It’s March Madness time, which I enjoy, but not always for the same reasons my friends do. Because I’m in sales, it’s fun just to watch the teams execute their strategies and then try to figure out how these strategies apply to my own profession.
And what stands out, season after season, is how predictable the plays have become and how easily they can be countered.
The same is true in sales, which is like basketball, if you think of your prospect-at least in some respects-as your opponent. “The best defense,” you’ll hear it said in any number of sports contexts, “is a good offense.” While that sounds good, and maybe there are cases where it may be true, I don’t think it applies in basketball or in sales.
Every sales professional knows what it feels like to be under attack-when, you might say, you’ve lost control of the ball. Maybe a customer calls to tell you a delivery date has been missed, and his confidence in your organization has taken a hit.
Your instinctive response is to fight back-to defend yourself, to explain the screw up and point out why your accuser is wrong. Even if you’re in the right, what will be the effect of your “good offense”?
My experience tells me this response will only make my customer feel attacked, further damaging an already vulnerable relationship. But to adopt a “customer is always right” attitude can backfire, too. In your understandable eagerness to please, you might find yourself making promises you can’t keep or years of performing free consulting with no end in sight.
A better response is to fall back. In sports, this might be compared to taking a deep breath to assess the situation, or even calling a time out. Instead of scrambling mindlessly in the vain hope of regaining the initiative-and risking a foul-you simply accept the situation and make the best of it.
You accept full responsibility, even if you don’t feel it’s fair. You tell your customer you know it wouldn’t help to explain why you missed the delivery date, and that he or she might even have decided never to do business with your company again. But then ask if that is a fair statement.
It’s a rare customer who will say they’ll never work with you again, which means they are moving back in your direction. Then they’ll probably ask for an explanation, which will give you the opportunity you want to offer it. This also provides the chance to explain the measures you’ve already taken to make sure the mistake is not repeated.
You can also ask what it would take for you to make things right. Once you’ve gotten your answer, you’ve regained the initiative, and your “opponent” is no longer fired up to beat you. In short, you’re in control again, and you’re moving toward a solution.
Once you’ve figured this out, the way most of your competitors react in these stressful situations will seem aggressive, counterproductive and even foolish. It will sound, well, like madness.