When Customer Prospects Don’t Follow The Sales Script

I have a confession. For some reason, I take perverse pleasure in taking salespeople off script.  Yes, I do it purposefully, but not maliciously. I suppose I should be ashamed with playing with these hapless souls, but I’m not.

But before you start thinking poorly of me, the questions or responses I provide aren’t unreasonable. These salespeople are just ill prepared to engage in a conversation.

For example, a few months ago, a salesperson calls me (yes, I had just downloaded a white paper).

  • After the introduction, he said, “I can help grow your business by 200% in the next year!”
  • I responded, “Wow, that’s incredible, what is it that we are doing wrong in managing the business, I’d really like to learn?”
  • He launched into his pitch about tools.
  • I interrupt him saying, “No, you’ve made a very provocative statement about my business, I’d really like to understand what we are doing wrong, or how we are missing opportunities. Apparently you have some insight into our business that we are blind to.”

He stumbled a moment, and tried to get back to his pitch.

Let’s Talk Some More — Off Script

I interrupt him again, “You’ve made a claim about our business, so clearly you have some knowledge about us, so what should we be doing that we aren’t?”

He was clearly uncomfortable, I know he just wanted to get out of the call.

“Perhaps, some of our competitors are doing some things that we have missed.  What are those?”

He knew he couldn’t hang up, but didn’t say anything.

“Do you know what our business is?  Do you know anything about our customers, our positioning, or performance?”

Meekly he replies, “No I don’t, perhaps you could tell me.”

That was the only good question he asked.

I explained very quickly, describe our services, our target customers, our differentiation, our strategies, and our growth rate–which has been high double digits, but not triple.  I asked, “What should we be doing to grow at 200%?”

He responds, “Well we sell products and services that do this……”  To which I respond, “But our priorities are to do these things with these people in these target customers.  What can your product do to help us with this?”

Trying to get out of the situation, he responds, “I don’t know, but I’d be glad to set up a meeting with someone who can answer those questions….”

I interrupt, “I’m confused.  You open this call with the claim that you know how we can grow our business by 200%.  You don’t know anything about our business, but I’ve taken the time to tell you a few things.  But I still don’t understand why you believe we aren’t doing enough, or that we are doing some things wrong.  How do I grow at 200%?”

Again, he said, “I can set up a meeting with someone who can tell you this.”


Now most of you are wondering, why I’m wasting my time.  So far it’s taken 5 minutes (the guy has probably nailed his “call time” goal for this call).  I was taking some perverse pleasure in seeing how he could handle perfectly reasonable questions.

They are reasonable aren’t they?  After all, if someone makes a statement they can improve my business, they ought to be able to support that statement with specific observations about my business–based on research and analysis, or in the very least what those who I might consider competitors are doing that I’m not.

Is that an unfair expectation?

Adjusting Your Script

To be honest, I use the same approach quite often myself.  Recently, a client asked me for help with a very large deal.  We made a call on the CFO of one of the top 5 retailers in North America.  I started the meeting saying, “We’ve done some research, we see an opportunity for you to increase your reported net income by almost 10% over the next couple of years.”

As you might guess, the CFO’s response was exactly the same as mine to the salesperson, “That’s amazing, what makes you think we can do this?”  I quickly followed with, “Here’s the research we’ve done, here are some assumptions we’ve made about your business…..”

It turns out some of the assumptions were wrong.  But the CFO was engaged.  As we talked about the business, the assumptions that led us to our conclusions, we adjusted them. We quickly re-ran our analysis, using the CFO’s assumptions. To all our surprise, we had underestimated the impact of the challenge he faced. Together, we discovered the opportunity to increase reported net income by more than 10%.  We had identified some critical challenges, if addressed, could substantively improve the business.

The other interesting thing about this discussion was that so far in the conversation, we had not talked about my client’s products or solutions. We had just focused on this retailer’s business and some issues we believed impacted their performance.

You can guess how the call went. The CFO is actively engaged, he has a team working with my client.  They are looking to buy, they are naturally looking at alternatives, but it’s my client they keep coming back to for advice.  We have a way to go, and then we have the implementation and have to produce the results the CFO and we believe can be achieved.

That Other Example…

Let’s get back to the poor salesperson who had the misfortune to call me. It really isn’t his fault.  It’s his company’s–his management’s.  The poor salesperson is just doing what he’s been told, he’s just being told and taught the wrong things.

Too often, I hesitate to say the majority of the time, we set our SDR’s and salespeople up for failure. We give them the wrong script, we don’t prepare them for the reasonable questions that script might generate, we don’t equip them to be able to go off script.

In the case of my poor salesperson, he had a script based on a single case study from a very different customer. He was only equipped to say, “Our product helped this customer grow their business by 200%, can I arrange a meeting to tell you more about our product?”  He was not equipped to deal with other reasonable questions the provocative opening might generate; “Why do you think we are underperforming, what is it about our business that makes you feel we can do this, what are the assumptions that drive you to that conclusion?” That’s not his failure, that’s the failure of whoever designed the program.

He was also poorly prepared or incapable of thinking on his feet. When given the cues, he couldn’t shift the conversation to, “Dave, tell me a little about your business…”

We miss so much opportunity because we don’t understand how to engage our customers. We don’t equip our people with the knowledge and skills to be able to engage in conversations about business. We drive potentially interested customers away, because our people can’t think on their feet to engage and teach the customer.

It’s not difficult, but somehow, it’s easier not to do the work, not to develop the capabilities of the salespeople to think, understand, probe, and engage. It’s easier to do hundreds of calls to get one meeting, than to do a few well researched and prepared calls to have close to a 100 percent hit rate.

david-brockI think there is another challenge, are we having the right people make these calls.  Is it fair to expect a brand new SDR to engage in a provocative conversation about a customer’s business?  Should we rethink who we put into the role of SDR?

David Brock is president of Partners in EXCELLENCE, a management consulting firm focused on sales productivity, channel development, strategic alliances and more. Read more of his blogs here.


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    Raj Khera:

    Nice article, David. Training reps to ask simple questions goes a long way. Some that we find useful:

    How are you currently doing xyz?
    What else have you tried that didn’t work?
    What would be an ideal outcome?
    What would that mean for your business, even you personally?

    Dave Brock:

    Those are phenomenal questions Raj! While they seem so basic and obvious, too few sales people think to ask them. Too few have the capabilities to drill down, engaging the customer in a conversation about their business and what they (organizations and individuals) hope to achieve.

    But that’s what truly great sales people always do.

    Managers need to train and coach their sales people in how to engage customers at a deeper level.

    Thanks for taking the time to contribute to the discussion!

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