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Have you ever backed away from, or even avoided a certain topic for fear of offending your buyer? Over the years I’ve seen many sales people shy away from their qualification questions because they’re worried about potentially annoying prospects.

I find that the ones who obsess over not coming across as pushy often create boundaries for themselves that don’t need to exist, and this ultimately kills their effectiveness. There’s nothing wrong with being assertive when talking to potential customers, but it’s easy to cross the line into being aggressive.

Assertive vs. Aggressive

“Assertive” and “aggressive” are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are key differences between them. Being assertive involves pursuing a desired outcome or stating and standing by an opinion while still being mindful and respectful of the desired outcomes and opinions of others. Aggressiveness, meanwhile, is usually characterised by relentlessly pursuing your desired outcome while ignoring or attacking the opinions or desires of others.

If you’re worried about crossing the line from assertive into aggressive, the following three strategies will help you to strike the perfect balance.

1. Offer the conclusion, and then the explanation.

Many sales reps think aggressiveness is all about the tone of their voice …… if they don’t sound aggressive, they’ll be fine, but this simply isn’t true.
You could use the most respectful tone in the world and still sound pushy. How? It all comes down to your phrasing.
Which of the following two options comes off as more presumptive to you?
“Who in Purchasing is working on this project?”
“You know what would be easier… why don’t I just talk to Purchasing directly. Who should I contact?”
Even though the salesperson using the second phrase might have a more empathetic voice tone, it’s pretty passive-aggressive, because it implies that the salesperson’s conclusion; in this case, talking to Purchasing directly, isn’t open for debate.
When putting forward a question, don’t explain why first. Just ask.

2. Accept the answer you get (even if you don’t like it).

When it comes to offending prospects, the damage is rarely done as a result of the question posed. The damage is done as a result of how the salesperson handles the answer. Let’s say a salesperson asks the buyer “What’s your budget for this project?” and the prospect responds, “I don’t feel comfortable sharing that with you.” Most reps in this situation would think “Uh oh … I just crossed a line.” But if you simply accept the answer and move on to your next question, you show the prospect that you’re not afraid to dig deeper, and also that you can take “no” gracefully. And that’s precisely the kind of sales person that buyers want to work with.

What you shouldn’t do is steamroll past the buyer’s response by countering with something along the lines of “Okay, well, would you give me a ballpark?” The prospect already gave you an answer; and it was that they didn’t want to answer. So accept the response, and move on. If you don’t, you risk being perceived as pushy and aggressive; exactly the type of salesperson buyers want to hang up on.

3. Set expectations early on.

Frequently, salespeople will wait until they build rapport with their prospect before asking them “hard” questions. The salesperson thinks that if they can get on friendly terms with the buyer, the buyer will be more willing to open up, and the salesperson stands less of a chance of annoying the prospect.

But there’s a problem with this approach, and it has to do with expectation setting. If a salesperson only asks easy questions early on, the “hard” questions later will seem out of context. The buyer might also conclude that the only reason the rep was nice at first was to butter them up. In other words, the rapport isn’t genuine.

My rule of thumb is to ask the hard questions early on, before you’ve provided the prospect with everything they want, such as a demo or a trial. That way, you have some leverage that will help you get the answers you’re looking for, not to mention that you set the expectation that the sales process won’t always be 100% comfortable or easy.

If you spend too much time worrying about appearing aggressive, you probably won’t be assertive enough to get the information you need to help prospects, so be aware, not just of how you sound, but what you’re saying.

Are you or your clients struggling to get the balance right?