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Empathize, Value, Pivot: Sales Tactics for Engineers

March 14th, 2023. Happy pi day!

I periodically will interview for roles I'm not qualified for. Not like upwards in my career but for roles in completely different industries. It's fascinating to talk to people whose jobs are nothing like mine and learn how they think. Everyone is smart in their own way.

So, one day I found myself in an interview for an "entry level account manager", aka cold calling sales rep, aka telemarketer. When cold calling, typically the biggest challenge is convincing someone who had no intention of buying something to open up their wallet on the spot.

The only real objection that they have is that they don't trust you guys.

Much like Wolf of Wall Street, my interviewer said that people will give any reason under the sun to want to hang up, they're not in front of a computer, they can't make a decision, they don't have time, their fish needs to be walked, etc. But it turns out if he can get them to keep talking, most people will not hang up because few want to be seen as rude for hanging up while someone is talking.

So he said that he follows a simple framework: Empathize, Value, Pivot

When he runs into an objection, he will first empathize with the problem. Remind them that their concerns are valid. Then, he will make a value proposition to the customer. Something that helps them address the underlying concern. Lastly, he will pivot the conversation away from the objection towards where he wants to take the conversation. This keeps the conversation moving forward and prevents the objection from becoming a roadblock.

Put concretely, a call to sell ads to a local pizza shop might go something like this:

Pizza shop: Y'know, I just don't think we have the marketing budget this year. Especially with COVID, we haven't had the foot traffic to justify spending more money.

Sales rep: Yeah, we've seen the pandemic hit a lot of local businesses really hard, some lost over half of their customers. (empathize)

Sales rep: How many customers do you get a day right now?

Pizza shop: Not sure, it's been pretty bad, maybe a hundred at most.

Sales rep: What would it be worth to you if we could get you 10-25 more customers a day in the door? (value)

Pizza shop: Oh wow, that would be nice. It would get a lot of our business back.

Sales rep: Can you pop open your laptop real quick and we can see what we can do in the next five minutes? (pivot)

In this example, the sales rep first validates the prospect's concerns and by empathizing, quickly builds trust. Then, he makes a value proposition so the topic is no longer about buying ads but rather about how to get more customers in the door. The sales rep doesn't need to promise that they will get 10-25 more customers a day, but only needs to inquire about its value which is sufficient to get the prospect to read between the lines. Because it directly addresses the objection though, it drives value regardless of the product's features. The sales rep doesn't even mention the product until the very end, at which point they've pivoted the conversation.

Here's an example of how this plays out on a mock call:

Notice that the sales rep even manages to discover a problem: that the prospect's internet speeds aren't fast enough to support 4K video. Then she empathizes, saying if it's slow internet, it would result in lag, and offers a way to check and validate the concern. Then, she directly addresses the value of the new internet package. The prospect now sees that she can address the problem she's running into. Finally, she pivots towards negotiating the price. At this point, the prospect is already bought in, so all that remains is to close the sale.

Lessons learned

I'll be the first in line to say that I think sales can be quite sleazy. The above framework can feel manipulative, especially since the sales rep is the largest benefactor in the exchange, and as an engineer I want customers to buy products on their own merits. But people don't buy a 1/4" drill, they buy a 1/4" hole.

I think acknowledging the value of how sales is done is important because it means that we're solving real problems, not solutions looking for a problem. Another way to look at it: even in a self-serving environment where you have little compassion for the prospect, it's still important to empathize with them. Maybe that's too philosophical.

More generally, a second lesson I learned from this interview is that it's important to listen first. The first step is to empathize which means listening very closely. I had always heard that the best sales people are the ones who can talk the least and with this framework it makes sense: the customer will tell you everything you need to make the sale. And maybe that's true beyond sales too. All you need to do is listen.

What did our friend Dr. Osler say? Remember? Listen to the patient. She is telling you her diagnosis. - Fleishman is in Trouble S1E1

I've made this mistake more than once in my personal life and it's hurt people I care about. Maybe you have too? It's so hard to take off the engineer's hat. If you happen to be reading this, you know who you are and all I can say is I'm sorry.

By the way, if you're curious, I did get the job offer but I ended up declining. My interviewer started off the call grumbling and even told me he didn't expect it to go well. After all, nothing on my resume says I'd be qualified at all to do sales. But he said by the end that he was thorougly impressed and that I could have a real career in sales. I'm not so sure about that, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to learn.

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