Handling Client Resistance

AS YOU SIT in a taxi returning to the office, your mind is still racing with thoughts of the just completed sales meeting. The opening was professional, you spent time understanding the client’s situation and background, and real needs were uncovered which your company can address.

Better yet, the client acknowledged outside support was necessary and that a budget could be secured.

But you realise something went wrong at the end.

You suggested the logical next step of inviting key personnel to attend a half-day focus group meeting with your client, only for the client to drop a bombshell.

Instead of accepting the invitation, the client said it was best not to rush things and that they would get back to you. Trying to remain calm, friendly and professional, all you could do was say you completely understood and looked forward to hearing from them.

What went wrong? Most of your prospective clients would have agreed to your proposed way forward, but now the words “we’ll think about it” are ringing in your ears.

Objections, resistance and lack of agreement are a normal part of the process of selling professional services. Very often, clients are hesitant to commit to the next step in their buying process, particularly during a first meeting when they have not had the chance to consider all the possible outcomes.

The key to handling resistance is to help the client think through and resolve the various issues.

This does not mean immediately suggesting an alternative way forward or trying to minimise their concerns – it is about you listening and the client talking.

If you encounter resistance to your proposed next step in any of the series of sales meetings, try the following process:

Step 1: Pause before replying. 

By not rushing your answer, you achieve several things: it gives you time to think; it emphasises that you have heard what the client has to say; and it may encourage further comments which give you additional information. By continuing to talk, the client may even come up with a workable solution.

Step 2: Question, listen and summarise. 

Assuming the client does not become more expansive during your pause, you will need to get further insights. Start with an open-ended question such as “Why do you say that” Then follow up with a few open, leading and closed questions until you have a better understanding of their reasons. As with all sessions which involve probing questions, summarise at the end to ensure you have a full and accurate grasp of the situation.

Step 3: Ascertain if this is the only problem. 

Now that you have a better idea of the reason for resistance, do not be tempted to jump straight in with a response, especially if it is obvious to you. There may well be other problems or issues. Chances are the first obstacle mentioned is not the only one and it may not even be the largest.

Get everything on the table and, when it all seems clear, do not forget to use the “anything else” question. If the client brings up any new items of information, you should repeat the process of questioning, listening and summarising and be prepared to “funnel down” on each topic until you have a clear understanding of why it is a potential problem. It is essential to do this before offering a solution.

Step 4: Test the waters.

Test things by asking yourself if the client is really seeking a solution or simply intending to reject every suggestion. Sometimes clients can be difficult, illogical or stubborn. Even after addressing all the issues, they still do not want to move the process forward. However, you should regard the relationship with a client as ongoing and for the long term, so do not jeopardise it by pushing too hard. Known when to hold back and exercise patience.
Step 5: Propose your solution.

When it comes to proposing the solution, the important thing to remember is that you only have one chance. You cannot keep throwing out suggestions until the client finally agrees to one of them. In some instances, the client may have a question or problem that you genuinely cannot deal with until you have done some extra research.

By giving an off-the-cuff response, you can end up damaging your credibility, and clients do not expect you to know everything. In fact, showing some vulnerability can go a long way to building trust.

However, if you have identified a way forward that will overcome resistance and should be acceptable to the client, now is the time to try it. In presenting your idea, first empathise with the client, then provide your alternative. Acknowledge that you understand their point of view and explain how your alternative way forward can effectively address any concerns.

Step 6: Seek commitment.

Seek commitment even when it seems as if nothing will work. If you have provided a convincing and viable answer to problems raised by the client, then make sure you get some form of commitment. It may only be to talk again on a certain date, but that can also mark progress. 

In the end, one of two things can happen. Either the prospective client accepts your alternative suggestion, in which case it is now up to you to deliver as promised; or it becomes apparent you have hit a brick wall.

In the latter case, if this is a company you definitely want to work with, do not give up. Log the results in your database and continue marketing to them. Remember that selling professional services takes time, since clients buy on their own schedule, not yours.



Information gap
Every client can be expected to have a few standard responses. They will query the value of your services, say you are no different from their current supplier, or claim your ideas are nothing new. However, this is not necessarily a negotiating tactic or deliberate resistance.

If the client also looks confused, these comments may be the result of an information gap and a misunderstanding about your product or services. To avoid this, make sure you deliver your message clearly and persuasively. For every feature you describe, follow up with a benefit that adds value, and make sure the combination is relevant to the client.

Value gap
As you get back to your desk, your manager walks up and asks: “How did it go?” You launch into a full rundown of today’s sales meeting with your prospective client, only for your manager to clarify he was asking about yesterday’s internal budget meeting.

This is an example of a “value gap” or information mismatch. What you had to say might have been important and interesting, but it was not what the other person was looking for. The same can happen during a sales or strategy meeting. You may be talking about excellence in project implementation when the client’s biggest concern is the return on investment.

Losing the sale
Sometimes a “deal breaker” can cause problems for the best of us. This may be because there is a gap between what the client wanted and what you can offer – for example, office support in certain locations – or, there is an unbridgeable gap in terms of information and understanding. This could be linked to internal politics, changing client needs, or a relationship with other vendors.

Most professional services companies are in business for the long term. A lost sale today does not necessarily mean the opportunity is lost forever. Things can always change. Continue to build rapport and you will be able to avoid the deal breakers next time around.

Talk as a team
Use the client’s preferred terminology. Do they say vendors or suppliers, salespeople or associates? Also, try to talk about how “we” can solve a problem or move forward – a collective approach which deliberately includes the client in the process. It will help build rapport and trust.