The receptionist escorted me to the conference room and said Mr. Stevens would be with me shortly. Mr. Stevens was the Chief Strategy Officer of a fast growing, Fortune 1,000 technology company. I was there to sell an expensive subscription to a suite of best practices research. I grabbed a seat and waited. And waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes. A half hour passed. I was about to get up and exit the scene when the door opened and in walked Mr. Stevens. He did not look happy. He didn’t shake my hand or even make eye contact. He walked to the opposite end of the room and took a seat, folded his arms and began his rant. “What the f*ck do you want? That woman who works for you asked me if I’d meet with you and I politely declined. I said I was busy and didn’t really have any need for your services. Then she called again the following week and the week after that and the week after. She wouldn’t stop. My admin said she called over fifty times over the course of the last six months. She refused to take no for an answer. She has been the biggest pain in the *ss of anyone I can think of since I began working here a decade ago. I now hate her, I hate your company and even though we just met, I hate you as well. I have zero and I mean literally zero interest in hearing anything you have to say but taking a meeting with you seemed to be the only way to get her to stop harassing me. So fine. Here I am. You got me. You win. Congratulations. So what the hell is so damn important that you just had to meet with me? And make it quick. You’ve got five minutes. I’m busy and I’ve got a thousand more important things to do with my time.”
Believe it or not, I’m actually paraphrasing his opening tirade given that it lasted for over five minutes (I know – there was a clock in the room). By the time he finally stopped to catch his breath, I was well armed with my fiery response: “How dare you talk to me that way! Who the hell do you think you are? I won’t sit here and be bullied by some egomaniacal SOB with a huge chip on his shoulder. I’ve got way too much dignity to waste another minute with a pathetic loser like you.” Yes, those were indeed the very words going through my head as I sat there during that brief moment of silence following his vicious diatribe. But those weren’t the words that came out of my mouth. I had a little more sense than that. Instead, I kept my composure while I allowed that awkward pause to be prolonged for about thirty seconds (although it felt like an eternity). I finally took a deep breath and responded with the following: “Mr. Stevens, given the terrible, inexcusable experience you had with my sales associate, I’m surprised you didn’t throw me out of here the minute you walked into the room. I honestly wouldn’t have blamed you. If the tables were turned, that’s exactly what I would have done to you.”
You could immediately see the dramatic change in his demeanor. His shoulders dropped, his fists opened up, his jaw loosened, his crossed arms dropped by his side and the red hue across his face started to fade away. He spoke in a much more relaxed tone this time around. “I’m sorry to unleash on you like that. I know it’s not your fault. The anger should be directed at your associate, not you.” I rebutted, “Don’t be sorry. It is I who should be apologizing to you. It is my fault. She works for me and so I take full responsibility. I told her how badly I wanted to meet with you and apparently she didn’t want to let me down. I’m so terribly sorry for all the inconvenience and headache this has caused you and your admin.” He replied, “I appreciate the apology. But don’t beat yourself up. I’m probably just having a bad week.” He managed to crack a smile for the first time. “So why exactly were you so dying to meet me? It’s not like I’m the CEO.” I responded, “No, you’re not the CEO but you are in charge of corporate strategy. And the turnaround you have orchestrated is one of the great Silicon Valley success stories. I wanted to learn more about it, as I felt the members of our organization might benefit from your experience and vice versa.”
The five minutes he had originally allotted me turned into an hour and a half. And by the end of that ninety minutes, I had the sale. What started as a vitriolic attack on me, my team and my company ended with his telling me to forward the paperwork when I got back to my office. His first words entering the conference room were “What the f*ck do you want?” and his final words as we were shaking hands on the way out were “I look forward to doing business with you.” That felt good. I’m sure I must have had a smile on my face the entire plane trip back home.
I’d love to sit here and say that this drama played out exactly as I had planned but the reality is I was caught completely blindsided when Mr. Stevens entered that conference room ready for battle. I didn’t really have any time to plan or strategize. I simply flew by the seat of my pants. Fortunately, my instincts were on target that morning. It was only with the benefit of hindsight that I could try to piece together how my reaction led to closing that deal. I can’t say my approach will work in every situation but on that day in that meeting, it did the trick. So at the risk of overgeneralizing, here are a few of the key lessons learned from turning that meeting around.
- Enjoy the silence. The strategically placed pause can be a powerful weapon. Once Mr. Stevens had finished venting, my immediate response was to not respond at all. It may be subtle but that pause shifts the center of gravity back toward the center. It puts the person leading with the pause a little more control over the situation. He was prepared for a heated exchange. But when I chose not to immediately respond but rather, to let the silence fill the room, it quickly defused the tension. I remember as a freshman in high school I was constantly bullied by this one classmate. The bullying reached a climax one day after lunch as we were heading back to the classroom when he turned in my direction and punched me in the face. Just like that. I don’t know to this day why he felt so compelled to hit me. But he did. His body was now in the boxing stance with his clenched fists in front of his face as he awaited my counter punch. But that counterpunch never came. I just stared him down without uttering a word. I then turned around and continued on my walk back to class. He never bothered me again. Sometimes no reaction is the best reaction.
- Empathize. This one is not so easy but it’s vitally important. While he was in the midst of chewing me out, I tried really hard to put myself in his position. While it would have been more than justified to accuse him of overreacting, the thoughts running through my head at that moment were how over-the-top annoying my associate must have been to cause such an angry response (whether or not that response was warranted is beside the point). If I were a busy C level executive at a public company being solicited for a meeting for months on end by some overeager recent college graduate, I could envision the frustration level reaching a boiling point. I’d like to think that I would have the wherewithal to maintain more composure but I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to the fact that I’ve had my fair share of overreactions over my lifetime. He just needed to vent so I let him vent. While I imagine he was expecting me to get defensive with my response, when he heard that I not only agreed with his sentiments but would have reacted even harsher, he was clearly taken aback. My empathetic reaction had the positive effect of placing me on his side of the table. I was on his team now, not the “enemy’s”. Once he could see how I sincerely felt his pain and anguish, his rage was quickly extinguished.
- Accept responsibility. If you’re a leader, the buck stops with you. Don’t get defensive or try to place blame on anyone else (even if it is merited). Did I encourage my associate to act like a stalker and to not take “no” for an answer even when she had heard it fifty times in a row? Of course not. There’s a fine line between persistence and stubbornness and she clearly stepped way over it. She was young and inexperienced. But she worked for me and we were a team so therefore I needed to own it. And that’s why I apologized. I didn’t try to keep my personal reputation untarnished by apologizing “on behalf of my associate”. I wasn’t apologizing for her. I was taking full responsibility for the situation and apologizing for myself. While he probably recognized that I didn’t have much control over the aggressive behavior that led to the meeting, I’m sure he appreciated the fact that I was stepping up to the plate and putting my personal reputation on the line. Because that’s what respectable leaders do.
- Redirect the conversation. With the above prerequisites out of the way, the final step in saving this meeting was to shift gears and get back on topic. Timing is important. Had I attempted this transition too soon, he wouldn’t have been ready to listen to what I had to say. Too late and I wouldn’t have had adequate time to make my pitch. And it helps to pivot based on the context of the current discussion as opposed to a non sequitur out of left field. That’s why I choose to not defend but to explain the aggressiveness in my associate’s sales efforts being attributed to my strong desire to meet with Mr. Stevens. Naturally that perked up his ears (not to mention inflated his ego) to know why it was so important that I meet with him. That was all the segue I needed to get our meeting back on track.
So how in the world was I able to go from that disastrous start of a meeting to closing the sale an hour and a half later? I certainly wasn’t the most talented sales person in the world. It’s not all that complicated. We’ve all heard the saying that people like to do business with people they like and trust. Mr. Stevens walked in that room hating my guts and not trusting me as far as he could throw me. But by the time I was done listening to his rant, empathizing with his situation and accepting full responsibility, he respected me as a consummate professional and a good virtuous person and was then willing to hear me out. As far as I’m concerned, the deal was closed right then and there. The rest of the meeting was just a formality.