When a Sales Discussion Gets Stuck in an Argument

The Situation

Michelle sells contracts for copy machines to all kinds of organizations. Today she is meeting with a vice principal, Emil, who is negotiating for his private school. He makes it clear that he is talking to a number of vendors.

The two are trying to discuss the school’s needs, which leads to talking about contract terms:

Emil: Now, I want to make it clear that we aren’t interested in the five-year contract you may want us to sign. Our financial situation makes it impossible to be locked in.
Michelle: Oh, that’s fine. We offer plans from one to five years.
Emil: And I see here that you have monthly minimums. Well, we’re a school, closed two months a year. We don’t want to be roped into paying for months when we aren’t here.
Michelle: Well, we have special terms for schools, which will take that into account.
Emil: I didn’t see that on your website or in these materials.
Michelle: I’m telling you now. We can work out custom terms for your contract.
Emil: I know you’d like to get that monthly minimum up there, but we aren’t a big company, making tons of copies.
Michelle: If you don’t have the figures, we can determine how many copies you make and come up with a plan that fits your school. It’s not a problem.
Emil: We may be small, but we’re not going to be pushed around —

Negotiating, or Just Arguing?

And so it goes, on and on. For whatever reason, Emil is combative at every turn. Should Michelle chalk this one up in the loss column and just move on? Or is there a Q4 collaborative technique for getting to a more productive discussion?

Don’t Give Up Yet

For whatever reason, Emil has decided, probably before the meeting even began, that he is not going to be taken in by a fast-talking salesperson. It may be that Michelle is taking flack for a previous bad sales experience. Or Emil may feel Q2 insecurity, ill equipped for a negotiating role determined by his boss. Or it could just be Q1 bullying.


Overcoming Emil’s frustrations and suspicions is a worthy goal of a Q4 sales effort — if Michelle can get past the bickering.

She should certainly try. After all, Michelle knows for sure that Emil’s school needs a copier and is in the market for a new one. He’s meeting with other salespeople. He’ll buy it from someone.


Like Michelle, you might find yourself going around and around with a customer without getting anywhere. Rather than letting your frustration turn your behavior into Q1 hostility or Q2 withdrawal, try a Process Check.


A Timeout to Get Back on Track

A Process Check requests help from the other person, to get the conversation back on track. It’s a timeout that Michelle can use to discuss the conversation itself, before giving up.


To do a Process Check, rather than point the finger of blame (“If you’d stop bombarding me with objections, I think I have something you’ll like!”), summarize the situation without assigning blame. Then, appeal to the other person to help solve the situation. Instead of saying the accusatory “You,” employ the first-person “I” or “We.”


Here’s how it would work in this case: “Emil, we seem to be in a rut here. I think I can help you. What can we do to get back on track and establish what your school really needs?”


Process checks don’t always work, but they’re a positive alternative to saying something you’ll regret, or just packing up and leaving. People often will change their behavior if you ask them for help. If you can get the conversation out of this rut, often you can probe to start building trust in the process. It’s worth it, if Michelle can turn a standoff into a sale. It will be worth it to you, too.