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Selling with Status
What Sales People can Learn from Improv


The best salespeople are creative. They offer novel ideas that solve client problems. Their creativity is the lifeblood that brings value to sales relationships and accounts for satisfied customers and repeat business.

As a salesperson, you are on the front line of business development. Take, for instance, a sales meeting. You have to think on your feet. You need tools to be spontaneously creative, on demand. It's not unlike being on stage at an improvisational theater (improv), you have to respond to what is happening, and make use of it.

A sales meeting is an interaction between two or more people. Understanding the dynamics of that interaction can help you lead the meeting to a productive end - for both parties.

Theater director and coach Keith Johnstone is the author of Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, a book that could be described as a handbook on human interaction. The first section of his book deals entirely with status interactions. Johnstone breaks down the dynamics of interaction between people and trains his students to use those dynamics to build improvised interaction that looks and feels genuine. His book is an exploration of the nature of spontaneous creativity.

Johnstone discovered that many staged interactions lacked reality because real interaction has a status component that influences the behaviors of the participants. Status behaviors often occur below the level of our conscious awareness, but without awareness of the status of their role, actors had trouble generating behavior that felt authentic to the viewer. They were flat.

Let's look at status and its applications to selling.

Status Interactions

All human interaction has a status component to it. Here are a couple of examples related to selling:

You buy an expensive customized personal computer from a local retailer who installs software for you and adds all the features and sets everything up for you. When it arrives you discover that several things you paid for were left out. You call the retailer and complain - and you make it very clear, by your tone and very deliberate voice cadence, that you are not happy and need to be helped. In this case you are taking a high status role in the interaction.

Another example, when you walk into a clothing store and the salesperson says, "Excuse me sir. Can I help you?" they are taking the lower status role. In taking on the helpful role, they grant you the higher status.

Status is something over which there is often a social battle between people. In the first example, imagine that the computer guy that set up the computer answers the complaint call. Now, this particular techie has a very low opinion of anyone who doesn't know technology. He won't automatically grant you high status just because you are the customer. He'll assume high status because he's the one "who really knows." Likewise the clothing salesperson is a closet artist who thinks selling is demeaning - she might take high status in selling clothes because she believes it preserves her dignity. In both these situations the potential for some verbal sparring, and spicy improv, exists as both players vie for the higher status.

By being conscious of status, we can have more effective interactions with people and prospects. Awareness of status is also helpful in setting up the circumstances for productive conversations.

Sales: Take the low or high status role?

As a salesperson you should usually take the low status role. Consider this: You've been granted a meeting by a potential client, usually in their office. You are hoping that in some way you can provide service to them. You are going to (hopefully) listen and ask questions, playing the role of the learner. All these indicate that the salesperson normally will take on the lower status role.

Taking the low status role is appropriate and authentic, and it relaxes the high status player. The status game has been taken away. Try not to think of the low status role as pejorative. High and low status merely represent two sides of the same coin. Like inhaling and exhaling, status roles are interdependent and ubiquitous.

Think of it as a dance. When stepped appropriately it makes for an efficient and smooth exchange. In a sales meeting, paradoxically, the low status player often leads. He or she does this by asking permission. Seek assent to move in a certain direction and the high status player is immediately comfortable. You've granted them veto power, but they can sit back and be led by the low status expert.

Taking the lower status role offers the following benefits.

  • You're not likely to be viewed as egotistical or arrogant.
  • You're more likely to explain what you'd like to accomplish in the meeting and seek assent from your client prospect.
  • You're more likely to ask questions, to let the client speak without interruption (this means you'll probably learn something).
  • They are more inclined to interrupt you; which is a dynamic you want to have. You want your client to interrupt you when a question occurs to them.

    It's like being a gourmet diner in the hands of a professional wine steward. The wine steward inquires, suggests and recommends, and oozes professionalism. It is very clear that the sommelier is knowledgeable, professional and entirely in his element. And he is completely in service to the diner. It is the diner who makes the decision and spends the money. A real gourmet, however, will hand off the high status role to the sommelier for a time, in order to gain access to his or her expertise.

    From this perspective, one of the markers of a good meeting is a status swap. If your prospect decides to take you in to meet their boss, they have handed you the high status role, (of course it probably still makes sense to assume the low status role with the boss). Another example: let's say towards the end of the meeting, you begin to suggest all the creative and helpful ideas that occurred to you during the course of the meeting. As your client listens to your ideas and gains access to your expertise, they grant you a higher status role and begin delving into your ideas so they can be educated.

    Understand the purpose of taking the high status role is not to 'be' high status. When the client willingly steps in to the low status role, it indicates that you have passed a credibility test, and that they recognize your expertise. It means that you've earned their trust.

    The bottom line with regard to status: first, to be aware of it, and second to take the status that is most appropriate to the context of the moment. Usually, if you're a salesperson, that's the lower status role. Then request permission to ask questions, and do exactly that.

    2009 by Tim Dunne and Gregg Fraley




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