Labeling: Your New Secret Sales Tool

“I’m definitely going to sign up. I just need to get in shape first so that I don’t waste your time or embarrass myself.”

If you run a gym known for catering primarily to athletes, you’ve undoubtedly heard this one before. Nine times out of ten, your performance-based reputation probably brings value to closing sales conversations, but there’s the occasional sneaky general fitness population lead that uses it as a counter to your established sales strategy.

So what do you do? How could this deflection tactic be countered? Is it even worth trying?

The solution to your problem, as it turns out, is to eliminate the likelihood of encountering it at all. You can do so by employing a negotiation tool known as labeling.

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What the hell is labeling?

I first encountered the concept of labeling while reading Never Split the Difference, a book written by a former FBI hostage negotiator named Chris Voss. In it, he explains:

“Labeling is a way of validating someone’s emotion by acknowledging it. Give someone’s emotion a name and you show you identify with how that person feels. Think of labeling as a shortcut to intimacy, a time-saving emotional hack.”

When applied properly in this fitness instruction scenario, this shortcut is actually a proactive move to get ahead of the “I just need to get in shape first” retort. If you’re being honest with yourself, you probably realize that every time you’ve heard someone drop this line, it followed a series of admissions of uncertainty relating to the exercise process.

  • I’m not an athlete, you know…

  • I haven’t been in a gym forever…

  • I’m nowhere near as fit as the people I see on your website…

  • Are you guys even interested in working with someone as un-athletic as me?

The most important thing you can do during the selling process is to listen closely and pick up on these signals being tossed your way. Once you’ve identified an emotion to highlight, it’s officially time to label it aloud:

“It sounds like you might be worried about being unprepared to fit in in our training environment.”

Put it out there and allow a moment or two of silence to follow. Let the label have an impact.

Ways this can play out

There are two directions the conversation can go from this moment forward:

Potential Outcome #1 - Your counterpart in this sales process will protest your assumption, effectively eliminating his ability to use the “I’ve just got in shape first” counter when you look to close. I’d imagine you won’t be mad about this outcome, considering it was your objective to avoid it in the first place.

Potential Outcome #2 - Your label will be validated by the person you’re engaging with. Let’s say he agrees with your “it sounds like” approach, explaining that he’s intimidated because of his own perceived beginner weightlifting status. Aren’t you in a much better position to quell his fears after illustrating his potential objection before he has an opportunity to employ it himself?

This is how non-athletes often envision our gym before setting foot in it…

This is how non-athletes often envision our gym before setting foot in it…

When I drop a label of this nature into the dialogue and the hesitance is confirmed, I’m ready to drive forward:

“I totally get it, and would be lying if I said that you’re the first person to feel that way. As it turns out, our individualized approach to program design all but eliminates any likelihood that your training experience is impacted by the people around you in the gym. Everyone is excited to get better, and is working at their own unique pace. We start up beginners every week of the year, so I’m sure you’d feel completely at home in this family environment.”

You know how many people have responded to that statement with a declaration of the need to get in shape before getting started?

The total is right around zero.

The reason this approach has been so productive for me is that I’ve been effective in applying rational words to existing fears, disrupting their impact on the conversation. The biggest challenge in employing this tactic is getting over the fear of bringing your counterpart’s hesitation to the forefront of the discussion. I can assure you of this - the uncertainty is going to manifest itself one way or another during your pitch, so why not put it in play on your terms?

Try it yourself and let me know how it goes.


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