The Art of Argument

When I was in high school, we had a movie day in my sports marketing class. Being the great students we were in said class, everyone moaned and groaned…. “Great, another BS movie for us to watch so our teacher can kill time,” we thought. However, this was not the case on that day (on second thought, maybe it was, but we were too naive to notice).

The movie starts playing – there’s a song about cigarettes playing over the opening credits. Then, it shifts to a monologue from the main character, a lobbyist, explaining what he does: “… Most importantly, we have spin control. That’s where I come in – I get paid to talk. I don’t have a M.D. or a law degree; I have a Bachelor’s in kicking ass and taking names… You know that guy that can pick up any girl? I’m him.. on crack.”

Holy $#!T?!?! Can my teacher show this movie to us? Regardless of the answer to that question, you have my attention, Mr. lobbyist…

In case you haven’t seen the movie, or read the book, I’m talking about Thank You for Smoking. The reason this day is remarkable for me is that this was the day I learned that you can learn valuable life skills from movies – obviously to a reasonable degree (with a grain of salt, if you will). With Thank You for Smoking, the skill is arguing – specifically, how to always win an argument (or seem to do so). Moral of the story: as long as the ‘other guy/gal’ is wrong, you are right.

That’s where the subject of this post comes in – the art of argument. Whether we want to admit it or not, arguing is human nature. We (humans) are not designed to all agree on every single thing or to always be ‘yes men.’ Merriam-Webster defines argument as:

a :  the act or process of arguing, reasoning, or discussing :  argumentation
b :  a coherent series of reasons, statements, or facts intended to support or establish a point of view a defense attorney's closing argument
c :  an angry quarrel or disagreement having an argument over/about money trying to settle an argument

All too often, people focus on the third definition of the word and associate “argument” with “angry quarrel.” In fact, I got in an argument with my sister recently about the argument we were having because she didn’t believe we were arguing since we weren’t at each other’s throats. The truth is, almost every conversation we have is an argument – we have to prove our point of view to another so that they can either rebuttal or agree with it, thus, an argument ensues.

The value of knowing how to properly argue – and knowing what kind of argument to bring to the table – comes in handy within a sales role. When I started my first sales job at ShareFile, we were given a book called SPIN Selling – a crash course on how to dig into customer needs and use their talking points to show your how your solution/product solves their needs. Each letter in SPIN has its own meaning – Situational, Problem, Implication and Need-Payoff Questions. In a sense, we learned to take the customer’s words on their current situations, problems they have today and the implications these problems have on the business and turn them into an ultimate question to show the need for them to switch to our solution, along with the payoff that they get in return (save money, higher level of productivity, etc.).

Essentially, we are taking the input and arguing our interpretation of the input, to come up with the output – how our solution solves the customer’s problems. If we argue well, they buy and implement the solution, and we get paid! If we don’t argue our points well, the customer may balk, go dark, stall, etc. until we either provide a better argument or we lose the sale.

So, how does one argue in sales? Great question!

Everyone has different tactics for selling – in fact, there are studies that separate buying and selling types into ‘personalities,’ (think DISC or other personality trainings you’ve learned during your sales onboarding). For me, the more consultative approach has been the go-to, with sporadic directness and other methods sprinkled in when consultation fails.

The true art form of selling and argument is knowing when to break out different tactics – and knowing how to argue without offending your customer or shifting into that ‘angry quarrel’ stage of an argument.

Think back to your last sales call – at some point in your ongoing conversations with a customer, they are going to ask “why should we choose you over x?” and you’re going to have to (or already had to) respond with your argument. What will you/did you do?

Are you going to respond with an apples-to-apples comparison? Are you going to spit features out and hope they resonate? Are you going to investigate more?

In order to have a strong argument, one needs to have the proper information to support said argument. If you don’t have a leg to stand on, you will most likely fail in arguing your point. Sure, comparing A to B may work in some smaller, transactional sales, but the larger, more appealing sales require more work – so let’s investigate.

Now, I am not one for reading – I hate it, I’m not good at it and I often times find it too boring. Thinking back, one of the last books I read prior to starting this job was in the 7th grade when we had to read The Outsiders. With that, I’m going to drop a third book of resource: Start With Why – a book about asking questions to get to the purpose of an action – in this case: “Why is the customer talking to me/us?”

Coupling the lessons from SPIN Selling with those from Start With Why will help to strengthen your argument. First, we start off with why the customer is talking to us: SPIN tells us to ask about the current situations/solutions in place, the problems the present and the implications they have on the overall business. From asking these types of questions (situation, problem, implication), we can derive the why behind the customer coming to talk with us.

This where the last piece of SPIN comes in – the need-payoff. The need-payoff is the justification for the customer to purchase and use our product – we use the information we received thought our investigative stage and explain why the need our solution. Based on the problems and the implications of those problems on your business, I’m going to argue the points that you gave me in order to show how our solution can bring you and your company: better productivity, higher ROIs, an easier end-user experience, etc.

Now that we’ve used our questions to uncover how the customer’s current situation is causing problematic implications to their business – see what I did there?! – we can use this information to ‘stack the deck’ in our favor. Think of the sale as an argument in which each person can put an item on a side of a scale. This scale is balancing at the pivot point when the argument starts; as each point is ‘scored’ and an item is placed on the ‘scoring team’s’ side of said scale. As the items stack up, the scale begins leaning to the side with the better argument, which, at the end of the argument, is hopefully yours! J

But what about SEs?

As a sales rep, it’s pretty simple: if your argument outweighs the customer’s and makes logical sense, you win and get a sale! From a sales engineering perspective, we tend to have different types of argument – this is where the consultative approach comes in handy. As an SE, part of our job is to ensure that our product works for a customer, technically speaking. When things break, it can get messy – we can be faced with a number of arguments with the customer from this point: what’s actually wrong, where does the error occur and/or who’s fault/responsibility is it?

As you can imagine, we have to walk a fine line when arguing with a customer – being firm and assertive, without being offensive and/or a pompous ass. In a previous post, I recollected a customer call in which we had issues with connectivity. This was a great example of consulting the customer to finding the proper solution when we knew what it was, without crossing the line into the ‘know it all stage’ that could ruin our rapport, and, thus, the sale.

I will admit, it is extremely tricky at times, but, for the most part, the arguments we have are extremely logical. For example, referencing the same customer: we are getting connection if we bypass a NetScaler, but not getting one when we use the NetScaler, though it is configured properly. Problem: traffic not reaching the proper destination. After numerous tries of telling the customer what needs to be fixed with no avail (in this case there was a bit of a communication issue, but this type of argument happens fairly regularly), it is now my job to consult and guide the customer to the solution which I’ve been trying to explain to them.

Bit by bit, we work are way past the first big obstacle. Once that first roadblock is overcome, logic takes over and wins the rest of the argument for us. Until then, we have to gently nudge the customer to look in the right areas, explaining every step and reason along the way. There are a number of ways to do this, I prefer to go through everything as a logical list. Example:

  • Traffic can reach the StorageZone Controller since it was able to connect to the ShareFile control plane to create the zone.
    • This eliminates connectivity from the server on-premises
  • We can connect without NetScaler and we can successfully upload without NetScaler
    • This eliminates connectivity from the server on-premises
  • We cannot connect with NetScaler at all, and thus, we cannot upload with NetScaler
    • This points to a traffic flow issue

This is one of those times that my argument is known to be right, I just have to show the customer and (for some reason) convince them I am right. Again, we want this to be a gentle let down. So, we point to the server and work our way out. We can connect to the Internet, so we know the issue isn’t on the internal firewall – check. Next, we go to the NetScaler – we’re not getting hits on any of the virtual servers we have set up – red flag.

Since we’re not getting any traffic to the NetScaler, we look at the IPs and I can easily point out the flaw – when we don’t have a NetScaler, we notice the traffic is forwarding to the server, when we do, the connection breaks. AHA! We’re not pointing to the right IP – let’s look at the firewall rules. Bingo! Once I was able to walk them through the breadcrumb trail to the solution, logic took over and everything ‘clicked’ for their team.

As I mentioned above, there are different types of selling skills, each bring a different attitude and argument to the table. What makes a salesperson or sales engineer great is being able to identify what type of personality you have in your sales role, what type of personality the prospective buyer has and what type of argument do you want to bring to the table with each type. So, next time you’re on a call with a customer and they ask “Why are you better than xyz?”, you can be confident in knowing that you have the ability to arm yourself with the proper argument that will set you up for success!!

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