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How to take your prospects off autopilot

The day I interviewed Tom Hanks for the hit film Forrest Gump he did 64 back-to-back, five-minute television interviews at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Although I was fortunate enough to be in the first group of entertainment reporters, I knew if I was going to have a unique, memorable interaction with the Hollywood star I would have to be different, get him to put down his script, and take him off “autopilot.” There is growing research showing that from moment to moment, all of our brains are set to run on autopilot.

“Most of the information that our senses pick up is processed automatically; just a fraction of that information ever makes it into our conscious awareness,” says Daniel Bennett, at Australia’s University of Melbourne. “This makes our brains efficient, since it means we don’t have to pay conscious attention to everything at once. But it has the side effect that we can make decisions based on information of which we are not fully aware.”

What are the “side effects?” What are the ramifications for all of us as we try to move, persuade, convince and sell people when their brains are on autopilot, and ours are too for that matter?

The Script

One of my first 3 Second Selling™ sales training clients was a VP at a nationally known insurance corporation that specializes in tax-qualified retirement plans.

He had a spreadsheet with 700 warm, qualified leads on it, and spends a fair portion of his day working through that list via a combination of emails and phone calls.

When I asked to sit in his office while he made some of those calls I was astonished at how rote and robotic he sounded. He didn’t vary his script at all, but rather just left voicemail after voicemail wanting to know if he could “share some news” that might impact his prospect’s retirement planning.

The truth is he wasn’t working very hard to pique their curiosity, to arouse their brain, to be different, to give a hint that he truly had something of value to offer and deserved to earn someone’s time and attention.

People can hear in your voice whether you are genuinely excited about sharing something, or just following a script, literally or figuratively. Especially if you are trying to sell them something.

I asked him if he was in fact “bored” by this activity and he admitted he was. I told him if he wasn’t excited and showed no urgency around what he had to say – or sell – his prospects wouldn’t respond with any either.

We all follow scripts in our daily lives, interaction by interaction, playing out preconceived notions of how we think something is supposed to go. We have to be diligent and deliberate to overcome that.

Tom Hanks told me if he sounded like he was on autopilot it was because he gets asked “the same five questions by every interviewer,” in every country he goes to promote his work.

And former baseball great Derek Jeter once said, when responding to some sportswriters criticisms about being a boring interview told them, “Ask me different questions and I’ll give you different answers.”

The Rookies Rock

I recently had the chance to spend time with some sales rookies, new sales people right at the front end of their training. It was immediately apparent these new reps were getting more results from their phone appointment setting efforts than the veteran who had spent decades in sales.

Why? Because they didn’t use the same pitch every time. They mixed it up. They tried different things, sometimes even just different ways of saying basically the same thing.

And because it felt so new and fresh to the sales person, and they were excited and enthusiastic and also sincere, it got the attention of the prospects.

“Wait a minute, this sales person actually sounds authentic, like they want to have a unique, original conversation with me.”

And that kind of reaction, that kind of emotional connection, puts you well down the path to becoming someone people knowlike and trust. And that is who we do business with.

Most sales people probably approach their calls with a script that sounds too familiar, and that virtually everyone is using.

In turn, our prospects are also often following a script where they are simply looking to interject something mid-spiel, and end the call with one of the following responses:

  • We’re simply not interested.
  • We’re happy with our current vendor.
  • We’re on contract and can’t change right now.
  • Oh, we just renewed last month.
  • Call back later when we might be ready to make a change.

Both parties are on autopilot; the sales rep and the prospect.

A New Paradigm

The historical protocol for selling is officially dead. The immediate access to information via the Internet has completely altered the balance of power in direct sales exchanges. Your prospects know far more than they used to, and the first time you actually have a conversation with them they are likely more than halfway through the sales process.

They don’t need you to tell them about the importance of retirement planning, or any other “features” and “specifications” of your product or service.

So your relationship has to involve more than just being a purveyor of information.

To cut through today’s buying clutter, you need to have an authentic, unique and memorable interaction, create emotional connections quickly, and lay a solid sales-forward foundation.

John Kotter, a former Harvard Business School professor, says, “Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.”

Do that, and you’ll likely be able to disengage the autopilot. Yours and theirs.

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