How to deal with hostile and aggressive prospects

by Steli Efti

Your prospect has completely lost it. He's shouting at you over the phone, making ridiculous demands—you can hear the sound of shattering glass as he throws stuff at the walls. Your ears are ringing and you have a massive headache.

Maybe he’s just having a bad day. Maybe he thinks he has you in a corner, and can get whatever he wants. Maybe he’s just like this all the time. After a while, you can’t take it any more, and just hang up the phone. He was completely out of control—a saint would've done the same.

Except that's exactly the wrong approach:

Now, you may think it's OK to lose one client who's unhappy—but it's not. You see, when we have a good experience with a company, we tend to tell three other people about it. Positive word-of-mouth is great for business. However, someone who's displeased with a situation tells, on average, 11 people about it.—Tom Hopkins, author and sales speaker, "How to Handle an Angry Client"

Your approach to bullies is crippling your sales game. You can’t control why the bully is the way he is, but you can control how you handle it. By giving up and making excuses, you don’t only miss out on revenue—you miss out on an opportunity to separate yourself from the salespeople who give up at the first sign of trouble.

The 2 most common reactions to bullies

The reason so many prospects resort to bullying in sales is because a lot of the time, it works. Most people have no idea how to deal with bullies, and so do one of two things:

1. Roll over

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Some people just can't handle aggression. It comes out of the blue, and catches them completely off guard—they just want the yelling to end. The can't endure it any longer so they wave a white flag and give in.

Eventually, they hear themselves discounting their product into nothing, with no idea how it happened: “Yeah, you’re right … I mean … I really want to give you what you’re asking for. Please don’t tell my boss. Please don’t give us a bad review. We’ll find a way to do what you want.” They end up with a deal that actually costs their company money.

As Mark Hunter, founder of the blog The Sales Hunter, puts it, "Discounting your price should not be part of your vocabulary or thought process. If it is you will use it, and as soon as you use it once, you’ll use it again and again."

A bully isn’t going to magically back off and leave you alone just because you give in. You're basically telling them, “What you’re doing with me is working. Keep doing it.” You're giving the bully positive reinforcement for his behavior—encouraging him to keep making more and more outrageous demands.

2. Fight fire with fire

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Others fight fire with fire, which just makes for a bigger mess: they're so convinced that they're right and the bully is wrong that they completely forget they're supposed to be making a sale.

A lot of good salespeople feel the temptation to act this way. They have Type A personalities, they’re aggressive problem-solvers who don’t like backing down. They naturally want to respond to aggression with aggression. But by yelling back at the bully, they sink to the level of the bully, sparking off a screaming match that goes nowhere and wastes everyone's time.

Don’t play the bully’s game—you’ll lose control of the situation. Even if you “win” the argument, you're losing the larger battle: getting them to buy your product. And pissed off prospects can ruin your business' reputation. They'll hang up the phone and run around bad-mouthing your company, they'll spend the next day throwing a temper tantrum and going on a Twitter rampage. They’ll find another outlet for their anger, which can do serious damage.

Kill them with kindness (or friendly strength)

The most powerful way to overcome bullies in sales is with friendliness, while also standing your ground. This position is called friendly strength— it channels both your confidence in your product and your deep domain expertise in the field.

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Think of how doctors deal with scared or angry patients: “I know your arm is still stiff after the surgery, and that it's painful. But if you don't do physical therapy, you might never be able to use your arm again.”

A good doctor diagnoses her patient’s illness, and prescribes a solution with both empathy and a clear set of directions for getting better. She has nothing to prove—she’s spent years studying, and even more helping real people. She knows what her patients have to do, and everything in the way she communicates is geared toward setting her patients on the road to recovery.

Like a doctor, you also have deep domain expertise. As a salesperson, you’re the world expert in your product, and you’ve helped hundreds of customers become more successful with it. Unlike a bully, who operates from a position of unfriendly strength, you ultimately come from a place of wanting to help your prospects—and you achieve that by exercising your authority and telling them what you can realistically do for them.

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Use friendly strength to get the conversation back on track.

Stay calm

Bully: “You’re a scam artist, and these prices are outrageous. Do you think I’m stupid? I’ve seen greedy salespeople like you before …”
You: [silence]
Bully: “Your product is a piece of shit, it looks like it was designed for Windows 95 …”
You: [silence]

Don’t engage with the bully—let him rant and rage. If you have a hard time not responding to his ridiculous accusations, try muting yourself on the phone. Bullies live to get a reaction from people—they want to see you squirm, or hear you yell back. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

Silence can be just as intimidating as aggression—it makes people think they've made a mistake. Let the bully run himself out a little. The bully will take a step back and think, “Here I am screaming, and they don’t even seem to care. What do they know that I don’t?”

Here's how Robert Terson, founder of the blog Selling Fearlessly, uses silence to alter the dynamics with rude prospects:

I’d shut up and give him a cold stare. The burden to explain his rudeness was his to struggle with. Nine out of ten times (remember, you can’t win them all) he was embarrassed, apologized, and conjured up the best excuse he could think of. “Please continue,” he’d say politely, his attentiveness and body language 180º opposite of what it had been prior to the confrontation.—"Dealing With a Hostile Prospect"

By using friendly strength, and keeping calm, you turn the tables. You don’t try to shout them into submission, because you don’t need to shout to command respect.

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Take control

Bully: “If you don’t lower your price by x, I’ll head to a competitor. I’ll tell everyone I know about this awful experience, and how your business is a scam. You’ll never see a new customer again.”

You: “I appreciate that that’s the way you feel. Let me clarify a few things. We’re a legitimate business with thousands of customers. I don’t know what went wrong in our communication—let’s figure it out. More importantly, let’s focus all our energy on the future. The best price I can give you is already on the table—if you’d like to be a customer, we’d love to have you. If you don’t, I can recommend you to other companies that might be able to help you. What’s it going to be? It’s up to you.”

It seems counterintuitive, but by throwing the ball into the bully’s court, you actually take control of the situation. You draw a line in the sand that shows him you aren't willing to back down—but you also provide a clear plan of action for moving forward. By exercising friendly strength, you cut to the chase.

The bully is already invested in the deal—otherwise he wouldn’t be screaming about price. You are too, and you’d love to make the sale. You both want to make it happen—but as a salesperson, it’s your job to make that happen as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Know ahead of time what you’re willing to negotiate on and what you aren’t. That way, if the negotiation's going badly, you won’t cave in to the temptation to give in to the bully. Instead, you're already equipped with a list of actually viable options.

You leave the choices up to him, but really you’re the one in control, because you've cut to the point: “Stop wasting my time and tell me what you want to do.”

Walk away

Bully: “I'll pay this price or it's no deal.”
You: “I think a different company may be a better fit for you. Thank you for your time.”

Sometimes, no matter how good of a salesperson you are, you just won’t be able to get through to a bully—sometimes, it’s just not worth it. You have to know when to walk away.

Prospects who obsess over price, for example, often make the worst customers, and you might be better off without them. They’ll make constant demands on your time and energy, and jump ship the moment a low-cost competitor comes to market—after all, they never realized the full value of your product in the first place.

Or as Paul Castain, VP of Rock Star Development for Castain Training Systems, explains with Paul's Theory Of Aholetivity: "An A-Hole in motion stays in motion meaning ...  If they’re an A-Hole now, pre[-]courtship ... They’re probably going to be an A-Hole during the marriage!"

Knowing when to walk away from a bully can save you a huge amount of time and energy later.

Often, being willing to take the deal away from the prospect and walk out the door is the tipping point that will have the bully running back to you. Everyone wants what they can’t have, and bullies are no different.

By walking away, you communicate your absolute confidence in the value of your product, and get the bully scratching his head: “Wait—they don’t need me? Sounds like they've got their shit together. Maybe I want in on this.”

Friendly strength isn't a trick

When handling a bully, it helps to understand what's underneath the aggression. The bully flew off the rails because he's trying to avoid what he doesn't want.

He doesn't want to be taken advantage of. He doesn't want to be manipulated into overpaying, just so you can inflate your wallet. Basically, he doesn't want to be lied to.

Exercise friendly strength to show the bully that while you won’t give in to outrageous demands, you’re not trying to game them either. It’s not just some tactic that helps you close more deals—it's ultimately a frame of mind that comes from a place of genuinely wanting to help your prospects.

You're not just grabbing the check and taking off—you're building trust, support, a relationship. If you can show the bully you're in for the long haul, then you've won the battle and turned that bully into an ally.

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