If I mention ‘the Pretty Woman sales scene’, it’s likely that almost everyone will know what I’m talking about. Julia Roberts’ “low class” character being shunned by a snooty sales assistant is an exchange so painfully awful that it’s gone down in history as the prime example of how not to approach sales. I think everyone feels an inner fist-pump when Roberts walks back in later, dressed to the nines, and tells that sales assistant exactly what she missed out on.
If you know where to look, there’s actually a lot that we can learn about sales from the silver screen. In this example, we can see that it’s essential not to judge, but rather to listen. When you do, you can better help people and may even end up with a loyal customer and far more opportunities than you expected.
During a past communication workshop, I used an example from The Colour of Money, a 1986 film directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. It didn’t land in the workshop, but I wanted to have another go here as it captures so many layers of sales skill in a very short time. In the scene, Cruise (a hot-shot pool player) has spent the day in a bar, basing himself at the pool table. He’s challenging people to play for $20 a game, and has been clearing up. The patrons of the bar have essentially been as good as a cash machine, queueing up to play, lose, and ultimately hand over their money to his girlfriend and manager, Carmen. After quietly watching him win, Newman approaches Carmen and offers to play Cruise – but for $500, not $20.
In the conversation that follows, we see the apparent desirability and value of the money change, due to Newman’s framing, tone, and manner. Despite the fact that Cruise is on a winning streak and could seemingly beat anyone in the room, the sudden high stakes make Carmen baulk. Seeing her reluctance to take the bet, Newman observes, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?’ ‘Maybe I’m hustling you, maybe I’m not, you don’t know; but you should know’. This in itself is technique, unsettling Carmen and making her easier to lead.
This scene highlights the vital importance of communication. Throughout the scene the objective facts stay the same – the $500 and Cruise’s track record don’t change – but your perception of the bet does. This isn’t limited to what’s said, but also how it’s said, including subtle cues such as tone and body language, as well as framing. Importantly, Newman gets what he really wants: the opportunity to take them to dinner and pitch himself as a mentor. Take your time to watch the scene again: it is a masterclass in using communication to shape reality. Before moving on, I want to insert the caveat that I am not vouching for Newman’s ethics in the movie; like the force, this stuff can be used for good or evil.
As humans, we seek immediate answers to problems. If something seems too risky – such as a $500 bet from an unknown person – we’ll likely avoid it, even if it’s a great bet.
In business, as in life, there are two types of mindset: entrepreneurial and efficient. Entrepreneurs are generally horizon scanners, who’ll accept non-perfect scenarios and think about what they can do to create better outcomes. In contrast, efficient people are more practical and risk averse. Those with this mindset will see the unknown and veer away (‘there’s too much uncertainty over there, so I’ll stay here’). Entrepreneurs will play the cards in front of them, while the efficient person will avoid potentially ‘dodgy’ bets. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that one mindset is necessarily better than the other – in fact, organisations need both in order to thrive.
What The Colour of Money demonstrates is that in any given situation there’s far more going on than we can ever realise, due to the way we’re programmed. We’re built with biases that allow us to take a quick view – for instance, ‘We know marketing doesn’t work because we got no leads from a flyer’ – but there are always greater nuances to any scenario. Sure, your flyer didn’t work, but perhaps that’s because it wasn’t the right kind of campaign for you, or it wasn’t sent to the right audience in the first place.
Newman’s character is aware of factors such as framing, history, body language and tone, allowing him to control the situation. His logical bet remains the same; it’s the subjective environment around it that changes.
Paying more attention to the nuances of communication can make a big difference to your sales process and wider business success. Let’s apply this to an example: in a practice, dentists and therapists are equally qualified to carry out fillings but due to comparative advantage to get a commercial outcome, the therapist is better placed to deliver that treatment. The rational commercial argument is easy for me to make, but I will generally be rebutted by a dentist telling me the patients only want them to deliver the treatment.
They say, ‘I have tried everything and they only want to see me’. More often than not, an unconscious reverse Newman has been pulled here. The dentist believes they have clearly communicated towards an end: the patient seeing the therapist. What generally has been said is something along the lines of ‘Now, the person doing your fillings is not a dentist, but they are qualified to do them; but they are not a qualified dentist’. It’s not a message that’s going to fill you with faith, is it? They have created the outcome their subconscious wanted – validation that they are the clinical expert loved by their patients through their anti-sales, anti-commercial approach – but are none the wiser. But at least they have the warm fuzzy feeling of being “right”. They’ve seen what they expected to see, because they, themselves, made the situation play out that way.
A far more successful way of dealing with this is to frame the conversation positively: ‘I’ll be handing you over to our expert for this treatment, as it’s what they do all day.’ This is true, and far more likely to instil trust in a patient than negativity.
All of this serves to underline that you’re more responsible for outcomes than you realise, if you choose to be. Simply understanding this, and taking time to unpick what’s affecting any situation, can be a truly empowering thing.
If you’d like help learning the skills to master your environment, or support in any aspect of your sales process, get in touch.