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Don’t Let Indecisive Customers (Procrastinators) Drive You Crazy!

“Procrastinating clients don’t need to drive you crazy,” asserts Dr. David Burns, Stanford University School of Medicine Adjunct Clinical Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry Apr29_1 and Behavioral Sciences and author of the international best seller Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (William Morrow and Company, 1980).

Think about how you handled your last procrastinating prospect. Remember the familiar phrases they used: “I’ve got to think about it”; “I’ll get back to you”; and “I’ll talk to my boss (my lawyer, my accountant, my friend, etc.) about it.” If you are in a depressed market segment, you may have listened to these put-offs: “It’s not the right time”; “Everything is slow”; or “It’s a darn good idea, but we have to wait.”

“The first step,” explains Burns, “is to pinpoint why the client procrastinates.” That’s not an easy task, since it requires a great deal of tact, sensitivity, and empathy.

“Don’t get judgmental, but try to see the problem through the client’s eyes,” says Burns. “Your own attitude toward the client who procrastinates is crucial. Don’t get demanding, coercive, defensive, or hostile. These are some of the most common behavioral traps salespeople need to avoid.”

In his book, Burns explains 12 different types of mind-sets most commonly associated with procrastination and indecisiveness. Reading about them can give you greater understanding and sensitivity toward people who seem to resist you. This can be the first step toward better rapport and – ultimately – a sale.

Identify the nature of the roadblock

One comfort trap to look out for is perfectionism. Clients aren’t totally certain they should buy your product. They think they should always be right and are possibly afraid of making a mistake.

Another trap is sensitivity to coercion. Clients may sense your eagerness and feel pushed. They then decide to resist you to stay in control.

These are just two of the numerous reasons why a client might be slow in closing a deal, while – from your point of view – there seems to be no rational basis for the reluctance.

Choose your best response strategy

Summarizing his clinical experiences with countless procrastinators, Burns advises, “Your best approach is to employ simple verbal techniques, such as empathy, inquiry, and multiple choice.”

If your client responds to your closing question, saying, “I’ve got to think about it,” you could easily follow up with, “What are some of the issues you have to think about?” You also may focus directly on the client’s resistance by asking, “What are some of the things that are holding you back? Would you share some of them with me?”

Be sure to use your best positive energy. If your nonverbal expressions signal defensiveness, you could easily reinforce the client’s (irrational) defenses.

Agreement disarms your prospect

Imagine this reply to your enthusiastic sales pitch: “I’ve got to talk to my boss about this purchase.” If you are unprepared, this surprising answer may take the wind out of your sails and leave you speechless. With a little advance preparation and role-playing, however, you may disarm the procrastinator quickly by answering, “Of course you do. What are some of the things you would talk to him or her about?”

This allows you to agree with the reluctant prospect. This approach puts you both on the same team and encourages the client to open up and trust you. By responding with empathy (“Of course you do”), you put yourself in the client’s position. If you had used a judgmental or defensive reply, such as, “Why can’t you decide on this as you promised?” you’d be reinforcing the client’s hesitancy, and he or she may even add you to the list of subjects to be discussed with the boss.

When nothing works, use the multiple-choice approach

“In some cases, the client won’t respond to your empathy or inquiry technique,” adds Burns. “That should not hold you back from using multiple-choice questions.”

Let’s say the buyer in the example above mumbles, “Oh, I’ve got to get my boss’s opinion on this purchase.” You may follow up with such probing questions as, “Would you be exploring whether or not this is a good purchase in comparison with a competitor’s product?” or “Would you be wondering about the financing?”

“Display an attitude of genuine caring. Paraphrase your questions in a noncoercive yet open way,” counsels Burns. The key is to balance empathy with firmness.

“Asking questions and displaying positive attitudes is only half the battle,” explains Burns. “Dealing with procrastinators also calls for managing your own negative thoughts and feelings.”

Manage your own thoughts and feelings

Most salespeople tend to overlook the relationship between thoughts and feelings. Burns writes, “The most important thing to realize is that all your moods are created by your thoughts, not by how other people are treating you. In other words, the things you are telling yourself silently about your client can influence your moods negatively; and the moment you let yourself feel irritable or frustrated, you can kiss the sale good-bye.”

For example, as you hear the client stall, you may say to yourself, “I have an excellent product. He shouldn’t do this. I’ve offered the best possible price. He’s got no right to be so unreasonable.” Or you might get self-critical and think, “Gee! I really should be able to close this deal. What’s wrong with me?”

“Your emotions follow your thoughts just as surely as baby ducks follow their mother. But the fact that the baby ducks follow faithfully along doesn’t prove that the mother knows where she’s going,” writes Burns.

You can prepare yourself before you see potential procrastinators. Burns explains, “Remember not to defend your self-esteem by putting the other person down. In the last analysis, only one person can make you happy or miserable, and that person is you. And, if you’re thinking about yourself in a positive and realistic way, you feel good and have the world’s most potent selling force at your disposal – self-esteem.”

Mind reading doesn’t work

Don’t read motives into a customer’s behavior by telling yourself that the customer enjoys being resistant or just wants to give you a hard time. This prevents you from uncovering the real reasons for the underlying procrastination. Handling procrastination has nothing to do with getting the other person to give in to you; the solution to resolving the client’s hesitancy lies in allowing it to be expressed. Showing genuine concern for your client – whom you view as a human being and not as an object to be manipulated – is as crucial to an effective sales career as it is to a happy marriage or a lasting friendship.


The steps for handling a procrastinating client are as follows:

  1. Before you even place the call, prepare yourself for a possible delaying maneuver.
  2. Pinpoint the reasons for delay, and show your openness, empathy, and understanding. (Don’t judge; observe.)
  3. Manage your self-talk. Don’t put the client down, and don’t put yourself down.
  4. Help clients realistically appraise the reasons for and against buying now. If it’s not in their best interests to buy your product now, urge them not to. They’ll respect you, and you’ll feel better about yourself and make out better in the long run.
“Selling to procrastinators can be very rewarding and profitable,” concludes Burns. “It’s like Zen. When you want the sale most, it moves beyond your reach. Instead, you temporarily abandon your preoccupation with control and success. As you open yourself to your client’s experience, you are creating new space that is needed to dissolve the client’s hesitancy. Once the pressure is removed, your client will be able to objectively reappraise your proposals (with your guidance) and make a decision.

“No matter what the outcome, you’ve created a win/win situation. You’re ready to make your next call without the burden of unfinished business – and, most likely, with the satisfaction of another sale.”

David D. Burns, MD, is Adjunct Clinical Professor emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where the graduating residents have named him Teacher of the Year three times. He is author of several books and papers that help people break out of bad moods. To learn more, go to

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