How the FBI Can Help You Sell More Effectively…


When it comes to closing a sale, what you ultimately want to hear is ‘yes’.  But the reality is that the road to getting to that ‘yes’ isn’t a straight line.

In fact, if you focus your efforts and push for that ‘yes’ from the outset of your sales process, you’re not going to get there.  It’s probably not what you’d expect, but the FBI actually has a lot of data and experience with this.

It turns out there’s a necessary detour that has to happen in the sales interaction in order to get to that final ‘yes’.  Before you can make progress towards ‘yes’, what you really want to hear from your potential customer is ‘that’s right’.

Why ‘That’s Right’ is more important than ‘Yes’…

Before he left the FBI to start up his own consulting practice, author Chris Voss was the lead negotiator for the FBI. He was the guy that got pulled into the difficult and high profile situations, kidnappings, hostages, etc. and it was his job to find a resolution that kept anyone from getting killed and brought the bad guys in.  It’s one of the toughest jobs out there and one that requires constant learning and field refinement of techniques and theories.

In his new book, Never Split the Difference, Voss explains that the FBI has taken a very different approach to negotiations than the traditional business and academic worlds…and based on his experiences both in the FBI and now out in private practice working with the business world, the FBI has figured out a few very important things.

For starters, their negotiations model is based on the importance of empathizing with your counterpart. Establishing a real, emotional connection is critical to getting a deal done.  Historically, organizations like Harvard Business School and other academic groups have developed their ‘getting to yes’ negotiating approach based on the idea of rational economic behavior.  Basically, it’s the idea that people will always ultimately make the decision that’s most logical based on costs and income.

It turns out the negotiating academics have been wrong on this for quite a while.  If you haven’t read it, you should check out Dan Ariely’s great book – Predictably Irrational. He does a great job of explaining (based on lots of scientific studies) that we collectively, don’t make decisions rationally, we make them emotionally and that a model based on anything else is ultimately going to fail.

In a negotiation, this means that you’re not going to sway the other side with your brilliant logic.  In fact, what the FBI and Voss have learned and used over the past 20 or 30 years is that you have to first build a genuine connection with the other side before you can make any progress on the deal. The other side has to know that you understand their situation and where they are coming from.

The most succinct and effective way to show that you’ve made that connection is when they tell you ‘that’s right’.  That’s the clear sign that they know, and appreciate, that you ‘get them’. And once that happens, it leaves them open to persuasion and sales.

How to get to ‘That’s Right’…

Whether it’s sales or a negotiation, this idea of getting to ‘that’s right’ first changes the way you look at the interactions with the other party.  Your pitch, whatever it is that you want, isn’t important (at least not yet). What is important is to get the other side to genuinely open up about what their challenges are.  This isn’t likely going to happen right away – like a good detective, you’re going to have to dig for the truth. Here are a few techniques that might help you:

  • Ask well-thought out open, ended questions to get them talking
  • Become comfortable with silence and pauses as a way to encourage them to go deeper
  • Use simple mirroring techniques to get them to expand on their thoughts (typically as simple as repeating the last 2 or 3 words in a non-judgemental, questioning tone)

And finally, once you feel like you have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on, and more importantly, where they’re coming from emotionally, you need to summarize the situation. A good summary will reflect back the situation plus acknowledge how that situation makes them feel.  As an example, you might describe a situation where a business owner is losing money and let them know that you understand that it’s probably a frustrating and maybe even scary situation for them (or whatever kinds of emotions they shared with you).

If you’ve done all of that right, the other person will look at you with some slight gratitude and tell you, in essence, ‘that’s right’.  They now know that you understand their situation and it will open them up to the idea of problem-solving and addressing their challenges – without triggering the resistance that a sales pitch might normally give them.

Although this technique comes from a book on negotiations, it’s perfectly suited for selling. Especially for sales that are a little more complex. If you want someone to be open to what you have to offer them, you have to first make the effort to connect with them and understand their situation…which is where ‘that’s right’ comes from.

What do you think?  Does this make sense to you?  Do you ever struggle with a sales discussion? Is it because you were pushing for ‘yes’ before you got to ‘that’s right’? We’d love to hear your thoughts – share them in the comments below.

Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach