Sales tips for the aspiring rock star!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What To Do When It Gets "Weird"

Imagine, if you will, a meeting with a potential client. Everything is going well. You are well prepared, your questions are on point and then it happens without warning. The prospect throws a left hook at you in the form of an uncomfortable question and things get mighty weird.

It could be a question about something your company once went through that needed to be fixed, perhaps they ask you why your company has such high prices. Perhaps they are asking you why you are the third rep within 13 months from your company to have your position or it can even get way weirder as in (these are actual situations that have been shared with me)

A man asking a female sales rep how long before she starts having babies and they lose her as a rep?
Someone asking you about your political or religious beliefs.

The list goes on and on and are chock full of these moments when it just gets plain weird!
Here are a few tips to help you navigate these wacky waters.

Note: At the end of today's post I will be asking for you to share your best advice for handling difficult situations

First: During your meticulous pre call planning you should anticipate certain scenarios. For example: If I know that we've quoted before in the past with other reps, questions about the reps, pricing etc could come up. If my company has just gone through something, there's a good chance I might be asked about it. I need to prepare to deal with those questions.

Learn how to "buy" time:

I truly believe that the difference between a good response and a lame one can be as simple as having an extra second or two to think it out a bit. Here's how you can do it:

1) Have them repeat the question.

2) Put the onus of awkwardness on them. When someone asks you just a straight up rude question, try this. Look them them right in the eye, pause confidently and adjust your glasses using your middle finger. Seriously. Pause confidently and ask them "I'm happy to answer your questions and so I can better understand your perspective . . . what prompted that question? This response does several things. It buys you time. It allows you to regain control without being controlling and they may even answer their own question. At the very least, they are the ones defending a stupid question rather than you!

3) Ask for specifics, examples etc. Once again, it buys you time but at the same time you get to understand the context in which the question was asked. Don't ever underestimate the power of an extra few seconds when you are put on the spot!

4) If you are in a group setting and the question is going to cost you and the other participants valuable time, offer to discuss it offline.

Dealing with the question head on:

I believe it was in the sales classic How I Raised Myself From Failure To Success In Selling by Frank Bettger where I learned a really cool comeback when someone starts badmouthing my company.

Hear them out and then simply ask them "If you were a part of the leadership team and you kept hearing things like that, what would you do?" Chances are they will say something like "I'd make some changes" At that point you simply say "That's exactly what we did and I'd like to discuss those with you. Would it make sense to add that to today's agenda or should we schedule some additional time when its more convenient for you?"

Reframe the question in a manner that its not as toxic. For example, I know some rather young sales reps that have been called out about their age. I train them to reframe the question to something they can actually defend because quite frankly barring a time machine, what do you do? I have them take the age question and turn it into experience by going head on. "Unfortunately the age part I can't help but let me tell you about the level of experience I have and if by chance you are still uncomfortable I won't take up any more of your time"

Try thinking out loud if the question is really personal. I had someone ask me about both my religion and who I was voting for a year ago when I was visiting the south. The way I chose to handle it was by "thinking out loud" "Wow (name removed) I'm thinking that question goes against everything that makes up my comfort zone so consider this a friendly changing of the subject"

I want you to know that as much as the other party is looking at you deciding if they want to do business with you, you should be looking back asking the same question. If here I am hanging out with Mr. "Obnoxious Question Asker" then perhaps our crappy courtship is indicative of an even crappier marriage?

Let us not forget . . . Your title isn't "Punching Bag" and you do have the right to respectfully part as friends.

Sales Team Exercise: During your next sales team meeting, consider a game I use quite often in class called "On The Spot"

Preparation: Create a bunch of questions that represent worst case scenarios. Things like defending a higher price, turnover, changes your company has experienced, turnover.

Each participant is to go to the front of the conference room (standing up or have a "hot seat"). The person facilitating the meeting (or participants) hit them with 2-3 questions. Consider asking the team if anyone has a different way they would handle the situation as you get answers.

Want to kick it up a notch? Ask each participant to write one question on a 3 x 5 card that would represent a question that they would be flat out uncomfortable answering. Then ask them the question.

Consider raising the difficulty level by having each person answer only one question but provide 3 different answers.

"On the Spot" can also be used to have an objection handling workout, 30 second elevator speech review, voice mails etc

Final Note: If you really want to get "comfortable being uncomfortable" as Tom Peters used to say, you have to work those muscle groups and more importantly, learn from each uncomfortable situation you navigate!

Please share your best advice for handling a difficult situation. Let's see how many ideas we can come up with!
Sales Playbook Group News: We are having a discussion about the best ways to network


  1. What's your advice for handling difficult situations or feel free to share a difficult situation with us.

    Looking forward to your input!

    Paul Castain

  2. Hi Paul

    The other situation is when someone asks you something you don't have an answer for. Don't try to BS them. Tell them you will get an answer for them and get back to them.

    Great post by the way!

    Robert Camald

  3. Very true Robert!

    I remember my Dad teaching me that lesson years ago when I was nervous about going out on a sales call. There are people, believe it or not who feel it isn't smart to let someone know when you don't know the answer to something. I'm wondering if the alternative is telling them a lie?

    Better to be straight with someone. I've never had anyone give me a hard time when I told them I would get back to them after I get the info.

    If they were to give me a hard time, they aren't someone I want to continue the process with.

    Thanks for your input!


  4. Nice post Paul.

    Why do people ask this awkward questions?

    Probably for one up manship and to make you feel awkward or not okay?

    Best bet go vulnerable and call the situation.

    That question has just made me feel very awkward and I think we both know it's not one I get asked alot or have an easy answer for. If you were in my shoes what would you say?

    or will the answer to that question effect our business relationship?

    or do you ask everyione that question or just me?

    I love your quote "your title is not punchbag"

  5. Thanks Jim!

    I know these questions are used in interview to see how you handle pressure but I'm not sure why someone feels the need to be difficult during a sales call. Perhaps they weren't loved enough as a child. Who knows :)

    I agree with your thoughts to just call out the awkwardness of the question.

    Thanks again for stopping by to contribute Jim!


  6. Enjoyed the post, especially the keep it real.

    At my very first sales job - I was 21 and selling door to door electronic thermostats – I had someone be really rude to me and I completely fumbled and left feeling like an idiot. When I got back to the office I told my boss what happened and I’ll never forget what he said. He said “Kim I don’t care how big of a potential sale it is, if someone is acting like a jerk then you tell them you don’t appreciate the way they are treating you and you pack up your stuff and leave.” I can’t tell you how much that meant to me and to this day I don’t let people be disrespectful or inappropriate to me. It is not worth compromising who I am to make a sale.


  7. I think you point of preparation is key. A good salesman needs to have thought of the question themselves through empathic thinking. Then you answer it.

    The question I use is "what is important to you about the answer to the question?" Of course I frame it better than how I have just presented it, but it allows the client to expose their values which is helpful when trying to ensure you have the right product/service for them.

    They are asking for a reason and most of the time it is not to be awkward.

  8. Paul,
    This is great! This so hits home. I had a meeting that was very intense. For at least 10 minutes I played ping pong with a prospect who wanted just to be difficult. Questions like, your the third rep who has sat in that chair.... I get 20 calls a day from people like you... Why are you different? I paused, I answered, I paused, I answered.... I was actually enjoying my ability to respond, I leaned in, I smiled, and even chuckled. I made No excuses, I confirmed that we wanted his business because.... and then finished with "Did I pass your test?" This company has been a great client ever since. I am a big fan of Sales Playbook and love the realness!

  9. Paul: Excellent point to ask "what prompted the question?" when confronted with a difficult, or possibly offensive question from a prospect. It's important for salespeople to draw a boundary for what contstitutes a fair question, because a salesperson is not obligated to answer every question asked of him or her! If the information requested is genuinely important for evaluating the vendor's products and services, then it should be answered. If it's not clear why the question was asked, the reason for asking should be clarified, as you point out. If the question is patently offensive, it does not need to be answered, and the salesperson would be correct to end the meeting.

    While it's not unusual for prospects to ask obnoxious questions, offensive questions are relatively rare. But offensive questions are emblematic of larger problems that portend bad customer relationships. It's best for salespeople to walk away from the opportunity.

  10. @ Kim: You are 100% correct!

    @James: Preparation certainly is key. So many times we know there is a high probability of a certain issue being brought up and we decide to "wing it". Not sure that's such a great strategy. Doesn't work well for me. I like the question you ask them because it puts it back on them and helps you get clarity BEFORE responding.

    @Julie: Thank you for the kind words. I really do appreciate you stopping by to say that! You raise an interesting point . . . perhaps this is part of their test which gives us the option of "pass or play" depending on how appropriate we feel it is.

    Kim, James & Julie Rock horns to the three of you or "yooz" as we say in New Yawk!


  11. If the question centers around the product or service offer my default answer is usually "That's exactly why I am here" and then ask how they have experienced this. Then I go on to address their concern.

    If it is off topic and akward I think humor usually works best. For example, someone once told me when I walked in their office that I look thinner in my email picture. To which I responded, "It is amazing what you can do with photoshop." If somebody says something rude to me I always give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are joking to give them a way out.

    This was very helpful. Thank you.

  12. Thank you Ed!

    Humor is a fantastic way to diffuse those "its getting weird" moments. It also demonstrates that you are quite witty and have the ability to fire back quickly which may or may not be a nice warning shot!

    Much appreciation my friend!


  13. Paul -

    Great Post. A little story? During my first week as a Global Acct Mgr to AT&T, I sponsored a meeting with our CEO and a SVP that owned 3,000 developers and 3,000 workstations.

    The stated meeting purpose was to advise that we had lost the account to HP and will be replaced within 24 months. The customer SVP was ANGRY with our demeanor and our ability to support them. He told Scott in plain language we were "a piss poor partner who is only here to see if there is any more milk in the cow to be had."

    Our Exec choked, danced, did the "I'll get back to on that" thing. If asked the customer if I could have just 10 minutes with him after the meeting. I stayed and let the other attendees chauffeur Scotty to the airport.

    Assuming the "Columbo" strategy, I did the only thing I could and asked the obvious open questions and allowed the customer to vent and then just talk. He didn't really want to throw us out. In fact, he almost couldn't financially, but he felt the cost of doing business with us was equal to changing vendors.

    He felt that we had "let them down" by allowing them to spend unnecessarily, invest in unused product etc. When I asked him "how would you have preferred we engage with you?" He said something that has stayed with me since... "partners don't let partners do stupid things! I need to be able to trust you. I need a partner that can advise me, not just use me." I heard him, advised our team and implemented an "honesty" policy..."maybe you don't need to buy that DASD / CPU...if you did it this way...

    We not only kept the business but grew it from $40m to $300m over the next 3 years. People buy from people they trust...

  14. Mike: You share not only a great story but a valid point in that sometimes we get hung up on how people say things and we miss the message.

    Hearing them out, letting them know that we care enough to make it right, well thats a pretty powerful weapon if you ask me!

    Nice job growing that account! Talk about turning around a difficult situation!

    Thanks for contributing Mike!

  15. Hey Uncle Paul. I enjoyed this post!
    I think everyone could benefit by reading Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends & Influence People. There are plenty of applicable tips and stories in there.


  16. Denise: Fo Shizzle! I have read that book numerous times and agree with you!



  17. Sometimes that pause along with a look that says "Are you kidding me?" can go a long way too.

    Mark M

  18. Paul:

    I usually just hand them an Ex Lax and tell them to call me when they are "regular" Midol is a good thing too.

    And rock horns to you for a great blog! You are inspiring us Uncle Paul.


  19. @Mark: I like that. I wouldn't be able to play it off because I would probably end up laughing which isnt cool . . . Makes the situation funnier but still not cool :)

    @ Donna: Thanks for the kind words. I can see someone handy an obnoxious prospect an Ex Lax and whispering "Psst. This should help"

    Thank you both and rock horns back atcha Donna!

  20. Paul,

    Great article, as always. I'm always appreciative of your thorough perspective of our profession.

    Though, I disagree with most of the feedback here. I LOVE THESE TYPES OF QUESTIONS. If you have something to say Joe Customer, then say it. Let's get your issues out of the way now (e.g.: "aren't you the high-priced supplier", "I had a really bad service experience with you once", etc.), and then let's move on. In fact, I like these people the most!

    But agreed...being prepared is key to success with difficult people. -Adam Trull

  21. @ Adam Trull: Always a pleasure my friend!

    Your point is well taken in fact it sheds light on the fact that we have missed perhaps the most obvious tactic of all and that's simply to discuss whatever it is that they are uptight about. After all, where there is no resistence there is no debate.

    Thanks for contributing!


  22. Mr/Ms Prospect,

    I'm not certain what would possess anyone to aask such an impertinet/rude/obnoxious, etc question. What I do know is I'm a professional and I concentrate my practice to working with other professionals. You are not one of them. Thank you for your time.

  23. Thanks John!

    Several years back I had a boss that used to always remind me that we don't have to take anyone's crap and that I can always walk away from any business if they are disrespectful. He had one rule and that was that I give him a heads up just in case he gets a call from them or the corporate office. One day, I approached him and told him about a situation earlier in the day where I respectfully told someone they were out of line and walked from the business. He asked me something that I wasn't quite expecting but never forgot. He asked "You know why you did that Paul, don't you?" my answer was something along the lines of "Because they were an A-Hole?" He said "You did that so because you can. So now that you know you can, your job is to exercise other options next time"

    Sometime confidence and poise rests in the knowledge that we can, but won't.

    Some interesting persective from a former boss ladies and gentlemen!


  24. Great post Paul!

    I once had a particularly hard to please client. He took pride in being contrary.

    One day I asked him, "How many reps did you eat for lunch?" He paused, shocked that anyone would have the nerve to say this. Then he laughed and gained a whole new respect for me.

    There's no substitute for humor. When combined with confidence, that's a winner!


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Paul Castain is the Vice President of Sales Development for Consolidated Graphics (CGX) one of North America’s leading general commercial printing companies. Paul has over 25 years of sales and sales leadership experience. He has trained, mentored and coached over 3,000 sales and sales leadership professionals. An accomplished public speaker, Paul has delivered numerous key note addresses. He has authored numerous training manuals, articles, blog posts and is currently working on his first book for release in 2011. Feel free to email Paul This has been a paid announcement by the friends of Paul Castain!

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Paul Castain's Sales Play Book is blog dedicated to strengthening our sales game, supporting rock star development and developing jedi like skills. All that is required is a willingness to learn and a sick sense of humor!

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