The Lost Art of Conversation

A strong verbal pitch still goes a long way despite industry reliance on digital messaging

Google the phrase "email marketing" and you get 62.2 million hits, with the first page of results offering an almost overwhelming list of email marketing services companies that claim to solve all of your problems for as little as 10 bucks a month. Every week, there's a self-proclaimed social media guru blogging about how to use Twitter or LinkedIn to get more business. And as customer relationship management software becomes ubiquitous, you can easily find hundreds of articles and web seminars that detail how to better leverage these tools to improve your close rate.

To be sure, all of this is great stuff, and the majority of it happens to be free. As a sales executive, I can't consume enough helpful hints. But somehow lost amid all this online advice is one factor that's no less important today than it was before the Internet: a strong verbal pitch.

During an average week, I receive 20 to 25 emails pitching products and services, with one-third of those salespeople following up via phone. With a very rare number of exceptions, the voice mails and phone interaction from these vendors ranges from forgettable to downright awful. This isn't an intelligence problem; in fact many of these people are probably smarter than me. The missing ingredient tends to be the ability to converse.

"People have gotten so used to email and text messaging, sometimes they can't think on their feet the way people had to in the past during a conversation," says Steve Richard, co-founder and chief content officer of Vorsight, a sales training consultant based in Arlington, Va. "The ability to lead a conversation in an effective way is a rare skill set."

(Before you jump to any conclusions, it's worth noting that Richard isn't some grizzled, old technophobe who cut his sales teeth during the "Mad Men" era, winning over clients with martini lunches and golf outings. He's in his early 30s and heavily endorses the use of LinkedIn, Salesforce and other technology within Vorsight's training curriculum.)

For many telemarketers and call centers, Richard is preaching to the choir. But for most field sales organizations, phone skills and techniques like verbal judo are either deprioritized or completely ignored. Part of that is because there's an assumption-often a wrong one-that the sales team already possesses these skills. "There's no real effort by many of these sales organizations to train their people on phone skills," Richard laments. "There's this perception that if these people are bringing in all the revenue, why are we paying for them to get better on the phone?"

So where are sales reps dropping the ball? Well, for one, Richard says, most people could use some work on their active listening skills, which are critical in determining what the customer is challenged with. Another common problem is an inability to ask questions clearly and effectively, citing the example of the rep that asks a question but provides multiple responses to select from-like a multiple choice quiz-rather than simply letting the customer reply with an unguided, sometimes more complete answer.

Richard says the best salespeople have the ability to pull information out of a customer, and that more and more clients expect insights and guidance from their vendors.

"There has to be a conduit in the buying and selling process," Richard says. "There will always be a role for someone who's smart enough and bold enough and creative enough to highlight a need the customer didn't know they had.... And the only way you can do that is to exchange ideas, which usually happens most effectively through conversation."

I couldn't have said that better myself.

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