How to avoid ‘mother may I’ in sales

The month of May signifies many things to many people, depending upon your point of view and frame of reference. It’s the peak of springtime (and the precursor of hot, humid months), Cinco de Mayo, the Kentucky Derby, high school and college graduations, Memorial Day and the Indianapolis 500, to name a few. But we would be remiss if we did not recognize and salute our mothers, wives and significant others before, during and after Mother’s Day, on May 12.  

They are the ones who helped impart to us, among other things, the importance of respect, understanding, permission and compliance, so it’s natural for us to always want to please our mothers and make them proud. In sales, however, that “Mother-May-I” syndrome – where a salesperson adopts a passive, overly accommodating, stance when dealing with prospects – can be dangerously counterproductive and highly unprofitable. It sometimes occurs due to a fear of rejection, a desire to avoid conflict or the belief that acquiescing to a prospect will lead to more success. As a result, salespeople often find themselves constantly seeking permission from prospects, hesitating to challenge assumptions or push back on unrealistic demands.

One sure way to avoid this “Mother-May-I” syndrome is by utilizing, and mastering, the concept of an up-front contract in which the seller establishes the rules of engagement with the prospect – no different than an umpire or referee clearly outlining the rules of the game before the kickoff or first pitch. The objective is mutual consent, comfort and commitment between the seller and the prospect as to exactly what is going to happen in your meeting or conversation:

What is the purpose? Why are we here?

What is the date, time and duration of the meeting?

What information is the seller hoping to learn?

What information is the prospect hoping to learn?

What are the next steps for each participant, if any, at the conclusion?

The bane of many sellers are those prospects who, after what seemingly was a productive conversation or a terrific presentation, conclude the meeting with “I need to think it over,” or “call me next week,” or “I’ll need to check with my boss.” But since we’re trying to please that “authority figure,” we acquiesce. A good up-front contract avoids the conundrum of the seller and the prospect having different agendas, and objectives, for the meeting and neither knowing exactly what happens next. It allows the professional seller to:

Fully understand a client’s/customer’s needs or “pains.”

Establish clear objectives for the meeting, including definitive outcomes.

Set expectations for each party early in the conversation.

Outline responsibilities for both parties in the sales process.

Address concerns, or objections, from the prospect before they occur.

Confirm that both the seller and the prospect are on the same page.

Obtain commitment to agreed-upon action items.

The idea of establishing an up-front contract, however, is counterintuitive to most sellers simply because they are of the mistaken belief that they should be subservient to the whims and desires of their prospect. (Perhaps it’s due to a high need for approval, which they probably learned from their mothers?) 

Prospects have a need, or a problem, they’re trying to solve. Sellers can fill that need or offer a potential solution to that problem. Is there any reason that you, as a professional seller, should not enjoy “equal business stature” with your prospect by mutually establishing the rules of engagement? You don’t need the approval of your mother. 

Jim Marshall is the founder of Sandler Training of Tampa Bay which provides sales and management training and coaching to high-achieving companies and individuals. Contact him at 813.287.1500 or [email protected].

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