5 Techniques to Avoid the Dreaded Happy Ears Syndrome

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Aja Frost
Aja Frost



I recently sat in on a pipeline review with a sales rep, Clare, and her manager. After asking a couple questions about one particular deal, her manager asked how confident Clare was that it’d close.

“They were really enthusiastic, so I’m almost certain,” she replied.

But when I checked in a week later, Clare told me that buyer had ended up going with a competitor. She’d gotten happy ears: The common sales trap of being overly optimistic about a deal because you haven’t qualified enough to discover true objections.

Happy ears lead to inaccurate sales forecasts and missed quotas, and are usually the result of salespeople failing to qualify and ask tough questions and uncover objections. These five strategies will help reps maintain a healthy level of skepticism.

1) Ask Probing Questions

Digging into the buyer’s positive statements helps salespeople identify if there’s a true intent to buy. It’s easy to interpret a statement such as, “It seems like a great fit,” as “We don’t have any reservations.”

However, that statement could just as likely mean, “We like what the product does, but the integration process sounds time-consuming and the price is a little higher than we’d like.”

The takeaway: If reps take everything buyers say at face value, they’ll miss serious reservations.

To surface potential objections, salespeople can ask these probing questions:

  • “Glad to hear it, [prospect name]. Can you explain what you mean by X?”
  • “Would you mind going a bit more in-depth about [prospect’s comment]?”
  • “I think [feature] is great too. But is there anything you’re not as confident about?”
  • “When it comes to X, do you see any obstacles to successful implementation?”

If prospects don’t have any objections, they’ll simply elaborate on their earlier statement -- which will subconsciously reaffirm their own positive opinions while confirming that reps haven’t missed anything.

2) Seek Out Red Flags

The prospect might sound ready to sign the proposal right then and there -- but unless they actually do, reps should be still keep their eyes peeled for warning signs the deal won’t close.

These include:

  • Lack of authority: When salespeople get happy ears, they often forget to verify that their contact is the actual decision maker.
  • Lack of consensus: One of the stakeholders might be be eager to buy, yet their enthusiasm won’t matter if their colleagues are skeptical. To get a deal over the finish line, reps must identify everyone involved in the buying decision and show each person why the purchase helps with their individual goals.
  • Lack of urgency: Salespeople are always worried about the competition, but they should be focusing on the status quo. Doing nothing is always the easier option for prospects, even if inaction is harmful in the long run. Reps need to determine if their prospect is truly motivated to act and why. (Not sure how? Try assigning homework.)
  • Lack of budget: Sellers can only help buyers find creative solutions to budget problems if they know buyers are having budget problems in the first place. Don’t assume there’s money for your product: Ask how your prospect plans on funding the purchase.

Everything might look good at first glance. However, if these red flags are present, reassess your strategy rather than preemptively celebrating.

3) Get an Outside Opinion

Reps can get a reality check by asking their manager or a team member to review the deal. An outsider can hone in on key details the salesperson might’ve overlooked. For instance, they might ask, “Why are they looking to switch solutions now? With the end of the year coming up, it’s an inconvenient time to replace all of their processes with new ones.”

The rep could have forgotten to confirm his prospect’s timeline. Thanks to his coworker’s suggestion, he can explore this crucial detail on their next call.

4) Avoid “This One Is Different” Syndrome

Ideal co-founder and COO Shaun Ricci recommends salespeople think twice when they find themselves saying, “This one is different.”

Reps may use this line to justify why a deal will close more quickly than normal or a buyer will spend more than the average customer, Ricci explains.

“There are exceptions to every rule, but if you find yourself uttering those words when your boss asks why a prospect will buy in two weeks when your average sales cycle is 90 days, that should trigger you to go back and review why you believe this prospect is truly different,” he says.

5) Prepare For the Worst-Case Scenario

A positive mindset often transforms a salesperson’s ability to convince her prospects of her product’s value. On the flip side, being too positive blinds the rep to the obstacles in her path.

How can salespeople strike the perfect balance between pessimism and optimism? Try New York University psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen’s W.O.O.P. strategy:

  • W: Think about your Wish.
  • O: Think about your ideal Outcome.
  • O: Think about the Obstacles in your way.
  • P: Plan for those obstacles.

W.O.O.P helps you envision the best possible future while also requiring you to prepare for roadblocks. If you have happy ears, this exercise will help you come back down to earth.

Getting happy ears can wreck reps’ chances of closing. These five tactics will help them maintain a balance of confidence and realism.

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