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The Maybe Challenge

Distribution Sales & Management
May, 2003

by Dave Donelson

The four deadliest words in sales are, “I’ll think about it.” You’ve spent what seems like hours with the customer, answered all their questions, and repeatedly asked for the order. Maybe you’ve hauled in a box of samples or even put together a trial offer based on special research. You’ve invested a lot of your time in them, but the customer stalls just at the point of making a decision. It’s doggone discouraging.

Why do otherwise nice people torture us like this?  There are plenty of reasons, but many times, the prospect who says “maybe” is just too darned nice to say “no.” They don’t want to hurt your feelings by rejecting you, or they just can’t think of a good reason to not buy, so they inadvertently torment you instead by saying “I’ll think about it.” Then there are people who are actually afraid of making a decision—any decision—especially on the spot. Maintaining the status quo is safe, so they choose to preserve it by avoiding decisions. Fortunately, of course, some really do want to buy but just need some time to decide. There are customers who won’t buy anything costing over $100 until they’ve literally slept on it. Some want more information or have another decision-maker they want to consult.

It’s a major problem that every salesperson faces. Bob Adler, General Manager of Adco Paper and Packaging in Brooklyn, NY, says, “It happens with new business more often than you would like. Repeat customers aren’t so bad. They know what they need and will give you a yes or no.” Short of holding a gun to their heads, how do you deal with the fence-sitter?

Decision Qualifying

The process—and closing is a process, not an event—starts with qualifying the customer in a way that will help you anticipate some of the potential delays. With a new prospect, you may not be able to determine whether they are psychologically decision-averse, but you can find out if there are other people involved in the decision. There’s also nothing wrong with asking if they have a buying policy you should know about—like never making a decision the day of the presentation.

A big part of qualifying, of course, is also judging how much business potential the customer has. This helps set the “maybe” strategy. As Adler says, “First of all, you have to determine if the sale is worth extraordinary pursuit.”

Steve Shockey, President of the W. Evans Company in Kansas City, Mo., agrees and adds that his salespeople qualify prospects in yet another way—their willingness to make a decision. “We spend a lot of time with a customer doing research, providing samples, conducting trials, and it’s imperative that we know that time’s not going to be wasted,” he says. “We try to get a commitment as early as possible. That may not be an immediate order, but it lets us know the investment of our time will be rewarded.”

But this isn’t high pressure. High pressure is an attempt to force the customer to do something they don’t want to do. The high pressure seller typically tries to mentally push the customer into a corner that they can only escape by making a purchase—which is a great way to generate a few sales and a lot of resentment. The high pressure seller may get an order, but it will probably be the last one from that buyer. What’s more, professional buyers are immune to such tactics and will most likely cut the seller off immediately.

“Some salespeople are more comfortable than others asking early. They do their homework earlier, too, and often ask for the commitment on the first call,” according to Shockey. “We ask upfront, ‘If we can solve your problem, will you buy?’”

It’s easy to go too far in the other direction, of course. Some salespeople fear offending the customer so much that they hesitate to ever ask for the order, much less apply pressure to get a decision. They don’t realize that actively helping the customer make a purchase decision is part of the service their company offers. Selling is not bad—it’s simply focusing the customer’s attention on doing something that’s good for their business. Even those customers who have a valid reason for “thinking about it” can save time and bother if the salesperson helps them reach a conclusion.

Test Questions

Once past the qualification stage, the effective salesperson will anticipate the “maybe” problem and try to eliminate it by testing the customer’s feelings throughout the presentation. They ask open-ended questions to learn more about the buyer’s needs and wants and to see if they are nearing a decision point. The best questions are like these, that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no.”

  • How would this fit your process?
  • What do you think of the material?
  • How does this compare with what you’re currently using?
  • What kind of response do you think this would bring from your staff?
  • Where would this fit into your product mix?  

Timing, as someone said, is everything. A high-pressure salesperson will start asking for the order right away. The more professional approach is to use positive answers to the open-ended questions to lead into some test questions. These can be answered “yes” or “no” without making the customer feel cornered because they don’t demand an order. Their purpose is to uncover any hidden objections and remove excuses to delay the decision.

  • Do you like it?
  • Would this work for you?
  • It works well, doesn’t it?
  • Is there a place for this in your operation?
  • Do you have any questions?

A “no” or a qualified “yes” answer to the test questions calls for further probing, but a flat “yes” means it’s time to ask for the order.

Once you’ve asked the question, be quiet and wait for an answer!  Don’t break the silence; give the customer time to think. Talking after asking for the order comes across as pressure—even if you’re trying to be helpful. It also opens the door to other questions or objections—some of which the customer may not even have considered. Finally, it doesn’t give the customer a chance to say “yes.” It’s tough to stand there waiting for the customer to respond to your question, but you have everything to lose and nothing to gain by giving in to the urge to fill the silence.

Columbo and Ben Franklin

Even after all this, though, some customers will still refuse to give up their seat on the fence. When they tell you they still want to think about it, it’s time for a flanking approach. One method is the Columbo close, based on the TV detective played by Peter Falk. Columbo’s trademark move was to suddenly “remember” another question he wanted to ask just as he’s walking away from the suspect. When you use this maneuver to overcome a decision stall, you play the same game. As you’re preparing to leave the customer’s office, you say, “I just remembered an important point for you to consider while you’re thinking about this purchase. Can I have just another moment of your time?”

When you pretended to accept “maybe” and the customer thought you were headed for the door, the pressure on them to make a decision disappeared. So when you launch into your pitch again, the customer’s defenses are down and you can follow up one more reason to buy with a good hard closing question. You may not catch a crook, but you may be able to snag a firm “yes” or “no.”

And there’s always the famous Ben Franklin close. The customer says he or she needs time to think about it and you say, “That’s a good idea. Let’s list some points to ponder while you’re making your decision.” Then you figuratively draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper and begin by asking the customer to list the reasons not to buy today. Then list all the reasons he or she should buy, asking for agreement as you go. At every point, of course, you have the opportunity to either overcome an objection or to ask for the order again, or both. And that’s the purpose of the exercise; to keep the possibility of getting a “yes” alive. The longer the customer stays with the process, the more likely they are to buy.

Sometimes, what you say to help the customer decide may not be as important as what you do. Sales on approval, trial purchases, and other similar tactics all work to reduce pressure on the customer and help them make a decision. Adler says, “We may offer a baker’s dozen or a special sweetener like that to move the buyer off the fence.”

Many, many buyers know this happens, of course, and use “maybe” as a very effective negotiating tool. Consequently, the seller has to respond in kind by making the special offer contingent on getting a decision—now.

As in all aspects of selling, helping the customer satisfy their needs is the best way to move the customer from “maybe” to “yes.” Consciously taking an active role in that process isn’t high-pressure selling; it’s simply giving assistance to the decision-impaired.