EPISODE 532: Removing Sales Objections with Skills Learned from Improv with Marc Levine

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on May 21, 2022, featuring improv and sales performance expert Marc Levine.]

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MARC’S TIP: “If we want to be better with resistance and objections, focus on the other person first, and do that by trying to understand what are the pressures, what are the challenges that they’re facing right now, step into that compassion. With that, the walls will go down. You will build trust and you will step from salesperson into trusted advisor, and then be able to move forward.”

THE PODCAST BEGINS HERE

Fred Diamond: We have Marc Levine with Improv My Sales. Marc, it’s great to see you. Improv My Sales. Now, we’ve had a couple of experts on improv on the show in the past, and I think it’s such a vital skill for sales professionals. Someone actually texted me about an hour ago and asked me if I was nervous about doing this interview with you. I said, “I’m never nervous when I do a Sales Game Changers Podcast. I’m nervous that the technology may not work, but it always seems to now,” but I’m excited to talk to you. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the story behind Improv My Sales? Let’s get into this. First of all, it’s great to see you.

Marc Levine: Thank you, Fred. This is a dream. Iā€™ve listened to you since I was a child turning on the radio as I was going to sleep. As a longtime sales guy in technology and professional services, and now as a trainer, coach, facilitator for the last 20 years. In 2011, I was working internally as a senior sales trainer in a hospitality company. For the first time, I had people selling to me, after years of selling and thinking I was doing the right things. We were looking for negotiation skills training, and I contacted a bunch of the big players and set up meetings. Most of them were phone meetings. Now, these are people who are good at what they do. They’re caring, considerate people.

As I was listening to them, I noticed when I leaned in, and when I tuned out and I started to do work on my computer. What I realized is that what was missing from it is a lot of times people were not focused on me. They were doing all the things we’re taught to do in consultative selling. For example, at the top of the call, you’ve heard of contracting or setting up objectives, and every salesperson did it. It sounded something like, “Marc, what I’d like to do today is to ask you a bunch of questions to understand what’s going on for you in the organization. Then maybe tell you a little bit about how we might approach that. Sound okay?” I would just nod my head and I’d be thinking, “Do you want to know what I want to do today?” Not one person would ask me what I wanted to do. Followed their script, which was a good script.

I also noticed there are a lot of questions I was asked were about the organization, or, “What did the SVP of sales want?” But very few people were focused on the person they were talking to, me. That’s when I had the epiphany that some of the things we were taught were not human centric. They’re focused on getting the sale and delivering a great service, but not focused on the person in front of them.

In 2015, I moved to Maui, paradise, as you can imagine. After working for other companies, I started Improv My Sales and I realized I wanted to do something around conversations that were human centered and research based. Improv comedy. As you said, you’ve had people on before. I’m not the only one doing it. What do people love about improv comedy? It’s two people going on stage unscripted and creating a shared reality, where they build on each other’s ideas. They do that through the skills of listening, reacting, collaborating, stopping your own agenda, all these things that we need to do in life to be successful, including sales.

By the way, what we’re going to talk about today is not just for salespeople. It’s for anybody who has resistance in conversations, personally and professionally. Improv My Sales was born and we do everything from objections to connections, which is what some of this is going to be drawn from, as well as emotional intelligence, one-to-one coaching, presentation skills, all these things where the common theme is helping people to have each other’s back. With that, people feel understood, they open up more, and you can do amazing things.

Fred Diamond: We had another guest on recently and he did some work at Second City. The great Tina Fey from Saturday Night Live was one of his coaches. I asked him, “What did you learn from Tina Fey?” He said that Tina Fey kept telling him to stop being funny. He said he was really trying hard to be funny. Tina said, “Stop being funny. Listen to what’s being said. Respond,” as compared to trying. That was such a great sales message. A lot of people come on and they’re trying, like you mentioned, they’re sticking to the script. They have their questions. They have their process that the company has told them to do. They’re trying to get to the next stage, whatever that close might be. At the end of the day, customers don’t want that. Customers want to deal with somebody who they trust, who is going to help them solve their problems.

Marc Levine: Absolutely. Today’s podcast is called Stop Overcoming Objections, and instead focus on the person in front of you. Instead, be human and have a conversation. When you think about the idea of overcoming objections, when you think of the word overcoming, what comes to mind for you, Fred?

Fred Diamond: Well, obviously, people are thinking about quick response, having a list. We’ve actually done shows on overcoming objections, and you should be prepared, what type of an objection is coming? If the price objection comes, you should have your answers ready to go. That’s a strategy for disaster in a lot of cases, because you’re not listening. You’re just going back to your script, which may not be appropriate for what the customer needs.

Marc Levine: Absolutely. Tell me, how many situations in life do you want to be overcome? Let’s take the word overcome. How many times in your life? You’ve been around the block a little bit, started in the mean streets of Philadelphia, how often do you want to be overcome? What situations do you want someone else to overcome you?

Fred Diamond: Zero, man. I want people to be heard and I want people to be able to express what they need in life and in sales. But nobody wants to be overcome unless, I guess some people might start with that mentality, but customers don’t want to be overcome. Salespeople don’t want to be overcome. It’s all win-win. Right?

Marc Levine: Well, that’s the idea, but a lot of us have been taught to overcome objections, and that’s wrong. What’s interesting, a lot of what we’re taught in sales is seller focused. But if you go back to some of Neil Rackham, Neil Rackham was the guy who created SPIN Selling and he wrote another book called Buyer Centered Selling, and he came up with a buying cycle. That’s buyer centric. The idea of overcoming anyone in anything is a pretty crappy feeling. People are going to get defensive. As you know, people love to buy, but they hate to be sold.

Instead of trying to overcome objections, in that moment, when someone is bringing up an objection, whether it’s personally, professionally in sales, or just you’re trying to share an idea at work and you want your manager to listen to it. If they object, they’re basically stopping. If you’ve ever walked a dog and the dog just stops, what do we try to do? We try to go, “Come on, let’s go,” maybe offer a treat, or we yank. We push or pull. Have you ever done that in a conversation where you face some resistance?

Fred Diamond: You want the conversation to flow. One of the great lessons that we had, we had a guy on the show named James Muir, who wrote a book called The Perfect Close. We thought it was about that moment at the end of the road where you “close”. But the whole premise of his book was that there may be 30 closes along the way. The close to get to the next conversation.

Marc Levine: But even closing, I want to offer another tweak on that. What I’m talking about, and what’s great about improv is the feeling of I got your back, I’m there with you. When we’re trying to close, it’s almost like overcoming. We’re trying to do something to someone else. Instinctively, people go like this. There was a great study by Amy Cuddy who wrote in the Harvard Business Review that leaders who show strength are thought of as well. Leaders who first connect and then show strength and competence are thought of much better. What I’d like to offer, and I say this for me, because I want to remember it too, for you, anyone who’s listening, is when you face resistance in a conversation, stop going for the close, stop overcoming, and instead focus on connection to help you deal with the objection.

Fred Diamond: Well, the point I was trying to make was that the close isn’t the close. The close, there may be 30-some odd closes along the way, which is basically what you just said, which is how do we get to the next place to help the customer? Everybody who’s in sales, Marc, they really do want to help the customer. The ones who are good. The ones who make it to director level. They don’t get there by using some of the techniques that were prevalent 15, 20 years ago, because the customer’s really in control. Let’s talk about this better approach. Let’s get deep into this and talk about how improv plays into this. How does that skill make you more successful at overcoming these objections?

Marc Levine: Well, I think it’s getting into that improv mindset. One of the things that happens is dropping your idea, dropping your agenda. Let’s say you and I are improvised on stage and we ask for a location. Someone says, “You are at miniature golf.” Now, that’s all we know. You and I quickly have to establish a relationship. I may think you’re my son, I’m the dad, I’m taking you out for the day. You may think we are a couple. Whoever initiates first, the other person has to agree to that and then build on it. One of us is going to be dropping our agenda. Let’s think about when selling. I’m trying to sell to you, I have a great service, I believe in it, you have a need, all of a sudden you put up some resistance. Same thing in a conversation at work. I’m going to bring an innovative idea to my manager and she puts up resistance. That’s the time to take the improvisive mindset and temporarily drop my agenda.

Fred Diamond: Marc, we do have a question here. Dina says, “What if I’m on a quota and I really have to meet my quota?” Marc, let’s talk about that a little bit. We talk a lot about relationship, of course, and that successful sales professionals are the ones who look at it long term. One of the fun things about the Sales Game Changers Podcast is we’ve had some people, Marc, who’ve been selling for 30 years to the same customer. Either government, or hospitals, or financial services. They’ve had a 30-year run with particular customers, so they developed that trust that’s going to take them obviously to 30-some odd years. A lot of the pressure that some people feel in sales is, “I need to hit my quota. My boss is pressuring me. His boss is pressuring him. Her boss is pressuring him.ā€ Talk about Dina’s question here, when there is that stress.

Marc Levine: Dina, this is perfect, because let’s talk about what happens when we’re feeling that pressure. The sales seems to be moving along and we’re getting close to the yes, and we start to get excited and the voice in our head says, “I’m moving that much closer to quota.” Maybe I was behind quota last month and now there’s an objection. If you studied emotional intelligence, you know about fight, flight, or freeze. That’s when we have that emotional trigger and the amygdala hijacks our brain. It’s almost like our thinking brain is gone, and we either fight our way through it, which is often what we do with objections, talk louder, overcome them, or we back away because we don’t want to hurt the relationship.

In those moments, the best thing we can do is stop focusing on our need, stop our agenda, because do prospects, managers, partners, do they feel it when we are focused on our need and pushing? Absolutely. That’s when they get even more defensive. A wise person said, “When you’re in a hole, the best way to get out is to stop digging.” One of the best things you can do, and let me just quote some research from Gong. Gong is one of the leaders in the space using artificial intelligence to figure out what the best sales reps do.

One of the best things the best reps do is they pause after an objection. They pause five times longer than an average sales rep. You know what’s interesting? It goes back to listening. Not listening to the voice inside my head that says, “I have to make quota.” Listening to the customer. Hey, is it okay if we do a listening activity?

Fred Diamond: Yeah. I’d like that. As a matter of fact, a little bit of a background. Listening is one of the keywords that comes up a lot. When I do the Wednesday interview, when I interview sales VPs, a lot of times I would ask, “What is something that makes you unique as a sales leader?” Listening would come up all the time. Then people would say, “Yeah, I have two ears, one mouth. Use them in that order. 66% solution,” whatever it might be. I started asking people, “Well, what makes you such a great listener?ā€ It comes up time and time again where it’s basically every great sales leader we’ve ever spoken to talks about this. Let’s do this activity. I’m excited.

Marc Levine: This is one you can do with us right now, and you can try this at any conversation. This activity, people love this. It shows how much we don’t listen, or how well we can. This is called listen to the end of the sentence. Fred, you and I are going to have a conversation and I’ll give us a prompt. We’ll go wherever we want to go. All I ask is two things. One, each of us just shares one or two sentences, so we go back and forth. Two, if I start speaking and I finish, the first word coming out of your mouth, that first word begins with the last letter of the last word I said. If the last thing I said was said, your first word is going to begin with a D. Okay? We’ll go back and forth for a couple of rounds and see what happens, and just do one or two sentences at a time so we can flow. Here’s our prep. Fred, I want you to talk about something you’re excited about for the weekend. Just give me one or two sentences.

Fred Diamond: Dealing with some of the situations in my house, I’m looking forward to cleaning up one or two of the rooms that need to be taken care of.

Marc Levine: Fascinating. You have this beautiful weekend and I hear that you’re going to spend it all inside.

Fred Diamond: Every weekend, I like to do something that’s moving either the house or my life forward. A portion of this particular weekend will be spent inside.

Marc Levine: Existing things in a life are a great place to start and then add to it and maybe go outside. All right. Let’s stop there. You did a great job, better than most people. What did you notice about your listening as we were doing this activity?

Fred Diamond: To be honest with you, I was waiting for the last letter of the last word so that I was going to make sure that I was going to start. It’s interesting how many words end with E. I think four out of the five words that we had to apply words to began with the letter E. But no, as a podcast host, I’m very focused on my guests and wanting to ensure that I could follow up. I was able to listen to your sentences, but to be honest with you, Marc Levine, with Improv My Sales, I was focusing on, “What is the last letter that he’s going to use?”

Marc Levine: It’s not the natural way of listening. But one of the things you did, which is important, and I think the thing we stop doing when people are objecting, is we start forming our response before they even finished. We’re so focused on overcoming the objection that we don’t listen to the end of the sentence. Then we certainly don’t pause and take in what they said. In those moments when there’s resistance, that’s when we need to have more trust. That’s when we need to connect even more to the other person so they feel heard and understood. It’s easy to say, “I understand.” One of the best ways to say you understand though is to listen to what they’re saying, pause, and maybe even reflect back what you heard.

Fred Diamond: Marc, one of the other guidelines that you said before the exercise, which was very powerful, you said, only use a couple of sentences. One of the acronyms that we started discussing in detail is WAIT, why am I talking? I hate it, man, when I’m on sales calls with sales professionals, or I’m being sold, and they just keep going on, and on, and on about something that’s no longer valid for me. We like to say, if the customer’s doing 90% of the speaking, then it’s a great sales call.

Marc Levine, we have a couple of questions coming in, and I want to get to these questions. Andy says, “Marc, thank you. How do you handle a situation when the other person becomes hostile and starts screaming? How do you bring it back to a civil dialogue while keeping the goals of listening in mind?” It’s also similar. There are some places where the customer’s under a lot of pressure and maybe that’s why, but I’ll let you take that answer.

Marc Levine: Fred, I think you just hit on it. In those times, it’s so easy to get emotionally triggered. The first thing is I got to check in on my emotion, and hopefully I don’t want to react in the same way and react defensively. I like to say, join them on the other side of the table. We often try to sell from our side and pull them over or push. But if I can step across to their side and think about, “What are some of the pressures they’re feeling? What’s going on for them?” I love the idea of reflecting, trying to share with them what I hear them saying. It could sound like, “Man, it sounds like this is really emotional for you,” or, “This is bringing up a lot of stuff. Can you tell me a little bit more about some of this? Maybe you’re feeling some pressure, maybe you’re feeling I’m not hearing you. Can you tell me a little bit more about what’s going on for you?”

In that moment, it’s not about the sale. If I make it about the sale, I’m going to lose every time this person is upset with me. Pause, express what I’m hearing, make it about the human, and then that builds that trust that we’re always looking for and they feel heard and understood and they start to think, “Wow, Andy’s on my side. Andy’s talking to me. I know he is a sales rep on quota, but he’s talking to me,” and how powerful that is.

Fred Diamond: We have another question here that comes in from Brian. Brian says, “How do we move from a stuck influencer to the decision maker?” Let’s say that you keep getting objections and you know that that person really isn’t the decision maker. That they’re either the person who’s chartered with finding some information or whatever. Even though we’re talking about things like empathy and listening, we are sales professionals, and we’re talking about a different way to go about being effective as a sales professional, which is so on target with what needs to be done. But another objection is we’re stuck with the wrong person. What is some of your advice?

Marc Levine: Brian, that is one of the toughest things in sales. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure that one out. We don’t want to step on the toes of the person in front of us. We want to honor them. We know mostly what they can do is they’re essentially another gatekeeper. When I was in that position as a sales trainer, and someone wanted to get to the SVP, the best thing they could have done was say, “Marc, how do you win? If we can introduce this service, I want to know what’s a win for you. How can I help you, and what do people usually want? Credibility? They want recognition. They have certain goals. How are you measured?” I would go back to, again, joining their side of the table, focusing on the connection, and this improv principle of creating a shared reality, but I need to enter their reality. That’s what I would do.

Fred Diamond: It goes back to the win-win. We want to help the customer solve their problems, and a lot of times we need the customer to help us let them understand what we’re trying to help them achieve. Every great salesperson, Marc, that we deal with right now, they’re all about the customer. Here’s the other thing too, curious on your thoughts, it’s coming to the table ahead of time with the understanding of what the customer needs. The worst question, of course, which was a big question in the ’80s when the great Neil Rackham was creating consultative selling, was what is your pain? What keeps you up at night? The great salespeople start with that. They know, not the question, but they know what the pain is, because it’s pretty obvious to see it.

Marc Levine: Actually, coming with a couple of things. There’s always going to be some common pains. People want to reduce costs, they want to save time, they want to reduce stress, they want to create more efficiency. Talking about that, I think that’s the business pain. But coming back to what’s in it for the person, that’s something we rarely do as human beings, and focusing on what the person wants, how they win, how they get ahead. Seeing the world from their eyes, connecting to the person in front of you will help you win, temporarily dropping your agenda to focus on that.

Fred Diamond: Brian actually followed up with that question where he said, “How do I go about dropping my agenda, finding a win for the person who’s not the decision maker per se, and still help me get to that decision maker?” What might be another tactic or idea that you have that would help us get to that particular place?

Marc Levine: Well, dropping your agenda means stop trying to sell them, and start really tuning into what they want. We know this from relationships. If I’m fighting with my partner and I think she doesn’t understand me, because that’s what happens, right? We think the other person doesn’t understand us, in that moment we have to do the counterintuitive thing, which is what Steven Covey said years ago, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” I would say something like, “Hey, I feel like maybe I’m being a little pushy trying to move this along. I want to take a moment and stop and really understand your world. Can you tell me what’s important for you?” I’m literally saying, “I’m dropping my agenda to focus on you.”

Fred Diamond: Sometimes when dropping the agenda happens, you may need to drop out. Sometimes it gets to the point where you’re not going to be able to solve their problems. We actually had the great Jack Daly on the show yesterday. Jack said that he refers 40% of the leads that come to him to other people, either that he feels could do a better job of servicing the customer, or that may be a better fit. Marc, I want to thank you for the great insights today. Everyone has to deal with objections in life and everything else. You’ve given us so many great ideas here. Marc, give us one final action step, something specific people can do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Marc Levine: If we want to be better with resistance and objections, focus on the other person first, and do that by trying to understand what are the pressures, what are the challenges that they’re facing right now, step into that compassion. With that, the walls will go down. You will build trust and you will step from salesperson into trusted advisor, and then be able to move forward.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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