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What Negotiators Can Learn from Modern Sales Theory
Ava J. Abramowitz
Editors’ Note: For many negotiators, a self-concept of professionalism seems to militate against learning from sales, a field they appear to devalue. Yet sales is the central setting of negotiation for all sorts of firms, particularly when what is sold is a complex and high-end service, or multimillion-dollar equipment. Not surprisingly, since sales is also the lifeblood of these firms’ survival, there has been a great deal of research and theorizing about it. In the best of selling, it turns out, forceful statements are largely replaced by thoughtful questions about every aspect of the customer’s needs. Here, Abramowitz takes a classic of sales theory and shows how it applies to negotiation in many other domains.
When I was drafting a meeting-presentation proposal on the communication behaviors of expert negotiators, I was warned that, if I wanted my proposal to be accepted, I couldn’t use the word “sales” anywhere. “Sales” is just so sleazy. The thought that anyone would tell us that we have to close a deal or resolve a dispute by ‘selling’ will sicken most lawyers.” I was stunned. What is “sales” other than a form of persuasion? And how could one be truly persuasive without a grounding in modern sales theory? But I understood.
Think back to your worst sales experience. Didn’t the salesperson share some of the following attributes?
■ Not really interested in you or your problem
■ Seemingly interested in you and your problem but clueless as to both
■ Interested mostly in achieving their objectives
■ Didn’t listen
■ Didn’t understand—or even try to
■ Kept on talking
■ Kept telling you how wonderful their solution was
■ Outright lying
■ A pain in the patoot
Pick one or any combination.
But ask yourself: Aren’t those the very same attributes of a bad negotiator? Of a bad mediator? And don’t you cringe when facing someone like that at the negotiation table?
Now think back upon your best sales experience. Didn’t the salesperson share these attributes?
■ Interested in understanding you and your needs
■ Interested in understanding your problem and its implications
■ Committed more to solving your problem and meeting your needs than to getting what they wanted
■ Willing to work with you to explore options and devise the best solution
■ Open and candid about the strengths and weaknesses of each option
■ Open and candid about what they knew and didn’t know
And don’t you wish all negotiators and mediators were like that? Yet these are also the attributes of successful salespeople—specifically, consultative salespeople imbued with modern sales theory.
Consultative sales are different from transactional sales and require different skills (Rackham and DeVincentis 1999). In transactional sales, buyers know what they want—say, a car—and sellers know what they have. In-depth “consultation” is neither wanted nor warranted, especially in the age of the Internet. All a buyer wants from a salesperson is hassle-free fulfillment.
In consultative sales, however, the buyer needs help defining their problem1 and finding an apt solution, and that is the role of a consultative seller—to help the buyer to an implementable solution. Here both the buyer and seller have several options and need to figure out which apply or whether a unique option must be created for the buyer’s needs to be met and the problem solved. Usually, due to the nature of the problem, the cost of the solution, and the attendant risks and rewards of proceeding or not, a lot is at stake for both the buyer and seller in deciding what to do.
In other words, consultative salespeople help buyers solve complicated, usually multi-layered, and often high-stakes problems. That’s why...
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Abramowitz, A. J. 2009. The Architect’s Essentials of Negotiation (2nd.ed.). New Jersey: Wiley & Sons.
Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Rackham, N. 1975. Models for Explaining Behavior. England: Huthwaite Research Group.
Rackham, N. 1978. The Behaviour of Successful Negotiators. England: Huthwaite Research Group.
Rackham, N. 1988. SPIN Selling. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Rackham, N. 1989. Major Account Sales Strategy. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Rackham, N. and J. DeVincentis. 1999. Rethinking the Sales Force: Redefining Selling to Create and Capture Customer Value. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Ross, L. and C. Stillinger. 1991. Barriers to Conflict Resolution. Negotiation Journal 7(4): 389-404.