Many moons ago (“Oh -insert hypothetical deity or swear word of choice-!”, I hear you scream, “He’s off in the past again!”) I was sent on a course about Sales Techniques. This was to enable me to sell Barclays’ products that they didn’t want or need to my Taxation clients!
As far as Barclays was concerned sending me on it was a dead loss as I steadfastly refused to recommend anything that wasn’t in the independent top ten of that type of product, despite much cajoling by the Business Development Manager about my “duty” to the company!
I, however, got two important things out of the course.
Firstly I discovered, along with the other members of the course, a pub in Kidderminster (where the course was held) named, strangely, “The Little Tumbling Sailors” which served a magnificent and powerful home brewed bitter, aptly named “Lumphammer”. We sampled it extensively!
Secondly, and more importantly as far as this article is concerned, I learned an extremely useful skill – one that is taught to everybody in the world who has ever or will ever try to sell you something. And knowing this technique has been far more useful to me as a defence against salesmen over the years than it ever was in my job!
The technique is called “The Agreement Staircase” and it works by leading you (the victim) through a series of questions to which the word “Yes” is the one and only indisputable answer. After an appropriate number of such answers you are then hit with “So you’ll buy it then?” or some variation on that theme in the expectation that the instinctive reaction will be to continue to answer “Yes”.
And so the sale is made!
Unless, as I suggested earlier, you know the technique, can watch it happening and then deliberately and with malice aforethought throw a spanner in the works!
I did exactly that with the man who sold us our replacement windows a couple of years ago. Faith and I had more or less decided that we were going to go with his product before he arrived to sell it to us but I had no intention of letting him off easily and let him go through his entire “show”. Sure enough, the textbook “Do you agree that….?” and “Isn’t it great that…..?” questions came trotting out and I answered “YES” as emphatically as I could while trying not to laugh.
Then the key question “So you’ll have your new windows from us will you?” made its appearance and, without any change to the fixed smile I had been wearing throughout, and with no hesitation at all, I replied with “NO”!
Watching his face as his carefully prepared structure came down around his ears, I almost felt sorry for him. I waited a couple of minutes while he tried to think what to do next and then explained that I had been given sales training, couldn’t resist using it back at him, and then told him we would, indeed buy his windows. I hope he got his commission because I certainly made him earn it!
There was one last thing that my course taught me and that is that a question that requires nothing more than a flat “yes” or “no” answer is called a “closed question”. It is intended to leave the questioner still in control of the conversation, interview or whatever. It does NOT provoke discussion.
The opposite, “How are you?” type of questions are intended to invoke more general conversation and are called (I bet you can’t guess) “open questions”. You cannot have a “yes” or “no” answer to an open question.
HOWEVER, I have noticed of late a rather strange tendency, not only amongst members of my own family but much wider afield, for conversations to occur as follows:
ME: “How are you today?”
OTHER: “Yes. I’m fine thank you”.
ME: “And how were your friends you visited today?”
OTHER: “Yes. They’re all fine too”.
Where did those “YES” bits of the reply come from? They weren’t a part of the answers to the open questions I actually asked! I’m forced to the conclusion that people aren’t actually listening to the words I’m saying but have unconsciously formulated stock answers so that they don’t have to make a decision about whether I asked it in the open or closed format.
I find it to be very annoying and now that I’ve pointed it out to you, I expect you will notice it cropping up too!
I just hope I don’t fall victim to it myself.
You will tell me if I do, won’t you? (Closed question!)