Objection Management

The dictionary defines an objection as “An expression or feeling of disapproval or opposition; a reason for disagreeing” or “The action of challenging or disagreeing with something.”  These definitions are linked to words such as; protest, complaint, grievance, doubt, moan, grumble, grouse and quibble.  No wonder people fear a prospect raising an objection; it is all negative and probably means trouble.

Objection handling is a frequent topic for discussion amongst sales professionals and is invariably covered in books, articles, blogs and courses focused on sales & selling skills and techniques.

Whereas objection handling is undoubtedly a relevant skill for sales professionals to possess, we think the time has come to ‘upgrade’; to be fully effective sales people need to become skilled in Objection Management.

The essence of Objection Management is the timely discussion and resolution of matters which if left, could become objections.

The key differences between handling and managing objections are:timing is everything; on back foot or ahead of the game?

  • Handling is primarily a reactive approach; managing is pro-active and can therefore be planned more effectively.
  • Handling is mainly concentrated at the end of a prospecting cycle; managing commences early in the engagement cycle and continues throughout.
  • Managing objections is a process of progressive issue resolution undertaken jointly between potential customer and hopeful supplier; as a result it can be conducted in an atmosphere of co-operation and thus is more likely to lead to a mutually beneficial outcome than can be achieved through combat.

The consequence of employing the handling approach close to the decision point is it often; puts the sales person on the back foot, leads to unplanned concession being given, and can create conflict that may damage the relationship which in serious cases can mean the loss of an order that should be yours.  As a closing meeting will typically follow a number of meetings, a quotation or proposal, a presentation, the taking up of references, etc., it is now difficult for the sales person to react to an objection without potentially contradicting their proposed solution..  There is nothing more likely to destroy trust (which will be fragile anyway as they do not really know you) than; suddenly offering a discount or adding something extra for the same money or suddenly being able to deliver much faster than your quoted timescale.
“You can’t fatten the pig on market day.”
The essence of a good relationship is mutual respect and no surprises!!!  The closing meeting is too late to add things to your offer, or make concessions, without damaging credibility or, as John Howard put it:

“You can’t fatten the pig on market day.”     

The consequence of managing the controlled resolution of issues, that could otherwise become objections, is that it is done at logical points throughout the evolving relationship thus allowing time for calm reflection rather than knee jerk reaction.  This approach increases the chances of winning more business, reduces the risk of having to offer unplanned concessions, and enables both parties to spot early whether a relationship is going to work to mutual benefit.  Later in this article we have used some common objections as examples to illustrate the managed approach.

Understanding objections

This is a large topic and for the purposes of this article I will focus on two main groups of objections; visible and hidden.

Common examples of visible objections in B2B sales are mainly around:

  • Money, contractual T&Cs, delivery, timing, inability to take-on the solution including staff shortages or not having the time to train them
  • Perceived issues with the functionality of the product or solution compared to their requirement, to a competitor’s offering, or to doing it themselves
  • The need to discuss it with someone outside the company (NED, consultant or major shareholder for example) or someone inside the company that you have not yet met or spoken to

Each company will have sensitivities specific to their industry or business sector so the above is just a taster to get you thinking about your own list.

Hidden objections are typically based on; complacency, fear of change, personal and professional risk aversion (impact on status, position, bonus, etc.), knowing that they promised someone else they would give them the work, knowing that they do not have the authority to make the purchase, lack of trust in your company, or maybe even a negative reaction to the sales person or other supplier staff they have met.

Note the key difference; visible objections are focused on, or at least appear to be, tangible/practical matters whereas the hidden objections are more emotional in their origin. I say visible objections appear to be focused on practical matters as it is common that tangible objections are used when the real issue is emotionally based; if someone fears change they won’t want to admit it so it is much easier to disguise it with; you’re too expensive or I don’t like the colour.

Managing objections

A key skill when handling objections is anticipation. An example of anticipation would be; if 8 out of 10 prospects object to your payment terms you know this will probably come up so you can prepare your rebuttal arguments to deal with it. Anticipation is even more valuable when pursuing a managing strategy where it is linked to another technique; pre-emption. Anticipation plus pre emption is the foundation of a strategy to manage the resolution of issues before they become objections.

Pre-emption involves the sales person raising the topic, they think could turn into an objection if not dealt with, and handling it in a controlled manner and at a time that fits into their prospect engagement strategy and before it becomes a point of conflict. This meets one of the key criteria for managing the objections; pro-activity rather than reaction.

A framework for managing objections:

  • The first stage is for the whole sales and marketing team to brainstorm possible objections and devise a long-list including all the reasons and excuses already used by prospects.
    • Tip one: If you undertake win-loss reviews you should have some firm data on exactly why people said no to you and if they said yes to you why they said no to your competitors.
    • Tip two: Most businesses have tried and tested rebuttals and refreshing these from time to time, in line with actual customer feedback, will strengthen your sales arguments.
    • Tip three: Make sure your list includes anything on the critical path for your delivery of the contract.
  • Next, you must ensure you fully understand the objection, for example; if an objection is that you are more expensive than a specific competitor you need to understand exactly what they do for the money. If your solution is bundled; everything for the one price, but your competitor charges extra for delivery, commissioning and only provides a 30 day warranty when yours is for 12 months your price may be higher than theirs but your total cost may be the same or even lower. A common trigger for an objection is a prospect mistakenly believing they are making a like for like comparison.
  • Now you can organise and prioritise the objections and this will probably result in some dropping off the list as they are one-offs or at least uncommon.
  • For each objection brainstorm rebuttals, old and new, and identify the most appropriate timing/stage in the engagement cycle to raise the topic.
  • Fully embed the understanding of the objections and the use of rebuttals by running internal training workshops built around role-playing common prospect scenarios at all stages of your engagement cycle.

Now you fully understand the objections and you have a set of well considered rebuttals that you have practiced you are ready to start managing rather than waiting to react.

This approach not only supports an incremental improvement in successful objection resolution, but adopting a management mind set will also produce an increase in positive outcomes leading to a step change improvement in performance. So let’s look at this in practice.

Managing objections in action

This really is very simple as all that is required is for the sales person to introduce the various topics, defined by the list of relevant objections, in a controlled way at logical points throughout the prospecting cycle rather than waiting to react to something the prospect raises while you are in the final stages of trying to close the deal.

The concept is simple, but can ‘feel’ difficult as sales people are often uncomfortable with the concept of raising a potential objection, thinking “isn’t there a danger we will put the idea in their heads?” Better you put it in their head and deal with it in a controlled manner than they think about it when you are not there and draw their own conclusions. You are then left to deal with a belief that may have become entrenched and even reinforced by one of your competitors.

What helps to simplify this for the sales person is the understanding that the process is one of questioning and not making statements. You won’t be saying something rhetorical like “is price an issue for you” you will be asking questions to explore, for example; their budget position, preferred approach to financing this type of purchase and the financial decision making process.

Average sales people answer questions; exceptional ones ask questions.

An example:

The key to creating a situation where issues are managed and therefore avoiding the creation of objections that will need to be handled is to explore the prospect’s views, opinions and preferences on the matters that typically become objections at every stage of the engagement cycle. Using questioning techniques this is a process of discovery; helping you to build a picture of what you need to do, or not do, to make your offer attractive and acceptable to the prospect.

Money is one of the most feared objections so let’s start with that to create a model for managing objections. This is also explored, from a ‘handling’ perspective, in How do you handle questions like this?

As outlined earlier the managed approach would see you open up the topic by asking something like; “What is your expectation in terms of the cost for this project?”, “How do you normally fund this type of project?” and “How and when will the actual budget for the project be determined?” These are just examples of the many questions you could ask.

Might they resist answering – yes they might. So how would you convince them of the benefit of discussing money early and openly with you? Basically if suppliers do not know how much a customer is willing to pay they will guess and build a solution to match what they perceive to be the budget. This is bad for the potential customer as it is likely to lead to a compromised solution built around the perceived budget rather than the required functionality.

Much better for both parties if the approach is based on “We need to solve this problem and we want to spend £x. What can you do for us?” If the prospect does not ask this type of question, and most won’t, the ‘managed’ approach is for the sales person to raise the issue “You are asking for a solution to … and there are several ways we can do this at various price points. Can you provide a guide as to how much you expect to spend on this so that we can match our offer to your budget?

No matter how well planned your managed approach might be the prospect could, at any point, say something like “you are too expensive”. This could be a simple tactic to push you back but if the conversations have been progressing well it is more likely that you have failed to prove the value of what you are proposing. Too expensive is a relative term so your thought process should lead you to ask “compared to what?” Compared to; the value they perceive in your offer, what they paid last time, their pre-determined budget or something a competitor has said?

Before you rebut find out exactly what is behind what they are saying.

If the “you are too expensive” comment turns out to be in comparison to; what they paid last time or what a competitor is quoting now, you should deploy the “yes but” technique. Yes but; are you comparing like for like? For example; “You are more expensive than your competitor” – “I agree their quoted price MAY BE lower than ours but we do not charge separately for; training, delivery, installation, …” So they are not comparing like for like considering just the price not the total cost of making the purchase. The emphasis on MAY BE is because you do not know what the competitor is quoting and the prospect may be being economical with the facts.

Through the above process you have enabled an early discussion covering specifications, money, timing and probably a number of other important factors. Working with the prospect in collaboration you have defined what your solution should look like and therefore your proposal will reflect exactly what the prospect is expecting to see – NO SURPRISES!

Further examples using the same technique:

Delivery; if you know they are going to want delivery by 30th August and you need seven months to create and deliver the solution say so early on. “I understand you need this implemented by 30th August so we will need to order the equipment during the first week of February; will you be able to give us your firm commitment to go ahead by the end of January?” You are triggering an early discussion about something that could become a problem if left.

Staffing; I recall when we first met that you said training staff in July and August would be difficult as most will be on holiday at some point. “Would you be willing to let us train the staff in May and June?” Again, this is just about opening up a dialogue so that a potential objection can be dealt with before it happens.

Decision making; don’t get caught at the last minute by “We need to consult the non-executives, our accountants, the main shareholder, etc.” Ask in the early meetings “What is the process for making decisions on this type of purchase?” and “Who, in addition to you, will be involved in the decision?” Then “If agreeable to you I would like to meet the other decision makers; could you send an e-mail to introduce me to them?”

Hidden objections

Decision making is a good topic to also address some potential hidden objections such as the fact that your contact may not have the authority to make the decision hence; “Who, in addition to you, will be involved in the decision”.

Exploring matters that the prospect might be personally sensitive about needs careful handling and ideally you include this throughout the engagement process as per the example above about decision making authority. Consider questions such as; “I appreciate that we are asking you to move away from a supplier you have worked with for over five years so what would you like us to do to demonstrate that we can deliver a better outcome for you without risking your customer satisfaction levels?” You build these questions around what you know; they have had the same supplier for a long time, customer service levels are something your contact is measured on and you have heard from others that customer complaints are going up – your question demonstrates you are aware of and sensitive to the issues that matter to your prospect.

In conclusion

If you have pursued the managed approach properly you have achieved two main advantages; you have effectively dealt with all significant issues that could have become objections and you know exactly what needs to go in your proposal as it will be a documentation of what the prospect has already agreed to – remember NO SURPRISES!