In my counsel to agency principals and business development personnel I spend too much time on the subject of how to overcome objections. If you find yourself constantly dealing with or dreading objections late in the buying cycle then there's something you're not doing early in the buying cycle: you're not creating objections. You should be.
Stress is caused by the things you don't do. One of the largest sources of stress among those who do not see themselves as natural salespeople is the conversations they are avoiding. Often, the subject of those conversations is a real or perceived objection on the part of the client. It's usually price or the fit between the agency and the assignment. These conversations are impossible to avoid but many of them get deferred until the last possible moment because the salesperson is afraid of what he will hear on the subject. This deferral and the stress it produces are counterproductive and completely avoidable.
An objection is a little like bad news in the investment world: if it exists, you want to hear it as soon as possible. If you ignore it, it only gets worse. But unlike bad news, objections are actually helpful, provided you hear them early. You want to hear objections early in the buying cycle. In fact, you want to hear them coming out of your own mouth before they come out of the client's.
The Dynamics of Objections
Imagine that you and I are beginning a respectful conversation about the possibility of doing business together. You are considering hiring me. We’re both endeavoring to see if there's a fit between your need and my ability to help. If you, the buyer, put an objection on the table then it is incumbent on me, the seller, to try to address it, isn't it? “Your services sound expensive, Blair. I'm not sure that our firm can afford you.”
But what if I put the objection on the table? “My services are expensive. I'm a little concerned that an agency the size of yours might not be able to make the investment.” Now you have the implied obligation to address the objection. I'm now driving and you are responding. Which position would you rather be in? If you are in my (seller's) shoes and your concern over the client's budget is real, why wouldn't you put the objection on the table? The only reason not to would be fear of the response, and that's no reason to defer an objection that will have to be addressed at some point. Too many agencies are guilty of deferring obvious objections until a point where the firm has invested too many resources to make withdrawing a painless option. I suffered this for years. There comes a point after many hours and dollars invested that the agency rationalizes, “We've come this far, we might as well salvage what we can and do it for the client's meager budget.”
The objection was always there. The agency knew it, the client knew it, and nobody dealt with it. Now the two parties either part company with a sense of having foolishly over-invested (and all the accompanying resentment) or they proceed with an ill-fitted engagement in which one party is trying to squeeze profit out of an unprofitable situation (and all the accompanying resentment), hoping to “make it up on the next one.”
The Race to Object
Once you become aware of the potential objection consider yourself in a race to see which party can first serve it up to the other to address.
Back to our me-and-you scenario. Let's say that you, the buyer, beat me, the seller, to the price objection – you get it on the table first. I can try to convince you that the objection is not real, or I can share my concern and try to hand it back to you. “I have the same concern. Reengineering your entire business development approach is not a trivial investment. It's a sound investment, but my experience is that of firms the size of yours, not all can afford my fee, which I require in advance.”
I've agreed with the validity of your objection, and then passed it back to you to address and I've added another layer to the problem: I want to be paid in advance. In the end I may choose to compromise on receiving all of the fee in advance (if I do it will be the very last thing I do, only after I have ensured there are no other hidden objections) but for now I've regained control, politely allowing you an opportunity to admit that you do not have the means to make such an investment in your business. You can admit the inability or you can resolve to find a way to afford the fee, if after further discovery you feel the investment would indeed be a wise one. (Not being able to afford something is not a valid reason not to buy. Through credit and creative cash flow management people buy things they “can't afford” all the time.) The worst thing that can go wrong here is that you admit you cannot make this investment at this time, we agree to keep in touch and we move on without having wasted too much of each other’s time. The seller retains his integrity and future business opportunities, and the buyer leaves wanting even more that which he cannot have today.
Mistakes in Overcoming Objections
The Common Mistakes
The wrong way for me to respond to your objection is the way I typically responded throughout most of my agency career: defer (“Let's not worry about price right now – I'm sure we can work something out if we get that far,”) cave (“I might be able to lower my fee,”) or shamelessly convince (“You really need to make this investment. Isn't there some way you can come up with the money?”)
It may seem counterintuitive to create objections when you see yourself in the business of overcoming them, but look at it this way: the objections are there, somebody has to address them. Why not ask the client to do it? Just ask early. Start looking for reasons why it might not make sense to work together as early into the relationship as possible and then ask the client to address them before he asks the same of you. You'll find out which objections can be dealt with and which might be cause to part company. In the process you'll save yourself a lot of work, you'll eliminate most of the stress of selling and you will set a respectful tone for the profitable working relationship to follow.