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Marina was having some problems with the opening phases of her sales process. Her early discussions with prospects were rarely productive. She sat down with Fred, her manager, and did some role-playing in the hope of improving her interviewing technique. During the role-play session, Fred shared a strategy Marina hadn't heard of. He called it “stripping line.”

This is a powerful technique you can use to get clarity on what’s really happening in the buyer’s world. Stripping line is a trick familiar to experienced anglers. Novice fishermen, when they feel a fish nibbling on their bait, try to set the hook by yanking the line. They usually end up with an empty hook — no fish — because the fish was only nibbling; it hadn’t swallowed the bait. That strategy is analogous to attempting to close a prospect at the first sign of interest or enthusiasm.

Experienced fishermen know that they will have a better chance of hooking the fish if they do the opposite of what their first instinct tells them to do. They strip some line from the reel and create some slack. The fish then pulls the bait deeper in the water and, feeling more secure, swallows it — and the hook. Then, setting the hook is easy.  It only takes a slight tug on the line.

Applying this idea to sales simply means remembering that pushing against prospects just makes them push back harder . . . so that no one makes any progress. Instead of pushing them in the direction you want them to go, by asking a question like, “What kind of solution are you looking for?” try pulling them away from that direction and then letting go. Even positive prospects need to be “discouraged” a bit, so that they swing back in the positive direction.

Here is an example:

Prospect: I’m glad that we could get together. Joe told me a number of good things about you and your company. I’m sure you can help us get this project off the ground.  I’m eager to hear what you can do for us.

Salesperson (gently pulling the prospect toward the negative): I appreciate your enthusiasm. What we did for Joe’s company, however, may be very different from what you need. (And then letting go.) What, exactly, did Joe tell you that leads you to believe we would be such a good fit?

Prospect (swinging back in the positive direction): Joe told me how you immediately engaged his engineering team in the assessment process. That’s exactly what we are looking for.

Here’s another example:

Prospect: I appreciate you taking the time to contact me. Joe told me some interesting things about your company, but to tell the truth, I’m completely happy with our in-house engineering team.  They’re quite capable.

Salesperson (pulling the prospect more negative): I understand. It probably doesn’t make any sense, then, to find out if we can cut your project implementation time by 22 percent, as we did for Joe’s company.

Prospect: Do you think you can do that?

Salesperson: I’m not sure. I can’t determine that until we have a conversation . . .assuming that you’re willing to do that.

Prospect (moving in the positive direction): Well then, I suppose we should schedule a time to do that.

And here’s one more:

Prospect: I’m glad you could come in today. As you know, we’ve been thinking about upgrading our equipment for some time now. Your information looks quite interesting. I’ve looked at a lot of literature, and your equipment stacks up very well against your competition. I think we may be able to do business.

Salesperson (pulling the prospect toward the negative): I appreciate you telling me that. Frankly, I had come to the conclusion that we’d never have an opportunity to work together. I found that companies that are continually reading literature and comparing specs rarely get around to actually making a decision. I figured that’s what was happening here.

Prospect: Well, I suppose we have been dragging this out for a bit. But, that doesn’t mean we’re not serious about moving ahead with the project. It just means that we wanted to have all of our ducks in a row before we proceeded.

Notice how the contact in the last example, a “neutral” prospect, began moving in the positive direction as a result of the salesperson’s comments. Specifically, this prospect:

  • Acknowledged “dragging out” the process.
  • Pushed back on the salesperson’s (negative) conclusion.
  • Explained the reason for the actions.

This kind of response from prospects is quite common when we pull them gently in a negative direction. The objective with neutral prospects is simply to get them moving. Once they are moving, you can apply the appropriate strategy to keep them moving. For instance, the salesperson could gently tug in the negative direction with the following question:

Salesperson: I understand.  But, that’s not going to happen this quarter . . . is it?

By learning, practicing, and mastering the “stripping line” principle, Marina was able to improve her early interactions with prospects, get a better sense of what was really going on in each opportunity, and eventually improve her closing ratio. You can, too!


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