Tips for Dealing with Skeptical Prospects

Have you ever had one of those prospects that yawns when you're talking to them?
Perhaps you’ve run across the other kind that just sits there, glaring at you with their arms folded in a tense position?

If you have been selling for a few years maybe you have noticed this type of behaviour more often recently ?

Maybe that’s becasue of PTE ?

What is the PTE?

In the book "The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics" by Michael Malansky, the author explains that we're living in a Post-Trust Era, or PTE.

America's trust in America died a tragic death in 2008, and it hasn't been resurrected.

According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, there has been an extreme loss of trust in government, media, business, and non-governmental organizations in America.

"The Language of Trust" points to a few key reasons for this decline in trust:

  • We have too much information.
  • We've seen behind the marketing and communications curtain.
  • We don't want to be told what to do.
  • We have shorter attention spans.

The Psychology of Sceptics

You might find yourself dealing with a lot more skeptical buyers these days.

I have read that "The Psychology of Sceptics" often starts with pessimistic beliefs.
The thought pattern is, ...
"That won't work for me; it works for everyone else but not for me."
It often involves "away from" thinking, which means thinking about avoiding any problems. In other words, these people are always looking for what can go wrong.
Often, skeptics do not want to be told something is a good idea; they have to decide for themselves (which aligns with the third point from the book).

Is it All About the Skeptic or Can We Have Influence

Are we helpless when faced with a skeptical prospect ?

On a personal level have you ever noticed the more enthusiastic you are the more sceptical people are?
Looking at it from the other side of the ledger, have you ever had someone exuberantly recommend a movie and it often doesn’t live up to their hype? 

So, is it about the skeptic's attitude or as much about the way an idea is put to them ?

I'd like to suggest a definition of communication that will help with that question.. 

”Communication is what the other person understood, not what you wanted them to get.” 

If you accept this definition when you don't get the reaction you want you can change what you do e.g. “that’s not what I meant, let me put it another way”.

The Language of Suggestion

One of the points made above is that skeptical people don’t like being told what to do or how they should think.

So, one of the worst things you can do when communicating with a skeptic is insinuate that there is only one "right" answer. This leaves a prospect feeling as though they have no options.

Trying to force a skeptic to believe what you believe doesn’t work.

From the time we’re children, we resist being told what to do. We want freedom of choice.

Just try telling your teenager what they HAVE to do based on your years of experience (with all the best intentions) — Let me know how that goes!

This attitude can be addressed by using the Language of Suggestion. 

Do you know the board game "Clue"?
It uses a lot of suggestive language. "I suspect Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with the knife."

For you, that might be, ...
"I suspect I may have just the product you are looking for."

This creates curiosity rather than resistance and skepticism.

Think about when someone is trying to convince you of something.
How do you respond when someone says, "I know just the thing for you, you're going to love it"? 

Compare that to when someone says,
"May I give you some information about what you are trying to accomplish? It may help you make a decision, but only you can decide."
"I'm wondering what you think about this as a possible solution?" 

When you invite someone to be the judge, they are more likely to look at your ideas. 

If you find yourself telling, back up, erase, and start again.

Benjamin Franklin and the Language of Suggestion

Even Benjamin Franklin used this language of suggestion.

Early in his life, Benjamin Franklin was told by a friend that he was cocky, “overbearing” and “insolent”.

Did Ben get defensive? NO!
He changed his everyday language.

In Ben’s own words, …
“I even forbid myself…the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly…and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend it, I imagine a thing to be so…”

This was written about years later under the description of, “Tentative Language”, described in the book, “Crucial Conversations”, as follow:
One of the ironies of dialogue is that, when talking with those holding opposing opinions, the more convinced and forceful you act, the more resistant others become. Speaking in absolute and over-stated terms does not increase your influence, it decreases it. The converse is also true– the more tentatively you speak, the more open people become to your opinions.”

This is much like the Language of Suggestion mentioned above.

Taking a Different Viewpoint Can Help

There is a concept called Perceptual Positions. 

Position one is your own point of view, how you see the interaction and what you want to achieve.

Position two is looking at it from the other person's point of view, and this often gives you a different perspective on what you're trying to achieve and their reactions.

The problem is if you spend too long in position 1, you think other people are weird (because they don't think as you do).

If you spend too long in the 2nd position, you lose your aim—what you wanted to get out of the communication sort of gets lost in what they want.

Position three is a sort of fly-on-the-wall viewpoint, where you get a broader perspective and a sense of the interaction between you and the other person. Adopting this position can offer help in resolving a difficulty. It is often a good move to plan for the sales call from these three perspectives.

Plan for a Meeting with a Skeptic

A mentor of mine uses the following meeting planning framework for dealing with skeptical people. 

It starts with 4 steps in your thinking in preparation for the meeting:

  1. What is your main message? Do you require them to take action? Do you require them to learn something from you?
  2. Think about their possible objections as part of your call preparation (not during the call). You should even look at possible extreme objections.
  3. Think of a common thing that serves as proof for your message, something that everyone would have experienced. Not everyone wants facts and figures; some want to verify it internally from their own experiences. (By the way, it's easier to find stories and objections if you take the 2nd position.)
  4. Frame your opening using these objections and common experiences. ( It was often said about making presentations that you "tell 'em what you're going to say, tell 'em, then tell 'em what you've told 'em." However, there are times when that just gives ammunition to skeptical people because they get their objections ready in advance.)

Build Rapport and Acknowledge Their Truth 

Before we can try to suggest how we can satisfy our prospect's needs, we have to get them prepared to listen to us and respond to our questions.

After all, it is said that "People buy from (and listen to) people they know, like, and trust."

This means that before you even begin discussing the products and services you offer, you must establish a level of trust.
And, people trust those who are most like themselves. 

It seems that people are most comfortable with what is familiar to them, whether it be food, music, or other human beings.
It's called building Rapport

Click this link or more on building Sales Rapport

If you want to make progress with skeptical buyers, you also want to acknowledge and validate their truth. Even if it's irrational from your perspective, you can't discount it if you want to build credibility and trust with them.

Remember: there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.

You want to focus on THEIR wants, needs, concerns, and hesitations.

The surest way to make a skeptic tune you out is to talk about yourself and what YOU want. Showing empathy and understanding towards prospective clients' needs is the foundation on which sales conversations are built today.

Remember it’s about meeting them where they are and leading them with your words and actions to where you want them to go.

Evidence (Internals versus Externals)

Testimonials and case studies will help you with about 50% of people. 

I'm sure you have presented all sorts of evidence to some prospects, and it has had absolutely no effect. These people are largely Internal in their judgments and are rarely swayed by what has worked for anyone else or what anyone else thinks.

Also, remember one of the thought patterns of skeptics I wrote about earlier on this page: "That won't work for me; it works for everyone else but not me."

So, relevant case studies and testimonials may be helpful (but don't count on it), including when you're first reaching out.

They say numbers don't lie. Skeptical prospects may be more likely to see your point when it's backed by cold, hard data.
But certainly, a skeptical buyer certainly won't be overly swayed by a success story from a company totally different from their own.

Even though data and evidence may not help, if using them you are better avoiding generic value statements.

Here’s an example of how you’d reframe a vague value statement:

Bad: “Our tool streamlines internal communication.”

Better: “Our tool reduces the average number of daily emails sent per employee by 25%.”

Best: “Eighty-nine percent of our customers see each employee sending around 25% fewer emails per day. For instance, Greenwood Supply’s average employee used to send 60 messages every day. Now, they send 45."

Avoid Shooting Yourself in the Foot

Avoid exaggeration or absolutes because they aren't believable.
No product or service is perfect, so acting like it is can be a major turnoff to a skeptical prospect. They just want you to be upfront with them. It might seem counterintuitive, but acknowledging the shortcomings of what you offer makes you more believable.

Have you ever had any prospects go macho on you?

You know, they already know everything about the topic you're trying to help them with. And all their problems are of someone else’s making. 

To avoid triggering this response you need to run what you say or write through the macho test. 

Ask yourself these questions.

  1. “Have I anywhere in what I’m about to say (or write) stated or implied that I know something that you don’t know” (This can be overcome by starting with, “I’m sure you’re aware”)
  2. "Have I anywhere in my words (or text) stated or implied that you are not perfect in everything you do?" (Resolve this by referring to other people who have had this problem and ask your prospect, "How did you solve it?" Hopefully, they will say something like, "We do this, and it solves most of the problems.")
  3. “Have I anywhere in my text (or speech) stated or implied that someone is more important than you are” 

As an example of macho behaviour have you ever seen anyone interviewed, when asked the question “were you surprised by the turn of events?”, actually ever admit to being surprised?

Avoid using fancy language.
Skeptical buyers are always on high alert for things that sound good yet don't mean anything, so using fancy lingo will convince them that you are, in fact, full of it.

If you say: “Our cost-effective solution is specifically engineered to meet your needs.”

What they hear: “Blah blah blah.”

Get Someone to Check your Communication

It's often good to run what you're going to say in a meeting or write in an email past another person.

Never assume people are sane. 

When you get someone else to look at it, ask them if it makes sense from their point of view. They are much better able to take the 2nd position than you are. 

You could also take a "fly on the wall position" (3rd position) to assess what it says about the relationship between you and the prospect.

Credible Communication Style versus Approachable Style

Michael Grinder has conducted extensive research into styles of communication.

He believes there are two types of communication styles: Credible and Approachable. 

The Credible style involves minimal voice changes (almost monotone), limited facial expressions, and a downward pitch on the second to last syllable. For example, "This is CNN." This style tends to be more believable to your audience.

On the other hand, the Approachable style incorporates lots of gestures, intonation changes, and a rising tone at the end of sentences.

According to Michael's research, it's better to use the credible style to effectively convey your message. (Another tip... stop moving when you're not talking; it makes you look more intelligent)


If you incorporate these methods you are more likely to make progress with a skeptical prospect.

As well as Michael Grinder's work on Communication Styles a lot of ideas on this page have come from the work of Shelle Rose Charvet.