Good sales people, like successful generals and athletes, know that sometimes charging full speed ahead at a problem or being too quick and too confidant can lead to defeat, which in business means failing to close the deal. Many prospective clients do not want an unqualified “yes” to the questions they ask, but a more thoughtful and unique answer. To get there, many of the best sales people do what is known as the swim move.

Many sales people are too eager to close a deal that they fall into the subtle trap of saying “yes” to every question their prospective client asks. Sometimes however, it is exactly the answer that could kill the deal. The swim move is a technique that many who are at the top of their game use to navigate their way around and through that trap. Like so many business terms, it takes its name and inspiration from sports and the battlefield.

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Recognizing the trap

In almost every sport or combat the opponents set a trap, a seemingly open and easy path to scoring or victory, but one that if taken can shut down the play or offensive, and even cause a loss. In business that trap is often a simple question, the correct answer to which is not the quick and certain “yes, we can” response that most people eager to close a sale will give, but a more thoughtful, qualified response — or even a negative one. Knowing what answer the prospective client is looking for requires figuring out what is behind their question, and the reason why they are asking it.

Like a ball player who feints and pauses to see how the opponent will react, a good sales person can “swim” through and past this potential block by keeping their eyes and ears open. When a prospective client asks a specific question, they are not making small talk, and have a very good reason for asking it. A little conversational give-and-take in which a sales person asks questions to draw out what is behind the request can be the key to closing the deal.

That client may have had or has fears of having a bad experience, and needs some reassurance that such will not be the case. Or they may have unique needs that not only cannot be met by doing “business as usual,” but might also be undermined or made worse if such methods are used. What works for one client does not always work for others. The simplest way to find out what they truly want is to ask what concerns, experiences or situations have led them to ask the question in the first place.

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Swimming around the trap

The much quoted ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu instructed his readers not only to know the enemy, which is what most business people, military officers and politicians who skim his work miss, but also and even more importantly to know themselves.

While the key to the swim strategy is to understand what the client really wants (or doesn’t want), and what experiences (good and bad) they have had with a sales person’s competitors, that is only half of the battle. It is also vital for a sales person to know what they and their company can do to adapt to meet those needs.

Swimmers keep moving, keep adapting to reach their goal

Many companies have a set technique, a tried and proven methodology that they have applied successfully time and time again. Much like a general who keeps using the same tactics or a ball carrier who always reacts to a blocker in the same way, eventually they will meet an opponent who can not be defeated or overcome in that manner. Coming at a problem head-on, or delivering a stock answer is not always the best way to land and satisfy a client. A sales person needs to know just how flexible his own team can be, so that they can swim around the trap, and come at the client’s problems from a different angle — one that can convince the client that their company or team, or they themselves, can give the client what they really need and want.


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This article was written by Mark McLaughlin for CBS Small Business Pulse.