Resources  >> How to Handle the Dreaded Courtesy Conversation, Part 1

About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: Vickie Sullivan  |  May 01, 2012

How to Handle the Dreaded Courtesy Conversation, Part 1

Originally published for RainToday.com

Mistakes That Prevent You From Turning Non-Buyers Into Buyers

A buyer calls and says he was referred to you. After discussing his situation, you know you can help. You describe what you can do; the buyer seems interested. You offer to send information; he agrees. You follow up; you hear crickets chirping. You never hear from him again. What happened?

There are many reasons why buyers don’t come back. But one scenario occurs all the time and is rarely discussed. On many occasions, buyers’ motivations are political. They will talk to a potential resource not because they are interested but simply out of respect for the person who made the referral. I call this the “courtesy conversation”.

The courtesy conversation is tricky because it looks like you are in a better position than you are. It looks like you have the inside track, but you don’t. In reality you are in an incredible position of weakness. For whatever reason, the buyer isn’t giving you a chance.

In this two-part series, I’ll explore how to navigate the circumstances when the deck is stacked against you.

In part one, I discuss three common — and dangerous — reactions to the courtesy conversation. In part two, I will outline my three-step process to turn the situation around.

Don’t Make Things Worse

When buyers search for outside help, they get flooded with input and recommendations. Some of those ideas come from same-level colleagues with whom the consultant has worked. Some suggestions come from above.

The people who give these suggestions want them considered. If they think the buyer has ignored their advice, the relationship can be adversely affected. So the decision maker will be “nice” and have a perfunctory call with the referral. They want to be able to say to the recommender, “I talked to so and so. Thanks for the recommendation.”

Assume you realize you are in a courtesy conversation. Can this deal by saved? Absolutely. What’s your best next step? Don’t make things worse with these mistakes?

Mistake #1: Giving Up

The biggest mistake people make in the courtesy conversation is getting out too early. It’s easy to assume that the cause is lost and simply go through the motions because the buyer isn’t really interested or to cut the conversation short and get out. You might think, “Well, this is a lost cause, so why put in the energy when there are folks out there who want to work with me?”

The problem with that thinking is that at this stage, you don’t know if the situation is permanent. How do you know if the prospect will be disinterested after you talk to them? You don’t know how much you can influence the prospect. And you want to make the effort because it benefits you to be good at engaging prospects who need you but don’t know it yet.

I had a client once whose prospect — in a face-to-face meeting and in front of other people, no less — exploded when he heard her fee. He literally had an emotional outburst. Now she could have followed his lead, given up, and walked out. But she didn’t. Instead she turned the situation around, and he’s now giving her six-figure deals.

If I find myself in that situation I think, “OK, this could be a lost cause. I’m going to use this situation as an experiment. I’m going to test my turnaround skills. If I can’t pull it off, well, I didn’t have the opportunity anyway. Worst case scenario: I’m going to learn something.”

Remember that many buyers are open. Even when someone else is the first choice, the radar is still on. If the decision maker finds a better choice, they have the power to change their mind. At this point in the initial conversation, you don’t know how the buyer will react.

Mistake #2: Trying Too Hard

The second thing you don’t want to do is on the opposite end of the spectrum: oversell yourself. Those of us with great sales skills are the guiltiest here. We just love a challenge, don’t we? You think, “If they just knew my background / track record / how great I am, they would change their mind.”

If you come on too strong, however, the buyer can have two common reactions: he will feel the need to defend his position and will dig his heels in (see next mistake). Not only that, but pushing too hard can make you look desperate. Either way, you will not win.

The best approach is to never be perceived as defensive even when you are in defense mode. Act interested but not too attached. If the buyer thinks you’re in demand and that this isn’t your last opportunity, he has the space to tell you the truth. When you have the truth, you know what you are dealing with and can respond accordingly.

Mistake #3: Telling them They Are Wrong

Whatever you do, don’t tell the buyer he is making a mistake. You might be able to see the train wreck that’s about to occur, but you can’t tell him. The worst thing you want to do is start a whistling contest with the buyer.

I used to fall in this trap all the time. If I knew the front-runner, I could see the problems a mile away. I would think, “I must save these people from themselves!” As my dear husband would ask, “Who do you think you are? Mother Teresa?”

This is how messengers get shot. Instead, we have to facilitate the discovery. The buyer has to see that on his own. It might be a bad decision, bit it’s his bad decision. He will defend it. If we give too much advice, the buyer will question our credibility. He will accuse us of saying anything to get hired (which many buyers believe anyway).

Twists and Turns In The Sales Process

There are a lot of twists and turns in the sales process and a lot of opportunities for a great conversation. If we avoid the above mistakes, we have a fighting chance to turn a disinterested buyer into a client. In the next article, I will outline three things that can make this transformation happen. Stay tuned.


About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.