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The Science of Selling More

You know that many people like to talk about themselves, but maybe you didn’t realize how much they like to do it. Talking about themselves is worth more than money to some folks.

That’s based on science, according to David Hoffeld, who says that knowledge is also money to you. David is a sales trainer who has been featured in many media, but he is also an eternal student of why people buy. He says that about 15 years ago, he began reading studies of neuroscience and behavioral psychology, and saw some themes in those studies that spoke to sales.

He saw how sales theory usually has related to the salesperson’s perception of what works rather than to the science of how people actually make decisions. Now he has packaged his findings into a book, The Science of Selling, due out this month.

Why do prospects seem to be on board with a product or service only to turn away at the last minute? It probably has to do with their emotional disposition at the moment. If you’re not asking the right questions, you won’t be able to detect and defuse that bomb long before it blows up the sale.

Salespeople know they need to ask questions to understand clients and their needs, but they are often only on the first rung of the process. Are you asking the right questions and crafting an effective presentation?

In this conversation with Publisher Paul Feldman, David reveals what science has to say about asking the right questions.

FELDMAN: What makes your book, The Science of Selling, different from some of the other sales books that are out there?

HOFFELD: The world of selling has changed. The way people buy has changed.

The internet has given us easy access to information. Research over the last couple of years shows that salespeople are often entering into the buying process when approximately 60 percent of it is already done.

Buyers know who you are, and — even more concerning for sales professionals — they also know who your competitors are.

It has become more challenging to sell, but we haven’t changed the way we sell. How do we upgrade our skills?

A decade ago, I saw that there had been an explosion in scientific research explaining how our brains make buying decisions and how they are wired to be influenced. I saw early on how applicable this was in the world of selling.

The closer your way of selling is to how the brain buys, the more effective you will be. This book connects the dots between this powerful science and the real-world sales situations that you face every day.

It’s based on hard scientific evidence, and we cite more than 400 academic journals. So, if people want to go deeper into some of this science, they certainly can. We give them not only a little bit of the science but also how to apply it in the real world.

I thought this science-based approach would help us sell more, but one thing I didn’t realize until I saw it in action was how much buyers love it. It allows salespeople to sell the way our brains make a buying decision. People enjoy it.

FELDMAN: How does the brain make a buying decision?

HOFFELD: In a couple of ways. One of the things behavioral science has fleshed out is there are certain commitments that must happen before our brain will say yes to something.

We must make certain small, incremental commitments that guide our brain on a natural progression of consent. So we talk about what these commitments are and how to get to them.

This flies in the face of what traditionally we’ve been taught as salespeople. I was taught early on that you start to ask for big commitments at the close.

The research shows that is not how our brains make buying decisions. As we listen to a persuasive message, we are making small commitments throughout that message. Then, at the end of it, we say yes or no based on those previous commitments.

FELDMAN: A lot of people would think of incremental commitments as getting a yes throughout the process. That would be asking questions that you know they are going to answer yes to. Is that what you are referring to, or is there more to it?

HOFFELD: Much more. That’s the old sales strategy of getting them to say yes so many times that they forget how to say no. It doesn’t really work. People remember how to say no and affect the close.

You can get the “no” commitment to a lot of things that really don’t matter. But what you want to focus on are the six specific commitments, the Six Whys. Each question begins with the word “why.”

No longer is the close such a high- pressure, stressful event for you and your buyer. You naturally advance the sale, and then at the close, it’s that final commitment that is intertwined and even dependent on the previous commitments.

Think of closing holistically, as something that’s happening throughout the entire sale. I’m not asking to ABC — always be closing. I’m asking for certain commitments that really help clients make that buying decision.

These commitments are really the building blocks of the sale. If you have a process that allows you to get these commitments, you will be extremely successful. And you will make buying a pleasant experience.

If you have a process that doesn’t do this, then people have to do that mental work on their own and it often creates problems that are revealed at the close.

What happens at the close is a symptom, not a cause. Often we look at the close as this event that is independent from the rest of the sale, which is why most books on closing focus on two things: what you say at the close and how you handle the objections.

Decades of research in behavioral science confirmed that the best way to get someone to do something big, like make a positive buying decision, is to first get them to make a small commitment that’s consistent with the big one.

FELDMAN: What are the “Six Whys” to ask?

HOFFELD: These are the six commitments that people have to go through.

I’ll list them and talk about a couple of them. The foundational one, the one we always want to focus on first, is “Why change?” We break through status quo bias. Our brains have a natural aversion to doing nothing rather than something. We assign a high level of risk to change. All of us do.

So, buying anything, regardless of what it is, has an inherent risk in it: I might make a bad decision. And so we must first of all create a very compelling case for why the client should change.

Presenting a solution when people haven’t committed to making a change will make you seem irrelevant.

Then the second is “Why now?” In our process, we must talk about that. The third is “Why your industry solution?”

Fourth is “Why you and your company?” Fifth is “Why your product or service?”

Sixth is “Why spend the money?” If they buy something from you, they are not buying something else. So you are talking to someone about insurance and they say, “Boy, this sounds great. We need it. But, man, if I do this, I’m not going to be able to buy my jet ski.” Now you are competing with jet skis or fixing the roof or whatever it may be.

Compelling research guides us in creating a process with evidence and value statements.

FELDMAN: How do emotions work in that decision-making process?

HOFFELD: There is research from neuroscience that shows how emotions matter. The first thing that really opened my eyes was some of the research on people who had brain injuries and had limited to no access to their emotions.

They have a terrible time making decisions. They will think through logically a simple decision, as simple as “which restaurant?” And they will spend hours thinking about it and still not be able to decide. Why?

Emotions are how we assign value. One neuroscientist puts it this way, and it’s my favorite way of thinking about emotions. He said the logical part in your brain allows you to look at a person walking toward you and say, “She’s my cousin.” But it’s the emotions that allow you to say, “And I can’t stand her.”

Emotions give you preference and sway every decision. One thing I couldn’t account for in building this sales process with the commitments was that once in a while people still would not buy. They would say things like “It doesn’t feel right,” or they just couldn’t give me a logical reason.

Here’s why: because the emotions you are feeling at any given time heavily shape your perspective.

It’s the rose-colored glasses. So to you, the whole world is rosy. Or negative. You view the world that way. People don’t attribute their outlook to their emotions. They simply believe that’s how the world is.

If you’ve been in sales for any period of time, you can relate to talking to potential customers a couple of times, but this time, they seem uninterested.

Often, they are stuck in a negative emotional state. And it’s very hard for your brain to make a positive buying decision or a positive decision in general when it’s in a negative emotional state.

Children know this intuitively. I have two children, 8 and 10 years old. My son and daughter know that when I’m in a good mood, a positive emotional state, this is a great time to ask me for stuff. They also know when I’m not in a good mood, it’s not the best time to ask Dad for anything. Sometimes as adults, we forget that.

FELDMAN: How do you get people out of a negative emotional state?

HOFFELD: It’s easier said than done, and this is one of the parts of the book where I say you’ll need to deploy numerous strategies, depending on how deep the mood is.

Let me give you a couple of ways to do this. Often, you will want to use some of these back to back to back.

We can leverage something called the Hawthorne effect [based on experiments during the 1920s and ’30s at a Western Electric factory in the Chicago suburb of Hawthorne].

They did research where they put workers from the plant into a special room. The researchers asked about changing work conditions to increase productivity.

Over a couple of years, they would switch out the workers and change all kinds of things. They would give them more breaks, they would give them fewer breaks. Change the lights in the room, make them brighter and then dimmer. Give them vacations, take away vacations.

With each change, productivity went up. The researchers asked, “What in the world is going on there? We make the lights brighter, productivity goes up. Then we make them dimmer and productivity goes up again.”

What they found would become known as the Hawthorne effect — when you tell people they are being watched, just saying that you are going to be monitoring their productivity makes them more productive.

FELDMAN: How do you apply that to the emotional state?

HOFFELD: This is a very compelling way to shift someone’s emotions. You call attention to the negative emotional state, respectfully.

You would say for example, “John, it seems like you are a little distracted today. Is now still a good time to go over this proposal?”

And what people will do almost every time is one of two things. They will deny it, which happens the majority of the time. They’ll say, “Oh, no. I’m sorry, I was just thinking about something that happened earlier today. Please go on.”

You call attention to the negative emotional state respectfully, with concern. You always need to make sure you have concern. You’re not trying to get into a confrontation.

Sometimes, if they are really distracted by something else in this negative emotional state, they’ll ask if you wouldn’t mind rescheduling. That is in your favor, because if you present and try to sell to them while they are in a negative emotional state, the likelihood of your getting that sale is diminished. And the likelihood of them taking your calls later is also diminished because they are going to judge you and your product through the lens of the negative emotions.

FELDMAN: Many people would still press it at that point and not walk away. Is that a mistake?

HOFFELD: Yes, if they are in a deep negative state. But if not, you can try a couple of things before you walk away.

The thing about these negative emotional states that really kills us as sales professionals is that we don’t know what’s going on. And it’s hard to fight against the unknown.

We just think, “Boy, they are not receptive today.” Well, why is that? We don’t know.

You do have a couple of strategies you can deploy to help guide them out of the negative emotional state, which is good for them, too. People don’t want to be in negative emotions. And if you can help get people out of it, it’s better for them and you.

FELDMAN: What are some of the ways to change their emotional state?

HOFFELD: One way is to focus them on things that are naturally linked with positive emotion. I do some pre-call planning by looking at LinkedIn or their Twitter or their Facebook account.

I know they coach Little League. They are involved in the local Toastmasters. I know they just went on vacation to Disney World with their family. Any of these things are rife with positive emotions that I can bring up early in the call and get them to focus on something that’s linked with positive emotions.

If I just got back from a wonderful vacation with my children and we talk about that for three or four minutes, all those positive emotions will affect my emotional state.

Another way is to ask second-level questions. That is asking someone to assess or explain something about themselves.

They’ve done research at Harvard University with FMRI machines to show what’s going on in the brain when people explain things about themselves. The pleasure centers in the brain light up.

In fact, they’ve even done research on this in which people have been offered money or the ability to talk about themselves, and some will choose to talk about themselves instead of choosing to get money. It’s that pleasurable of an experience.

One last thing I will share with you is if you are face-to-face with your buyers, get them to shift their body language.

Often when someone is in a negative emotional state, they will portray that in their body language. They will cross their arms or they will slouch. Just like when someone is depressed.

If you or I were depressed, we would move differently than if we just had a wonderful day and we just made a big sale and things are going great. So get people to move their body, and that will often help shake them out of the emotions.

But usually, as I mentioned, it’s not one strategy. It’s one, two, three strategies back to back to back. So if I’m face-to-face with someone and they are in a negative emotional state, I might ask them a question about their vacation or about Little League that they coach or something like that. And then I might ask them a question about themselves. And then I might try to shift their emotional state by asking them to move, “but John, leaving here, I want to show you this chart that I think might answer a question you had last time.” Oh, and John is going to lean in. Or I’m going to say, “Let me show you this. Do you have a minute? I think the report is out in the other room and I think” — or show something on the computer. “If you look over here, if you lean in, you can see this chart.” Boom. So I’m getting them to move even slightly. And if that doesn’t work, I might deploy that Hawthorne effect and call attention to it.

But using a few of these in a row will weaken that emotional state to where you can start to have a really productive interaction. And it’s amazing. The sale is really simple. And it is, once you know what you’re dealing with. But using the back-to-back-to-back strategy will create a profound difference. I’ve had salespeople tell me it’s like a magic trick. They see it happening right in front of them. Because the person is one way and five minutes later they have a whole different perspective because they shifted those emotions that they are dealing with. The salesperson weakens that emotional state and injects them with some positive emotions, which make them much more receptive to you and to what you say.

FELDMAN: You talked about the second level of questions. And in your book, you discuss a third level. Would you tell us more about those?

HOFFELD: Absolutely. Because our brains disclose information in layers or levels, we ask questions that way.

The first level is where most salespeople, most types of questions, are. That is where you ask questions about a thought, a fact, a behavior or a situation. What we found is, most poor salespeople primarily ask level- one questions and that’s it.

To get to the powerful information that could really shape the sale, you need more than just introductory or basic information. You need to go to level two, which is asking for assessments or an explanation of a level-one response. It’s very intuitive.

We found that for top salespeople, this is where they live, on level two. They ask people to assess or explain more than they ask any other type of question.

And this does two things. As a sales professional, it gives you the information you need to find out what matters to these individuals and helps you customize your presentation to make it meaningful. And it helps your potential customer think through the information.

When you ask people to assess or explain things, it gets them to think through the things that are relevant to the sale, and it helps them make a good decision. Before they meet with you, they’ve given only a basic thought to insurance.

People begin to think through and go, “Yeah, I never thought about that.” Now it gives you an unfair advantage. Why? Because most of your competitors are asking only first-level questions and you are asking mostly second-level questions, you know what matters to these people.

First-level questions introduce a topic. Second-level questions are always where the gold is.

The third level is where you focus specifically on fear of loss or desire for gain. We call that a dominant buying moment. There’s some really compelling research that shows that loss aversion and desire for gain are very potent motivators of human behavior. And we as salespeople know that. But when you have this question model, it allows you to ask questions that deal with that specifically.

FELDMAN: Do you see a dramatic difference when people start thinking about this structure of questions?

HOFFELD: I have taken salespeople who have very little experience and gotten them to be expert question-askers, sometimes shaving off years or possibly decades of learning.

Someone who’s seasoned with 25 years of experience might be doing something like this that they’ve learned on their own. They haven’t quantified it as levels, but they are asking a lot of second-level questions. We are able to take people who have very little experience to get them to that level in a matter of hours.

And when you give it to seasoned professionals who are already expert question- askers, it takes their ability to the next level because now they have a structure that guides them to be even more productive.

The reason it works is it’s all based on how the brain discloses information. It always starts with the buyer, not with the seller. That’s why this way of asking questions is radically different and will give you an unfair advantage over your competitors.

Founder, President, Publisher [email protected].

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