Sales is all about communication. Closing deals comes down to how well you ask effective questions, express your company’s value, listen to and address your prospects’ concerns, and build mutually beneficial relationships.
However, despite their best intentions, a salesperson’s bad verbal habits or unintentionally off-putting word choices can get in the way of forging profitable connections. After many years working in sales and training reps, I’ve identified eight common linguistic mistakes that cause the most damage to selling power. Of course, bad habits can be broken, so I’ve provided tips on how to reverse these negative inclinations.
1) Making assumptions.
Instead of asking deeper questions to clarify a prospect’s needs or gain perspective on an objection, salespeople will sometimes make assumptions or jump to conclusions based on other situations they’ve experienced. A small jump here or there in the interest of time might not seem so harmful at the moment. But if the deal is built on a set of incorrect assumptions it will crumble when it comes time to close.
How to fix: If you think about it, you can generally feel yourself making an assumption. Work to recognize what you’re doing and stop yourself in the moment. If you tend to make assumptions unconsciously, develop your self-awareness by strategically prompting the prospect to validate your perceptions. Ask questions such as “Can I quickly summarize what we’ve discussed?” followed by “Does that reflect how you’re thinking about things?”
2) Weak language.
This is where I’d categorize the “kindas,” “sortas,” “likes,” and “you guys.” These colloquialisms, while perfectly fine in casual conversation, can make you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about in a professional setting. And it’s a shame, because, like, you know what you’re talking about. But, when you preface it with “It’s sorta like … ” or “I was kinda thinking … ” or “You should really, like, consider our product ... " you most certainly risk being dismissed out of hand.
How to fix: Solicit a friend or colleague to listen to your sales dialog and give you honest feedback about the specific words that undermine your message. Another option is to record yourself and listen for weak language. Finally, join a public speaking group like Toastmasters to practice effective communication.
3) Speaking/writing in passive tense.
At one point, someone decided that speaking and writing in passive tense sounded more business-y than using active language. This person was wrong. Passive tense sounds weak and noncommittal -- purge it from your speech.
How to fix: Rearrange your sentences to put the subject before the verb. (Example: “We decided that … ” instead of “it was decided by the group that … ”)
4) Rephrasing and repeating.
Editing your writing is a good thing. Editing your speech -- while you’re talking -- is not. I hear reps do this all the time. They make a statement or ask a question and as they are talking, a little voice inside them says, “you can say that better,” so they restate what they said in a slightly different way. Often the voice pops in one more time and says, “maybe just a little better” and they restate one more time.
The rep thinks they’ve added real clarity to the conversation. But the person on the other end, namely the prospect, just heard the same thing said or asked three times in row. That’s tedious for the prospect and makes you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.
How to fix: Commit to what you’re saying. No matter how you started your message, stick with it -- even if it’s not perfect. You’ll sound more self-assured and confident than if you keep restating what you say in quick succession. If you’re not sure whether your message came through clearly, don’t be afraid to ask “Was that clear?” But don't ever ask "Does that make sense?" The latter implies that either you don’t know how to utter sensible statements or your prospect is stupid. Neither of these works in your favor.
5) Answering your own questions.
This is another habit I hear a lot. Instead of asking a prospect a straight question, salespeople couple it with potential answers.
Here’s an example. Instead of asking, “What are the top three things getting in your way right now?” I often hear reps ask something like, “What are the top three things getting in your way right now; is it X? Or Y? Or maybe even Z?” When you do this you run the risk of the prospect picking one of your answers just to keep the conversation moving. That is not a recipe for sales success. While it’s understandable that the rep wants to help the buyer fix their problem, they’re not doing anyone any favors by answering their own questions because that leads back to bad habit number one.
How to fix: This habit is hard to break. It’s going to take deliberate practice. Here’s what you have to do. Ask your question, and let it hang. Clamp you hand over your mouth if you have to. Silence is your friend in sales. Get comfortable with it. Speaking of asking questions …
The majority of salespeople I encounter don’t know how to tap into their natural curiosity. They have the list of things they need to learn in order to qualify their prospect in front of them and come hell or high water they are going to get those answers. Turn on the bright light and let the interrogation begin.
This doesn’t work. The prospect knows what you are doing, and you are sending their guard through the roof. This approach to fact-finding, discovery, exploration, or whatever else your company calls gaining insight does not communicate genuine interest in the prospect’s situation. It communicates self-interest.
How to fix: Strive to be genuinely curious. What does that mean, you ask? It means being truly interested in what a person is doing, why they’re doing it, what’s working for them, and what’s not. This also takes practice.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Here’s how I develop my ability to ask genuinely curious questions.
When I’m at a social event or party, I set up a game in my head. When I meet a new person, I see how many questions I can ask them until they pose one to me. The objective is to make my line of questioning so natural that they don’t even realized I haven’t said anything other than ask questions. I’ve gone entire conversations where all I did was ask questions. It’s amazing what people will tell you when you are genuinely curious about them.
7) Not listening.
You might think that any time your prospect is talking and you’re not counts as listening. Guess what -- it doesn’t. The real question is who are you listening to when the prospect is talking. I’m willing to bet a good portion of the time you’re actually listening to the voice in your head.
That voice probably sounds like this: “Oh, that was a key nugget right there … they definitely need what I’m selling … I have to make sure I tell them about that new feature … man, they sure can yammer on about their company … I need to get this call wrapped up because I’ve got another one back to back … ” You get the point.
If that internal dialogue sounds familiar, you are missing valuable information that will yield your next deal because all you’re really doing is waiting for your turn to speak.
How to fix: Clear your mind and eliminate distractions. When your prospect talks, the focus is all on them. Silence the voice in your head. Tell it to shut up. It’s costing you results. Also, don’t check your email, don’t look at Facebook, and don’t formulate a quick response and lie in wait to say it. Just listen.
8) Lacking conversational flexibility.
While it is true that different people prefer to communicate in different ways, salespeople that lack conversational flexibility can limit their results. That signature style you so painstakingly developed might not work with every prospect. In many ways, your ability to adapt to the buyer is what can make the difference in closing a deal. There are times when you have to communicate with prospects on their terms. If you don’t, they tune out.
How to fix: Many experts recommend mirroring your buyers, but I would advise against that. Parroting people’s words and body language comes off as fake. Instead, take a behavioral diagnostic test like DiSC to determine your communication and behavioral style in relation to others'. Then strive to further your self-awareness of how your way of communicating might come off to others by practicing with colleagues who have a radically different profile than you. This will allow you to be more relatable to a variety of different styles. Above all else, be genuine.
Can you think of other bad conversational habits to add to this list? Please write them in the comments.