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Coaching the Breakup

This lesson is a part of an audio course 15 Sales Stories That Work by Paul Andrew Smith

Imagine you’re a high school English teacher and adviser to the yearbook committee. One of your jobs is to decide which publisher to produce your school’s yearbook, and you’ve worked with the same one for years. Their sales rep has always been easy to work with, has high integrity, and is a generally nice person. In fact, under other circumstances, you could easily see yourself being friends.

But while her company does good work, you’ve recently come across another publisher that has higher quality and a lower price. Now you have to fire the rep you’ve been working with for years. That’s no fun. In fact, it can be daunting. How’re they going to react? Will they be mad at you?

And those are fair questions. Some reps get offended when going to another supplier as if you’re somehow being disloyal. Some lay on a guilt trip and complain that the buyer is taking food out of the mouths of their children. Some desperately offer to drop their price. Some even start to cry.

And, I get it, tears might seem a little extreme. But, most of these reactions are no different from what you’re likely to encounter in any industry. Business is personal when you’re in sales and your livelihood depends on the revenue.

And that’s why getting dropped by a customer feels like getting dumped by your high school steady. And to anyone who’s ever had to do it, you know that being the dump_er_ is almost as painful as being the dumpee.

And that’s why firing your supplier can be a dreadful, guilt-ridden experience—so much so that some people just won’t do it. They’d rather keep their current supplier just to avoid the emotional turmoil.

And that’s why one yearbook salesman I interviewed has a story he calls a “coaching the breakup” story. It’s how he helps a new client end its existing relationship as painlessly as possible. Basically, he tells a story about how one of his other clients navigated the breakup. It might start out something like this: “Hey, I’m looking forward to working with you. But I know you’ve got a difficult thing you have to do now—explaining all this to your current publisher. And I can tell you’re a little stressed about that. So I thought it might help if I told you how some of my other customers handled it.”

Then, he walks the buyer through a success story of how other customers handled the reaction from the old supplier. For example, if they desperately offered to drop the price, the yearbook advisor reacted by asking, “Where has that discount been all these years?” Or when one of them started crying, the advisor said, “Look, this isn’t personal, it’s a business decision.” Or the one about the advisor who continued to work nicely with the old supplier for the rest of the school year before transitioning to the new supplier next year. That seemed to make the transition not as painful. The story he tells depends on what the customer thinks the most likely reaction will be.

If breaking up is hard for your prospects to do, develop your own breakup stories to help coach them through it. You might need to talk to your better customers to find out how they did it. You’ll get some of your best stories that way. Don’t be shy about asking. Think of it as a flattering excuse to schedule some time with your customers.

Your own company’s procurement department is another great source for these kinds of stories. Who else has more experience firing suppliers than a professional buyer?

Okay, once you’ve closed the sale, your storytelling is over, right? Wrong, there are still stories you can tell to your brand new customer that will help them keep buying from you in the future. We’ll cover those in the last two lessons.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith