It was June of 1986 on our annual water ski trip to the Colorado River when it happened.
Families were enjoying the warm sun sitting on the beach in this little cove on the bend of the river. Water collected in this area, allowing the kids to play in the water without being swept away in the river’s current…provided they didn’t go out too far.
Some kids, between 8-10 years old, were engaged in a bit of a mud fight. Three against one. Despite the parent’s warning to “be careful,” the children dismissed the admonishment and continued in the literal mudslinging.
The 9-year old that managed to attract the ire of the other three kids took a shot to the face. He couldn’t see and while he was retreating to avoid further barrage, he slipped into the main current of the river. Not only did he get swept down-river, but he went under.
The beach sat motionless. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing as it all seemed surreal. No one moved to help this little boy.
I grew up on this river, so this event was less surprising to me. Kids were constantly finding themselves in trouble here. Anticipating the danger, I dove quickly into the water and made my way quickly to this boy whose arms and legs were flailing in the current. When I reached him, I pulled his head from the water and held it above the waterline as I side-kicked toward a less rocky part of the shoreline about a mile down from where it all began. Truth be known, it took my friend Jason, who dove in after me, to get us both safely to shore.
I will never forget the look in the boy’s eyes – The first look was when he fell into the current and realized he was in trouble. The second was when he realized someone was there to save him.
Temptation to ‘Keep it Above the Surface’
The same is true with prospects, when they have that defining moment…sometimes and ‘Ah Ha!” and other times an “Oh no!” moment where they realize for the first time the implications of remaining in their circumstances.
In conversations where one is seeking to change the behaviors of another, whether in parenting or in selling, there is a point where the person you are talking to often acknowledges the risks or consequences you are speaking about. When speaking with children, their response may sound like, “I know, I know.” For the business person, this sounds much more rational as they confidently proclaim, “Yes, I am aware of the risks and am taking precautions.” This is code for Status Quo.
This happened recently when I was speaking with the President of an organization about consequences he didn’t realize, and he would be facing in the upcoming months. At one point in the conversation, this President jokingly commented that he needed to do something different or the board would come after him.
He attempted to move on to lighter topics, but I stopped him dead in his tracks and asked, “Before we move on, in all seriousness, what will happen if we don’t solve this?” At first he chided me for taking things so seriously when he was simply making a joke, but I held out for the answer. He looked down at the table soberly, then slowly back up to me and stated, “I would probably be fired.”
Within 30 days, he was fired. He had acted too late. His eyes told me a lot, much like the 9-year old in the opening story. In an instant, there was fear and desperation.
Rational Drowning vs. Emotional Impact
When working through the Challenger Sale choreography, the third and fourth steps — from Rational Drowning to Emotional Impact — are tightly intertwined. I describe these two stages as follows:
If you fell overboard in the middle of the ocean, Rational Drowning looks like treading water. The victim says, “I’m alright,” which is true for the particular point in time. Not until they realize they can’t continue this way for long, will they pass from Rational Drowning to Emotional Impact.
This is not a place most prospects will go willingly. They would rather stand outside of the story…their story…like a casual observer, who can see things factually…logically, and yet remain unmoved, mired in their own status quo.
Our role as professionals, is to love them…care for them enough to expose the truth about their circumstances.
Tips to Lead to the Center of Their Story
In the aforementioned story of this President who was subsequently fired, I recognized that he was intentionally seeking to avoid getting deeper. I have seen his situation hundreds of times before. Telling him that would merely serve to keep him on the outside of his own story.
Imagine his response if I told him, “You need to change or you’ll be fired.” While accurate, his response would be one of defense and climbing up to the surface to exit the conversation as quickly as possible. Instead, my asking of questions led him to begin narrating his own story as his pronouncement of the consequences carried more weight than mine would have. I just had to lead him to recognizing this reality.
Following are a few tips to remember when leading a prospect through these critical stages:
- Prospects aim for the surface. Like a balloon filled with helium, so it is with prospects. There is a tendency to want to rise back to the surface as going deeper into the center of their own story is never comfortable.
- ‘Comfort’ is not the aim. If you are not prepared [and skilled] to respectfully lead prospects to uncomfortable places…such as the center of their own story, you will continue to struggle with selling.
- Don’t tell the prospect’s story for them. According to a study done by the University of Texas (Metcalf, 1997), a person will remember approximately 20% of what they hear, but remember up to 90% of what they do and say. In aiming for the uncomfortable center of their own story, ask questions that lead them to tell their own story.
- Ask targeted questions. Nothing is more maddening and exhausting to a prospect than questions that appear exploratory and aimless. Know where you are leading the prospect in your questions.
- Lead to your solution, not with. Your questions, when done appropriately, should ripen the prospect to a New Way. Don’t jump to your solution yet, as they need to be prepped with what will resolve their issue. This ‘new way’ should aim squarely at what your product or solution can uniquely solve. BUT DON’T TALK ABOUT YOUR PRODUCT/SOLUTION YET.
One final note about these two very important areas of the Challenger Sale choreography – Because these two areas are so tightly connected, there can be a tendency to confuse one for the other. Over the years, I have seen countless reps struggle to even get into uncomfortable places with a prospect. When they do, the most common tendency is to resurface and provide ‘relief’ to their uncomfortable prospect.
Doing this will likely result in the loss of the sale as the prospect merely learned that you make them uncomfortable, but offer nothing but a product solution. They will avoid you going forward. Therefore, remain disciplined and stick to the choreography.
About the Author: Jeff Michaels is a 25-year Sales & Marketing Executive that works with executives, leaders, and teams to create repeatable success in their business. Articles posted here typically emphasize one or more of the three requirements leading to Repeatable Success — Intentionality, Predictability and Repeatability.