Setting Expectations to Achieve Stronger Sales Relationships: The Example of Jesus


It’s often said that one of the key steps in selling is to set expectations with the prospect. But what does this mean in a world where every purchase decision is complex, every product has varying features and benefits, and every sales cycle has to overcome commonplace customer confusion? How can we reasonably ‘set’ an expectation with our prospect, and when should we do so?

Jesus was very strategic about setting expectations in every encounter he had with others. Considering the range of audiences with whom he spoke in depth during his life — from the highest levels of religious and civil leadership to the lowliest of society — lepers and other social outcasts — this was no easy task. There are, however, three lessons we can take from Jesus’ example that are instructive to our modern-day efforts:

1. Provide a Context Relevant to the Buyer

When he spoke with those in positions of power, Jesus would set the stage for the conversation by telling stories, referencing the religious texts and laws that constituted the central point for this audience. When he spoke with those in lowly situations — lepers, prostitutes, the blind and left behind — he again told stories and established a perspective that was appropriate to that audience.

The lesson for sales professionals is that setting expectations begins by establishing context. If you are selling a new business software product to a manufacturing company, make sure to engage the prospect using language, experiences, stories and points of reference that are applicable to their experience as manufacturers. If you are selling the same product to a retail store, adjust accordingly. This not only provides you with credibility, but it gives your prospect a familiar context for understanding what you share.

2. Clearly Connect Buyer Behavior to Buyer Expectations

It is human nature to assume that something new and exciting can ‘do everything’ that we hope or desire. How do you reign in a buyer’s unrealistic expectations without losing confidence or support for the purchase decision? Connect the buyer’s own behavior to the outcomes they seek. Some sales professionals like to say that there are three keys to a successful customer experience — a high-quality product, a fast delivery timeframe and a low price — and that prospects need to know that they can only ever receive two of these.

An excellent way to do this is to share stories of how other customers made their purchase decisions and balanced their expectations with their decisions — for example, a customer who chose to add more advanced capabilities or options to their purchase but recognized that they would either wait longer for the finished product, or pay more (or both). Jesus did this regularly by emphasizing the changes in personal believe and behavior that individuals would have to accept in order to achieve the results he set out and which they expressed a desire to achieve.

3. Tell Stories That Emphasize the Benefits of Disciplined Buyer Behavior

Often, a buyer’s poorly-defined or unreasonable expectations are rooted in a behavior pattern of not listening, ignoring contradictory information, making inconsistent decisions, or failing to follow through. After all, you can sell a customer the best new, state-of-the-art siding for their home but if they fail to maintain it according to the maintenance instructions, the product will still fail their expectations.

In the end, Jesus recognized that he was not only presenting ideas that people needed to ponder and accept, but that he was also establishing a platform for individual behavior change. The best way to do this in a way that is memorable and effective is through the telling of applicable stories. When you tell a story about someone in similar circumstances to your buyer and emphasize how their disciplined response to the situation (or mature and professional handling of the new product or service) resulted in a long and satisfying experience, you are providing a strong foundation for behavior change — and sending a strong message that it is both the buyer and the seller together who contribute to the ultimate result.

Jesus was very careful to listen, know his audience and engage in conversations that provided deep relevance and clarity to each of his varying audiences and relationships. The same approach can help you achieve more powerful and consistent results in your sales career.

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