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Sales conversation starters: How to use cognitive biases to your advantage

Sales calls can be tough.

And nothing is tougher than that first sales conversation.

Even the best sales reps feel a rush of anxiety-induced adrenaline as they pick up the phone to make that all-important initial call.

They understand that first impressions and opening lines really do count, as they act as ice breakers and capture your prospect’s attention from the get go. The initial sales conversation can also set the tone for the customer relationship that follows.

In this sales conversation guide, we will explore:

  • What cognitive bias is and how it affects sales conversations

  • The mistakes you need to avoid when establishing sales relationships

  • How to identify the elements of a successful introduction and the errors that lead to the loss of qualified leads

Table of contents


Understanding cognitive bias to develop more effective sales conversations

When we dial that number and wait to speak to a prospect for the first time, it’s hard to avoid feeling the pressure and emotions that come with it.

But these emotions can shift our focus onto ourselves and what we need to do, instead of honing in on our prospect’s needs.

As the opening conversation is an incredibly important part of the sales cycle, you need to establish trust and quickly show how you can add value to your prospect.

If you know how to use the principles of cognitive bias to your advantage, you can launch into almost any sales conversation with the type of confidence that allows you to prioritize your customers' needs.

We’ve dedicated an entire article to helping you learn how you can make people want what you’re selling by understanding cognitive bias. Let’s recap the key biases and takeaways to give you the best chance of avoiding common sales mistakes at the first point of contact.

The anchoring effect

“If you were asked whether Gandhi was more than 114 years old when he died, you will end up with a much higher estimate of his age at death than you would if the anchoring question referred to his death at age 35.” – Daniel Kahneman, Psychologist and Author of Thinking Fast and Slow

What is it? Your prospect’s inbuilt bias to give more weight to the first piece of info they hear about something when forming subsequent opinions.

Takeaway: Make sure you understand exactly what your prospect needs as a solution before you start highlighting features and benefits. This will not only hook their interest but also help them appreciate other less tangible benefits.

The ambiguity effect

“It’s no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.” Seth Godin, Founder of Squidoo.com

What is it? Your prospect’s tendency to mistrust what they don’t understand.

Takeaway: Make sure you simplify your proposition and tell a compelling story, and never forgetting to tailor the language you use to make everything easy to understand.

The bandwagon effect

“The key to successful leadership is influence, not authority.”– Ken Blanchard, Management Expert

What is it? Your prospect’s susceptibility to trust social proof.

Takeaway: Don’t shy away from using highly relevant case studies to bring things vividly to life and gain trust.

The confirmation effect

“Have you ever noticed that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot – and anyone driving faster is a maniac?”– George Carlin, Comedian

What is it? Your prospect’s preference for things that agree with their preconceptions.

Takeaway: Spend time listening so that you understand what your prospect thinks, and then you can share information that confirms these thoughts.

The halo effect

“All relationships are built on trust. Trust is built on congruence.” – Nicholas Boothman, Author of How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less

What is it? First impressions matter. Nicholas Boothman argues that the outcome of a sales call is often achieved or lost in the first 90 seconds.

Takeaway: Your initial focus should be on building rapport and gaining trust. This first call is more about relationship building than pitching.

These are the five critical cognitive biases to understand if you are going to avoid making mistakes on that opening call.


5 sales mistakes that close the door (and sales techniques to build rapport)

In this section, we’ll show you how each of the biases above relate to common sales mistakes and how to avoid making them.

Sales mistake 1: Not being prepared

Cognitive biases you can use:

  • The halo effect

  • The ambiguity effect

  • The confirmation effect

  • The anchoring effect

Knowing key information about your prospect, like the type of work they do, the pain points they may experience at their job and why you think your solution would help makes them feel valued. It shows you pay attention, have done your research and taken an interest. This in turn helps you to build rapport.

Not knowing anything about them simply leaves you guessing, which usually leads to you filling in the gaps in your knowledge by monopolizing the talking (and this is a big mistake).

While flattery can certainly get you places, being prepared goes beyond this. Proper preparation gives you valuable information that you can use to establish trust and helps you understand how to tailor your pitch based on the info you find.

Practical solutions:

  • Use LinkedIn to see your prospect’s career history and check their Twitter feed to see what sort of information they share, and then use this to tailor your pitch accordingly.

  • Pipedrive Smart Contact Data allows you to automatically pull in publicly available information about your potential buyer into their customer profile on your Pipedrive CRM. This shaves significant time off an otherwise manual process, allowing you instant insights to help you prepare for your initial call and build rapport quickly.

  • Sales conversation scripts can help you prepare and ensure you structure the conversation the way you want to.

Sales conversation examples of open-ended questions to use:

  • “I see you have been with [company] for 2 years. What changes have happened since you joined?”

  • “I loved that article/podcast/webinar by X that you shared on Twitter. What do you think about her views on the difficulties facing the Y industry?”

Sales mistake 2: Doing all the talking

Cognitive biases you can use:

  • The ambiguity effect

  • The confirmation effect

  • The anchoring effect

In an analysis of over a million sales calls, it was found that top sales reps talk for only 46% of the discovery call, whereas average and lower-performing ones talk for 68-72% of the call. The best salespeople have active listening skills that enable them to ask the right questions.

Preparation can help here. Have some interesting questions prepared related to what you know about your potential customer. This will allow you to weave your proposition in smoothly, while focusing on your prospect’s pain points.

Practical solutions:

  • There’s a fine art to asking sales questions, but at this initial stage it’s all about letting your prospect know you’ve done your research, building rapport and trying to understand their key concerns.

  • Try not to steer the conversation too much. Focus instead on more general openers.

Sample sales dialogue starters:

  • “What is your biggest challenge this year?”

  • “How do you find things are different between your role at company Alpha and company Beta?”

Sales mistake 3: Your pitch can be the glitch

Cognitive biases you can use:

  • The ambiguity effect

  • The confirmation effect

  • The anchoring effect

  • The bandwagon effect

Your opening call is about setting the stages for later in the sales pipeline, gathering info and setting up a time to discuss things in more detail.

Leave the pitch alone on the first call unless you genuinely think you can close straight away (or if the prospect prompts you directly).

In the same study referred to above it was found that giving more than a two-minute company overview greatly decreased the chance of a positive outcome.

That’s because going in with a pitch too early means you are unlikely to identify your prospect’s precise pain points and either confuse them with details or just leave them cold.

“Sales professionals and marketers, especially in technology start-ups, will talk in depth about features and functionality without considering what really matters to their customers.” Dustin Grosse, CMO at DocuSign

Practical solutions:

  • Instead of pitching, use questions that relate more directly to your prospect, such as, “Would it help you if your team could spend 30% less time on admin?”

  • Highlight just one tangible area you can help with and back this up with social proof.

  • Focus on building trust. Offer to send some relevant info, or simply ask, “Would it be possible to take you and your team through a demo at your office so you can see exactly how we can help?”

Sales mistake 4: Not picking up on cues

Cognitive bias you can use:

  • The halo effect

The simple fact is, it’s not always a good time to talk.

If your prospect sounds bothered, stressed or simply disinterested you can win yourself the benefit of the halo effect by simply acknowledging this.

Practical solutions:

  • Always check, “Is this a good time to talk?”

  • Be prepared to schedule another call if time is running out.

  • If you have had the chance to discover information about the prospect, follow up by sharing a related industry article. You’ve just bought yourself a good conversational opener for next time.

Sales mistake 5: Not demonstrating your expertise

Cognitive biases you can use:

  • The ambiguity effect

  • The bandwagon effect

Let’s just go back to that study one more time. The most successful sales professionals spend up to 52% more time talking about business value than their lower-performing peers. They also spend up to 39% less time talking about features and technical topics.

In effect, the most successful sales professionals are acting as consultants rather than salespeople.

They have gained an understanding of the prospect’s needs and can demonstrate through social proof exactly how they can add value to a specific business.

They remove ambiguity by focusing on what matters to the prospect. As a result, the path to take things to the next stage is clear.

Practical solutions:

  • Always tailor the benefits you present to the needs you have identified and, at this stage, steer clear of pushing your sales message.

  • Keep your presentation focused on the added value rather than the features.

  • Keep details to a minimum and try to create a compelling story that is easier to buy into.

Dialogue starters that help you gain trust:

  • “The recent collapse of [company] has had huge effects on retail in this region. How has it affected everyone?”

  • “Did you see what X predicts for the sector this year?”

  • “Were you at the recent X event? What did you think?


Successful sales conversation starters

There is no one-size-fits template for conducting initial saleswoman or salesman conversations with prospects. However, the above guidelines will equip your sales team with a solid foundation to get started on the right foot and should be incorporated into your basic sales training.

Whether you are cold calling or having a face-to-face conversation, at its heart your starter is about:

  • Developing trust and building rapport

  • Listening and responding, rather than pitching

  • Being prepared

Remember to take advantage of those cognitive biases that drive your prospect’s behavior and leave the hard sell for later in the sales process. Your conversion rates will thank you for it later!

Download Your Guide to Preventing 5 Common Sales Mistakes

Always say the right thing with this guide to avoiding the frequently-made sales conversation mistakes.

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