Straight Talk: How Your Words Can Make (or Break) a Sale

Within a few seconds of meeting new people, you make dozens of assumptions, about everything from their financial health to their likability. 

But when shoppers size up the trustworthiness of salespeople, that time is considerably shorter. According to 2015 findings from researchers at Princeton University, it takes most people only a tenth of a second (shorter than the blink of an eye) to gauge a person’s trustworthiness—
arguably a salesperson’s most crucial characteristic.

In those first few seconds, body language and facial expressions are important. But ultimately, “your mouth and the words you speak are your most important competitive weapon,” said sales linguistics expert Steve W. Martin in a 2013 speech that’s earned more than 3,000 views on YouTube.

That’s especially true in the context of a fine jewelry sale, which often includes a period where customers disclose the details of the special occasion they want to commemorate with a jewelry purchase. What you say, and how you say it, ultimately makes or breaks the sale.

We talked to two high-profile jewelry sales consultants—and watched hours of TED Talks and online sales seminars—to compile a list of tips and truisms surrounding the role that speech plays in sales. 

Don’t Be a Stranger

In the interest of building rapport with any customer, jewelry sales trainer Leonard Zell advises sales pros to treat each and every shopper like an old friend the minute they walk through the front door. 

“Salespeople unknowingly treat customers like complete strangers,” Zell says. “Think about how you treat a new customer, and then think about how you treat a third-time customer. Why does a customer have to come in three times to be greeted in that better way?” 

By making a simple shift in approach, you have a surefire way to bring warmth to your greeting. “Salespeople in a jewelry store often stonewall you until you reach the counter,” Zell explains. “Would they do that to their best friend? That’s like saying, ‘Hello, good morning, drop dead.’ You might as well be saying that.”

Zell also recommends introducing yourself, after the initial hellos, and extending your hand for a handshake. The two habits may seem old-school—“These things are never done and nobody teaches them,” he says—but they help to establish trust. “How can a customer have complete trust in you when they don’t know your name?” 

Modulate Your Voice

In a TED Talk entitled “How to Speak So That People Want to Listen,” corporate sound consultant Julian Treasure says that voices that convey trustworthiness are rarely squeaky, high, or nasal—they’re rich, and on the deep side.

“We vote for politicians with lower voices because we associate that depth with power and authority,” Treasure says. “We prefer voices that are rich, smooth, and warm like hot chocolate.”

There are a multitude of vocal and speech affectations that could potentially derail a sale, he adds, including the use of monotone delivery, repetitive uptalk (when you make every statement sound like a question), rapid-fire pacing, and too-loud volume. “Don’t broadcast all the time,” Treasure advises. 

What does work? A little bit of silence, for one. Treasure recommends cutting down on the ums and ahs that most of us use to fill silences because quietness “can be very powerful.” 

Be a Communication Chameleon

Every customer communicates in a different voice, literally. So Martin, the specialist in sales linguistics, urges pros to meet clients where they are vocally by striving to match (not copy) certain characteristics of their communication. 

“You don’t want a mismatch of tone, tempos, or specific types of words—say, a technical versus business [tone],” he says. Instead, you want to try to mirror the vibe of the customer’s verbal communication, to establish a rapport built on equality. 


Focus on Helping Someone—Not Selling

David Richardson, a sales expert and founder of Jewelry Sales Training International in Scottsdale, Ariz., says jewelry professionals are too often in a rush to move the consumer directly to the display cases. 

But in going straight to the product, Richardson contends they’re missing an opportunity to build trust and goodwill with the consumer. A better tack, he says, is focusing on genuinely helping customers achieve their buying goals. 

“A guy will come in and say he’s looking for an engagement ring,” Richardson says, throwing out an example. “And lots of people will say, ‘Well, let me show you these.’ But what if you say, ‘Let me ask you the most important question—how do you plan to propose to her?’?”

With that inquiry, “you’re getting involved in a discussion on how he plans to propose,” Richardson says. “It’s no longer so much about the ring.”

Salespeople, he adds, are typically focused on selling a piece of jewelry “and not helping the customer celebrate an important event in their life, and helping them recognize the value of that event.”

And reminding customers of just how important their event or occasion truly is leads them further down the purchase path. At that point, Richardson asks, “how can you not make the sale?”

Rely on Recall

Focusing on the occasion, not the jewelry, also works when you’re using memories to help a consumer come to a buying decision, Richardson says. 

“When a guy comes in and says ‘I’m looking for a gift,’ you can ask, ‘What have you surprised her with in the past?’ When he shares a story of a past gift, ask about the reaction that gift received. He’ll say, ‘She kissed me and laughed, she was so happy.’ And now you don’t have to sell anything. All you have to do is help him replicate that moment in his life.”

Identify and Soothe Fears

“A salesperson’s job, in general, is the removal of fear, doubt, and uncertainty in the customer’s mind,” Martin says in his speech, adding that meeting someone new in the retail environment can be especially stressful for shoppers. “They have to decide between multiple salespeople selling something very similar.”

How to soothe your customers? “You have to use rich words that truly connect with individuals—words that get to the psychological root of what they fear,” Martin says. “We have to get beneath the surface-level conversation and get to the heart and soul of selling, which is all about a person’s drive and what they want to accomplish.”

Be Easily Interrupted

Zell says one of the biggest blunders jewelry sales pros make is talking too much, which ends up dissuading the customer from talking. “You have to be easily interrupted,” he says. “You can’t just keep on talking. Many salespeople out there like to schmooze, they like to talk.”

Another no-no is interrogating customers, cop-style. “So you’re a customer and you come into a store and suddenly you feel like you’re trying to pass a test, the salesperson is asking so many questions,” Zell says. 

Remember the Romance

At a 2014 TEDx lecture event (a TED-style event produced at the local level), sales expert Jack Vincent pointed out that love and sales have a number of parallels. “Finding love is similar to a complex sale,” he said, “and keeping love is like customer service.” 

In the end, “the best salespeople in any industry are loved by clients—they have self-love and they give love,” Vincent said. “They ask good questions, they listen, and they build solutions together. The more you give, the more you get—in romance and sales. This is the human condition. Love conquers all.” 


What Not to Do

Five surefire ways to kill a sale


Overt pushiness is a sales killer in most scenarios—in large part, says sales expert Jack Vincent, because “pushing kills trust.”

 Drowning customers in “too much technical stuff—talking about the diamonds to death” is another lose-lose sales proposition, says jewelry sales trainer Leonard Zell.

 Gossip, judgmental comments, negativity, complaining, issuing excuses, exaggerating, and being dogmatic (confusing opinion with fact) are instant trustbusters, says corporate sound consultant and TED Talk-er Julian Treasure.

 Focusing exclusively on the product, Zell says, is almost always a mistake. “Salespeople can’t stand small talk between seconds, so they have to go right to the merchandise,” he says. “Boom, they’re in the case—and not [connecting with] the customer.”

 A lack of humor in your interactions with consumers can also be sales-defeating. “Don’t be so darn self-serious,” Zell says. “You make a customer laugh, you make the sale.” —EV

(Top: SB Photography/Alamy; inset: Ingram/SuperStock/Glow Images; three women: Hero Images Inc./Alamy; thumb: MHeim3011/Thinkstock)


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