion is the ability to tap into someone’s emotions and reach the deeper subconscious decision-maker within that person.

5. Intuition is language based

How often have you attended a sales call with a colleague who had a different opinion of the success of the meeting? Most likely, the difference in reading the meeting resulted because one person collected more data than the other and had more experiences to compare it against. The difference in opinions resulted from a difference between the strengths of sales intuition.

The mind does not treat all information equally. Some information is ignored, some information is misinterpreted, and some information is generalised based upon past experiences. Unfortunately, many sales people edit information to support their pre-existing beliefs. Sales people with ‘happy ears’ tend to believe what they are told by the customer. Others view the world through rose-coloured glasses and will always interpret information emanating from the customer in a favorable light.

Such ambiguities and delusions are disastrous. Conversely, Heavy Hitter sales people accurately interpret information using their sales intuition. They are continually catalogueing their successes and failures based upon all the different types of verbal and non-verbal languages the customer is communicating. They store patterns of individual and group meeting behaviour. Through their sales intuition, they are able to integrate their spoken words with the sales situation based upon their experiences with similar types of people and past sales cycles.

6. Sales calls need to segmented linguistically

Sales call segmentation is a method of categorising customer interactions based upon the psychological motives behind the customer’s use of language. Selection committee members, ranging from the CEO to the lowest-level evaluator, will adopt different decision-making roles during sales calls and sales presentations.

They can be classified into four different decision-making roles depending on how they process information, how they behave as part of a selection team, their political power, and their personal disposition towards their company.

  • Information roles. Information roles are based on the type of information people believe they should gather and the unique way in which they process and transmit information. Everyone involved in the sales call and selection process has the responsibility to assess vendor information for accuracy and provide an opinion as to which solution is best. However, evaluators assume this duty with different levels of due diligence, ranging from focusing on minutiae to being big-picture oriented.
  • Character roles. Character roles are based on the way people feel they should behave when they are part of a decision-making group. Just as people change their behaviour whenever they are in groups, evaluators adopt new character traits depending upon which of their colleagues are participating with them on the sales call. They will behave quite differently in front of fellow employees than when they are alone with you.
  • Authority roles. Authority roles are based on people’s degree of command and their ability to dominate the group. People’s authority does not always correlate to how long they have worked for their company or have been employed in their profession. In reality, selection committee members adopt authority roles in order to influence their colleagues and the decision.
  • Company roles. Company roles are based on the political power people wield and their personal disposition toward their company. People’s titles tell only part of the story about their role within a company. In the business world, selectioncommittee members take on additional company roles beyond their position on the organisation chart. These roles show their true political power and their personal disposition toward their company.

This segmentation strategy provides a predictive framework to anticipate customer behaviour. Since the sales person has a deeper insight about customer behaviour based upon past interactions, he is able to create more compelling presentations and conduct more persuasive sales calls. This strategy also serves as a communication methodology to educate and prepare the colleagues who will attend the sales call with the sales person.

7. The final decision-maker is human nature, not logic

We typically equate persuasion solely with satisfying the analytical mind. However, we are not as objective and analytical as we think, and even the most well-thought-out decision is ultimately determined by emotional and subconscious influences.

Selling requires capturing the hearts and minds of customers based on a strategy that takes into account the emotions of the decision-maker as well as the logical reasons to buy. Customers aren’t completely logical decision-makers in the real world. The decision-making process is a blend of human nature and logical rationalisation. At the foundation of all sales is a relationship between people. The interaction between these people, the intangible part of the sales process, is ultimately responsible for the decision being made. Logic and reason play secondary roles.

Customers’ inertia, the drive to ‘do nothing,’ far outweighs the logical reasons you espouse for buying your product. You can recite a litany of reasons and a laundry list of benefits, and customers still won’t buy your product. You need to package these ideas in a format that leaves an impression and creates a call to action that customers understand and that persuades them both mentally and emotionally to proceed.

This requires you to establish ‘dominance’ during sales calls and gain the willing obedience of customers. From the perspective of sales linguistics, dominance is when the customer listens to your opinions and advice, internalises your recommendations and agrees with
them, and then follows your course of action.

Closing Thoughts

If you are in sales, you make your living by talking. If you were a pilot, you would attend years of flight training school and many hours of simulator training before you were allowed in the cockpit of a jumbo jet. If you were a lawyer, you would intensely study law for several years and have to pass the Attorney’s Admission exam to ensure your proficiency.

If you are in sales, you need to study language and perfect your use of words because your most important competitive weapon is your mouth!

Heavy Hitter sales people are accomplished communicators who know what to say and, equally important, how to say it. Through their mastery of language, they are able to convey and decipher deep underlying messages that less-successful sales people miss.

While using the same language as most sales people, they have developed an uncanny ability to influence non-believers to trust them and persuade complete strangers to follow their advice. Through sales linguistics, we can learn how they turn sceptics into believers and persuade prospective customers to buy.


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Steve W. Martin
Steve W. Martin is the creator of the Heavy Hitter Sales training programme which has helped more than 100 000 sales people become top revenue producers at companies including Allstate Insurance, ATT, DHL, IBM and Oracle. His new book is titled Heavy Hitter Sales Linguistics: 101 Advanced Sales Call Strategies for Senior Salespeople. Learn more about Steve at www.stevemartin.com
Steve W. Martin
Steve W. Martin

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