Buried TreasureSelling is a tough gig. From the morning bell to the 5 o’clock whistle, sales reps have to fight the “used car salesman” stereotype just to get an audience, let alone close a deal. And what’s really galling (I know, because I’ve been above, below and on both sides of the table) is that the buyers can be just as slippery and manipulative as the worst kind of used car salesman … but it’s the sales rep who gets all the bad press.

But enough about the dark side. Even on the bright side, when sellers and buyers are operating at the highest professional level, sales reps are still up against it. The sad truth is, when buyers raise objections, they aren’t always being honest even when they have the best intentions. Great sales reps know how to get past surface objections and figure out what’s really holding up the sale.

To illustrate, here are a few common scenarios.

  • A buyer tells the sales rep the price is too high, when in reality the buyer doesn’t have the authority to change suppliers and doesn’t want to admit it.
  • A buyer tells the sales rep the product failed the field test, when in reality the buyer has no interest in severing ties with the firm’s current supplier.
  • A buyer tells the sales rep the delivery time is too long, when in reality the buyer is afraid of being reprimanded if the product fails.

As you notice in these examples, the surface objection is business-related, whereas the underlying objection is more personal. Buyers, like most people, want power, prestige and security. To buyers, a new product or service can represent a threat to their prestige and security, or put them in a position where their lack of power is exposed.

Naturally, it’s difficult for a buyer to say, “I’m not buying your product because I’m afraid of getting fired,” or, “I’m not buying your product because I don’t want you to know I’m a powerless corporate tool,” or even, “I’m not buying your product because I like our current supplier better than you.”

In case you think I’m beating up on buyers, let’s readily acknowledge that a sizable element of courtesy and decency is part of this too. Buyers don’t want to hurt the sellers’ feelings by telling them their product stinks or they just don’t like them.  An objection that’s all business is much more comfortable to discuss than getting into the personal side of things.

To really get anywhere in sales, sales reps have to recognize that the first objection they hear may not be the real one. They have to recognize that ultimately, a buying decision is influenced by personal as well as business considerations, and it’s up to them to get the buyer talking about the things that truly stand in the way of a sale.

This can be accomplished any number of ways. First and foremost, sales reps succeed when they establish a personal relationship with the buyer. Nobody is going to open up to a stranger. How does a seller build a relationship? It could be as simple as sending the buyer a birthday card, or as involved as getting together with the buyer after work for a beer once or twice a month.

Treating the buyer like a business partner rather than an adversary goes a long way toward ferreting out underlying objections. Some questions that work well in this vein:

  • How can I make it easier for you to sell this product internally?
  • What can I do to minimize any risk in giving this product a try?
  • What do you think other departments will think about this product?
  • Can you walk me through the process for making a decision about this product?
  • What besides price, quality and service enters into your decision to buy this product?

Doing your homework and establishing other contacts at the buyer’s firm are productive moves, especially when the time comes to tackle underlying objections head-on.  For example, if you say, “I know you’ve been doing business with Lisa for 10 years. Do I really have a chance, or am I just spinning my wheels?” you may open up the exact conversation you need to have. Whether the outcome is a sale or good-bye, you’ll know you didn’t leave anything on the table.

And that’s what it boils down to. Great reps don’t leave anything on the table. Instead, they start with the assumption that the initial objection is never the real objection. This doesn’t mean you should gloss over the initial objection; sometimes you have to deal with the text and the subtext at the same time, which is a major reason why aspiring salespeople need to be (or become) proficient multitaskers.