4 Ways to Use Motivational Interviewing Techniques to Improve Your Sales

4 Ways to Use Motivational Interviewing Techniques to Improve Your Sales

What does social work have to do with B2B sales?

When I first joined COACT in 2014, I thought that little to nothing from my previous career as a case manager in the nonprofit sector would carry over into my new role in inside sales.

That I’d be starting completely afresh, with my new work life totally separate from my old one.

As the months went by, though, and I started to create my own path in business development, I realized one day as I was talking to a prospect that I was using a concept I’d learned when I was in social work – and that it was helping me to succeed in sales.

The concept in question?

Motivational interviewing.

Afterwards, I continued to hone some of the general principals and techniques of motivational interviewing and infuse it into my sales practice.

The numbers spoke for themselves: it worked! And I realized that certain elements of social work could, in fact, have a lot to do with B2B sales.

Having personally applied key parts of motivational interviewing and seen success, I believe that there are several helpful takeaways from this concept that you, too, can utilize as a salesperson.

Here are four ways you can use motivational interviewing techniques to improve your sales…

But Wait: What is Motivational Interviewing, Anyway?

Motivational interviewing is defined as a “directive, client-centered counseling style for eliciting behavior change by helping clients to explore and resolve ambivalence.”

First described over 30 years ago by William R. Miller, Ph.D., in a 1983 article about helping people overcome problems with alcohol, motivational interviewing has since evolved into a major counseling style with proven success in several different healthcare fields.

One of the key elements of motivational interviewing is empathy: understanding people’s points of view, where they are coming from, their thoughts, feelings, and more.

In fact, it is an integral part of this counseling style, and without it, motivational interviewing probably wouldn’t be effective.

Practitioners of motivational interviewing often utilize what is called the OARS model when communicating with their clients. A series of interactive techniques, OARS is comprised of four skills:

  • O = Open Questions
  • = Affirmations
  • R = Reflective Listening
  • S = Summarizing

When I worked as a case manager for a nonprofit organization, I not only sought to express empathy, but utilized the OARS skills especially.

These tools were what helped me the most in my role then – and in sales.

Now, without further ado…

4 Ways to Use Motivational Interviewing Techniques to Improve Your Sales

1) Practice and Show Empathy

Before even I started working in sales, I hated salespeople. Well, let me clarify: I hated pushy, aggressive salespeople, the ones who don’t listen to you or respect your time. The kinds of salespeople you can smell are phony from a mile away, that are all about closing the deal and making the sale no matter what.

Let’s be honest – we all hate those kinds of salespeople. And as the buying process has evolved, thankfully, most companies and corporations have moved away from training their sales staff to follow that kind of sales model.

Solving Problems

My sales style – and one a lot of my COACT peers use as well – is focused on helping people solve their problems, not shoving some product or service down their throats.

I aim to understand who prospects are and view them as people, not just prospects. I want to understand their problems, their pain points, their dreams, and their goals.

In order to do this, I practice empathy.

How the Best Salespeople Use Empathy

As the famous sales trainer, Alice Heiman, advises in a recent Inc. article by Heather R Morgan from SalesFolk:

“The best salespeople do a lot of research on the potential customer’s business needs before they even try to sell anything. And once in a meeting, they practice being empathetic, which includes listening to the other person and understanding when it is and is not a good time to purchase your product, and how to proceed…. Rather than rushing for the sale, treat every conversation with a potential customer like a practice session for compassion and empathy.

By using empathy, the goal shifts from getting the sale to connecting a prospect’s potential problem or goal with your product or service. And you earnestly want to do so as well; you can feel proud that what you are offering or providing is a great fit for that particular prospect.

Emotional Connection

Another benefit of practicing empathy that Margaret Magnarelli ( points out is that you can emotionally connect with your prospects. This is extremely important since the human decision-making process has been found to be more emotional and automatic than rational and objective.

If a prospect feels that you connect with them and understand them – and vice versa – this will be a win-win situation. Your prospect will not only be more motivated to engage with you and your company, but the entire tone of the sale will change for the better.

2) Ask Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions are questions that solicit more than a “yes” or “no” answer. They usually begin with “how” or “what” instead of “why.”

According to the Center for Health Training, the purpose of open-ended questions in motivational interviewing is to give you a better window into your client’s world. In sales, they give you a better understanding of your prospect’s position and their business as a whole.

By employing open-ended questions, you encourage the prospect to do most of the talking. You’re also less likely to shut them down or shorten the conversation.

Your goal at that point is to gather information that will help you see if they’re a good prospect and, if so, offer the best solution to meet their needs or goals.

Another purpose of asking open-ended questions to build trust and respect. This is especially helpful for sales, where prospects can be on the defensive. After all, for every one empathetic salesperson they come across, there are 50 more pushy salespeople who give the profession a bad name.

Some great examples of open-ended questions you might ask come from Thomas A. Freese’s classic, yet still applicable, “Secrets of Question Based Selling.” These include:

  • What are your goals and objectives for the next five years?
  • What are the three biggest issues you currently face?
  • How would you rate the effectiveness of your current vendor?
  • What plans do you have to upgrade your existing technology?
  • How will the new regulations affect your company?

3) Practice Reflective Listening

This is, without a doubt, one of the most effective techniques I’ve used in my professional career, whether in social work or in sales – and also one of the hardest.

According to SAMHSA/CSAT, the point of using reflective listening is so you can “demonstrate that you have accurately heard and understood a client’s communication by restating its meaning. That is, you hazard a guess about what the client intended to convey and express this in a responsive statement, not a question.”

Reflective listening is called this because you essentially reflect what a person has said back to them. To practice reflective listening, use statements that begin with:

  • It sounds like…
  • It seems as if…
  • What I hear you saying is…
  • I get the sense that…
  • I get the sense that this has been difficult…

By practicing reflective listening as a salesperson, you can further build trust – and show empathy – with your prospects by demonstrating that you understand who they are and what their situation is.

I’ve used reflective listening in discovery calls, follow-up calls, and in meetings numerous times. In a sales conversation, reflective listening helps you to confirm that your supposition or understanding is correct and to show your prospect that you were fully attuned to what they were saying.

4) Summarize

Building on the techniques you utilize when practicing reflective listening, summarizing allows you to accomplish a few goals:

  • First, you can further ensure you are on the same page as your prospect.
  • Additionally, you can verify (and prove) that you have a complete grasp of their situation(s).
  • Moreover, you can mutually agree on the next course of action.

As a salesperson, I’ve used summaries of conversations, webinars, demos, meetings, etc. in two different scenarios: 1) Concluding the call/meeting/webinar and 2) Sending follow-up emails.

After all, so much can happen during any interaction with a prospect. Summarizing provides you with a way to reinforce the most important points and define concrete next steps.

When concluding a call/meeting/webinar, you can summarize:

  • The objective of the meeting
  • What you discussed/reviewed
  • What your understanding of the prospect’s situation is (use reflective listening techniques here)
  • How your solution will solve their problems/goals
  • What your action items are (ex.: To confirm, I will send over a case study talking about our experience with companies in your industry, and we’ll plan on talking again next Monday)

Here is an example of a helpful follow-up email template from HubSpot to give you an idea of what your summary email(s) should say:

Hi [Name],

I really enjoyed chatting with you earlier today and learning more about your role at [company]. I understand the issues you’re encountering with [challenges discussed in conversation] and how they make it harder to [impact on team or company].

As mentioned, I’ve attached more information about our resources and how we can help you boost [business objective] and solve [business problem].

Just let me know if you have any questions and I’d be more than happy to chat again. If not, I look forward to talking again on [date and time].

So, as you can see, social work and B2B sales can have a lot in common after all.

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