The power and danger of words

All forms of communication require the use of words and while the well thought through use of individual or sequences of words can create a powerful impact, words can also be dangerous. A book was published in 1938 called The Tyranny of Words that looked at the dangerous side. There have been many books and other publications that look at the positive side.

Examples of well-known people who understood the power of words are Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. Hitler is often quoted as also being a great user of words but is mainly associated with the use of words to support evil intent.

There is so much that could be said about words that my focus here is on words used in the context of business communication and in particular selling.

A research perspective

A limited piece of research undertaken in the 1960s concluded that prospects evaluating what a sales person is saying will assign 55% to the observed body language, 38% to the tone of the voice and only 7% to the words used. I have always had an issue with this as it simply does not tally with the way I behave when I am the prospect. I wonder, for example, how people cope when talking on the telephone; do they draw a conclusion from just 45% (they cannot see the body language) or is the 55% re-allocated to the other two areas and if so in what proportions?

If these figures are correct it could be argued that you don’t need to bother with the words at all. Just moving around miming should work!

But seriously and giving the original research the benefit of the doubt, it was after all limited in scope and reach, it could be said that communication techniques have adapted to suit the modern world and include many formats other than the sales person standing or sitting in front of the prospect spouting. I do not recommend that the sales person ‘spouts’ at all rather that questions are used to develop, guide and steer communication. So, this brings us full circle to the role of power and danger words in the context of sales engagement.

Words in business communications

Questions provide a powerful communication tool used in all areas of business activity and of course questions are a collection of words as are the answers. In addition to the individual words and the sequence in which they are presented, other factors such as volume, pace and tone form a key part of the total message and when face-to-face body language also plays a key part in the overall impact of the message being conveyed.

So, I agree with the research that body language (when face-to-face), tone and the words used combine to create the message but without the words the remaining silence isn’t going to get you very far.

Most people are comfortable asking open questions in their personal lives, in fact they come quite naturally to most of us; which parent hasn’t been driven mad by an unstoppable stream of “why” or “why not” questions?

But different folk have different views;key questions
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

from The Elephant’s Child; Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling 1902.

However, when it comes to the work environment many people are uncomfortable asking open questions as they feel they are perhaps cheeky, rude, abrupt or impertinent. When you look deeper into this, it isn’t the fact of asking a question as such rather the primary words used in open questions; who, why, etc., that seem impertinent. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of overcoming this concern allowing yourself to use the power of open questions and the words that define them.

It is common that people will use various devices to ‘soften’ the impact of the power words without appreciating that this can also dull their impact. While talking to an experienced sales manager recently he told me about a sales person who was uncomfortable about asking open questions so always started with something like do you mind – “Do you mind if I ask; what is your budget for the project?” Do you mind imparts an impression of nervousness, doubt, uncertainty that combines to weaken the overall impact of the key part of the question about the budget. It is also the case that there are two questions here; do you mind – CLOSED and then what is the budget – OPEN. This confuses the other person and gives them the opportunity to obfuscate when answering.

So, while there are power and danger words it is also about how those words are used.

Power words

A key group of power words are those used to create open questions; who, what, where, when, why and how.

Other power words are those that portray; certainty, commitment, agreement, etc. Words that help the other person to trust you and believe in your sincerity; you say what you will do and you do what you said you would. This is especially important when engaging with new potential customers as having not worked with you before they will need to feel they can rely upon you not to let them down.

A few specific examples of other power words and phrases are:

  • I don’t know. It is definite, there is no attempt to pretend and it cannot be misconstrued. This is even better when coupled with; but I can find out, or I know someone who does (exemplified by the AA), or we will put in the time to find out for you.
  • Thank you. Coupled with something like; that is really helpful and it will enable me to … The other person feels good that you have appreciated what they have done and it is a part of the process of “token exchange” whereby relationships are built from a whole lot of small tokens; things done for each other.
  • Yes. When you can do something, or you agree with them, say so. You can strengthen the yes by confirming what you are agreeing to; yes, we will deliver before the weekend. This is referred to as “yes, and”.
  • Because. If you are agreeing to do something that might be unusual or may typically be seen as undesirable to do, you build confidence in your answer by deepening it; We can provide cover on Saturday mornings because the technical team are always in the office undertaking weekly maintenance.

I think by now you have got the point. Spend some time thinking about the words you use and how you use them and ensure you are making best use of the opportunity you have when speaking to prospects, customers, suppliers, your boss or a direct report. Ensure you leave them with the impression you wanted them to have.

Double edged words and phrases

  • Who is the decision maker? It is perfectly reasonable that a potential supplier should want to know the answer but asking this is fraught with danger. What if the person you are speaking to has effectively purported to be in authority but is not actually the DM? This will embarrass them and is unlikely to lead to a good outcome for the person asking. So, instead, ask; who else will be involved in the decision or using another approach ask about the decision making process thus taking the focus away from the person you are speaking to.
  • Benefit or value. Both very important and we all need to know what benefit and value we will enjoy as a result of an action such as making a purchase. However, these words are so overused these days their true value and impact is often lost.
    The main problem here is when the person sitting in the seller’s seat says; this is the benefit or value to be gained they mainly use a generic position rather than a specific one. For example; the benefit is this will save you money. This is based on the assumption, or hope, that saving money is all that matters to everyone on every occasion and this is absolutely not the case. Benefits and value are relative to the individual and by assuming you know what will benefit them risks damaging your credibility.Agreement as to what is beneficial or of value must be established collaboratively between the parties and this is achieved through the use of well-structured questions built around power words.
  • Imagine. Helping someone to visualise what it might look like if they go along with what you are proposing is a good thing but the word imagine is over used in sales and is associated with tricks and techniques rather than good solid communication.

Danger words and phrases

  • I think so. So, you are not certain or perhaps you don’t know but don’t want to say so. Always be affirmative leaving the other person in no doubt as to what you mean and what you will do.
  • Maybe or possibly. Even if you expand on why it might not be so, you have created doubt and uncertainty that will damage the impact on your main message.
  • Yes but. Again you have introduced doubt.
  • The implied but. This is primarily a matter of tone of voice or a pause that is too long or is in the wrong place. In a face-to-face situation, watching the other person’s facial reaction will help you spot if you have inserted an implied but and you need to tackle this straight away otherwise doubt will linger in their minds.
  • No problem, OK, cool, or other automatic responses. This is fine when someone serving in a restaurant agrees to bring you extra bread but it is too general for use in a serious conversation where both parties need to fully understand what is going to happen next.
  • Does that make sense? So, you think the other person is too thick to understand? Much better to say “How would that work for you?”
  • Phrases like; let’s run it up the flag pole to see how it flutters or blue sky thinking or thinking outside the box should be avoided. They are basically quite meaningless and can leave the other person with the impression that you don’t actually have anything substantive to say.

The final group of danger words and phrases are associated with the use of language relevant to your product, business or the selling process. Some examples of things to avoid would be:

  • Internal language that you use to talk about your products and services. In most cases this will be meaningless to someone outside your company. Use plain language that is commonly understood, such as there are a number of features on the new X25 model that increase the intervals between routine maintenance calls and also reduce the time taken by the engineers, and avoid jargon and acronyms; they do not need to know that MTBF has increased due to new wiffly waffly widgets!
  • The language of business. If you put two financial people together they may use terms such as; ROCE, discounted cash flow, transfer pricing and they will both know the meaning. However, when a sales person uses such terms there is a real danger they will damage credibility unless they really understand the full meaning of the terms and can engage in a deep conversation with the FD. The one term that is used widely enough that it is usually safe is RoI.
  • The selling process. As sales people we think in terms of; decision makers, competitive strategy, dealing with objections, negotiation, closing the deal and the budget. While these are perfectly acceptable and useful when discussing a particular customer with your sales manager the terms are inappropriate for a conversation with that customer.
  • Ego. Don’t use words just to show how clever you are as it will probably have the opposite effect. Danger words and phrases in this context could include; strategic, commercial landscape, and gaining buy-in. Boastful terms such as; best in class, market leader and number one all carry the danger of damaging credibility unless you can back it up with evidence.

It is always better to use simple plain language that describes things that can be easily understood and substantiated.


Sales Led Revenue Growth

If you expect your sales team to drive growth, perhaps you should ponder the latest sales research to see how your plans might be impacted?

  • Only 14% of salespeople are professionally trained – in another 10 years this figure could be as low as 5%.  Two thirds of sales reps miss their quota; is there any correlation?
  • A new sales recruit can cost £80,000 [1] a year in sales support costs alone.
  • A likely timescale to allow for a new sales recruit to become fully productive is 10 months or more [2] , however if you’re in industries such as technology, medical solutions and complex business services you can reckon on up to 36 months to effectiveness [3] even if they come from a similar industry.
  • Less than half of sales reps believe in their own pipeline predictions; could this be attributable to lack of objective criteria, structured process, or meaningful reporting?
  • The optimum level of coaching for reps who are struggling to achieve their targets is 3-5 hrs per month [4] but on average most receive less than 2 hrs.

So what can these figures tell you, apart from the need to plan well to avoid the cost of failure?

This is not just about recruitment or training , it needs a fresh view and a complete change to the established way of doing things.  Your people may have the knowledge to put the necessary change programme in place but, it will put severe additional load on their management of day to day business. Our academy solutions are designed to support you in your growth plans by delivering an outsourced resource integrating your existing successful process into a seamless service:

  • Tailored recruitment to reflect the nuances of your culture, industry, market, brand, customer, etc.
  • A comprehensive induction programme to ensure the new recruits become an integral part of your organisation so they can deliver your proposition, your way to your customers.
  • Basic and advanced (soft and hard) skills learning and development to create a customer centric, commercially aware, adaptable sales force.
  • Coaching and mentoring to embed the learnings through real world examples.
  • Development and support of the sales leaders so they can in turn leverage and enhance the productivity of the newly trained sales force, and ascertain leading indicators for a reliable pipeline forecast.
Basic scope of an academy

Basic scope of an academy

Once the academy solution has been successfully piloted it can be brought back in-house or remain (partially) outsourced according to your on-going needs.

Request a call back to explore how our tailored Sales Academy solution can help you grow your revenue and margin.

1 Qvidian quoted $135.000
2 CSO Insights
3 Forrester

Developing professional selling and sales management skills for all your customer facing staff

Developing your sales team

Are you getting value from resources spent on training the sales team?

Kevin Young, General Manager EMEA, Skillsoft (April 2011 article “Optimising Staff Training” on suggests that for many organisations their training programme delivers little long-term value to the business – simply because employees fail to apply what they’ve learnt in a classroom environment to their daily role, whereas the potential is there for “an individual’s productivity levels to increase by eight per cent if they can apply their training to their role. That equates to 160 hours of additional output, or roughly 20 days per year”.

We wholeheartedly agree with this assessment so we design and deliver sales and sales management training totally in the context of its application, so it is relevant, it sticks, and it delivers ROI.

  • We induct staff to be your staff.
  • We educate your team to sell with ROI in mind, and support them with appropriate tools to help them compete more effectively.
  • We provide education and training programmes covering both processes and selling skills for the full sales cycle.
  • We hone their negotiating skills; with an increase in the numbers of professional buyers, ensuring that your team employs the appropriate techniques and tactics from the very start of the sales cycle, can make the difference between winning or losing.
  • We educate your technical and field staff to be more sales aware; to support your company’s selling activity in all accounts; to help you to leverage more business from existing and new customers.

To enable you to focus on your core skills, we provide the expert assistance necessary to ensure you have the sales team appropriate for taking your business to market.

“The well prepared case studies made the negotiation skills training really come to life and made people stop and think about what they are actually doing. The key to any successful training is; Did they use it and did they gain benefit from it? We certainly did. I am convinced that we successfully negotiated our way through some very tricky issues since and the way we approached them was heavily influenced by the Performative training. “

Contact us to discuss your training needs.

shorter sales cycles, new customers, more business, increased profilts, better cashflow

Influencing the prospect’s decision making process

The first thing to consider is whether the prospect actually has a process for decision making. When they get your proposal or quotation what will they do to systematically make a decision and to make the right decision when choosing between different suppliers’ proposals. This pre-supposes that receiving a proposal is a part of their buying process.

“It is better to listen in order to understand than to listen in order to reply.” ~Unknown

“It is better to listen in order to understand than to listen in order to reply.” ~Unknown

If you want to influence the decision making process you need first to understand it. At a very early stage in the sales engagement cycle you need to find out how they will make the decision, what you need to provide, how and when, and anything else you need to do to make it easy for them to evaluate what you are offering.

To expand on this a little:

  • In many cases today decisions are made by a number of people, we call this the decision making unit (DMU).  The people that make up the DMU will wear a number of different hats such as; user, influencer, decision maker and budget holder.  You need to know who these people are and engage with all of them as early as possible.
  • What you need to provide will be determined by the individual when you meet them.  By way of an example; if you are supplying a piece of equipment to a factory the DMU is likely to include such functions as; engineers, health & safety, facilities manager, general manager and finance director.  Each will have a different need in terms of the information they want from you; finance may want a RoI justification, H&S will want certificates and other relevant information and so on.
  • Now you know the people, the hats they wear in the buying process and what they will want to see, you need to establish what format they want the information in and what critical timings they want you to meet.
  • You need to understand the specific process they will use and key timings.  If the actual decision will be made at a steering committee meeting that is held every quarter it is obvious what you need to do.

Once you understand the people in the DMU, their relative power and interests, and the process they will use, you must tailor your selling process to mirror their decision making process.

If the prospect does not have an established decision making process you need, ideally at the first meeting and certainly before you expend significant effort, to agree on a process that will suit them, and that they are willing to commit to actually making a decision at a specific point in time.  Document this and send it to them and anyone else they have identified as being involved in the decision. From this point the process is the same as that above except you are likely to be driving the process harder than they will.

If you have sent proposals but received no decisions or feedback it may well be because you sent the proposal at an identified point in your selling process but that it was not relevant to their decision making process.  You need to go back and ask them tough questions like; did you actually want what we proposed and if so when and how will you make the decision?  This will be tough because you will have to accept that some will not turn into new business but at least you will know where you stand.

Understanding objections and using them to your advantage

In many cases an objection can be viewed as a sign of interest. For example, why would someone say “your model-YYY is too big for our office” if they were not interested; they would more likely say “we don’t want/need one”.  If they say it is too expensive, it suggests they would buy one at the right price which means they perceive value in what you are offering but not enough to justify the price you are asking.  Understanding the potential objections during a first meeting will help to ensure the prospect engages in a follow up or it will help you to qualify them out before committing any more time.

Objections need to be handled not hurdled

Objections need to be handled not hurdled

Hopefully you can see how this is shaping up.  Handling any objection can be used as a means of progressing the conversation by getting the prospect to commit at each stage to the next stage.  It is very difficult to sell to someone who shows no resistance so in general objections are good. Some examples:

  • We have no budget; could be interpreted as – if they did have budget they would consider you.  If we could show you how this will save you money would you consider raising a budget?
  • We have no money for capital expenditure.  If we could show you how this will save you money would you consider using our finance plan?
  • It is too big for the office.  I understand so I suggest we take a look at the model ZZZ instead.
  • We have well established suppliers for this sort of thing.  I appreciate that and would expect you to be loyal to them. Could I ask, if we could show you how we could speed up delivery times while reducing overall cost would you consider giving us a trial?

You are probably getting the picture of how this works.  Objections are good if handled correctly as they enable you to progress the journey of prospect engagement, gaining commitment to the next step or stage.  Without the opportunity to overcome the points of resistance represented by objections you will not make progress and your position at the end of a meeting is likely to be the same or worse than it was at the beginning.  Any objection they did not share with you, or you failed to expose, has the potential to create negative feelings about you and your offering.

A key part of objection strategy is anticipation and pre-emption.  If you know that most people are concerned that about the size of the model YYY, tell the prospect before they ask stating “we know a lot of people love the YYY but find it bulky which is why we have introduced the compact model ZZZ” (consider recent Apple and Samsung launches).  You have pre-empted the objection which means the prospect did not have a negative thought that you had to recover from and you have demonstrated the market awareness and responsiveness of your company.

Objections are your friends and without them the job of prospecting and negotiating are made so much harder.  So why not summarise all the objections that are typically raised and prepare at least one strong rebuttal per objection, always looking for ways to pre-empt the objections in every communication.  Review this regularly to see if new objections are appearing and look for objections based on preference for a competitor’s offering – these definitely need to be handled by pre-emption.

One final point; it is common to feel concern that raising a topic which is a potential objection creates a negative thought in the prospect’s mind.  It is better that they have that thought while you are there, and thus by dealing with it effectively, you will make your competitor’s life that much harder – great!

SAM Learning, business growth, sales recruitment, sales training

SAM Learning

The Outcome:

The CEO was able to confidently transition to the US leaving a well-run UK operation with a good sales team that was maintaining market share in an increasingly competitive environment.

“Having Performative involved in crucial sales appointments gave me peace of mind to leave the UK and build our US operation. Subsequently, they have delivered a number of training interventions for the UK sales staff.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating; two years on and the business is going from strength to strength.”   David Jaffa, CEO, SAM Learning Ltd

The Challenge

SAM Learning is a leader in cross-curricular on-line revision and exam practice, providing students with imaginative and interactive ways to learn.

Performative was initially engaged due to the pending move of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to the US to start SAM Learning over there.  This situation meant that the UK required a senior executive to run the business in the UK.  There was also recognition that the UK required some support for the sales teams who were facing increasing competition in the market.

The Performative Solution

The first task for Performative was to use its sales experience to recruit a UK Sales Director.  Performative used a multi-step interview process and candidate profiling.  The chosen candidate was a success and has since become to UK Managing Director.

Performative did multiple projects thereafter including:

  • Delivering custom designed selling skills workshops for the UK field sales team to help the existing team of account managers to develop new business hunting skills.  This has paid off in the form of new customers being created and more accurate sales forecasts being produced.
  • Providing support in the final selection of a new business sales person for the US operation.
  • Providing sales skills training for the internal telesales team to enhance the skills of the team in three main areas:
    • Making new business appointments for the field sales team.  This included work on improving the profiling of potential customers to increase the effectiveness of the calling.
    • Increasing their skills to more effectively close small new business opportunities on the telephone.
    • Increasing their skills when “farming” existing accounts to get extension business.

Integral Mobile Data

The Outcome:

A well-focused and carefully positioned market offering and go-to-market model.

Working with Performative helped management and the board clarify its strategy for the next stage of the company’s development. It also greatly improved the quality of engagement with potential customers and our ability to forecast outcomes from those.”    Philip Neame, MD, IMD

The Challenge

Integral Mobile Data (IMD, now owned by Hytec) spent its first four years developing a mobile computing solution that enabled companies to improve customer service and reduce costs by providing mobile staff tailored task-orientated computing power in the field.

IMD engaged Performative to help move the focus of the business onto sales and marketing to grow revenue and to move into a profitable position.

The Performative Solution

Performative initially led the management team through a Market Focus Review (MFR) designed to review and consider:

  • The objectives of the next stage of the business, to provide context for the activities.
  • The business assets – products, knowledge, processes – and consider exploitation possibilities.
  • Target market and customers.
  • The portfolio and its positioning.

Subsequent work focused on addressing the points raised in the MFR and included:

  • An extensive win-loss review exercise, which explored the reasons for IMD’s past success or failure at closing contracts.  This exercise helped in understanding customer perceptions, which fed into defining the true value and positioning of the company and its products.
  • Full definition of the product portfolio and its market proposition.
  • A target market strategy including research into potential target companies.
  • A promotion strategy to rapidly create visibility to a large market.
  • A multi-level sales model to ensure that IMD targeted senior customers and did not sell purely at the technical level.