Canadian Consulting Engineer

BUSINESS Handling Objections

An engineer’s trade is in ideas. Whether you must convince your project team to complete work in a specific way, your client to pay for your services, or your spouse to wash up after dinner, the way you handle objections is an essential...

October 1, 2013   By Tara Landes

An engineer’s trade is in ideas. Whether you must convince your project team to complete work in a specific way, your client to pay for your services, or your spouse to wash up after dinner, the way you handle objections is an essential skill to develop. Consulting engineers face opposition every day. Clients can object to your fees, architects can object to your methodologies, contractors to your timelines, even your own staff can take a stand against you.

While many engineers interpret such situations as roadblocks, skilled engineers know that every opportunity to proceed is littered with objections and that uncovering them is the most efficient way to convert an adversary to an ally.

Objection types

The simplest kind of objection to recognize is a stated one, such as, “Your fees are too high,” or “We need it two weeks earlier.” The client is stating what they need (lower price or faster delivery) from the consultant they select. Unfortunately, by the time they state the objection they may have already decided not to proceed with your company. They also may not have provided the entire story. You know they object to something, but not necessarily to the thing they identified. Sometimes the claim that your fees are too high is code for “I wonder if I can trust they are giving me the best price.”

Another type of objection is an unstated objection. These can include a lack of response to a voicemail or a deadline that is repeatedly missed. Objections like these are more difficult to uncover, but they can usually be dealt with more successfully if you anticipate them. For example, when a project team member begins missing deadlines it is possible they are lazy or poor time managers, but it is equally likely they have an unstated objection to the task. If you can uncover this objection and deal with it directly, you are more likely to progress with the project.

There are two basic methods to handle objections: pre-emption and rebuttal.

Pre-Emption

The best way to handle objections is to avoid having to face them in the first place, i.e. pre-empt them. First, build enough value into your solution for their problem that the reasons they might say “no” seem insignificant. Second, when you know that an objection is likely to occur, bring it up before they do so that you can control the conversation and minimize the concern. For instance, if you know a deadline is aggressive, acknowledge it from the outset and explain why the tight timeline is necessary for the project to progress.

Rebuttal

The general techniques for handling objections are built on the principle that what prompts the objection is the client’s perspective on the problem. For example, if your client says the price is too high, you have likely not explained the complexity of the job or the quality of the solution so that they understand the value they will receive for the price.

How to rebut an objection

When a person refuses what you are proposing, there are still ways to win them over. It does mean, though, that you missed discovering something critical along the way. You must now back up and uncover what you missed. Here are the steps:

• Pause. If someone says no to your pitch, it is human nature to want to debate their decision. But this natural reaction is the worst one to reveal. While it can be cathartic to “prove” your point, it will rarely have the desired effect of winning them over. Instead of debating, take a breath, or two, and remember the goal is to persuade them to see a different perspective, not to win the argument.

• Understand. Ask questions to clarify the objections, usually by asking “why” and then follow up with some more specific inquiries.

• Confirm. Reflect your understanding by rephrasing what they say and saying it back to them. This step confirms that you have not misinterpreted their response. You also want to ensure they have no other lingering objections they haven’t told you about.

• Offer perspective. Once you understand the root of the objection, you must either propose a solution or bow out of the process. If the latter is unpalatable, be prepared to ask for a continuance. “Give me some time to consider how we might address that,” or a simple “I’m sorry, we won’t be able to do that,” are both genuine answers to an objection. In the long run, your honesty will help you gain credibility.

The person still said No. Now what?

Nothing stings quite as much as when you hear the response, “No.” Clients rarely use the actual word, of course. Instead they give a “soft no,” a.k.a. an excuse. Tell me if you’ve heard any of these: “I’ll try to hit the deadline, but can’t promise anything.” “We’ve decided to go a different way.” “We need to put the project on hold for a while.” Or everyone’s favourite: “Let me think about it.” But anyone with a couple of grey hairs knows that’s just a polite way of ending the conversation for good.

Even though one opportunity may be lost, there will be others. Set yourself up for success next time by ensuring the relationship is comfortable and positive. Agree on how you will follow up with them later, either to see if they need anything else or just to check in on their progress.

Remember, an objection is a reason for a person not to do what you have asked. Objections are not the same as “rejections” in that they are not personal — there is some rationalization behind them. They are emotional, however. The person making the objection has decided, on some level, that what you are offering is not what they desire. And when you receive the objection after putting so much energy and time into your offering, it hurts.

Everyone finds themselves on the receiving end of an objection at some point in their career. If we know we are going to receive objections, then why is it that engineers, known for their critical thinking and ability to problem solve, so rarely plan for them? Be different. Put your ego aside and get strategic about what your boss, your project team, and your clients really want and how to place your offering in exactly that light. cce

Tara Landes is the president of Bellrock, a management consulting practice based in Vancouver that works with engineering firms. E-mail tlandes@bellrock.ca, www.bellrock.ca.


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