We’ve all had the experience: We’re prospecting, and when the guy we’re looking for answers, he’s obviously not thrilled to hear from us. He audibly sighs when we say who we are. Or he raps out stiffly, “How can I help you?” Or hisses, “Yessss” in a tone that suggests you’d be more welcome if you were the Black Plague.

This prospect is pretty obviously in the grip of a negative emotion of some kind. Perhaps she’s tired. Perhaps she’s fed up with something that just happened in her department. Perhaps her kids were particularly unruly while getting off to school. Or perhaps you’re the third salesperson who’s called that day.

So what do you do? Well, some salespeople might be tempted to ignore the overtones and just try to power through. After all, you might reason, it doesn’t help to dwell on a negative. And it’s not your job to intrude on a buyer’s emotional inner sanctum.

But that kind of reasoning, while perhaps prudent, isn’t always correct. In fact, there’s behavioral research suggesting you ought to let your prospect know that you noticed he or she isn’t exactly in finest form.

The observer effect
The research we’re talking about focuses on an experiment done nearly a century ago at a factory near Chicago, known as the Hawthorne plant.

The original researchers found that workers’ productivity increased when the level of illumination in their work areas was turned up — but, surprisingly, also when it was turned down. Later research concluded that the workers’ performance improved not because they knew they had to up their game with someone watching, but because they felt good about someone paying attention to them. The phenomenon is widely known as the Hawthorne effect or the observer effect.

Sales training guru David Hoffeld has taken Hawthorne a step farther. Hoffeld says it also works on negative customer emotions –- they improve when you make the buyer aware you’ve noticed them.

Perking up
Here’s the thing: Much of our human behavior is the result not so much of our conscious will as of evolutionary processes that drive us to react in certain ways. One such evolutionary trait is our unconscious response to being watched. It’s a carryover from the days when our ancestors needed to react when the eye of a predator fell on them, or face a grisly end.

In modern society, a similar reaction tends to perk us up — automatically — when we know someone’s observing us. So when you face that buyer who’s in a bad mood, it can be useful to let her know you’re aware of that mood.

How do you go about this? Well, it depends on where you are in the sales process. If you’re cold-calling, and this is your first contact with the person, you can’t get too intimate with your noticing strategy. You wouldn’t want to say, for example, “Gee, Bill, you don’t sound so good. Is everything all right?” That would just come across as weird.

But you could say something like, “Ms. Burke, I sense that this call isn’t entirely welcome right now. Am I reading this right?”

That way you surface the negative emotion, letting the person on the other end know you’ve noticed and care enough to comment. And, if Hawthorne and Hoffeld are right, you’ll have cued your buyer to shake off their emotional pall, at least long enough to listen to you.

Down the road
If you’re further down the road with the buyer — a phone callback after a good initial contact, or a physical meeting where you plan to present — and the person is unexpectedly cool or off-putting, you can say more. You might respond with this sort of thing:

  • “Is something wrong, Jennifer? You seem preoccupied,” or
  • “Bill, is this still a good time for us to talk? It sounds like you might have something else on your mind.”

If you speak in a compassionate, sincere tone, one of two good things is likely to happen:

  • The buyer’s emotional state improves in response to your noticing it, and he says something like, “I was just thinking about something that happened this morning, but please go on.”
  • The buyer acknowledges that she isn’t at her best, enabling you to set a new time to talk when she’s in a better frame of mind.

Picking up on it
Bottom line: When buyers seem grouchy, preoccupied or distant, don’t be afraid to let them know you’ve picked up on it.

If you do this right, it won’t come across as intrusive, but will trigger an emotional adjustment that will improve the quality of the contact.

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