Sales and negotiating techniques from an FBI expert
A woman walks into a home audio store with 3 kids in tow.
Immediately, one of the store’s employees walks up to her.
“How are you doing ma’am?” he asks with an (overly) large smile. “Anything I can help you out with today?”
She shakes her head. “Just looking today…” her voice trails off.
“Well, what are you looking for?” he persists.
“I think my husband would really like something for his garage so that he can listen to music while working on the cars”, she says.
Almost before she is done talking, the employee exclaims, “Oh, I’ve got the PERFECT system for you! This guy over here has two subwoofers and surround sound. Whaddya think?”
“Uhhh, that might be a bit much… I really just need something that can play music for the garage, not a big party…” The woman is starting to look a bit uncomfortable.
“Well, garages can be loud, you know? And this system has more than enough power to cut through whatever noise there is. Let’s try some music out so you can see what I mean…”
The woman nods, but her body language suggests that she’s looking for a quick exit from the conversation.
Don’t Let This Be You!
It’s unlikely that you would be this ham-fisted in your sales attempts as our hypothetical clerk. You’re probably pretty sales savvy (or you have someone on your staff who is) or else you wouldn’t be in a position to read this blog post.
However, as you expand your team, you can’t rely on one or two “rainmakers” to do all the sales for your company. You need a way to systematically train your floor employees to be effective salespeople – without being salesy.
We’ll define the difference between selling and being salesy like this:
Selling is when you focus on the relationship with your customers, using the tools of empathy and active listening to gently guide them towards the right purchase.
Being salesy is when you focus on getting as much money from your customers as possible, making the customer feel pressured to make a purchase as a result.
While sales pressure can create a benefit in the short term (selling the huge subwoofer system today) it can backfire in the long run. If your customers feel pressured while in your store, they’re going to have an unpleasant emotional experience associated with your brand.
And the next time that customer wants to buy what you offer, it’s pretty likely they’ll go somewhere else (or just buy from a competitor on Amazon).
However, when you prioritize the customer’s experience, you’re creating a relationship with that customer, if only in a business sense. And in the long run, a positive relationship will lead to repeat sales and customer loyalty, which is where the true profits are made.
What An FBI Hostage Negotiator Can Teach Your Staff About Selling
In “Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It”, author Chris Voss gives invaluable negotiating and sales lessons gained from his career as the FBI’s lead international hostage negotiator.
While the retail store environment is outwardly very different from a hostage negotiation, once you get down to the “brass tacks” as Voss would say, there are a lot of similarities.
Both sides have differing goals, but hope they can find a resolution. Money is involved. And human emotions (rather than logical or “rational” decision making) are where the real conversation happens.
Put simply, the skills Voss teaches are highly leveraged ways of:
- Creating rapport with other human beings
- Persuading others to see your point of view
- Guiding people to take actions that suit your goals
Sounds a lot like sales, doesn’t it?
The techniques in this book have been tested in many, many real world situations (rather than being theories some “sales expert” thought up). And they are perfect for non-salesy selling, as in a hostage negotiation, the LAST thing you want to do is make the other side feel pressured.
You’re going to get walked through 5 of the skills Voss discusses in the book, as well as how to apply these skills in a retail store environment. Finally, we’ll give you a practical way to train your employees in these techniques without spending too much time or money.
The main goal of using these techniques is to create a sense of rapport, or trust between your customers and your employees. After that, simply offering basic knowledge about your products is often all that’s needed to close the deal.
Remember: people LOVE shopping, especially when they are buying from someone they like and trust.
They just hate being sold to.
#1: Eye Contact, Tone of Voice, and Body Language
In “Never Split The Difference”, Voss cites a study on conversation dynamics talking about the “7/38/55” rule of conversations. These rules apply to how each person feels about their conversation partner.
- 7% of the emotional dynamic is due to the words being said.
- 38% of the emotional dynamic is due to the vocal tones being used.
- 55% of the emotional dynamic is due to the body language being used.
Basically, body language (and tone of voice) are the “80/20” of selling effectively. Here are the keys in both for creating an effective sales environment:
- Eye contact is crucial for active listening. Keep your eyes focused on one of the other person’s eyes, while keeping your face relaxed so you don’t appear to be aggressively staring.
- Keep your body language open and relaxed! Don’t cross your arms.
- Make sure not to stand too close to customers – give customers their space.
- A deferential tone of voice is often best. That means – speak slowly and calmly, with some genuine smiles thrown in for good measure.
#2: Get Your Customers To Say NO!
This technique may be a little counter-intuitive – why would you want your customers to say no? Aren’t we trying to get them to say “yes” to buying something?
The key point here is that when someone says the word “no”, they feel safe. They feel like they are protecting themself and their boundaries. So, if you ask your customers questions that are specifically designed to get them to say no, they’ll feel more in control of the situation and less pressured.
Then you can much more easily guide your customer towards a purchase.
Here are a few example questions you can use. Though these questions may seem ridiculous, their results will show you the power of “no”:
- Do you want to buy a product that’s going to be difficult to install?
- Do you want to leave the store without getting what you were looking for?
- Do you want to buy a gift that’s going to get returned?
#3: Summarizing, Labelling, and Paraphrasing
Summarizing, labelling, and paraphrasing are the “bread and butter” skills of effective listeners (and salespeople). You use these techniques to show your customer that you care about what they have to say and that you understand them.
And it’s amazing what people will do once they feel truly listened to.
So, imagine your customer says something like the following:
“I’m looking for a small TV that has the latest inputs and all the newest apps and stuff. I don’t want to spend much, but I really don’t want to get a TV that’s going to be old in a year or two. I want to be able to use Netflix and stuff like that without too much setup. You know my kids like to use those apps, so it has to be simple. But I don’t want it to be too big of a TV because I don’t have that much money today.”
Here’s a great response:
“It seems like you’re feeling a bit concerned about budget with this TV, but you’re also worried about getting a TV that will be obsolete next year. You want this TV to be easy to use with all the latest smart TV apps.
Does that sound right?”
You’re labelling their emotions through your use of “a bit concerned” and “worried”, while being open to being corrected by saying ”it seems like…”. You’re summarizing and paraphrasing by restating what the customer said in a shorter form, with some different word choices.
And the most crucial part is at the end: you’re asking if you heard everything correctly. This “clarifying question” is the secret sauce of effective listening. If you label, paraphrase, and summarize well, and then ask a clarifying question, your customer will feel like you really get them, and their defenses towards making a purchase will be lowered.
The magic words you’re hoping to hear after your summary/paraphrase and clarifying question are: “Yes, that’s exactly right!”
Mirroring is an incredibly effective and simple technique that is perfect for what you might politely refer to as “assertive” customers.
You know – the customers that come in and know exactly what they want. (But they still seem to need you help to get it).
In order to mirror, all your staff member has to do is repeat the last few words that your customer says, in a slow, deep, and calm tone of voice.
Then, your employee just has to be quiet!
The customer will usually continue speaking, giving you valuable information you can use to sell to them effectively without pestering them with questions.
#5: The Accusation Audit
The accusation audit is a very powerful sales technique that is best used for high ticket items. It’s a bit overkill for more everyday purchases.
The accusation audit aims to get all of your customer’s objections out of the way at the very beginning. By addressing these emotional roadblocks, you pave the way for an effective conversation (and sale).
To do the accusation audit, first think of all the most common objections your customers have to buying your products. Then, instruct your employees to address these objections for high ticket items.
Here’s an example using some generic objections:
“You might think that I’m going to try and pressure you into buying something you don’t need. You might think I’m going to try and add on a bunch of stuff you don’t want. You might even think that I only care about making my commission, and nothing else.”
And then, be quiet.
The results can be amazing. Your customers will feel a sense of empathy for your salesperson, and rush to defend them. “Oh, I would never think that – I’m sure you’re a great person. I appreciate you being here to help me…”
Again, if your customer is just buying a USB cable, there’s no need to use the accusation audit. But for bigger purchases, where emotional roadblocks might be at play, it’s a deal maker.
How To Train Your Staff To Use These Techniques
We focused more on the techniques than the training process in this article. And that’s for good reason: sales happens best when your employees are being authentic.
There’s nothing more off-putting to a customer than an employee who’s clearly memorized all of the objections they have, along with a textbook reason why that objection shouldn’t matter. It just feels fake.
Instead, good salespeople need to be skilled at improvising and adapting to the needs of each customer.
- If a particular customer seems to be having a bad day, labelling and open body language are a great combo.
- If a customer is quite assertive about what they want, using mirroring (and an accusation audit if the price warrants it) can be powerful.
- When your customer seems like they are easily pressured, getting them to say “no” can put them in the driver’s seat and win their long time loyalty (and repeat purchases).
Therefore, we think the best way to train your staff in these techniques is to:
- Practice the techniques one on one with a manager or fellow employee
- Use these techniques organically in real sales situations, with a manager nearby to hear and see the results
Just remember: it’s a lot easier to learn something when you are focusing on one thing at a time.
So for a given week, you could practice mirroring. Explain the technique’s basics to your employees, whether in a group or one on one, and then tell them to use the technique (when the situation calls for it) on the floor. You can station a manager nearby to watch if you’d like a second source of feedback.
Then practice asking “no” questions the next week.
After 6-8 weeks of this type of training, your staff will be making customers happier than ever before while your revenue numbers keep going up.
That is the power of effective negotiation.