32. Sales Process #5: Ponder & Present Solution

This situation happens many times each day: someone approaches someone else with a problem. Maybe it’s a child approaching his parent. Or a person approaching her partner. Or a corporate employee approaching his department’s computer person.

The person starts to describe a problem, and the person they approached interrupts and says, “Oh, I know what that is. Don’t worry, it’s no big deal. All you have to do is. . . .”

Most people hate being on the receiving end of that kind of treatment. It’s not just rude, it’s dismissive and devaluing, as if the person’s problems, and by extension the person himself or herself, are not worthy of serious consideration. (It is particularly wounding if the adviser dismisses what the asker considers to be an important problem.) More fundamentally, it deprives the asker of a feeling of specialness or uniqueness—of self-esteem, really.

Most people have an innate need for—or, more precisely, craving for—esteem, including self-esteem. Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about esteem at length, ranking it second only to self-actualization itself in his famous Hierarchy of Human Needs. Professional salespeople and activists know this, as do teachers, coaches and others who work with people. They also know that showing esteem for someone is not just a humane and compassionate thing to do, but creates a strong bond with her that makes her much more receptive to your viewpoint.

Is this manipulation? As with all moral questions pertaining to marketing and sales, the answer is: not if you do it honestly and responsibly. You should strive for an expansive world view that allows you to respect and value a wide range of people, including those who happen not to agree with you politically. And if you do respect and value someone, you should be willing to tell her so, if not explicitly in words—although that’s frequently required in sales—then at least implicitly in your actions and the way you treat her.

If I were teaching a course on “Life Success” and the textbook could only contain two sentences, those sentences would be: “First, learn to feel good about yourself, no matter how flawed or imperfect you may perceive yourself to be. Next, work to help everyone around you feel better about themselves, and never stop searching for opportunities to do so.”

How to Convey Respect

The entire sales process is designed to convey your respect, caring and concern for the customer, along with other goals such as qualifying and gathering information. The Ponder & Present Solution step, however, is where you most clearly convey your respect.

Here’s an example of how to do the Ponder & Present Solution, from one of my former businesses:

Back when I was a freelance computer consultant, at least half the people who called me seeking help had one of the same few problems: a bad cable, a virus, a printer problem, a failed hard drive or a deleted file they needed to recover. One of the worst things I could have done, during such a call, would be to tell the customer, “Oh, that’s not so bad! I’ve seen it a million times. I know exactly what you need.” That would make them feel as if I didn’t see their problem, or them, as unique and important.

Instead, I learned to first Restate the Customer’s Problem, as described in Chapter 31, and then to Ponder and Present my Solution to that problem, which in this case goes like this, “Well, that sounds like a terrible problem. I can see why you’d be upset. Let me think about it for a moment.” (Pause.) “Did you try swapping in another network cable?”

Here’s an analysis of that response:

Well, that sounds like a terrible problem. I can see why you’d be upset. This is the truth told not from my perspective, but from my customer’s. To her, the problem is terrible and upsetting, no matter how routine it may seem to me. As Bitter Truth #3 (Chapter 16) teaches us, it’s the customer’s viewpoint and not your own that’s most important.

Whereas during the Restatement part of the sale, I was restating the factual truth of my customer’s situation, now I am restating the emotional truth. Psychologists call this “mirroring,” and it conveys a lot of respect and compassion for the person you’re speaking with.

Let me think about it for a moment. This further reinforces the fact that I think the customer and her problem are important. By pausing to think her situation over, even if I’m pretty sure I know what’s going on, I’m paying her the respect of giving it serious consideration.

Pause. During the pause, I make good on my stated intention “to think about it for a moment.”

If you don’t use this “pondering” time to actually consider the customer’s problem, but simply to count the seconds before you start talking again, the ponder becomes a duplicitous tactic: you’re only pretending to care. Given that, and given that people who make snap judgments are frequently wrong, you should always use the ponder to try to view the customer’s situation through fresh eyes. This is especially true if you’re one thousand percent sure you know what’s going on, since it’s typically in situations such as these that we make our most embarrassing mistakes.

Did you try swapping in another network cable? Finally, I propose my solution; and because the customer feels much more valued and respected by me than if I had simply thrown the solution at her first thing, she is far more likely to actually take my advice or hire my services to fix the problem.

Please reread that last sentence: “ . . . she is far more likely to actually take my advice or hire my services.” In other words, by showing my customer that I valued her, I was far more likely to elicit the behavioral change I desired from her.

It works exactly the same way in activism. Say you’re trying to convince someone to vote for a Democratic candidate when that person has voted Republican his whole life, along with the rest of his family and most of his community. Those are the facts of his situation; this Ponder & Present dialogue narrates the emotional truth:

Activist: You said earlier that although you really like our candidate, it would be tough for you to vote Democratic for the first time. Can you tell me why?

“Customer”: Well, my family and the people at church are bedrock Republicans, and they wouldn’t think too highly of it.

Activist: So you’re afraid your vote might alienate your family and the people at church?

“Customer”: Yes.

Activist: That’s a tough one, a really tough one. Let me think about it for a moment. [Pause.] Are you really sure that there isn’t anyone in your family or church community who has voted Democratic?

“Customer” [thinking]: Well, there is my cousin Jack. He lives in the next town over, and he votes Democratic a lot. In fact, he’s active in the local Democratic committee.

Activist: Really?

“Customer”: Yeah. Funny, I forgot about him until just now.

Activist: How do people feel about Jack, knowing that he’s an active Democrat?

“Customer”: Okay, actually. He doesn’t push his politics down people’s throats. He’s just one of us, only he votes differently.

“Activist”: Hmmm . . . [Pause.] How do you think your family and friends would react if you took the same approach as Jack? Voted Democratic but didn’t shove it down their throats?

“Customer”: Probably not too badly. Yeah, it probably wouldn’t be so bad at all. . . . In fact, my family wouldn’t mind too much: it’s my wife’s family I’m more worried about. They’re really bedrock Republicans. But they live on the other side of the state and we don’t actually see them that much . . . and, actually, I don’t really care what they think, too much, anyway. My wife can handle them . . . she’s pretty tough. [Laughs.]

The Path of Persuasion

In the above example, the Restate and Ponder & Present Solution steps help the activist demonstrate his honest understanding of, and respect for, the customer and his situation—and therefore, implicitly, his esteem for the customer. In doing so, he not only forges a bond with the customer, but helps him feel safe enough, psychologically speaking, to contemplate adopting the activist’s viewpoint and taking the action the activist desires. The “path of persuasion” that leads to a customer’s taking a desired action often looks like this:

1. The customer begins with a natural distrust or suspicion of, if not the activist himself or herself, the thing the activist is trying to sell him.

2. After some discussion, the customer starts to trust the activist, and perceive him as an ally in making the difficult decision of whether or not to take the action. He sees that he can draw on the activist’s strength and support, as well as other resources the activist may provide, such as information.

3. The customer gains a fuller appreciation for the rightness of the activist’s position. He may or may not see the action the activist wishes him to take as necessary or desirable, however—or the negatives of it may still outweigh the positives.

4. The customer starts to see himself as being on the same side of the question as the activist. The action the activist wishes him to take now starts to seem increasingly sensible, if not imperative.

5. At some point, the customer starts to view the positive consequences of taking the action as outweighing the negative ones. The action, therefore, seems increasingly doable. At some point, discussion may shift from theory and philosophy to planning—i.e., a detailed examination of the actual steps needed to take the action—and to ways any obstacles can be avoided or overcome.

6. The customer agrees to take the action.

7. The customer takes the action. The activist continues to support him.

8. The customer has taken the action. The activist continues to support him.

9. At some point after the action has taken place, the customer is ready to consider taking a new action. The path of persuasion begins anew—only this time, it is likely to go easier and more quickly, thanks to the strengthened relationship between the customer and the activist, and the fact that the customer is now more fully on the same side of the issue as the activist.

That’s the sales/activism process at its best, and it is fueled by the simple but powerful act of honestly esteeming someone.