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“Give them the information they need.” With Mitch Russo & Liston Witherill

For many people, handling objections can feel like staring rejection in the face. But if you hear objections, it’s likely that your prospect is considering buying from you. That’s a good thing. Welcome any and all objections and have an open conversation. Rather than treating objections as a way to demonstrate that you’re right, approach […]

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For many people, handling objections can feel like staring rejection in the face. But if you hear objections, it’s likely that your prospect is considering buying from you. That’s a good thing. Welcome any and all objections and have an open conversation. Rather than treating objections as a way to demonstrate that you’re right, approach them instead as a chance to better understand, relate to, and serve your client. So if someone is concerned about price, it’s better to understand why they’re not seeing the value in your offer, as opposed to justifying to them why it’s worth it. Meet objections not with offense or defense, but with empathy and understanding. That’ll take the pressure off!


As a part of my series about how to be great at closing sales without seeming pushy, obnoxious, or salesy, I had the pleasure of interviewing Liston Witherill.

Liston Witherill is the founder and creator of Serve Don’t Sell, where he helps professional services providers build the systems and confidence they need to win the business they know they should. Liston’s on a mission to help 100 million people become effective and ethical communicators, during the sale and beyond. He hosts the popular Modern Sales podcast that helps you learn to sell more by understanding how people buy.


Thank you for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this career path?

Ileft grad school with a Master of Environmental Science and Management degree, then went to work for an environmental consulting firm. I ran marketing and business development at that firm, and became obsessed with one question: how do people make decisions? I noticed that there were problems in the information available to clients and prospects, and the process they used to make buying decisions. I was surrounded by scientists who were often qualified to do the work, but that didn’t mean we always won the work. I also noticed that no one at my firm had any formal sales training, and we didn’t treat selling like a core competency in the same way that we treated our technical capabilities that way. I had to figure out a better way to sell services so it felt comfortable for professional services providers, while maintaining integrity and working for our clients’ best interest.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I was buying a very expensive software package from a public company and the sales rep was working hard to win my business. It didn’t make sense that though — I asked to skip the sales process and just send me the contract. He insisted we proceed with his process. So he showed up to the meeting with a slide deck. On slide two was a photo of a downtown high-rise condo complex.

“What’s that?” I asked.

He replied, “I’m glad you asked. It’s the condo I’m saving up to buy. I need $78,000 to reach my down payment goal. What’s your goal this year?”

He proceeded to go through the presentation by asking good questions but didn’t seem to listen or act on any of the information I provided. There are so many lessons to be gleaned from this story, but the biggest is that he made the sales process about him, rather than focusing on his client. It’s the clearest example of what not to do that I’ve experienced. I still laugh about it today.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m writing a book about my repeatable and ethical sales process for professional services firms and providers. I’ve read a lot of sales, marketing, and business books, and haven’t seen any that clearly articulate a repeatable sales process specifically for firms.

The problem with most sales books is that they tend to be way too complicated, or way too simple, and lack the practical, actionable advice that most readers want. I’ve set out to create a book that’s both immediately useful and is a reference that’ll live on bookshelves and desks for 20 years.

The book is a combination of deep research on how people make decisions, my own experience teaching and executing sales programs for my companies and clients, and actionable advice that includes scripts, exercises, and practice that every reader can use to improve their sales skills.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people who’ve helped me along the way! One of the most damaging myths about entrepreneurship is the solo founder. No one can be successful on their own. It takes a lot of people to make great things in the world, and I’m grateful that I’ve been surrounded by so many wonderful people who’ve been generous to me.

Back when I was running business development and marketing at a consulting firm, I’d occasionally go out to lunch with the founder of the company. He was our business development engine, and I wanted to know how it all worked. Which demonstrated three things: he was a wealth of knowledge, and all I had to do was ask; he was always willing to share what he knew; and having to ask how business development worked at the company turns out to be a bad business development strategy.

He taught me about the history of the business, how he was able to accomplish so much, and his approach to marketing the business.

Our final lunch was my last day at the company. He took me to a fancy place right on the ocean and congratulated me on leaving. He was nothing but generous. He asked questions about my plans for my new business, offered some timely advice, and told me stories about the early days of starting his company, and what a struggle it was. I saw — perhaps for the first time — how much he cared about all of his employees, and how that found its way into the company’s culture.

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority on the topic of sales?

I’ve spent my career marketing, selling, and delivering professional services. I’ve sold well over $1M of my own services, helped clients close millions more, and helped grow a professional services firm by millions in annual revenue. Every week, I help thousands of people with my advice through my podcast, emails, and LinkedIn. But ultimately, I’m only an authority if my audience thinks so, and especially if my advice helps them.

Let’s shift a bit to what is happening today in the broader world. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the COVID-19 pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty and loneliness. From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our families and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

This too shall pass. That isn’t to say I underestimate the seriousness of this moment — I don’t. We’ve dealt with pandemics throughout history — every hundred years or so — and the world has continued, as has society. People will be effected differently, and culture and the economy will change, but life will go on for most of us. The losses we experience should be remembered, and we should take action to help minimize the impact of the next emergency. One of the hardest things about this pandemic is the loss of control and uncertainty. My advice to friends, family, and those in my audience is to focus on the factors we can control, take the action we can, and do our best to accept that we’re not in complete control, not now and not ever.

Ok. Thanks for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. As you know, nearly any business a person will enter, will involve some form of sales. At the same time, most people have never received any formal education about how to be effective at selling. Why do you think our education system teaches nearly every other arcane subject, but sales, one of the most useful and versalite topics, is totally ignored?

I believe there are two reasons why sales education is so lacking: 1) lack of rigor in our approach to the topic, and 2) the reputation of sales. There are a lot of variables involved in sales, making it quite difficult to study. Sales is two-sided, with a seller and a buyer, or multiple parties on each side. Marketing has a lot of variables, too, but it’s typically one-to-many, without the human element introduced by the seller. That coupled with the unwillingness of organizations to test sales strategies or share what they’ve learned has left the discipline with a tremendous gap in rigor. Bottom line: we can’t say definitively how broadly applicable any sales approach is, or to what situations it may apply.

Secondly, sales is seen by many as an unethical pursuit, or at least lacking in nobility. The reputation of the salesperson “willing to say anything” only cements its place on the fringes of education, if not totally outside of academia.

This discussion, entitled, “How To Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesey”, is making an assumption that seeming salesy or pushy is something to be avoided. Do you agree with this assumption? Whether yes, or no, can you articulate why you feel the way you do?

I believe in treating others the way I want to be treated, so sales becomes an act of service. No, I don’t want undue pressure or manufactured urgency pushing me to make a decision, so I don’t do it to anyone else. In some cases, there is urgency to act, due to scarcity or a real expiration date on an offer.

The feeling of being too “salesy” or “pushy” comes primarily from emotional appeals with no substantive backing. The classic example of being too salesy is the used car salesperson telling a prospect that he looks great in a convertible, and it’ll make him more attractive, and he’d better buy the car before it’s gone. Other than pointing out the obvious — that the car might sell to someone else — this appeal is strictly emotional and lacks a rational basis.

On the other hand, I might tell a client that they’re unlikely to hit their quarterly goals if they don’t make efforts to improve their sales program, and that they should consider getting started within the month. That advice would be based upon what they told me and has both emotional and rational implications. That scenario does something else important: it preserves the prospect’s autonomy to choose by using the phrase “consider,” rather than just telling them what to do.

The seven stages of a sales cycle are usually broken down to versions of Prospecting, Preparation, Approach, Presentation, Handling objections, Closing, and Follow-up. Which stage do you feel that you are best at? What is your unique approach, your “secret sauce”, to that particular skill? Can you explain or give a story?

I’m best at the presentation stage, where everything comes together. The secret is to be client-centric and to tell stories. Everything in your presentation should build a narrative of transformation, taking your client from where they are now to where they want to be, and outlining the steps it’ll take for them to get there. And the words, images, metaphors — whatever — you use should all be resonant with and relevant to your buyer. And here’s a pro tip: your presentation should be tailored to your buyer’s particular pain or motivation for making a change. Do that, and you’ll be a lot more successful.

Lead generation, or prospecting, is one of the basic steps of the sales cycle. Obviously every industry will be different, but can you share some of the fundamental strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

Two things: know your buyer, and give first. You have to target a particular kind of person, with a particular problem, and understand the implications it has for them. Keeping your outreach short and to the point and 100% in their interest is the best way to get responses. Secondly, I suggest you give first. Whether that’s with some sort of content, or insight, or whatever you can provide that makes your prospect better off whether or not they actually meet with you. Do those two things, and you’ll see your prospecting improve.

In my experience, I think the final stages of Handling Objections, Closing, and Follow-up, are the most difficult parts for many people. Why do you think ‘Handling Objections’ is so hard for people? What would you recommend for one to do, to be better at ‘Handling Objections’?

For many people, handling objections can feel like staring rejection in the face. But if you hear objections, it’s likely that your prospect is considering buying from you. That’s a good thing. Welcome any and all objections and have an open conversation. Rather than treating objections as a way to demonstrate that you’re right, approach them instead as a chance to better understand, relate to, and serve your client. So if someone is concerned about price, it’s better to understand why they’re not seeing the value in your offer, as opposed to justifying to them why it’s worth it. Meet objections not with offense or defense, but with empathy and understanding. That’ll take the pressure off!

‘Closing’ is of course the proverbial Holy Grail. Can you suggest 5 things one can do to successfully close a sale without being perceived as pushy? If you can, please share a story or example, ideally from your experience, for each.

First response to this question: the focus on closing is one of the biggest problems with sales and why it’s perceived as being sleazy, pushy, or unethical. It’s also lazy. If it’s not obvious to someone why they should buy from you, then you’ve not targeted the right person, not established the value for them, or both. Now my tips for closing.

#1 — secure permission and agreement for your client to reach a decision by a certain time. I consider closing literally that: “closing” an opportunity, meaning it’s no longer open, meaning you won or lost the deal. I just want a decision. The best way to secure is a decision is by getting your prospect to agree to make a decision by a certain time. I simply ask them “are you prepared to make a decision today?” And if they’re not, I’ll ask them when they are. I do that before I present or hand over a proposal. I want the client to commit to making a decision — what they decide is up to them.

#2 — always tell a transformation story. Your clients don’t want to be trailblazers. They want to know that they’re taking on minimal risk when doing business with you, so it’s important that you have case studies and stories of transformation you can tell to build proof that your solution works, and that it’s not risky for them to try it out. I like telling transformation stories that show my clients the unexpected benefits that my previous clients have received, to expand their view of the engagement and what could be possible for them.

#3 — give them the information they need. Frustrating as it may be, buyers are busy with a lot of other things. They’re preoccupied, and stressed, and have their attention spread across dozens of different things. Recently, I was asked four times to resend the same proposal. Honestly, I found it a little frustrating, but eventually that same prospect signed the agreement and told me how helpful I was through the process.

#4 — know the negotiation levers you can pull. Now, if you’re in a strong or premium price position in your market, you may choose never to negotiate. It’s a viable business strategy. But if you’re not, or your company isn’t, then negotiation will be part of your sales process. Know the negotiation levers you can pull prior to entering any negotiation. That means knowing your minimum price, the extras you can throw in, your flexibility on payment terms, the amount of access or support your client can get, and more. In my group coaching program, clients occasionally ask to send an extra person, which I’m willing to trade for a faster decision. If you’re going to give, always get something in return — it’s only fair.

#5 — just pick up the phone. One mistake I see a lot of people making is spending too much time in email when a simple phone call could help a deal close in a tenth of the time. Rather than sending emails asking for a decision, pick up the phone so that you can have a dialogue about your client’s decision, help them with any information they need, or even receive the bad news they’ve had a hard time delivering over email. Either way, you get to close the deal and move on, and the phone is always the fastest way to do that.

Finally, what are your thoughts about ‘Follow up’? Many businesses get leads who might be interested but things never seem to close. What are some good tips for a business leader to successfully follow up and bring things to a conclusion, without appearing overly pushy or overeager?

Always have a timeline for your deal’s decision, and let your client define it. If they want 2 weeks, that’s fine, put a time on the calendar for the decision. Second, my rule on follow up is to keep going until they tell me to stop. What you’ll find is that most people will thank you and be taken aback by your professionalism and persistence if you continue to follow up. Third, set an “open period” for your deals. For many businesses, 90 days is more than enough for an active deal to close. For other businesses, it may be a year or more. Whatever it is for your business, eventually you’ll have to take “maybe” as “not now.” That’s fine. Have a marketing and nurturing program — like an email newsletter, podcast, blog, or similar — that lets you automatically keep in touch with everyone who’s interested in what you’re doing. That should include all of those deals that don’t close. If you have nothing in place, an email newsletter is a great place to start because everyone checks their inbox multiple times a day.

As you know there are so many modes of communication today. For example, In-person, phone calls, video calls, emails, and text messages. In your opinion, which of these communication methods should be avoided when attempting to close a sale or follow up? Which are the best ones? Can you explain or give a story?

You can think of every communication as having two dimensions: place and time. I prefer communications that happen at the same time — synchronous communications — for reaching a final agreement. That means in-person meetings, phone calls, and video calls will all work well to reach a final decision faster. The problem with asynchronous communication is that a lot of time, momentum, and information is lost. I have a client who would typically send emails to get a decision from prospects. One simple tweak we made was having him pick up the phone to call prospects, and he closed four of four prospects because he was able to answer their questions and instill confidence in them in a single call.

Ok, we are nearly done. Here is our final “meaty” question. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That’s easy. My goal is to create 100 million world-class, ethical, and empathetic communicators. People who believe the truth is more important than getting what they want. People who believe that, if we all acted ethically, the world would be a better place. People who believe that helping others is the ultimate purpose and meaning of life. That’s why my business is called Serve Don’t Sell.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can learn more about me on my website, www.servedontsell.com, or check out my top sales podcast, Modern Sales.

Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success!

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