EPISODE 567: Breaking Through to Unreceptive Customers with Tom Stanfill

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This podcast, sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales featured an interview with Tom Stanfill, the author of “Unreceptive: A Better Way to Sell, Lead, and Influence.”]

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TOM’S TIP: “The numbers of customers that are receptive to talking to sellers is rapidly declining. People aren’t getting meetings, customers want to talk to you about what they already know, they don’t want to talk to you about what they don’t know, or what they’re not buying from you. It’s a big challenge. The solution to the problem is very counterintuitive. The customer’s willingness to listen is far more important than your ability to communicate.”


Fred Diamond: Tom, your book is excellent, Unreceptive: A Better Way to Sell, Lead, and Influence. Unlike probably most of the podcasts that you’ve been on, I actually read the book. I actually read it twice, because I was telling you, I got halfway through and I said to myself, “You know what? This is the kind of book that you need to take time with.” You’re one of the co-founders of ASLAN, so you’ve seen it all. There’s a major shift that we’re going to talk about that has happened in sales training. You’ve obviously had an epiphany along the way to get you to write about this. Tell us a little bit about how the book came about, and then we’ll get into some of the details of what we’re going to be talking about.

Tom Stanfill: Thanks, Fred, and thanks for having me on the show. Very excited to be on this podcast. The catalyst to finally writing the book is that the problem that sellers are facing now is so overwhelming that I just had to write it. We train large organizations, large companies, like Merck, and FedEx, and companies that are people aware of. We work with mid-size companies too, but I wanted to make this information and insights available to everyone. I just felt like with what’s happening in the market, and the customer receptivity, and the prospect receptivity has plummeted so drastically over the last four or five years, that I thought, “I just need to share this truth with people,” because it really does radically change the way we think about selling, it radically changes the way we sell, and it also radically changes our success rate because the problem now that everybody’s facing is the customers aren’t receptive. The numbers of customers that are receptive to talking to sellers is rapidly declining.

People aren’t getting meetings, customers want to talk to you about what they already know, they don’t want to talk to you about what they don’t know, or what they’re not buying from you. It’s a big challenge. The solution to the problem is very counterintuitive. The traditional approach to selling does not convert unreceptive customers and prospects.

Fred Diamond: Your company’s been around for close to three decades. You’ve been training people a certain way. Of course, you’ve modified and you’ve morphed over the years to be receptive. But two things have happened, as we all know, the internet has made customers more educated. But over the last two years, Tom, again, we’re doing today’s interview in the fall of 2022, the world has changed for everybody, not just how you sell, but how we live on this planet, and customers have been dramatically affected.

One thing we talk about on almost every Sales Game Changers Podcast episode we do is the whole notion of how are you communicating the value that you can bring to your customers? I’m curious, how has it been for you when these epiphanies kept coming to you because you’ve been working with people a certain way to get them to be good at sales?

Tom Stanfill: I think we really developed it in one of the companies I started prior to ASLAN, and I call it The Lab. We, through some series of entrepreneurial moves, I ended up running a company of about 100 inside sellers who were all generating leads and setting appointments for field sales reps. This is before the SDRs and BDRs. This is in the ‘90s. We have about 100 people and companies were hiring us and we were doing the legwork and filling the pipeline for sales reps. We realized that people weren’t rejecting the solution, they were rejecting a sales call. I think because of just the way that I sold, and the way that I was trained, and through maybe the way I was raised, I realized that there’s really two dimensions to selling.

There’s the receptivity of the customer, and then there’s the message. There’s the soil and the seed. If the soil’s not fertile, it doesn’t matter what your message is, the seed, because you can’t plant it in concrete. For a long time, you could find enough fertile soil to sell, and now there’s just not a lot of fertile soil. What we keep doing is we keep doubling down on the message, working harder, trying to develop a better value prop, come up with a better message, come up with a better seed. But if the soil’s not fertile, it doesn’t matter. The receptivity of the audience is actually more important than your message. Another way I say it is the customer’s willingness to listen is far more important than your ability to communicate.

We realized early on that we needed to shift the focus from, “What am I saying, and how do I deliver my value prop?” Which is important, but we got to first create receptivity. We’ve got to break down these walls, these barriers, and the traditional approach to selling, which is work harder, amp up, manipulate the customer, try to come up with some tip, trick, technique, whatever, just doesn’t work. With customers, motive is transparent. They can see right through us. We have commission breath when we’re trying to sell something. We’re the hero of the story and not the customer, and the customer has too many options now. Like you’ve said, all the things have changed. The tsunami of information is overwhelming customers. They feel like, “I’ve gotten less dependent on a sales rep. I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information.” It’s hard to get their attention. You got to do it differently.

The book is really about how do we address these five core receptivity barriers, which from either getting a meeting or getting the customer to really open up, to getting to emotionally embrace something they don’t believe, or to radically change their opinion about things. It was developed first in this lab where we had 100 people just making the hardest calls in sale. Then from that, I sold that company and started a training company, really because a couple of customers saw how we trained and they’re like, “Well, will you train our sales organization?” First client was Blue Cross Blue Shield, and I said, “Sure.” That launched us into sales training, and then we’ve just worked with specific companies over the years and become one of the top 20 sales training companies maybe in the world, I don’t know. I think we’re really recognized in the US.

Fred Diamond: Let’s get specific into some things you talk about in the book here. Let’s take one of the things you talked about. You talk about a technique called Drop the Rope. That’s designed to ease buyer resistance. By the way, you did talk about the five hidden receptivity barriers. I encourage people to buy the book. Like I mentioned in the forefront of today’s podcast, I get a sales book sent to me every single day, people who want to be on the Sales Game Changers Podcast. I literally read the book twice. I read it the first time and then I went back and almost studied the book, because it was so rich in information. But tell us about Drop the Rope. What does that mean and how does that ease buyer resistance?

Tom Stanfill: Well, I always like to support anything we teach for the principles. It comes from this principle, I call it the tug of war principle, so that anytime someone feels like you’re trying to pull them to your position, you’re trying to control them or force them to do something, the natural human instinct is to pull back. Even if they want to do what you want them to do, if you try to force somebody or control them, people want the freedom to choose. If you tell somebody to do something, I remember when I first got married, my wife would say, “Put on your seatbelt,” and I’m like, “I’d rather go through the windshield.” [Laughs]

Even though I agree with her, and she’s right, when someone tells you what to do, even though I was being an idiot, if somebody says stand up, you’re like, “I want to sit down.” There’s this attention that exists, especially now, between a seller and a customer. Even if you don’t want to apply the pressure, people believe that it exists and that you have an agenda. Everybody’s got an agenda. You got an agenda and you’re going to want to get me to do something.

Drop the Rope is a simple skill that needs to be genuine where you release all the pressure and you put all the customers options on the table. You say things like, “I’m not sure if this is a fit.” I had a meeting today with the president of a large pharma company. We’re talking about a specific program and I said, “I don’t know your organization well enough to say that we’re a fit. My goal today is simply understand what you’re trying to accomplish and see if this is something we can help you with.” It’s eliminating pressure.

It doesn’t mean you throw the rope and leave, but it eliminates the pressure, it makes them more comfortable and communicates that your ultimate goal is to serve them, and that you’re sincere about that. What’s hard is it’s very counterintuitive, but control is just an illusion. You have no control. You’re just communicating the truth. I don’t have any control over you, so I’m recognizing that and I would like to share with what we do, but I’m not sure if it’s a fit, or asking permission. Now, there’s a time and place to do this, but that’s the whole Drop the Rope concept. I’ll tell you what, where I really tested that was working with my teenagers. I have four children, four married children now, but I raised four kids. Being able to drop the rope opens the door to communication. Because ultimately what you want to do is you want people to see the truth. If they’re focused on the tension, they don’t see the truth.

Fred Diamond: One thing you also talk about is making the prospect the hero of the story. One of the greatest quotes that I ever got during the Sales Game Changers Podcast was from a guy named Gary Milwit, who is a VP at a company called JG Wentworth. The thing that he said was, “Make who you’re talking to feel like they’re the most important person in the world.” That translates into so many different ways. But you talk about making your prospect the hero of the story to open the closed door. How does that play into this?

Tom Stanfill: Well, it’s really simple. Either you’re the hero of the story, or the customer’s the hero of the story. Either you’re the priority or your commission is the priority, or the customer. A lot of times you don’t feel like you need to make that decision, because there’s not a time where you have to make a call, but ultimately you’ve got to make a decision about who’s the hero. What I’ve learned, and what we teach anybody that we have the opportunity to teach, is that motive is transparent. When you truly make the customer the hero of the story, which means you have to make a decision, because it’s so counterintuitive and the gravitational pull to self is so strong. If you don’t stop before the meeting and say, “My goal here is to help them solve their problem. That’s the focus, and if I can do that, I want to do that. I want to lead them to the ultimate solution of their problem. If I don’t have the right solution, then I’m going to tell them.”

When you make that decision and you make them the hero of the story, they feel it. They can see it. It’s motive. Like I said, motive is transparent. It’s really critical to stop and make a decision before every meeting. Your intention is not to manipulate the customer. Most reps, they’re not trying to just earn a commission. They want to do the right thing. But when the customer says something that might mean they’re going in the wrong direction, or they all of a sudden say they’re distracted because they might have something personal that’s going on, or they talk about the competitor in a positive way. Those are things that happen that reveal your true motive, because motive drives your behavior. That’s really critical.

Now, if you make that decision and say, “Look, my goal is really to make the customer the hero of the story,” that’s also going to be demonstrated in what you say. If you want a meeting, are you able to lead with what’s on their whiteboard? That’s the best way to get the customer’s attention, is talk about what’s on their whiteboard, and say, “Well, I’m other-centered. I want to put the customer first. I’m here.” Well, do you know what’s on their whiteboard? You only serve a certain type of profile or person. They all have about four or five similar things on their whiteboard that they’re working on. It drives their bonus. It drives for their success. It drives what they care about. Do you know what that is? If you’re other-centered, is the term we talk about at ASLAN, versus self-centered, you study that, you know that. You start to talk about things in ways that they go, “You really get this.” That’s a real key and it’s something that a lot of people may think, “Well, that’s not a big deal, make the customer hero of the story.” It is when you do it.

Fred Diamond: I want to go back to something that you mentioned before, and you just briefly touched on it, about getting them to share the deep truth. I think you even referred to as the unvarnished truth. That’s the reality too. It’s actually kind of interesting. Over the last couple of years, we’ve talked about things like authenticity, and transparency, and vulnerability.

Tom Stanfill: Yeah. Very popular now.

Fred Diamond: Very popular now. Actually, let’s talk about that for a second or two. If you really want to get to the truth of what the customer is dealing with, how do you get them? I know you just mentioned envision what’s on their whiteboard, but what do the top sales professionals now do to get to that level of introspection and relationship, and is it important?

Tom Stanfill: Yeah, it’s very important. The way that I really talk about this idea of influence, so what we ultimately want to do, which is in sales, that’s what we’re doing. Whether we’re leaders or sellers, really our focus or goal is to influence. It’s not just to educate. People who are just sitting there saying, “Tell me what to do,” or, “What does your product, or service, or solution do? Just explain it to me.” That’s not selling, that’s educating, and that’s fine. That’s great. That’s demand fulfillment. People need things and you’re going to give it to them. That’s great. The more of those people you have, more power to you. But what we’re paid to do, and  we’re successful if we can influence. When we influence, we walk into a situation where we have two polarized points of view.

You think if you’re on the North Pole and you see this, your way of up is completely different than someone on the South Pole who sees it a completely different way. That’s what influence is, is how do I change the other person’s point of view? If I’m talking to my 16-year-old daughter about who she’s dating, then she has a completely polar point of view. I think she may be dating the wrong guy. She loves him. They’re two polarized points of view. If I’m talking to a potential client and they’re already working with a competitor and it’s free to them, or whatever, then he’s like, “Why would I change?” They have two completely polarized point of view.

What we need to do, and this drives getting to answer your question about how do we get them to really see the truth, is we need to leave our position, which is our agenda, of whatever it is that we walked in. There’s nothing wrong with our agenda. We just need to set it aside. We all want to sell things. We all want to be successful. I want my daughter to do the right thing. I want people to listen to me. I want people to make good decisions. I’m passionate about my position, but I need to set my agenda aside. I need to take the trip and genuinely come down to their world and ask them questions until I have what I call an Oh moment. Until I can say, “Oh, that’s why you believe what you believe. That’s why you want to work with the competition. That’s why you’re moving in this direction. That’s why that’s your decision. That’s why you don’t want to talk about X, Y, Z product. That’s why you don’t want to meet with another vendor.”

You have that Oh moment and then you feed it back to them until they say, “Exactly.” When they say, “Exactly,” you now have the opportunity to then share with them a different point of view, but that process is critical. Part of that’s dropping the rope. Part of that’s making the customer the hero of the story and communicating that you want to know. Part of it is knowing how to ask questions. We talk about in the book, to effectively do that, you need a roadmap and you need advanced discovery skills. Your willingness to have that dialogue and openness about, “Tell me what you’re thinking,” creates this world where people trust you to tell the truth. That’s all you want. You want the truth. You want to hear their truth and you want to share the truth.

Fred Diamond: Tom, I got a slightly different question here. We have a lot of sales leaders who listen to the Sales Game Changers Podcast, or they read the transcript. What would be your advice to the sales leader, either the first-line or second-line sales leader, to make their people more proficient at some of the things that we’re talking about? One of the toughest jobs, as we all know is the first-time sales leader. A lot of the sales leaders were thrust into that role in early 2020. Everybody then went home and has been working out of their house for the last two years. Companies are still slow to get back to the office, whole different topic we don’t need to dwell on. But what will be your advice to a first-level or an early sales leader on how to enable his or her people to be more effective at some of the things you talk about in the book?

Tom Stanfill: Great question. I would say, get really passionate about helping your people serve your customers. We all have a number to hit, and when we meet with people, that number is what’s on our whiteboard as a leader. We have a lot of pressure to hit that number. When we pull people into our meetings, what we talk about is how do we get them to hit our number? We apply our intuition, our instincts, apply pressure, hold people accountable to get that number. That number needs to be there and that number’s not going away, but the receptivity of sellers now is plummeting as well, because that whole push to get a meeting, work harder, find fertile soil, they’re running out of fertile soil. They got to change what they’re doing. One of the simplest ways to get people motivated is to get them passionate about helping their customers solve their problem.

Your meetings need to start with, “What does the customer need?” It’s not, “How do we sell more?” But, “How do we find people?” They’re buying A, B, C product, but they’re not buying D, E, and F. All right. Do they need D, E, and F? Are we asking those questions? Who might need that? Not, “You need to sell more,” but how do we figure out what’s important to them? It drives the why behind, this generation of sellers cares about cause. They care about why we’re doing that. It’s not just about the number. Teaching them how to do that and serve their customer, what’s on the customer’s whiteboard, and orienting it. Every conversation is not about, “Well, you didn’t sell.” The conversation is about, “How did you figure out what the customer needs?”

I know that’s a real small dial change, but it drives the motive. I think about it real simply, is turn the pyramid upside down. The traditional pyramid, the leader’s at the top of the pyramid, the rep’s at the bottom, and then the customer’s below them. Turn the pyramid upside down, put the customer at the top, the rep serves the customer, leader serves the rep who serves the customer. If the rep doesn’t want to serve the customer, which means they don’t want to reach out, they don’t want to send emails, they don’t want to dig, they don’t want to expand their footprint in the account. It’s all about because they may need what we offer. It’s a slight change, but it’s the motive behind the success. You’ll still be successful. You’ll sell more if you serve your customer. I think that’s just an orientation, that slight shift in orientation makes a huge difference in what motivates people and what drives your conversation.

Fred Diamond: I got a slight morph on that particular question. A lot of times people ask me, “Fred, you’ve done over 550 episodes. You’re on the Institute for Excellence in Sales. What do you think is the number one thing sales professionals need to do or know to be successful?” Of course, there’s more than just one thing. I’m just curious, Tom Stanfill, you’ve been in this sales performance improvement space for close to three decades now. You’ve co-founded one of the most successful companies in the history of sales performance improvement. If someone were to ask you that, “Tom, what’s the one thing I should focus on for me to be successful in sales?” what would you say to them?

Tom Stanfill: I’m going to give you two things, Fred. I know you said one, but I’ll give you one really tactical thing. One is, work on beginning the sentence with ‘because you’. If you’re in sales or you’re in leadership, if you can begin the sentence with, because you, what you say next has huge impact. Because you, and if you can’t begin the sentence with, because you, you don’t know your customers. You don’t know what’s on their whiteboard, or if you’re a leader, you don’t know what’s important to your rep. If you’re a parent talking to your child, if you can begin the sentence with, because you, because you care about, or because you want, if you can do that, then you know your message is sound, and you’re going to be able to position in an effective way. That’s a real tactical thing.

Here’s a more big-picture, I think more of a strategy. Find somebody that will give you feedback. Seek feedback. That is the number one thing you can do to get better. Find a mentor, find people that you trust you. Everybody has blind spots. I talk about it this way. Everybody has a sign above their head and they can’t see it, but people around them can. We all have them. When you invite people in, trusted people in, and ask them for feedback, “How’d that call go? What should I do better? What is the thing that I don’t know? How can I get better?” Whatever it is, you get to surround yourself with one person or a few people that will give you that feedback, it will revolutionize your ability to perform.

Fred Diamond: Actually, one thing that really occurred to us in the beginning of the pandemic was the fact that everybody’s plans had dashed and everybody’s process was thrown around. But if you are a sales professional, what are you doing as a sales professional? What are you working on? Are you working on your presentation, your knowledge of the customer, your ability to sell, your ability to write? And the things that you just said are great examples. People who are professionals have coaches, they have mentors. They have people who are interested in giving them some advice. As a sales professional, they seek that advice. They want to know, “What can I be doing better? Hey, boss, let’s sit down, let’s review that call.” You know what? It may be painful, but you got to go through it and you got to understand.

Tom, I got time for one more question before we ask you for your final action step. In the book, Unreceptive: A Better Way to Sell, Lead, and Influence, you talk about word pictures. Word pictures to move buyers emotionally to the new point of view. Talk about what a word picture is and how can I start using word pictures to be more successful as a sales professional?

Tom Stanfill: One of our challenges in selling is to move beyond the logical benefit. Logical benefits get people to think, but emotions get people to act. People are going to make a change, we’re influencing, we’re changing their belief. Like, “I was thinking this way, but you’re convincing me to do something completely different.” That’s the highest form of influence. To do that, we got to get them to emotionally experience our recommendation. One simple way of doing that is telling stories. Everybody talks about storytelling. That’s a popular idea, and that’s good. But it takes some time, and everybody does it.

One of the ways that I found most effective to get people to emotionally experience the benefit is a word picture. A word picture is where you use an analogy that connects someone emotionally to something they don’t understand by leveraging something they do understand. Like, I’ve got to talk to my 17-year-old son about getting a tattoo. Now, I have no moral issues with tattoo. I just want to make sure that he gets a tattoo at 17 years old that he’s going to like when he is, which he’s now, 38. As a father, I want to give him good [advice]. As a customer, the customer has challenges, I want to be able to answer their question. How can I leverage something they understand to explain something they don’t understand?

Obviously I talk about this in our book, but there’s a great book called Made to Stick that talks about this as well. We’ve been teaching it for years, and I love the way they explained it. Talking to my son, how do I explain this to him? How do I get him to feel it? I leveraged something he understood. I said, “Taylor, you wore this t-shirt for months. Almost every day you had that favorite t-shirt, right?” He says, “Yeah, I love that t-shirt.” I said, “You wore it every day.” He says, “I wore it every day.” I said, “Where is that t-shirt?” He goes, “I threw it away.” I said, “Why’d you throw the t-shirt away?” He goes, “Because I’m tired of it.” I said, “You’re tired of it, so basically you’re saying you liked it for a while, but you’re tired of it.” I said, “What if you had to wear that t-shirt for the rest of your life?” He said, “I’d hate that. I hate that t-shirt now.” I said, “When you get a tattoo, you’re going to have to wear it for the rest of your life.” Now I’m connecting that negative emotion of having to wear something he now hates with a tattoo that he may not like. That’s just a really simple example of a word picture.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great example. Did he get the tattoo?

Tom Stanfill: He did.

Fred Diamond: Does he regret it now, 21 years later?

Tom Stanfill: He does. He regrets it. But as a father, I’m like, “My job was to communicate the truth.” There’s been times where my word pictures work, and there’s times when they don’t. I’ve got a lot I can share with you, but you’ll see, you pay attention to how people communicate. Effective communicators are very good about taking something really simple that we all get emotional about, and then saying, “That’s what this is.” It’s just a simple way of communicating. It’s simple and effective.

Fred Diamond: It’s a great way to get through, again, when customers are being unreceptive for all the reasons we just talked about. Tom Stanfill, congratulations on the book. It really is a great read. Like I mentioned, I get a sales book sent to me every single day, people who want to be on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, and it’s definitely a great read. Congratulations on all the success you’ve had. You’ve created one of the top 20 sales training companies, according to Selling Power. Your company has been well regarded for many, many years. You’re obviously making some smart shifts and improvement in what your customers need to know to be successful. Again, we see that every single day at the Institute for Excellence in Sales and the Sales Game Changers Podcast. Kudos for you for all the careers that you have affected.

We’ve got time for your final action step. We like to end every show with something specific. You’ve given us 15, 20 great ideas. Give us something specific, Tom Stanfill, people should do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Tom Stanfill: Here’s a recommendation, a little crazy, but I would spend one day where you don’t share your point of view. Just pick one day where all you do is when someone says an alternative point of view, political, business, whatever the idea, you got to make sure it’s a totally opposite point of view. All you do that day is take the trip until you have the Oh moment and you go, “Oh, that’s why they have a completely different point of view.” Because if somebody has a different point of view, there’s something you don’t understand. If you think their point of view is ridiculous, there’s something you don’t understand. There’s always a reason people believe what they believe or do what they do. Spend a day taking the trip, have the Oh moment, and if you haven’t had the Oh moment, you don’t get it yet. Then feed it back to them till they say, “Exactly.” Just do that for a day. See what happens.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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