Build Your Own Communication Kit 5: How to avoid the unscrupulous salesman’s language traps

When money seems short and times feel tough, you want to avoid handing over your hard-earned cash to clever salesmen and cold callers. Learn some of the tricks of their trade. See how they use language patterns and non-verbal signals to encourage you to agree with them, and use your own techniques to stay in command. When you know what he’s trying to do, you can decide whether you want to go along with him or not.

Your salesman designs his first step to build rapport with you. He wants to make a friendly relationship, to encourage a feeling that the two of you have something in common. His attempt may be clumsy. A cold caller who asks, “How are you today?” relies on your good manners and expects you to offer him an answer that engages the two of you in conversation. Cut the conversation dead at this point by shutting the door or pressing,“end call”.

More subtle attempts at rapport building include admiration of your baby, a request for help or a short anecdote about something that just happened outside. A clever salesman tends to be someone with a genuine interest in people. He stands just the right distance away from you, makes eye contact, smiles a little but not too much and nods agreement as you speak. He makes you feel comfortable.

Your salesman matches his dress and grooming to fit with his customer group. When he sells DVDs to teens he wears gel on his hair. When he targets fifty-something women he aims to dress like their husband, bringing out his M and S jumpers. He picks up on the interests you reveal, so if you talk about your school age child, he has a nephew, son or friend’s son with the same issues. He notices your language use. If you use particular words or phrases, he’ll echo them back to you in his own sentences.

He agrees with what you say. Your observations on the weather, politics or TV give him the opportunity to learn about you and adapt his conversation to you. He knows that the more comfortable you feel in his company, the more you want to please him by buying his product.

He may use verbal techniques. Researchers count up to seven separate intellectual processes involved in understanding the apparently simple “it was raining, wasn’t it?” structure. Anne Graffam Walker, in her Handbook on Questioning Children - A Linguistic Perspective (2005) explains how, amongst other things, you have to recognise the distinction between the two parts of the sentence, notice where the negative is located and realise that it does not affect the other clause in the sentence. No wonder you feel inclined to agree with him when he says, “You wouldn’t expect such a good finish for this price, would you?”

Your salesman gets you nodding along with him, encouraging you to agree with him that his product meets your needs, is good value and promises good service, before he suggests you try it and buy it.

Assert yourself
You have choices throughout any conversation with a salesman. Sometimes you choose to cut the contact short, ignoring his puppy-dog eyes. You can go along with him, enjoying the conversation but keeping the magic words, “No, thank you,” ready for use, or you can agree and give him a sale if you want his product. Make your “no” sound positive. Avoid letting your voice rise uncertainly at the end of the word, as he’ll hear that as a sign that you may not be sure you mean “no.”

Beware of using “I need to ask my wife,” or “I’ll come back tomorrow,”  to get rid of him. Your salesman has a wide range of responses ready, many designed to persuade you to hand over your phone number or address or agree to a trial with an "easy" return process.

Remember the salesman is doing his job. He may not be your friend, as he’d like you to think, but he’s not usually a criminal either. Stay polite but firm if you walk away, shut the door or put down the phone.

Never part with any money at the door unless you know exactly where it will go.

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