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

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.


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).