Vague – I hope so!

I’m writing this sitting in a busy Italian Café – “Origini” in Castlemaine, Victoria. It’s Monday morning and the place is packed. My salesman’s ear can’t help but drop in on the various conversations that erupt around me – snatches of sentences here and there – none heard as a contiguous detailed story, but each with snippets that give me some vague notion of what went on in their world last weekend.

I’m telling you this because, of late, I’ve been thinking about becoming more vague  – as a conscious decision to appear less decisive (and opinionated). You see, I have, until now, always striven to be clear, comprehensive and correct.

In my early career, armed with a strong understanding of technology, I was always sought as a source of answers. I was the geek who could explain stuff, could design solutions to solve problems and could then sell that solution – and even install it if necessary. Naturally, in order to do this I had to ask questions; to define the problem and to garner the customers expectations of the solution. My line in questioning – back then – was famously peripatetic; it would wander around seemingly (actually) without structure, certainly without ‘closing’ or even ‘trial closing’ questions. This was because I was usually selling ‘one offs’ – unusually complex and bespoke solutions based on emerging technologies about which I myself was still learning – and about which the customer wasn’t 100% certain either. Whilst I was striving to appear all-knowing in order to instil confidence, my rambling demeanour may have suggested something else.

Despite this apparent lack of focus however, my sales results were excellent. This frustrated my managers over the years, almost all of whom tried to change me, convinced I could be even better with a  little ‘discipline’. I was continuously pressured, and indeed trained, to follow the ‘conventional wisdom’ i.e. become more focused, more structured in my sales approach. I guess they eventually wore me down, and by the late 90’s and into the 00’s I too became more procedural in my questioning – driving toward the closure of the sale of  very specific solutions based on a structured analysis of the clients problem. My sales success didn’t increase as a result, but my market had evolved so it was hard to gauge the efficacy of my changed approach.

Back to Castlemaine. The many conversations around me – all incomplete – allow me to imagine what each of those stories might be. The very absence of all the details encourages me to ‘fill in’ the missing bits and make my own interpretation of their stories. Now, this may sound bizarre, but if you think about it for just a minute, this is ‘flexibility’ that I can exploit to suit my needs (personal amusement in this case) . Similar to the flexibility available to a customer when both they and you are a bit vague. When things are left a bit vague, the fit is a bit looser – a bit more comfortable and adaptable. Clients seldom know exactly what they need – and even more rarely know how to contract to get that need met.

Vagueness not only creates flexibility (and hence opportunity) but it also enables outcomes to be interpreted to suit immediate requirements. We need only look to politicians and the public service to see how such vagueness has been elevated to an art form – where policies and project outcomes can be easily ‘reframed’ to turn failure into success (and occasionally, as political expedience dictates, the other way around).

Of course, the real value of vagueness (particularly to me) is that by being a little vague, I can put the customer at some ease. Customers may be vague themselves – either because they don’t know something when perhaps they should, or more likely, because they don’t want to expose or confirm something that is less than flattering, of them or the company they represent.

Also, when I’m a bit vague I risk looking like I don’t know everything – which, by the way, is certainly the case. When I’m a bit vague therefore, it is less likely that I’ll appear arrogant – hubris is a near impossibility for the vague.

If the client sees me as vague and doesn’t want me to be that way, they will let me know through their questions – and through the information they impart to me in their attempt to make me less so. If, on the other hand, the client is happy that I appear as vague as they feel, then we have the basis of a relationship of equals – an excellent basis for a win-win sale.

So, consider the power of the vague! I will. Perhaps. Possibly. Maybe. I think.

Published by Malcolm Duffield

Malcolm Duffield provides advanced high-level sales coaching, ‘basic sales training’ and sales training for pre-sales and post-sales engineering staff. In ways markedly different to the typical classroom lecture approach. Like the game of ‘Go’ – selling is strategically complex, nuanced and more dependent on intuition than process. Sales – process alone is no guarantee of success because customers are humans, are fiendishly complex, intuitive and need to be met on their terms. Humans need to interact rather than merely transact. They have many needs, wants and aspirations – not all clearly stated. Having a proposal that is a good fit to the stated need is a start. Having a price that’s in the ball park will also help – but what will invariably make the difference between success and failure will be our ability to understand, connect with and provide value to the customer as a person. Focused primarily on IT sales, where solution and value, but above all human connection through respect, integrity and empathy, have to be brought together to win high-value deals - it would appear that other 'capital acquisitions' benefit from a similar approach. I have 30 years experience in such sales, and know what works and what doesn't work.