Commonalities might be good starting points but sellers need to be a little more subtle about how to use them and if they can’t be subtle and conversational and real about it, they should avoid it altogether.

A plane roared low overhead and I twisted my neck to look up and through the driver’s side window.  A 737 heading into Charlotte Douglas International.  I was getting close to my destination but it wasn’t the airport.

I was going to the golf course to meet with Dick.

His message had been cryptic:  “Timmy, meet me at the golf course near the airport at 6pm.  But, we aren’t playing golf.”

I didn’t know what that meant but any meeting with Dick Harlow was worth my time.  The parking lot was about three-quarters full as I found a spot next to a brand new Infiniti.  The car looked normal but the TV commercials featuring rocks and streams without any pictures of cars had me perplexed.

“I’m sure that brand won’t be around in fifteen years,” I thought to myself as I grabbed a notebook and headed towards the 19th hole.

Dick wasn’t in the bar and he wasn’t in the pro shop so I went outside and found him hitting balls on the driving range.  Dick’s swing was relaxed with very few moving parts and he was striping the ball down the middle of the range with his driver.  I was impressed.

“Hi, Dick!”

Dick had just teed up another ball but he left it there to shake my hand.

“Timmy, you’re a golfer, right?”

“That would be an insult to golfers,” I said laughing.  “Although, I do play golf.”

“You know I played in the Greater Greensboro Open Pro-Am last year.”  Dick was fishing around in his golf bag for something.

“Yes, I remember you telling me that you played with Raymond Floyd and he wasn’t very nice.”

“Right, that’s putting it mildly.  But, I did get this memento of the occasion.”

With that, Dick pulled out a photo showing himself with two other regular guys and Raymond Floyd on the first tee of the GGO.  Dick handed me the photo and said, “Do you see photos like that in offices of decision makers with whom you meet to discuss advertising?”

“Of course. Not usually with a pro player in them but I see these all the time.  In fact, I have a couple myself from charity golf tournaments I’ve played in.”

“When you see these in those offices, do you comment on them prior to making your presentation?”

“Sure. I typically look around the prospect’s office to find items about which I can make casual conversation.  When I see something like this, I get really excited because I know that the two of us have something in common.”

“Is having something in common with the prospect important?”

“I think so.  What I’ve discovered about selling is that there is an awkwardness to the beginning of a sales presentation.  The prospect is naturally skeptical of the seller because the seller’s job is to be persuasive and buyers suspect that they aren’t always telling the whole truth.  When prospects are meeting with sellers that they don’t yet know or trust, the seller should take steps to break the ice.  Finding something we have in common helps to build trust.”

“Here’s the thing,” Dick noted “sellers should beware the commonality, as not every commonality is worth mentioning.  For example, we’ve all been stuck in traffic but we wouldn’t ask the prospect if they had ever been stuck in traffic as a way to prove we have something in common.  Plus, commonalities aren’t always what they appear to be.”

“Can you give me an example?” I asked.

“Sure.  Imagine the seller who meets people in their homes to sell carpeting.  He is invited in by the lady of the house and a little dog comes up to him.  Bending down to pet the dog he remarks about how much he loves Australian Terriers.  ‘How old is this one?’ he asks, oblivious to the steely expression on the woman’s face.  ‘He’s seven, but if he keeps pooping on the carpet he won’t make it to eight’ is her reply.”

“Oh boy,” I laughed.  “The dog was the reason to buy the new carpet.”

“Right.  The presumed commonality of a love of Australian Terriers turns out to be a non-starter for a trusting relationship with this prospect.  Of course, his presumption of commonality would be even worse if it turns out the dog was her husband’s and that his ownership of the dog preceded his relationship with his wife.”

“I see your point.  But, if commonalities aren’t good starting points, what would be better?”

“Commonalities might be good starting points but sellers need to be a little more subtle about how to use them and if they can’t be subtle and conversational and real about it, they should avoid it altogether.  Here’s one idea:  I invite a seller into my office and offer a seat and he says to me, ‘One day when you have more time, I’d love to talk to you about the best golf courses you’ve ever played.  I realize that today needs to be all business, though, and I am ready to talk to you about how XYZ company can help.’  If I feel like talking about my favorite golf courses, the seller has opened the door but if I don’t the seller is still on solid ground.”

“Oh, I get it.  Rather than a banal comment like, ‘I see you play golf’ the seller indicates a common interest without risking being shut down by a prospect who doesn’t feel like exploring commonalities.”

“Right!  Now, you try one.”

“Okay.  I walk into an office in the late afternoon and see pictures of the prospect’s children in soccer uniforms.  As we get settled, I say ‘Thanks for seeing me late in the day and carving out 30 minutes for our meeting.  If it’s okay with you, I’m going to get right into it because although I would love to ask you about your little soccer players, I actually have to get to the fields myself this evening to coach my daughter’s practice.’

“Not bad,” Dick said encouragingly.  “Perhaps, the prospect will open up about youth soccer or perhaps she’ll agree that now is a good time to talk business and soccer can wait until later.  Either way, you’re off to a good start because at the very least the prospect knows you’re a professional who respects both her time and her boundaries.  Now, how ’bout a beer before we get out of here?”

“Sounds good,” I said, gathering my thoughts as Dick collected his gear.

I came to realize that what Dick had taught me was that engaging prospects can’t be done by following a script.  After all, as Dick Harlow himself might have said, “There are no paint by number masterpieces.”

About the author

Tim Rohrer

After a 20-year career in broadcast sales, Tim J.M. Rohrer wrote a book, Sales Lessons…

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