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5-MINUTE SALES COACH: Say no to ‘Happy Ears’. Focus on projects leading to real sales

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By Bill McCrary

I want you to recall the last time you debriefed one of your salespeople. After you asked how a rep’s prospect meeting went, what was the response? Was it really enthusiastic? Something along the lines of, “We had a great meeting!” or “I think they’re extremely interested in working with us!” 

Your salesperson may be excited, but you shouldn’t be. This could easily be a case of “Happy Ears.” Happy Ears are sales-killers and time-wasters. 

Bill McCrary

We all suffer from selective hearing from time to time. But salespeople can be especially prone to hearing what they want to hear from a prospect. They don’t make the effort to discover what they need to hear—by asking the difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable, questions that will uncover the true nature of the prospect’s situation. Many salespeople listen only for the positive and promising words the prospect is saying. They understandably want to believe that every opportunity will close . . . even if believing that will lead to a tremendous waste of time and energy.

Teach your people how to translate “Prospectese”:

What the prospect says: This might be a really good fit! Call me next week!

What the prospect means: There is virtually no chance I will actually buy from you, but I can’t think of a way to tell you “no” without it getting awkward. So instead, when you call next week, I’ll avoid you. You’ll talk to my voicemail. You’ll waste lots of time trying to get in touch with me. But you’ll keep me in your pipeline, and that will ultimately drive other people crazy, including the owner and your sales manager. You’ll get very discouraged. You’ll try and try, but you’ll never reach me—my assistant is very good at screening calls from salespeople like you.

Fight the Happy Ears phenomenon

You’re the leader of your staff—be on the lookout for Happy Ears. They’re particularly likely to occur when certain conditions exist. Are pipelines thin? Is the opportunity especially large or noteworthy? Do you have a few salespeople who go through life being unrealistically optimistic? Beware.

Once you encounter Happy Ears, neutralize them! Coach your people to be probing and skeptical with every new opportunity. Demonstrate the ways they can confirm a prospect's statements instead of taking them at face value. When you debrief your salespeople after prospect meetings, ask very specific questions and ask for very specific answers. (“The meeting went great!” is not a very specific answer.)

Here are some questions you should be asking your sales reps during a debrief:

“What specific business issues did the prospect say they need to fix?”

“What specific problems is our competitor causing them?”

“How long has the prospect been facing those issues?”

“What have they tried to do so far to fix them?”

“Who else have they been talking to besides us?”

“How much did they say that their issues are costing them?”

“When did they tell you they need to have a solution in place? Why then?”

“Who else will be affected by their decision?”

“How much money is available now to fix their issues?”

“Who did they tell you would have to sign off on the decision?”

Many salespeople feel that they need every sale they can get. This leads to Happy Ears. Combat this phenomenon by asking your people questions that will reveal the truth about their “promising” prospects. Preventing these unqualified opportunities from infiltrating your company pipeline will let your team focus on the projects that will lead to real sales—and real profits.

Published from February 1, 2016 print issue. 

Bill McCrary, a speaker, coach and trainer, founded Strategic Partner, an authorized Sandler Training Center, in 1997. You can contact McCrary at 803-771-0800, or

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