In sales, don’t let your brain get ahead of you

BY Ken Cook

Ken Cook

The brain is an amazing thing. It fills in blanks for things we can't see, hear, or sometimes even understand. For example, if you're driving and a pedestrian walks in front of a parked truck and out of your line of vision, your brain automatically knows where they will emerge. You can't see them, but assuming all variables stay the same, the person will be clear of the truck (and right in front of your car) in two seconds. Better hit the brakes.

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Without this subconscious ability, we would not be able to navigate daily life.

I'm working with a client who is one of the most masterful people I know when it comes to building relationships. I had an opportunity to interview over a half-dozen of his clients, and to a person they said my client is the best relational salesperson they have ever met. One of his clients paid the ultimate compliment, “When he calls me, I don't feel as if I have to put my guard up for what he is selling. He's just calling to connect.”

An advantage to this kind of strong relationship is over the course of time you become aware of and exposed to all kinds of information about the client. The downside of this skill is that our minds fill in the blanks.

My client has such a familiarity with his clients he assumes information not stated or shared. He has some of the data, much like seeing the first and last letters of the word. From there, his brain identifies the word: last instead of lest, or haven instead of heaven.

In sales, that is dangerous. The client, regardless of the strength of the relationship, may not readily share everything. That leaves the salesperson in the vulnerable position of not knowing what they don't know.

You build your ideas, recommendations and solutions based on verified information, some information filled in by our amazing brains, and not knowing some information may be missing.

To get out of this box let me offer two simple actions: paraphrase & verify, and probe & verify.

In the safety of your office, review a client situation, cataloging the information you have forming the foundation for your recommendations and solution. Then, meet with the client to confirm understanding. This is the paraphrasing part. Review your information with the client, telling them what you heard, using your own words. For example:

“What I heard you say is the reject rate is too high at 7 percent. Since the molds are accurate and the the machines are set up properly, you think the problem lies in either training, quality control, or some combination of the two. Did I hear that correctly?”

Starting a paraphrase with, “What I heard you say …” as opposed to, “What you said…” is important. It puts the responsibility on you, and eases any chance the client might get defensive. Ending a paraphrase with, “Did I hear that correctly?” is the verification part. It's the opportunity to create alignment between the you and the client.

During the conversation with the client there may be new insights learned, or areas of information needing further exploration. This is the probe part. In order to fill in blanks, ask the client to simply, “Please tell me more about that.” Or, “I want to make sure we've covered everything. Is there anything else we need to know?”

The client will appreciate these efforts more than you know. You have taken considerable effort and time to build a strong relationship built on trust. The client, because of the trust they place in you, wants to do business with you (if all competitive factors are relatively close). Your job is to make sure your recommendation is the best it can be. That means not missing any critical data or information impacting your solution and the client's decision.

Strong relationships do not make up for lazy work. Earn the business by fully understanding the client's situation. Don't just fill in the blanks. Paraphrase to confirm understanding, and probe & verify to know all of the key information, from the client's point of view.

Ken Cook is the co-founder of How to Who, a program on how to build strong relationships and how to build business through those relationships. Learn more at