Sales Tip of the Month: 4 Critical Sales Lessons from a Former FBI Hostage Negotiator

The negotiating skills of salespeople have to be top notch. Lessons from hostage negotiations are very real and applicable to a salesperson’s daily routine. A March 28 article by Heather R. Morgan provides these four tips from Chris Voss, a top FBI hostage negotiator, on how to close a deal.

1. Just say “no” to “yes.”
Today, we're constantly encouraged, if not outright pressured, to say "yes" to some service or bargain. In Voss's own words, we're "yes-battered” – that is, we've heard those yes-centric questions so many times we resist them. How many times has a telemarketer or your college alumni board called during dinner and asked, "Can I talk to you for a few minutes?" Most of us are inclined to hang up immediately.
So whether you're calling prospects or composing a cold email, try to tailor your opening questions towards a different response – "no." It sounds counterintuitive, but Voss, who's used the same tactic in hostage situations, explains that "no-focused" questions go far in putting the other person at ease. Saying "no" makes a person feel protected and therefore more willing to participate in a conversation. Try out, for example, "Is now a bad time to talk?" instead of "Can you talk for a few minutes?" If you're writing emails, apply the same logic to those.

2. Don’t ask why.
"Why" is another word to avoid – it doesn't lead anywhere. Asking a hostage taker, "Why do you want that much money?" is like asking a teenager, "Why did you drive my car without permission?" You won't get a straight answer from either situation. Why makes us defensive because it's typically interpreted as an accusation, whether or not that was your intention. In a high-stakes negotiation, you can't afford to have the captors shut down because they feel like they're being attacked. Same goes for sales negotiations.

One easy fix is to replace "Why" with "What" or "How." "What made you choose that software?" sounds a lot less accusatory, and, if the person is in question-answer mode, the chances of you getting a productive answer are high.

But what happens if your prospective client hates questions? That's when you turn to The Label, one of the most universal and powerful tools available to hostage negotiators and MBAs alike when dealing with question-wary people. At its heart, it means turning questions into simple observations. "It seems like you had a good reason to choose that software" merely states a fact, one that triggers the recipient's brain to try and verify the statement. Did we have a good reason to get that software? What was it? Did anyone in the company object? Suddenly, your prospect feels in control of the conversation and more inclined to share the information you need.

3. Go from universal to individual.
Hostage negotiations are all about creating a feedback loop between the agent and the captors.
There are some techniques that apply everywhere, whether you're in Europe to South Africa, just as there are certain sales tactics that will work for both VPs and mid-level managers, at small businesses and Fortune 500 companies. That includes listening carefully to the other person's argument and removing emotion from the situation (try to predict a person's behavior rather than trust it, for example). And never, ever lie.

Only after you've gotten through these, and gathered some basics on the individual--their age, gender, home town – can you start to tailor a conversation specifically to them. If you sell cloud software and your prospect is a 50-something with a long history of legacy software, you'll have to use a different set of selling points than those you'd give a 20-something startup founder. The trick is knowing how to refine your approach in real time based on the information you get during the conversation.

4. Simplify your email style.
Voss explains that the problem with email is that people tend to lay out every point and move in the negotiation in a single email. Trying to take someone through multiple steps in an email will only make the recipient see the distance from Point A to Point Z and become overwhelmed.

One of the best ways to create a persuasive sales email, whether it's the first cold email you're sending a new customer or an email to follow up with a prospective buyer who's trying to negotiate price with you, is to keep things short and simple. Not only does this increase your chances of getting a response and moving the conversation along, but it avoids giving them an opportunity to steer the conversation in a completely different direction than you want it to take.

Start treating emails the way you do texts. That simplicity can go a long way in keeping your sales negotiations focused. Stick to one or two topics per email, tops.

Morgan points out that these aren't the only hostage negotiation tactics out there that translate to sales, but they're a great place to start if you're looking to freshen up your pitch.

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