Dealing with Customer Negativity


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How reps can navigate negative reactions in customer conversations.

Occasionally it seems like some people live to disagree. Unfortunately, the negative attitudes that dominate our media today have a habit of infiltrating our business and personal lives. So being able to withstand the negatives without falling into that abyss is a critical skill. Even better would be the ability to deal with negatives respectfully in a way that continues the conversation rather than stifles it.

No matter how skillful your sales presentation is, you are likely to encounter negative reactions. When dealing with negative attitudes, I encourage distribution reps to stay focused on the goal and realize the customers with negative attitudes are usually not rejecting you or your goal. The customer’s negativity is mostly directed at the plan and/or the strategy for achieving the goal.

In other words, they are resisting “it” (the plan/strategy) and not “you” (the rep). If you look at negative attitudes in this manner, you can maintain the confidence necessary to acknowledge the customer’s point of view and align with even the most emotional negative attitudes.

When responding to customers who are negative, instead of saying “I know how you feel,” “You sound frustrated” or “You seem skeptical,” take “you” out of the response and refer to the issue or concern as “it.” Use phrases such as “that is a problem,” “it can be frustrating” or “skepticism is perfectly understandable.”

Think of a triangle with you and your customer at the two bottom corners and, the problem, at the top corner. You and I focused on it. This sounds very much like teamwork.

Switching pronouns from the personal “you” to the impersonal “it” may seem like a small thing now, but in a sales leadership interaction, this simple act is extremely powerful in helping your customers separate themselves from the problem at hand. Utilizing terms such as “I” and “you” often creates a competitive win/lose the battle by causing problems to become internalized. “If I can prove my point, will you drop yours” is a terrible sales strategy and a game no customer wants to play.

Using the impersonal “it” puts the focus on the issues and concerns. Instead of problems becoming people issues, you turn all issues and problems into an opportunity to solve the issue/problem. By removing “you” from the discussion and triangulating from “you” and “me” to “it,” all issues and problems become “it,” “that” or “this” and aligning begins – “you” and “me” versus “it.”


Consider these triangulated examples:

DVM: “Why bother? At my age, I’m really not interested in increasing my workload or adding staff.”

Rep: Sounds like that is not a priority. What are the priorities at this moment in time?


DVM: “We tried advertising on Facebook. It does not work.”

Rep: It is disappointing when a plan does not work. So, let us look at some of the more proven effective and inexpensive ways to build the practice.


DVM: “I’d be real uncomfortable investing a lot of money in a fresh marketing campaign. What if it doesn’t work and we sunk all that money into it?”

Rep: That could be a risky situation so let us explore some ways to mitigate the risk.


DVM: “I’m not cutting my margin just to keep a few price shoppers. Let them go to Walmart.”

Rep: Got it. Margins are important so let’s stop here and explore the options for protecting the pharmacy business without drastically impacting margins.


DVM: “You are going to have to prove to me that using Constant Contact actually improves a practice before I commit to using it.”

Rep: Looks like more proof is needed before proceeding and that is fine. Let’s review the performance of some hospitals that have implemented the program then determine if it would work in this hospital.


Effective sales leaders are skillful at working with all attitudes on the decision ladder, and it is certainly easier to do business with customers at neutral or higher. However, the most successful sales leaders can influence conversations even when they turn negative.

Your personal and professional success hinges on your ability to align with Neglect, Complain, Avoid, Stop and Challenge as competently as you do with Neutral, Study, Continue, Play and Commit.

Triangulating is a key component of that competency. Try it and find out for yourself.


Photo credit: Somsuk