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“The Customer Is Incompetent!”

by David Brock on April 10th, 2019

In the past week, I’ve participated in two reviews where the sales person has made the statement about some individual in the buying group, “So and so is incompetent…..”

One wanted to hammer home the fact by saying, “I spoke to a friend selling other products to the same company, he agrees….So and So is incompetent!” It was, apparently, validation for that sales person’s position.

Naturally, statements like these provoke the question, “What is it about that person’s behavior that causes you to draw that conclusion?”

Usually, there is a lot of hemming, hawing, and hand waving, followed by, “I can’t get to see them!” or “They won’t do what I need them to do!” or “They are biased toward the competitors!” or “They are too tough to deal with, they just don’t get it!”

And I am forced to ask, “How is that a demonstration of their competence?” (There is a hidden implication in that question, re-read it to make sure you get it.)

Whenever I hear this sales people making these statements, it makes my blood boil. Universally, it’s because we can’t get the customer to do what we want them to do, or more generally, we aren’t getting what we want.

It has nothing to do with their competence. Most of the time, they are simply doing their jobs!

Sometimes, I push the sales people on their assessments. We dive into the person’s background and behavior, trying to understand the sales person’s assessment. In one of the last situations, the “incompetent customer,” had held her job of a number of years. In fact her profile indicated a number of awards she had gotten from management. I posed the question to the sales person, “It appears this person is doing her job, actually it seems her management appreciates and recognizes the job she has done, so why is she incompetent?”

To my mind, incompetence is an excuse used by too many sales people. It’s laziness, selling error, mistakes, inability (or incompetence) on the sales person’s part. They haven’t taken the time to figure out how to engage the individual, they haven’t taken the time to learn about the individual, they haven’t taken the time to figure out why the individual should meet with them or do what the sales person wants them to do.

Thinking a person is incompetent is possibly not only inaccurate, but also dangerous. It colors how we think of them, engage them, even the tone in our voices. Inevitably, these are telegraphed to the “incompetent” customer.

As a personal example, increasingly, I find myself at the receiving end of people thinking I am incompetent. There are a number of things that I know I am incompetent on, but usually none of those are involved in these conversations.

Often, there are the words that are said, “But you are an old guy, things have changed, you don’t understand…..” Yes, I’m an old guy–it happens to all of us (we should hope that it happens to all of us, the alternative is unacceptable.) But I get that things have changed, in fact regular readers might say I am an instigator of much of that change. Stated differently, I’m not as dumb as I look.

Often, people don’t say those words, but you can hear it in their voices. For the other “old people” reading this, you know that patronizing tone.

While we may think we are hiding our opinions/assessments of people, it is impossible not to telegraph what we think of people to them. I sit in hundreds of meetings and these behaviors smack you in the face. Whether it’s body language, subtle facial expressions, the tone of how we speak to the person, whether we even listen to the person; our attitudes are telegraphed not only to that individual but to everyone else in the meeting.

And this limits us!

It keeps us from hearing, understanding. It keeps us from learning. It keeps us from accomplishing what we want to accomplish. It is the ultimate conceit and sign of disrespect.

We may agree or disagree with many people, including our customers. We may like or dislike many people we encounter. There may be differences in performance levels.

But claiming a person as incompetent only demonstrates our own ignorance, weaknesses, and inability to figure out how to connect with and engage the people we need to engage to get what we want to have happen.

When we make statements about people’s incompetence, we are more likely making observations about our own competence.


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4 Comments
  1. Vipul Gupta permalink

    I don’t know if ‘incompetent’ is the right word to use but for sales people ‘unresponsive and frustrating’ can be a more appropriate phrase for sales prospects who you cannot get to. These days the job of sales people can be very difficult if you are honest and don’t believe in lying or being unethical. Many times secretaries refuse to let you talk to people or they say have you talked to this person to which an honest person must say no and that is the end. There has never been as much lack of openness and direct contact in some industries as is happening today where it’s all social media and referral vs. the days of people believing in returning phone calls and emails directly. So if you cannot get to a person to even talk or they keep avoiding response or isolate themself, it is natural for the sales person to be frustrated that why can this person not at least respect looking at what we are sending. I empathize with your sales people as again ‘incompetence’ is a wrong word but ‘won’t respond and is that fair’ is perhaps a bigger question. Some will say yes the person has no duty to respond and others will say that is professionalism that you respond to others and treat them with courtesy despite floods of emails and contacts. Some of us old fashioned people still believe in response but not everyone does.

    • Vipul: Thanks for your thoughtful response, I agree and disagree, partly because we are talking about slightly different things:

      1. Where I see people calling the customer incompetent is while they are engaged with the customer. Somehow, they have gotten past the point of getting access, so that is not the issue. Usually, it is the customer is behaving in ways that are different from what the sales person wants, even though the behavior is probably perfectly reasonable from the customer point of view.
      2. Customers not responding to our prospecting and outreach is something of our own making. Research shows customers are indifferent to digital or sales outreach. Yet we do such a bad job of our prospecting and outreach, that customers are being forced to go to digital channels. While it may not be our specific outreach, but the “industry” is so focused on volume and velocity that they poison the well for all of us. Unfortunately, I see this getting worse.

    • Joel Lyles permalink

      | Some will say yes the person has no duty to respond and others will say
      | that is professionalism that you respond to others and treat them with
      | courtesy despite floods of emails and contacts.

      When I was an electrical engineer at a defense contracting firm, I received at most about five prospecting calls in a month. My cubicle was next to the IT workspace, and I heard their phones going off constantly.

      Occasionally I had to do projects alongside IT (such as hooking up a test fixture to the site network or upgrading desktops to work with the manufacturing equipment) and I remember the guy I worked with one time, Charles, would constantly get calls on his cell phone. About a fourth of the time it was an internal call, the other 3/4ths was from a robomarketer or a robotic sales rep. Charles couldn’t even let it go to voicemail, he was required to answer all calls to his company cell unless he was directly working on something.

      And if his company cell was that bad, imagine what his e-mail looked like. And this guy was a Network and Systems Engineer. I don’t even want to imagine how many calls his director or our CIO received.

      Yes, ideally, we’d like to have our calls returned or at least listened to. But listening to sales reps outside of a buying project isn’t part of our clients’ jobs. And if you’re something like an IT tech on a site that’s undertaking a massive infrastructure project, you do what you need to do to survive.

  2. Joel Lyles permalink

    Hi Dave!

    I wonder how much of the ‘the customer is incompetent!’ talk comes from projection. I’ve been doing D2D, outside, and now inside sales for two years across various industries and one thing that always strikes me is how smart the typical customer is once you move outside of the sale.

    I had an amazing call a few days ago with a customer (an IT director) with a grand plan to unify operations and IT in order to make IT directly profitable at his hospital rather than treat it as a sunk cost. He even shared with me the numbers of what he expected the next few years.

    Of course, the downside of that call was that the organization was losing a customer to this visionary because his unification plan involved moving away from onsite servers, which would obsolete our solution we had in place unless we did something very counterintuitive with databases. A lot of sales rep would go away thinking ‘this customer is incompetent’ or ‘they’re just being difficult’ but I admire the brains on this guy.

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