As a sales expert, I spend a lot of time on the road, training sales teams, conducting seminars and speaking at conferences. Which means I eat at fast food places quite a bit. And while a fast food joint may seem an unlikely place to pick up a sales tip, it’s amazing what you can learn if you pay attention.

The other day, I was in an Arby’s restaurant. As I was enjoying my meal, I noticed some commotion at the counter. A man was complaining (rather loudly) that his order was wrong.

He had asked for “a #10 Combo, plain.” The cashier had taken this to mean a Super Roast Beef sandwich and plain—rather than curly—fries. Instead, the customer said, he wanted the SANDWICH plain, without the “sauce and stuff.” So the cashier had the cook make up a new sandwich without sauce. But when she brought it out to the customer, he began screaming at her because it still had lettuce and tomatoes on it. He insisted that he wanted “a Super Roast Beef, plain!”

To understand the beleaguered cashier’s confusion, it helps to know that an Arby’s Super Roast Beef, by definition, comes with sauce, lettuce and tomatoes. If it’s “plain”, then it’s a Giant Roast Beef, which has a completely different combo number. (#3, for those of you keeping track at home.)

The confusion stemmed from the fact that the customer was using his own terminology, rather the restaurant’s. This is not an unusual situation. In fact, it’s extremely common. Every industry, and virtually every company, has its own jargon, acronyms and proprietary names. Customers can’t possibly keep track of everyone else’s words, so they frequently use their own when describing what they want.

There’s a sales lesson for us here. Because effective communication is critical to the sales process. If we can’t communicate well with our prospects, our sales will suffer. And while communication is a two-way street, navigating it is our responsibility.

So when we’re trying to determine prospects’ wants and needs in a sales situation, what we should do is focus on the words they use. We should note the words they use to describe what they’re looking for. We should ask questions to make sure we understand what their words mean to them.

Then, when we describe our product or service back to them, we can do so with the same words our prospects used in the first place. This tactic works so well because prospects’ words mean more to them our words do. In fact, our words may mean nothing to them. Our words may even carry a negative connotation to them.

Maybe the Arby’s customer thought a Giant Roast Beef was bigger than a Super. Maybe he thought a Giant came with other toppings he didn’t like. Maybe he simply had no idea what a Giant is. What the cashier needed to do was ask, “When you say ‘plain’ what exactly do you mean?” Then by listening to his explanation, she could have figured out precisely what he wanted.

Our prospects often don’t understand the terms that we take for granted. Using their words instead, will help you eliminate confusion, prevent problems and make more sales.

Learn more about Don Cooper.

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