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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 most seasoned salesperson feels a rush of anxiety-induced adrenaline as they pick up the phone to make that all-important initial call.

They, more than all of us, understand that first impressions really do count.

If a sales conversation starts off on the wrong foot, it’s unlikely to be too long until another prospect slips out of the pipeline.

But exactly what can go wrong?

  • What are the mistakes you need to avoid when trying to establish a sales relationship – and what can be done to get things off to a flying start?
  • What practical steps can be taken to identify the elements of a successful introduction – and what are the errors that lead to the loss of another qualified lead?

Understanding cognitive bias will help you develop a more effective sales talk technique

There’s one problem we all face when we dial that number and wait to speak to a prospect for the first time…

Almost inevitably, our goal and our emotions that rise to the surface.

Pressure builds.

Emotions fray.

Our focus is on ourselves and what we need to do. Yet, focusing on your prospect’s needs is more important during your opening conversation than any other stage of the entire 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 focus on helping the prospect.

We’ve dedicated an entire article to helping your learn how you can make people want what you’re selling by understanding cognitive bias, but I want to recap the key biases and takeaways to give you the best chance of avoiding common sales mistakes at that 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 forget 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.

We’ll show you how each relates to these mistakes next – and we’ll also show you how they can help you avoid making them.

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

Sales mistake 1: Not being prepared

Cognitive Biases you can use:

  • The Halo Effect
  • The Ambiguity Effect
  • The Confirmation Effect
  • The Anchoring Effect

Knowing about your prospect makes them feel valued – it shows you have done your research and taken an interest. It helps you to build rapport.

Not knowing about them simply leaves you guessing – and this usually leads to you filling in the gaps in your knowledge by monopolizing the talking. (Another big mistake, as we’ll see.)

While flattery can certainly get you places - being prepared goes beyond this. Proper preparation gives you some very useful ways to establish trust and helps you understand how to tailor your pitch based on the info you find.

And this helps you overcome ambiguity, anchor your pitch and ensure you play to the confirmation bias.

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.
  • Here are some sales conversation examples of open questions to use:
    • ‘I see you have been with Alpha company for 2 years.
    • What changes have happened since you joined?’
    • ‘I loved that article by X that you shared on Twitter, what do you think about her views on the difficulties facing the Y industry?’
  • Pipedrive Smart Contact Data allows you to automatically pull in publicly available info about your prospect into their customer profile on your Pipedrive CRM. This shaves so much 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 mistake 2: Doing all the talking

Cognitive Biases you can use:

  • The Ambiguity Effect
  • The Confirmation Effect
  • The Anchoring Effect

In a recent analysis of over a million sales calls, it was found that top sales professionals talk for only 46% of the discovery call, whereas average and lower-performing ones talk for 68 – 72% of the call.

Preparation can help here. Have some interesting questions prepared related to what you know about your prospect. This will allow you to weave your proposition in smoothly, but you’ll do so by focusing on their primary, relevant concerns.

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. Here are some 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

No matter how important your targets and goals are, they just aren’t aligned with the needs of your prospect.

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 prospects prompt you directly).

The stats are against those salespeople who go in for the hard sell early. 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.Successful salespeople spend nearly 40% less time discussing technical topics and product features.

Going in with a pitch too early means you are unlikely to identify the precise pain points of your prospect 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, like: ‘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 harassed, 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 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

  • In the initial stages of a conversation, you can gain trust by showing your expertise through the questions you ask. Try things like:
    • ‘The recent collapse of Beta 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?’
  • 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 and create a compelling story that is easier to buy into.

Successful sales conversation starters

At its heart your starter is about:

  • Developing trust and building rapport.
  • Listening – and responding – rather than pitching
  • And it’s very much about 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!

Sales mistakes: our ebook on how to prevent them

During initial sales calls, with stress and emotions running high, even the best salespeople need to watch out for these blunders. By identifying the key cognitive biases and avoiding the five key sales mistakes listed above, you can learn to steer clear of the most common sales pitfalls and towards success.

Download our ebook on preventing sales mistakes below and stay strong under pressure.

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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