We must all sell — even engineers. We must sell our ideas, positions, products, and services. But how do we get through to people who seem to be “acting irrationally?” Consider what happened when Jacques, a provider of extranet services, tried to help a potential customer. “I explained how signing up for our service would help him coordinate with the project manager, company owner, plumber, and electrician,” he says. “I proved how the service would cut his costs. But when I told him the charge would be $45 a month, he blew up! It made me wonder — is he crazy, or am I?”

Jacques is not crazy. People just have different motivations. For example, we think making things more efficient is good for everyone. They believe that change is inconvenient, costs money, and reduces predictability.

So how is an engineer supposed to sell to someone who is “acting irrationally”? Here are some suggestions:

Listen carefully. I used to approach potential customers by blurting out what I thought was supposed to happen, and cutting off the other person midsentence. This was usually because of some kind of anxiety — always a bad motive. I have schooled myself to take a deep breath before such meetings, and make sure I let the other person express their needs. More often than not, I’ve found that I had been planning to “break down an open door.” Cultivate listening — really listening. It will change your life.

Do not judge the other person. Don’t misunderstand me; you must judge the circumstances, and the appropriateness of your actions. But don’t judge the person. We seldom know enough about someone else to enable us to decide who they are. Leave judgment to God, who is better informed.

Put yourself in their shoes. Someone sent me an e-mail recently: “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes.” When I stopped laughing, I thought about this lovely twist on the old proverb. Nobody likes to be criticized, and people often react poorly to it. So we have developed all kinds of approaches for telling people things they don’t want to hear. But is the criticism really warranted? Is criticism the best way to communicate with this person? What outcome am I looking for?

Clarify and verify their goals. Ask lots of questions, and listen carefully to the answers. The information you get will help you position your offer — and as an added bonus, the person will know that you care about the details of their needs. When you think you understand, feed back your understanding, “So what you actually want is such and such?” Good salespeople do this, not just for the psychology of eliciting a positive response (although that doesn’t hurt, either), but for cementing the communication.

Be sure of your own motives. “Nobody cares what you know until they know that you care.” Sure, you can sell things to people without caring about them. It’s just harder, and far less satisfying. Dare to care.

Know when to walk away. Don’t sacrifice your decency just to “close” an inappropriate deal. You must bear in mind at all times: Is this the right thing for this person? Can I live with the terms and conditions? If it’s not “win-win,” don’t force it.

Remember what’s important. You know what you value: Life, people, truth, goodness. Don’t sacrifice these things. Prosperity is not about getting your own way; it’s about doing the right thing.

Joel Orr is Chief Visionary Emeritus at Cyon Research Corp. in Bethesda, Md. Got a question or a comment? Reach Joel at joel.orr@cyonresearch.com

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