Most of us are uncomfortable when prolonged silence enters a conversation. It brings back that awkward blind date kind of a feeling. In my early days of corporate training, I remember directing a question to my audience and being greeted with crickets. It seemed to last five minutes – in reality, it was probably just five or six seconds. According to research, if a pause in a conversation lasts more than four seconds, it becomes uncomfortable. We begin to feel anxious and rejected. I definitely felt that way. Fortunately, so did the audience, prompting a kind soul to jump in and rescue me.
Over time, we have become adept at filling awkward silences. Sometimes this can work against us in sales when we want to gather as much insight as possible about our prospects' needs, problems, and opportunities. I have seen time and time again when a salesperson asks a great open-ended question and then dilutes its power because he can't cope with the awkward pause necessary to allow the person time to think before responding. As a result, the salesperson will jump in prematurely providing multiple choices from which to choose. It goes something like this:
Salesperson: "What would you say is most important to you in selecting a new provider?"
Three... two... one… no answer.
Salesperson: “Price? Technology? Relationship?”
Prospect: Yes, I would say all of those things…
I'm left wondering how the prospect would have answered if given the chance, and can't help but think that given a few more seconds, the prospect would have provided a goldmine of insight.
Another common scenario is when a salesperson interjects a follow-up question when he finds his first question was answered with silence. It sounds like this:
Salesperson: "What is the decision-making process?"
Three...two... one…no answer
Salesperson: ”Will all departments be involved?"
Prospect: “Yes, I believe so.”
In this case, the salesperson never gets the answer to the first question because a person's tendency is to respond to the last question asked.
In a formal sales presentation setting, I always encourage my clients to begin with a review of their understanding of the client's needs and to invite the buying committee to react and elaborate on what they heard. Rather than asking a closed ended question like "Did we get this right?" which inevitably will get a "yes" with no insight attached, I encourage them to say something like "We'd love to hear your feedback", to invite discussion. I also suggest that if the salesperson is standing, he sits - signaling to the client that he is handing over the floor. I then coach the sales person to "wait for it". Because of our discomfort with silence, this is a hard skill to coach. I remind her that the client is hearing this for the first time, and needs some time to absorb what she said and to formulate a response. I also will tell her that the silence will seem to her much longer than it actually is. Since our audience is not comfortable with silence either, one of them will inevitably break it, and hopefully, a lively and insightful conversation will follow.
Like so many selling skills, becoming comfortable with silence starts with being conscious of our natural tendency to fill the void. Once aware, you can begin to practice giving people more time to answer your question. You might try counting down four seconds silently. Overtime, you will gain confidence that the prospect will in fact respond.