A conversation is a very fragile thing. It can get off track very quickly.

Think of all of the things that can derail a conversation. One person starts talking too much. One or both people stop listening to what the other person is saying. They disagree. They are actually having two different conversations, like an arguing couple, where she thinks they are discussing that he never remembers to take out the garbage and he thinks they are talking about her general impatience with him.

A customer conversation is especially fragile. One moment it is cruising along, and the next moment it can stall. The quality of your persuasive conversation depends on how well you and your customer are moving in sync, like two dancers waltzing in a synchronized flow of mutual affirmation and agreement. During every moment you are in a customer conversation, you must be alert to the health of that conversation and constantly nurture the dialogue in order to propel it forward.

One reason that customer conversations are especially fragile is that customers often don’t feel that it is vital to them that they are in this conversation with you. The customer may be only somewhat interested in what you are offering, or she may believe that she has many buying options other than yours. Keeping a customer engaged in conversation is often more difficult than keeping a friend engaged, so you must work diligently to create a rich back-and-forth dialogue that builds and engages you both deeper into the conversation.

Go with the flow

A general principle in customer conversations is to Go with the flow. Yes, you have a desired destination for this conversation, but a sure way to stop a conversation in its tracks is to force your customer to take your preferred route to the destination. You are much more likely to reach your persuasive goals if you find your customer’s desired conversation path, and walk down that path with your customer. Once your customer is deeply engaged in the conversation it can naturally flow from this path to another that is desirable for both of you.

Salespeople often try to predetermine the best place to start a conversation, but what they decide ahead of time may not be the best place for the customer to start. Be willing to start your customer conversations “in the middle,” i.e., wherever your customer wants to start them.

This isn’t so odd. Most of the conversations you have in your personal life start in the middle. You run into a friend on the street and you start talking and catching up with each other, not necessarily proceeding in a strict chronological or logical order. Your friend tells you things aren’t going very well in his job, telling you about a clash he had with his boss earlier today, and only later filling you in on the root causes of the clash that had been brewing for months. It would seem totally unnatural if he insisted on starting at the very beginning, imparting a step-by-step version of events to you.

The “Conversation-o-meter”

Maintaining a rich persuasive conversation with a customer requires you to continuously monitor how well the conversation is going. As I’ve written in a previous article, I like to think of a “Conversation-o-meter,” represented by a set of mental images of dials and meters that tell me how well a conversation is going. Am I talking too much? Is the other person talking too much? How well are we listening to each other? How fluid is the dialogue?

You may not need an image or metaphor as direct as my “Conversation-o-meter.” The most important thing is for you to find a way to stay alert, in real time, to the health of your customer conversations.

Ditch the Pitch Habits to help you Go with the flow

In our next two issues we will explore two Ditch the Pitch Habits, along with their related practices, to help you Go with the flow. These habits are:

Ditch the Pitch Habit #3: Create a series of “Yeses”
A conversation can only continue if both people want it to. This habit is about ensuring that you and your customer continually agree to move the conversation forward.

Ditch the Pitch Habit #4: Explore and heighten
As you and your customer are agreeing to keep your conversation moving forward, you will find opportunities to take the conversation to new levels. This habit is about exploring those opportunities and then enriching them as your heighten the dialogue and move closer to your persuasive goals.

You may already be engaging in these habits to a certain extent. Take this opportunity to practice them and improve your ability to ditch the pitch. You’ll be a more effective persuader, which will make you that much more effective in your work.

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