Navigating Difficult Conversations With Customers: 3 Tactics for Salespeople

handshaking with client

What do you do if a customer brings up a controversial topic that could cause you to lose your cool? You need to keep your cool because you don’t want to risk losing your customer. There are ways to make sure the conversation always stays civil. Here’s how.

1. Don’t take the bait

Yes, you already know to never discuss politics or religion with customers, but what if a customer initiates a conversation about a controversial topic? What if you vehemently oppose their point of view? Your first reaction may be to challenge their assertion—don’t! Instead, you need to take control and not take the bait; focus on listening.

Tell yourself that your job is to learn and understand what this person believes and why. You can do this by saying in a calm voice, “Interesting. Tell me more.” Then simply listen without any intent to rebut the opposing statement.

Expect that it will be hard, but you will more likely not lose your cool if you don’t allow yourself to get emotional—and you may learn some new information, too.

2. Set realistic expectations for the conversation

It’s unrealistic to expect that you can change someone’s mind about an issue with facts, data, and information. Confirmation bias is a psychological phenomenon which says that when we see information that supports our point of view, it strengthens what we believe in; when we see information that refutes our point of view, we tend to ignore it.

Confirmation bias was observed in book purchasing patterns on Amazon during the 2008 U.S. presidential election. A researcher found that people who already supported Barack Obama were the same people buying books which described him in a positive light; people who already disliked Obama were the ones buying books describing him in a negative light. What this demonstrates is people aren’t looking for information—they’re looking for confirmation of their existing beliefs.

Again, don’t think you will change your customer’s mind with facts. Citing fact after fact after fact will fall on deaf ears. Instead, focus on building rapport, which is the ability to relate to a person in a way that creates an environment of trust and understanding. Mirror what you see in terms of facial expressions and hand gestures, and be a good listener.

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3. Ask—don’t tell

There is one strategy that you can use if you want to introduce new ideas: You have to be a good listener. (See point #1 and listen for contradictions in ideas.) This involves another psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance, meaning not being able to hold opposing (dissonant) ideas in our head at the same time. For example, this means believing that selling is the best job in the world and also the worst job in the world.

To deal with someone who is displaying cognitive dissonance, you need to start asking questions. When you hear an idea that you believe is contradictory, ask about it; plant the seeds of doubt in the person’s mind. Begin with,“I heard you say X. Did you mean …?” and say what you understood. If your customer says yes, then follow with your question.


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