03042 Sales Calls: Reading Your Prospects

Product Managers often bridge the gap between technical understanding of the product and the ability to present its benefits to non-technical individuals. Therefore the sales force calls upon their assistance to present the product during visits to prospects.

If you find yourself a member of a team that is calling on a prospect, you can provide valuable insight to the sales rep by helping read your audience’s reaction to the information presented.

Sales pros are good at this. When a sales rep and a manager and a sales engineer review their visit to a prospect, they pool their observations of the company and the people they met, to form a clearer picture of where they stand and how qualified the deal is.

You can help with this effort as well by carefully reading the people you meet with.

Read on below for a few tips on reading an audience.


I’ll Speak, You Listen

First of all, it takes a lot of energy to give a presentation. When you’re on stage, you may very well not have energy left over to focus on faces and body language. If you have an active audience, you may be called upon to respond to the next question as soon as you’ve finished an answer to the previous one. You’ll be focused on the person doing the asking, not necessarily their attitude afterward.

It takes a team to do good observation. When one person is speaking, your other teammates can focus on observing. When you aren’t presenting or answering the question, be the observer. When it’s time for you to present, rely on your teammates to observe.

Face Value

Spend lots of time reading faces. Look at each person’s face, one at a time, and watch their reactions to what’s being said. You may not be able to read a person at first. After all, since you don’t know them, you don’t necessarily know if their expression is neutral, guarded, or attentive.

The key is to watch for reactions over time. Does the person become more alert at times? Which points got their attention? Those are the key selling points or areas of pain for that person.

Which points made them become guarded or shut back down to neutral? Something’s going on there. You may not know what, but you know it’s negative. Either they don’t believe you or the point is a source of conflict for them.

Any topics where their face goes sour? Well, guess what, you may have hit upon the pain the gets them to buy your product. You want to explore that area in future discussions. As a listener, this could be a good time to jump in to reinforce your company’s experience with an example.

What’s Your Position?

Then there’s body language. Carefully observe how people hold themselves, and specifically how postures shift at different parts of the presentation.

You see articles about reading posture for all sorts of indicators: doubt, lying, interest, insecurity. But you’re looking for a simple difference: positive vs. negative. Who reacts positively to specific points made in the presentation, and who reacts negatively?

Keep track of these reactions in your mind, or write it down if that helps.

It’s particularly helpful to see which statements “cause a stir” in the crowd. These are points where you and the sales rep can ask for their opinions to better understand what’s going through their minds.

Generally, a negative reaction is going to involve little movement and a defensive posture like folded arms and leaning back. A positive reaction will involve sitting forward and shifting position.


When reading the crowd, it’s helpful to understand the personalities of those involved. For different types of listeners, a positive response can be expressed in different ways.

There’s lots of material out there on understanding personalities, including such systems as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and LIFO Life Orientations(r) communication styles. Here are some of the personalities I commonly run across in demos and sales pitches.

    The Thinker is an analytical person who needs to get all the pieces of the puzzle before making a decision about what he or she thinks of your product. Expect detailed questions, backtracking to clarify earlier points, and a very neutral reaction until the point where this person formulates an opinion, either good or bad.
    The Talker is an extroverted person with lots of people skills who makes many statements and asks lots of questions. He or she absorbs information by talking about it. The seemingly positive response to your presentation is not necessarily the good indication you think it is, so you need to keep up the persuasiveness.
    The Chief is the one in charge. I was recently in a room of twenty people where there was one person who could definitely be qualified as “the presence in the room.” It may not matter all that much what everyone else is saying if The Chief doesn’t see your product positively.
    The Worry-Wart needs assurance that the implementation of your product is not going to screw up his or her job, like so many purchases in the past. This person may asks for details about supported platforms and options. A Worry-Wart can be a great source of information about the pain that an organization is experiencing. Use the Worry-Wart’s questions and concerns to focus on benefits that will speak to this particular prospect.
    The Peon is the one who has to use your product. They usually don’t have a choice in the matter, but will ask questions to make sure that it’s not going to be too hard. This sounds kind of cynical and unsympathetic, I know. It can be useful to win over the prospective end users, but may have little effect on the purchase decision.
    The Watchdog is usually self-appointed and asks challenging questions to make sure that their company is not going to overlook an essential detail that will be a costly omission. The questions often are designed to prevent the mistakes of previous actual or failed implementations. It can help to get The Watchdog talking about these past failures, both to address and defuse their concern and to understand the pain that your prospect is dealing with.
    The Not Invented Here-o is – you guessed it – a member of the IT department who thinks he or she can create the equivalent of your product, in three months and at no cost to the company. It’s important to determine how much influence this person has. To be safe, assume they have a goodly amount of influence and deal with them respectfully, pointing out the ways that IT can be heroes by implementing your product.

Glances and Side Conversations

Be on the lookout for side conversations and meaningful looks between members of the audience. These may be either strong disagreement or agreement with what you said. Either way, they are a strong reaction, and you want to note what caused them, and ask probing questions to determine whether the response was positive or negative. You have touched a nerve when you get a side conversation, and found a pain that can be used as a selling point for your product.

Post Mortem

After the meeting, get together with the team to discuss individual players from the meeting, noting their attitude and reactions. Talk about which points got strong reactions, and try to determine whether they were negative or positive.

All these insights, pooled from you and your teammates, provide valuable insight that the sales rep can use to effectively pursue the sale.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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