When a prospect calls – 5 ways to win the sale without sounding like an idiot

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author


We’ve all been there. The phone rings and it’s money calling. A prospect is calling you about your coaching, speaking, consulting, or seminar services. And you need the work. Other than that Excel training you signed up for and taking your dog to the vet, your calendar is pretty blank.

This could be it, you think. The big sale.

Before you know it, you’re feeling nervous. Your mind is blanking out. Yikes! Now you notice how nervous you’re getting—that makes it worse! You start talking all about yourself, forget to ask the basics, and generally sound like an idiot. Great.

It’s perfectly natural to get worried when a prospect calls. After all, you like eating. But, worrying about the sale and allowing your insecurities to surface won’t help.

Here are five practices I use when prospects call (or when I meet with prospective clients) to overcome any nervousness and present myself as confident (even when I’m not).

1. The full calendar attitude

My Dad once told me the best time to buy a house is when you don’t need it. I don’t remember Dad buying many houses but I got his point. When you are okay with the sale going either way it takes the pressure off and you can relax and think clearly.

I plan my Spring and Fall seasons months in advance with family commitments, campaigns, product launches, bookings, client holds, meetings, and even writing retreats. My calendar is pretty full.

When a prospect calls, of course I am interested in their business (not all business is a good fit, but that’s for another blog post), but I feel confident that even without them I have a lot going on. The full calendar attitude helps me to relax and sound confident on the phone.

2. Ask to get

I have a bad habit of doing all the talking. I’m nervous and want to prove myself so I babble on about my experience, previous work, and how excited I am about this project. Blah, blah, blah.

The trick in a sale is to ask to get. “Are you available on the 12th?” they ask. “Yes, that might work”, you reply “And”, you add “first I’d like to ask you some questions about your event.”

I have a set of standard questions I usually ask (I recommend you make that list for yourself), plus I know that for any question they throw at me there is a great question I can reply with. The trick is to always be proving you are curious about creating solutions for them.

If they wanted an off-the-shelf solution they could buy a self-help video. They are calling you because you are a professional and they know you are invested in customizing a perfect solution for them. Now you need to prove that with intelligent, helpful questions.

3. Turn but into and

At some point in the call there will be a conflict. It might be you are already booked on the day they want, you don’t have the experience they are looking for, or they can’t afford your fees. All is not lost.

I have enjoyed many successful contracts that started off this way. And thankfully we have found a way to still make it work. The trick is to turn your “but” into an “and”. Here’s how it works.

Often when someone asks for something you can’t deliver it sounds like this: “Have you ever trained female penitentiary guards?” they ask. “I’ve had great success with lots of female teams,” you answer hopefully. “But never with penitentiary guards.” Not good.

The “but” in your sentence basically negated your previous successes. It’s subtle, but if you simply toss the “but” and insert the word “and” you add to your first statement, instead of negating it. Here’s how it will sound.

“We only have $2,000 in our budget, can you work with that?” You pause (see #4, below). You want the work, but that’s half your regular fee. “Your event/contract/team/company sounds very interesting”, you reply “and that is much lower than my fee, I wondering if we can come to a compromise?”

Practice swapping “but” for “and” whenever you need to disagree with someone and I think you’ll be surprised how smoothly you can transition from a disagreement to a solution.

4. Pause for power

All successful sales people know this one: pauses have power. Going to give them your price? Follow it with a pause. They’ve asked for something you can’t deliver on? Pause before replying. You need to renegotiate your fee, or changing the scope of the work? Pause after asking.

Making excuses, babbling on, and generally filling dead air in a conversation is a sign of weakness. Pauses are for power.

5. Remember they are calling you

Finally, remember they are calling you for a reason.

One of the last thoughts I have before delivering a keynote speech is that they asked me to be there. There is no reason for me to be anything less than completely confident. All other thoughts I might manufacture can wait.

“They are calling you because there is something you can do for them that they can’t get anywhere else.”

They are calling you because there is something you can do for them that they can’t get anywhere else. Let that sink in and then give them your best.

It’s easy to be nervous—just think of all the possible ways this call can go sideways. That won’t help. Instead, practice these strategies over and over until they become completely natural for you (maybe even post them by your phone).

You only have a couple of minutes to make a positive first impression (and not sound like an idiot). I constantly remind myself to not leave it to chance—these techniques work and I need to remember to practice them on every call.

And here’s the good news. Pick any one of these five techniques, try them with colleagues and friends and soon they become second nature. So when that crap-I-hope-I-don’t-blow-it call comes in you have the sale in the bag (without sounding like an idiot).