I have to tell you maybe the earliest story my dad ever told me. It concerns a father trying to explain to his son the hazards of drinking alcohol. To set the stage, he instructed the boy to go out to the garden and dig up a worm. In those days, everyone had a Victory Garden and worms didn’t come from vending machines. I forked the garden every spring so I knew where worms came from.
When the kid returned, the father filled a tumbler half full of straight vodka. Then, with a flourish, he dropped the worm into the vodka!
The boy watched wide-eyed with mixed terror and fascination as the worm squirmed in obvious agony and finally settled to the bottom of the glass, lifeless.
Dad: Well, son. What did you learn from that?
Son: Well, dad. I learned that if you drink enough vodka you won’t get worms.
The humor in my dad’s story was typically low-key. Like many anecdotes, the point turns on the fact that several, often unexpected, unwanted and even contradictory conclusions can be drawn from one set of facts.
Corollary: Facts do not gain validity simply by having preceded the alleged conclusion.
Corollary: Conclusions are often free-standing. Sales are like that too.
I now know the real lesson my dad set for me had nothing to do with worms and alcohol.
He wanted me to learn that, at best, teaching is a slippery and inexact art; people often corrupt the lesson the teacher intended. VCR instructions and street directions and work orders and sales tracks are like that too.
His still deeper lesson was, I think, the importance of maintaining a certain precision of expression and instrumentality, combined with clear pedagogical objectives.
Science experiments and open-ended questions have their place but that father should have asked his son, “Are you getting into my booze?”
Dad’s story explains more than a few helluvalots. Why, for example, are otherwise malleable people completely unfazed by the unquestioned quality of your wonderful product and the irrefutable logic of your finely honed presentation? This is what really happens:
You: Mr. Prospect, do you realize your risk of disability is four times your risk of dying?
Prospect: Golly! I didn’t know that! That’s amazing.
Prospect thinks: I’m not gonna die and four not gonnas is one big not gonna. Not when there are bass biting and fishing to do!
You: You should buy DI insurance.
Prospect: I think you’re right.
Prospect thinks: I think I should buy a new bass boat.
You: Wanna buy?
Perverse? Yes. Logical? Absolutely! Real life? You betcha! Smart? No. At least not in the pickled worm sense. However, it makes eminent good sense in light of the prospect’s perceived problem and priorities.
The syllogistic cul-de-sac lies not in your weak mid-game strategy or in your apparently controvertible conclusion. The problem is your premiseit’s your premise. Or, likely as not, your company’s premise.
Your prospect’s premise du jour, on the other hand, flows from a fuzzy amalgamation of his previously successful conclusions tempered by a personal reality forged and annealed by previously unchallenged decisions.
The solution? Use your prospect’s premise, not yours, and hoist him on his own petard.
You: Say, that’s a nice bass boat.
Prospect: That tin can? I just bought me a new boat.
Prospect thinks: I NEED a new bass boat. (See? Now you agree on the premise!)
You: I’ll bet that new boat cost a lot of money.
Prospect: Oh, not what you’d think.
Prospect thinks: Omigosh! What will the missus think!?
You: What does the missus think?
Prospect: No problem.
Prospect thinks: I have a problem! My wife will brain me! At this point, your prospect internalizes his immediate problem, experiences emotional stress and realizes a need to alleviate the discomfort.
You: Does a broken head attract fish?
Prospect: I think I need some disability income insurance. You know, in case I have an accident or something.
Where do I sign?
See how simple it is when you put yourself in the client’s bass boat?
A 24-year veteran of the insurance business, Ed Ramsell trains new reps for Wellmark in Des Moines, Iowa. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.