We encounter skepticism all the time. It’s human nature to start from a place of distrust. We’re generally wired to be risk averse. Prospects may be thinking: Is it worth taking the risk to buy from your company? Can you actually do what you claim to do? Are you really as good as your track record or reputation?
Sometimes skepticism is blatant, but most of the time it’s subtle and in my experience most Relationship Managers handle it in a sub-optimal way. How? They resist it. In advance and during conversations, they worry about. I hope this person buys what I’m selling... Will they take the company spin? What if they don’t like my argument?
The idea that you’ll encounter skepticism causes anxiety and fear for Relationship Managers, Sales and Service professionals everywhere.
I used to fear a client’s skepticism, but now I look for it, welcome it and have found that if I handle it well, it strengthens the relationship with my clients and builds/increases trust.
Most skeptics expect to hear the company line. And just like you don’t like delivering it, they don’t like hearing it and brace themselves every time they think it’s coming.
In an attempt to best represent your company, you’ll often react by trying to battle skepticism with a direct head-on assault. Instead, you can be tactical and strategic and gather more information before engaging or taking a position.
Step One -- Learn
The first step in dealing with skepticism is to learn about it. For me, this means utilizing a few of my favorite short open-ended questions/probes:
Step Two -- Call it Out
Call it out within the context of some basic active listening: “It sounds like you are skeptical about _______.” Then pause and let them respond rather than inhibiting their answer by trying to put words in their mouths.
Step Three -- Clarify, Restate, Check
Ask additional clarifying questions, restate, paraphrase and then check to make sure that your understanding is accurate. This step is really important and if done well is multi-step and iterative. I look at this metaphorically as: get it first in pencil and then in pen before putting it in permanent ink.
Me: “You're skeptical because our service hasn’t been exactly what you’ve expected. What exactly were your expectations?”
Client: “Well, I guess you should know, at the last company I was with, I had a very bad experience and I now am gun-shy and cautious.”
Me: “What happened?”
Client: “The company turned out to be a fraud. I lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Or “They made huge commissions off of me, didn't disclose it and didn’t do anything they promised...”
Step Four -- Dig In The "Dirt"
If you are willing to probe (at a deeper than surface level) instead of reacting directly at the skepticism, you may be surprised at the answers you’ll get and find most of them have nothing/zero/nada to do with your company or their current experience with you. This is digging in the dirt to find the places they got hurt (hat tip to Peter Gabriel). Most react like the skepticism has to do with them or their company, but it more likely has to do with the client’s past.
Step Five -- Closure
Always important in dealing with skepticism: don't rush. Make sure they feel complete before moving on. Use a closed-ended isolator probe like: “Is there anything else you want me to know?” and wait for them to answer no. If they have additional concerns, go back to Step Three.
Step Six -- Build Credibility
Once you get the past properly put in the past, you can build your company's credibility. But, you don't necessarily have to do the talking. Earlier in conversation you may have used a phrase like: “What makes you skeptical about our company?” At this point, you can bridge to something like: “Now that I understand what makes you skeptical, what do you find credible about working with us?” Throwing spaghetti at the wall to guess what you think they will find credible about your company will likely miss the mark and doesn’t come from a consultative framework.
Addressing skepticism head on without first seeking to understand where it’s coming from is like taking a 3 point shot with your eyes closed. It's hard enough to make the shot with your eyes open. Don't close your eyes to skepticism. Learn to appreciate when clients are willing to talk about it rather than sweeping it under the rug. Welcome their skepticism with open arms.