By John Tabita

How to Lose a Prospect in 10 MINUTES. What not to Do on a Sales Call

By John Tabita

I suppose it would have been just another ordinary sales call … that is, except for Ralph. I had set an appointment with the manager of a dermatologist’s office. She had asked me to come in to “show them what specials and packages we were offering.” Unfortunately for me, the company had brought in a former top sales manager as an outside consultant. Ralph’s job was to accompany reps on sales calls.

Upon our arrival, we were ushered into an understated yet elegant office. Vintage 1930-era photos hung on the back wall. The doctor, a well-groomed, formal-looking man in his mid-sixties, entered the room a few moments later. As if on cue, “Ralph” (not his real name) immediately launched into his rapport-building routine. Standing by the vintage photos on the back wall, he pointed to a portrait of an infant and asked, “Is that you?” He proceeded to tell the doctor “what a cute baby” he was. The more he joked and tried to build rapport, the more I could see the doctor’s walls going up. His face was like watching the drawbridge of a medieval castle slowly being raised as the iron bars came crashing down across the gate. (Were those archers I saw positioning themselves at the turrets?)

When we finally got around to sitting down, instead of asking about the “specials and packages we were offering,” the doctor announced that he wanted to cancel his existing advertising. As I climbed up off the floor and back into my chair, I could sense Ralph’s eyes boring into me. It was as if I could read his thoughts: “You dragged me all the way out here for a cancellation?” Every fiber of my being wanted to shout at him. “You did this! This is all your fault … with your ridiculous, ‘what-a-cute-baby-you-were’ false rapport-building nonsense!”


What saved the day was that the doctor’s son and partner in the practice joined the meeting, along with the office manager with whom I’d originally set the appointment. The tension left the room as we began discussing ad packages. They physically leaned over the desk to get a better look at the ad programs we could offer, especially when we showed them how they could get an edge over the competition with a better-placed ad. We ultimately closed the deal and wrote up a contract.

As I stood at the reception counter afterwards, waiting to collect the down payment (Ralph had walked outside to put his briefcase in the car) the office manager asked, “So you’re our sales rep, not the other guy, is that right?” When I told her I was, she lowered her voice slightly and said, “Because the doctor did not like him at all. But he likes you.” So much for building rapport, Ralph.

There were a couple of things I learned from that experience (okay, maybe more than just a couple, but this is a blog post, not a novel).

Liking is a key ingredient in sales. It’s not the only thing, but without liking, none of the other things can happen—like trust. Because the doctor didn’t like Ralph, he was prepared to cancel his advertising. What might have happened had Ralph gone alone and there’d been no one else for the doctor to like?

Ralph’s mistake was being too familiar. Taking a genuine interest in his family photos and asking some questions about them would have been far more effective than telling this proper, middle-aged, bespectacled and respectable member of the medical community that he was “a cute baby.” Being too friendly in an attempt to be liked can be a fatal error. I always took my cue from the prospect. If he starts addressing me as “buddy”’ or “pal,” then I know what level of formality he’s comfortable with.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking to build rapport (in fact, I highly recommend it). But the best “technique” to build rapport is not a technique at all. Are you ready for this amazing, never-before-revealed secret? Here goes:

Be genuinely interested in the other person, and listen to what they say.

Of course, I’m being facetious. It’s no secret at all. Dale Carnegie wrote about it over 70 years ago in his classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

So why is it that sales people resort to manipulative techniques when just being genuine is so much simpler? Perhaps it’s because being genuine may be simpler; it’s just not easier.

  • Craig

    This is a great article. As a developer one thing we had is when a sales guy sells a product based upon non-existing features. I have done sales a bit as well in my time, when I owned a small business selling my software. Instead of lying to customers about features, and setting them up for a fall, I would listen to their feature requests and take notes about what they asked. I think this gave them trust that I was listening to what they needed and would do the best to provide it, rather than just being a fake yes man.

  • Michael Tuck

    It’s a great start of an article. :) Ralph came in with all that fake bonhomie, and anyone with an IQ higher than motor oil sludge sees through it — though sometimes we respond to it because WE want something from THEM. Puts me in mind of that Progressive Insurance ad, where the guys from Brand X Insurance keep calling their client by the wrong name and greet her with “What’s shakin’, bacon?” Familiarity is one thing, but common courtesy and respect comes first.

    • “…though sometimes we respond to it because WE want something from THEM.”

      Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that sometimes we put up with it because we want something from them.

      You’re right on. If the personal benefit (the “what’s in it for me” factor) hadn’t been there, the doctor never would have bought.

      And when this happens, I’m sure the sales person pats himself on the back and congratulates himself on his excellent people skills.

  • Magento Themes

    wow…interesting article..I’ve seen some salesman sells their products with the same …thanks for sharing…

  • Tim Inglis

    About 10 years ago I worked for a certain Pay TV brand (I was one of those people who knocked on your door, usually right as you were sitting down to dinner) and we were told to look for things in the yard -such as garden gnomes etc- that we could use as a conversation starter and act interested in it. You should have seen the blank stare I got from the trainer when I asked, “wouldn’t it be better to find something you can genuinely be interested in?” One of the best one’s I had -and I made the sale too- was when I saw a new Ford Explorer in the driveway. I started my spiel… “Hi, My names Tim and I’m from xxx, but before I get into that, do you mind if I ask you a question or two about that stunning looking car in the drive way?” She was taken aback by that and I asked how many it seats. You see, my wife was about to have our fourth child (who is now our middle child by the way and is soon going to be one of the middle pairing as she’s currently pregnant with no. 8) and so we needed a car that would fit us all in. She got to talking about her pride and joy which was her new car and I obviously had a genuine interest in what she had to say. All I can say is thanks God I didn’t have to make a choice between the car and a garden gnome as the conversation starter!

    • “she’s currently pregnant with no. 8”

      I imagine by now you’ve upgraded to a cargo van. Congratulations … again!

  • Andrew Cooper

    Brilliant article John, your quote from Dale Carnegie’s book is exactly what everyone should be doing. Don’t fake it, people can see right through it. A great film for people to watch that is just similar to your situation with Ralph is called In Good Company – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0385267/. I highly recommend you watch it.

    Andrew Cooper

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