Review of High Probability Selling (the book and the training) by Gill Wagner, from Feb 2006
High Probability Selling, posted 13 February 2006 by Gill E. Wagner,
(and reprinted here with permission from the author)
High Probability Selling, by Jacques Werth and Nicholas E. Ruben -- review by Gill E. Wagner
This will be a detailed, in-depth review of my beliefs and opinions about High Probability Selling (HPS), because of all the sales systems I've learned, it's the one that has most greatly impacted my success. So to begin, I should tell you a bit about my qualifications for offering these opinions.
- I've been selling professional services for more than 25 years, and I've been an owner and the top dog in charge of sales for five start-up service firms. All of them were successful businesses, and I'm still an active partner in three.
- On February 3, 1998, my business partner found the HPS website, read the first chapter of the book, sent me the link and said, “Gill, you have to read this. It sounds like what you've been trying to do.”
- That same day I read all four chapters on the site and bought the book. (I had it delivered overnight – paying more for shipping than I did for the book.)
- The next day, after receiving the book and devouring it, I signed up for a $950 open workshop in Chicago that was scheduled to start the following week.
- I took the course and immediately applied the techniques. For about a month, I drove Jacques Werth nuts with questions – all of which he gladly answered.
- By the end of the following month (March 1998), Jacques saw that, in his words, I “got it,” and invited me to be his right-hand man at an open workshop in Houston, Texas.
- Shortly after the Houston workshop, I started the HPS Alumni list server – an e-mail discussion group set up to help HPS users. During the following five years, I moderated that list and helped hundreds of HPS users get better results – both by understanding and applying what Jacques teaches, and by going beyond HPS when needed.
- In November 1999, Jacques and I talked about my becoming a licensed partner of HPS. This conversation took place over a few months, and included my training the HPS course one time – as a test, of sorts. During this period I decided that opening a branch of HPS was too limiting for me, because I wanted to work with more than just HPS techniques. So, instead of starting an HPS division, I launched Honest Selling.
- During the next three years, Jacques brought me in to help him train HPS clients twice. Other than that, I haven't trained HPS itself, because my specialty has always been to mold lots of sales and marketing concepts to the person, instead of molding the person to one concept.
- Since taking the course, I have made more than 10,000 HPS dials myself – I think that's an adequate test of any prospecting system – and have overseen another 100,000+ dials using this system – either made by my own people or by my clients' salespeople. It is this experience that formed the opinions in this review.
- Since March of 2000, when I started Honest Selling, I have personally told more than 200 people to go to HPS, because the training they needed matched what HPS offers better than what I offer. I believe there is no one better suited to training HPS than the man who created it and the people who so passionately believe in it, which is why I always send these folks to HPS instead of training them myself. (Of course when they're done, quite a few come back to me for the rest of the prospecting, marketing and selling puzzle.)
Following are my frank opinions of the HPS philosophy, systems, processes, concepts and ideas, and of the interactions you'll have with HPS employees if you take the course. These opinions come from my own, real-world experience with HPS, the experiences of hundreds of other HPS users, and the interactions I've had with some of my clients who have used the process.
I do believe in the concepts of HPS, and I think learning them can and will help most people sell more effectively. My goal with this review is, therefore, to point out the pitfalls and holes that I've uncovered, so that anyone buying the book or taking the course can be more successful.
Opinion: The only reason to buy and read the book is to help you determine whether to take the course. While the book does contain all the concepts, it alone is not enough for you to learn the system. (Jacques actually states this quite clearly in the opening pages and closing pages of the book.)
I hope this helps you decide where HPS fits into your sales efforts – or whether it fits at all.
High Probability Selling is founded on the philosophy that it is much more efficient to meet with and sell to people who already want what you're selling, than to attempt to convince people who don't want it to buy it anyway. Whenever you interact with a prospect, your goal is to find the reason he shouldn't, can't or doesn't want to buy, and to do so as fast as you can.
The fundamental theory being, if you find the “showstopper” early, you can save time that would have been wasted trying to convince him to buy something he didn't want (under the assumption that most people who are only interested don't buy). In the long run, if you use the saved time to find other people who want what you're offering, you'll sell more than you would have using traditional methods.
To summarize the HPS philosophical belief:
- A traditional salesperson meets with anyone that has a pulse and then tries to manipulate him into buying whether he wants to or not.
- HPS salespeople meet with only people who want what's being sold, and let them decide whether to buy or not – either answer is fine.
In practice, using a disqualification method is not only more effective, it helps you avoid all the negativity associated with trying to manipulate people into doing things they don't really want to do.
The elimination of these horribly negative feelings (the feelings that many motivational techniques are designed to overcome) is what gives rise to the cult-like behavior you'll find when people discuss HPS – they mostly say they either love it or hate it, regardless of whether it's actually increasing their sales success.
For example, read the book reviews of HPS on the Amazon.com website, and you'll basically see two schools of thought:
- “HPS is the absolute best thing that anyone has ever created and it has changed my life so completely that I can't imagine ever having sold any other way!”
- “HPS is a pile of dung!”
These opposing viewpoints represent the left and right ends of the Normal Curve on opinions about HPS. As is the case with every Normal Curve, reality for 90 percent of the population will always lie somewhere in the middle.
This review is my attempt to explain that reality.
Opinion: I truly believe in never manipulating anyone into anything, and it was my exposure to HPS that crystallized my thinking on this concept.
At its core, the HPS process is a “hunter system.” It consists of two main activities:
- High-volume cold-calling to find people who want what you're offering.
- Going on sales appointments with only people who want what you're offering and who are willing to conditionally commit to buying it.
If you take the course, in addition to learning disqualification concepts, you'll be taught:
- How to describe your products or services based on their features, rather than on the results they produce or the benefits of producing those results.
- How to craft cold-call offers.
- Methods for list selection.
- What demeanor to have when cold-calling.
- How to give offers to prospects and their gatekeepers.
- Scripted answers to the types of “yes,” “no” and “maybe” responses you'll get from the people who answer the phones.
- How to set appointments and get commitments from prospects.
In the Sales Appointment section of the course, you'll learn:
- How to confirm the commitments that were made, and what to do when they're broken.
- An inquiry process in which you interview the prospect about his personal life, so you can determine whether you trust him enough to enter into a business agreement.
- A scripted questioning process designed to uncover the things that might typically keep you from making the sale.
- A questioning format designed to set mutual expectations for the product or service being sold.
Cold-Calling: Offer Creation
On November 28, 2003, in answer to a question posed by an HPS alumni, Jacques Werth writes:
“There is no need for your prospects to know what kind of problems your company can solve or for you to attempt to dig into what their problems are before they say yes to an offer.”
If you sell products to professional buyers – such as forklifts to a warehouse manager – then I completely agree. After all, the warehouse manager absolutely knows how much weight the lift must handle, how high his shelving units are, what safety features are a must at his facility, and so on.
If, however, you sell complicated professional services, such as custom software development, then I couldn't disagree more, because the decision-makers who write the checks – CEOs, presidents, VPs – couldn't care less about things like the programming language you use.
The only things about which decision-makers give a hoot are solving their problems by producing results, making sure their decisions have long-term, positive advantages, and creating positive returns on their investments. To get “yes” responses from these folks, you must create offers that speak directly to the results they want to produce. And, you must craft offers that are in their words, not yours.
Opinion: The offer creation concepts in HPS are quite sound, but if you sell professional services you must go beyond what is taught in the HPS course.
Cold-Calling: Scripted Responses
When using HPS cold-calling, you make an offer and hope for either a “yes” or “no” response. In fact, you operate under the assumption that anything else is unacceptable. As such, when you get anything else, you're supposed to force the issue by trying to get the prospect to make an immediate “yes/no” decision.
For example, suppose you dial the phone and make an offer for accounting services, and the prospect answers with something like, “We're happy with our current firm.” You're supposed to reply with something like, “Does that mean you're willing to work with someone new, or not?” (Force the issue to a “yes” or “no.”)
Another scripted example is how to respond to a non sequitur, such as, “I'm busy right now.” To that, you're supposed to use a restatement like, “Does that mean you want professional accounting services with a four-hour response time to questions, and that are billed on an hourly basis, or not?” (a restatement of the guts of your original offer, forcing a “yes/no” response).
In my opinion, these types of Scripted Responses violate the fundamental law of selling – listen to your prospects – and using them made me very uncomfortable. Despite this feeling, when I first learned HPS, I used those types of responses anyway, because I believed what I was taught – that my discomfort was irrelevant, and that the Scripted Responses were the best way to go.
But after thousands of phone calls and hundreds of comments like, “I said I was busy. Can't you hear?” (followed by a slam of the phone), I abandoned the scripts in favor of simply listening to my prospects and responding to whatever they said.
Yes, I did continue to work toward a “yes” or “no,” but, by abandoning the Scripted Responses, I stopped ticking people off and actually arrived at more “yes” responses than I had with the more abrupt scripts.
Opinion: The HPS Scripted Responses are a great learning tool, but in the real world, it is much more effective to listen to prospects and deal with their comments on a case-by-case basis.
Cold-Calling: Does It Actually Work?
After reading the cold-calling examples in the book, I found myself amazed at how quickly someone could get an appointment – it seemed like after only a few calls you'll get appointments with people who are committed to buying. This, in fact, is not the case at all, so you need to do some math before deciding whether HPS Cold-Calling will work for you. I suggest you look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios, assume you'll be somewhere in between, then factor in effort vs. reward.
An HPS prospecting session consists of three hours of dialing separated by two 15-minute breaks. You do one session per day, and it generally takes about a half hour of list administration to complete the session. So that means four hours per day is spent on each session.
If you're really good, you can dial the phone about 150 times each session. (I've seen claims of 180 dials per session, but I've never talked to anyone who hit those numbers and personally have never done better than 120.)
Based on my company's experience with tens of thousands of dials (most of which were for clients paying us to prospect on their behalf), and the experiences reported to me by other HPS users, I believe a best-case scenario would look something like this:
- 150 dials per day.
- 18 percent of your dials will result in offers. (The other 82 percent will be made up of bad phone numbers, voicemail and auto-attendant roadblocks, gatekeepers, busy signals, “executive left the company,” etc.)
- You'll get one “yes” response out of every 40 offers.
- You'll close a sale 90 percent of the time.
This translates to 3.3 “yes” responses per week. Throw out the .3 who disqualify immediately, and you still get 3 new sales appointments at a 90 percent close rate for every week of dialing. (Note: I've never seen this done, but I believe with the right environment, the right products, the right list and the right person selling, it could be achieved.)
For a worst-case scenario, I'll ignore total-failure situations, which can and do happen to top-notch HPS salespeople, because these total failures are typically the result of things out of the control of the person doing the dialing. For example, we once made 3,000 dials for a client and got no sales appointments. (We learned that the services the client was selling had been replaced by the prospects' high-end software systems, and were no longer desired by anyone.)
Real estate, financial and insurance salespeople have reported the following, which I believe qualifies as worst case:
- 120 dials per day.
- 15 percent of your dials will result in offers.
- You'll get one “yes” response out of every 250 offers.
- You'll close a sale 50 percent of the time.
This calculates to less than 1 new client every 27 days of dialing, even when everything is working as designed.
Opinion: Reality for most of us, I believe, will be closer to best-case than worst-case scenario. Still, unless you can answer “yes” to all of the following questions, the HPS style of cold-calling may not be cost effective for you:
- For every full-time salesperson, can you acquire a list of 3,000 prospects who are highly likely to want what you sell sometime this year?
- Do all of these prospects qualify for what you sell? (I have a client who sells financial products, and the salespeople can't learn whether a prospect qualifies until after they get a “yes” response. As a result, they waste a ton of time calling people they should never have called.)
- Once you have the list, can you reasonably assume that, at any given point in time, at least 1 percent of these prospects want what you sell right now?
- Are you confident you can create a 45-word cold-call offer that 100 percent of your prospects will understand? (If they don't understand it perfectly, they will say, “No.”)
- If you hit your targeted numbers, will your company and salespeople profit enough to warrant the cost of learning HPS and the continued time to make it work?
- Are your salespeople behaviorally suited to high-volume dialing? (I've found that the best heads-down dialers have totally different behavioral traits than the best person-to-person salespeople.)
Personally, even when I can answer “Yes” to 1 through 5, I can never answer “Yes” to number 6, because I hate repetitive tasks. (Despite the claims of HPS people, once you get good at this process it is VERY robotic.) So even though I can be and have been successful at HPS prospecting, I'm miserable while doing it, which violates my “If you aren't having fun selling, get another job” rule.
Opinion: You will not enjoy HPS prospecting unless you're behaviorally suited to high-volume repetitive tasks. That doesn't mean you can't do it anyway, it just means you may not look forward to your day. Behavioral profiling, such as the DISC behavioral profile, can often help you determine whether you'll be able to do this successfully once you learn it. (On the DISC profile, I believe people who rank high in S and C make the best dialers.)
Sales Appointment: The Trust And Respect Inquiry
One of the cornerstones of High Probability Selling is the personal inquiry technique used by salespeople at the beginning of sales appointments to determine whether they can trust the prospects.
The foundation of this interview technique is the belief that people who hold lifetime grudges are basically not trustworthy. So the purpose of the interview is to determine whether a prospect holds lifetime grudges by:
- Searching his past until you uncover childhood trauma.
- Finding out who he (the child) blamed for the trauma.
- Finding out whether the prospect ever made up with the person that caused the trauma, and, if not, finding out whether he still holds a grudge today.
You accomplish this by doing a Trust and Respect Inquiry (formerly called a “Relationship Inquiry”) at the beginning of your sales calls. Basically, you get to childhood by asking any generic question, followed by “What came before that?” type questions. For an accelerated example:
Salesperson: “How long have you been president?”
Prospect: “About five years.”
Salesperson: “What did you do before that?”
Prospect: “I was chief financial officer at a pet food manufacturing company.”
Salesperson: “How did you get into pet-food manufacturing?”
Prospect: “I was chief financial officer at a pet food manufacturing company.”
Salesperson: “How did you get into pet-food manufacturing?”
Prospect: “Actually, I got the job right out of college and moved up through the ranks over a 10-year period.”
Salesperson: “So did you take accounting in college?”
Prospect: “Yeah. I've always liked working with numbers.”
Salesperson: “When did you first realize you liked working with numbers?”
Prospect: “When I was about eight, my dad ...”
Once the prospect mentions something about his childhood, you explore whatever topics he opens. For instance, since the prospect mentioned his dad, it would be okay to ask, “What was your dad like?” Then, when you find anything controversial, you key in on that. For instance, if the prospect mentions hating the piano lessons he had to take, you might ask, “Who made you take piano lessons?” (You may learn that Mom made him take them, and that he hated Mom for it.)
Once you find trauma of any sort, you explore how the conflict was resolved, or whether it was resolved at all.
A secondary theory of the Trust and Respect Inquiry is that, once you finish the interview, the prospect will trust you implicitly, because he just made a connection with you on a visceral level.
The theory is that people are starved to share their innermost feelings, because as adults, they rarely get the chance to do exactly that. In practice, it really is quite easy to find and explore the depths of a person's childhood trauma by asking the questions as advised in HPS. So I certainly would not refute the idea that it can be done.
Opinion: I challenge the fundamental belief upon which this process is based – that people who hold lifetime grudges are not trustworthy. I know of no research supporting this theory, and I know some absolutely trustworthy people who will be glad to hold a lifetime grudge, if you screw them over bad enough.
Bottom line: While I don't use the Trust and Respect inquiry process to look for childhood trauma, the interview technique itself is very sound for diagnosing problems, and I do use the “ask questions about only those subjects raised” concepts during sales calls. (This technique, in combination with some Dale Carnegie techniques I learned way back in 1979, is the foundation of the Visceral Trust Interview I explain in Chapter 3 of "How To Build The [Your Name Here] Sales System."
Sales Appointment: Discovery-Disqualification Questions
The 12 to 13 questions Jacques advises you ask during a sales call do, for the most part, find the typical things that will cost you an engagement, and should be learned and incorporated into your questioning process.
If you've read any popular book on sales you'll recognize many of the questions listed in HPS. For example, one of the questions is “If you decide to go forward with this, who else would have to agree?”
Assume the prospect says, “Joe, our CFO will need to sign the contract.” In that case, you're supposed to follow up with something like, “When we're finished with this meeting, if it looks like we have a mutually beneficial basis for doing business, I'll need the chance to talk with Joe. Are you willing to set that up?”
If the prospect agrees, you move on. If not, you are supposed to end the meeting and leave. The assumption is that any prospect not willing to let you speak to Joe is a prospect who is only “kicking tires” – someone not committed to actually buying. So any further time you invest has a very high likelihood of being wasted.
Opinion: I recommend you start by learning the discovery-disqualification questions and trying them as designed. They work pretty well in most situations, and, as you perfect the process, you'll learn when to push the issue to the point of leaving, and when to back off a bit.
Sales Appointment: Conditions Of Satisfaction
When I took the course, Jacques ended the training at the discovery-disqualification questions. Since then, he's added the Conditions of Satisfaction questioning process I'll describe in a second. So, I never learned it from Jacques himself – I've only seen it described by my clients who needed help making HPS work.
As best I can tell, Jacques advises verbally going over every condition you have, and following each with some form of “Is that something you want?” or “Is that what you want to do?” His assertion seems to be that if you do it this way, by the time you finish the sales call, you'll have so many commitments that the sale is virtually guaranteed.
For example, once you've spelled out the project and eliminated the probable reasons you won't get hired, you go over everything as follows:
- “I'll need access to your executive team for feedback. Is that something you want to provide?”
- “I can provide written reports weekly. Is that something you want?”
- “If we move forward, I'll need half the money up front. Is that something you want to do?”
- “You'll be responsible for providing my team dial-up access to your system. Is that something you want to do?”
- And so on ...
Opinion: I find this questioning process way too rehearsed, and I would never use it myself. If you don't have a good Conditions of Satisfaction process of your own, give it a try. But if you have something you already like, I wouldn't try this technique.
All Phases: Conditional Commitments
Besides the philosophy of disqualification, the idea of getting Conditional Commitments from prospects is simply the single most useful and productive thing you'll learn from HPS. Simply put, at every transition point you ask something like, “If X, what will you do?”
For instance, after setting the appointment, you might ask, “When we meet, if what I show you is a perfect fit for solving your sales puzzles, what will you do?”
In pure HPS context, unless the prospect replies with something like, “I'll hire you,” you would cancel the appointment, because you never go on appointments where the prospect hasn't conditionally committed to buy.
Actually doing this is one of the hardest things you'll find in adopting a disqualification model for selling, because it's where the rubber meets the road. Are you actually willing to walk away from potential business if you can't get a commitment?
Opinion: You should always ask the question. Worst case, if the prospect doesn't commit, at least you'll know where he stands before you walk in the door for the appointment.
Opinion: I believe the concept that people aren't worth meeting unless they've committed to buying is rather shortsighted, because good relationships create sales. Personally, I'll join someone for lunch any time he wants to chat – regardless of whether he is considering buying – because there are so many ways to leverage good relationships that it always pays to build them.
Here are some final thoughts for you to consider when evaluating HPS:
- Many of the concepts and processes of HPS are basically sound and can help anyone increase results, provided they're incorporated into your overall sales and marketing system. I would not, however, recommend blindly supplanting your entire system with HPS.
- HPS practiced as taught does not require eight hours per day of effort, so your salespeople will need to do other things to fill their days. And your company must still market in all the normal ways (so don't think HPS will eliminate that from your budget).
- HPS teaches you to ignore people who are only interested – not willing to make a Conditional Commitment to buy right now. This is a mistake, because, by the time you get back to calling them again (you call about every four weeks), many who were previously only interested will have bought from others. I recommend your salespeople use their own judgment as to whether appointments are worth their time, and evaluate each interested prospect on a case-by-case basis. If your salespeople feel it's appropriate to send information, then by all means they should send it. (Just track the time, cost and results, so you know whether to continue doing it.)
- If you take the course and decide to try HPS, you should first attempt to apply it exactly as taught until you learn the system. That way, if you decide to back away from some of the rigid concepts, you'll have real-world experience upon which to base your decisions. (After 5,000 offers or 30 sales calls, if you still aren't getting the numbers you want, back off a bit. Analyze what you believe are the roadblocks, and change something.)
- As seems to be the case with every sales system out there, the only examples and stories you'll hear from HPS trainers are the successes – at least that's all I've ever heard. And HPS advocates, like alumni, can be zealots in their public support of HPS. For example, people who tell me in private that they don't use HPS as rigidly as taught, or aren't getting the results they want, will publicly say they support it completely, and even exaggerate their results. And others, like Neil Myers, who now trains HPS, spent several years telling me how great my modifications were until I wrote this review.
- Using HPS Cold-Calling is like racewalking a marathon – you never build any real momentum, and, as soon as you stop walking, the effort comes to a screeching halt. There are gravity-creating processes – things designed to get prospects to find you, such as writing a book – that are much more effective at building a large customer base over the long haul. So consider doing these things before, or in addition to, adding HPS Cold-Calling to the mix.
- My pet peeve about my experience with HPS is the common response the creators and trainers give to anyone who fails to make the process work: “You don't get it.”
- First, I know many salespeople who “got it” just fine, but closed much more business by adding components of HPS to their own selling systems, rather than using HPS exactly as taught.
- Second, “you don't get it” is a blatant cop-out. Perhaps they should at least change this to “we failed to convey the concept.” I would still disagree, but at least I'd respect them for accepting responsibility.
On a scale of one to 10, I give the Disqualification and Conditional Commitment concepts a 10 and the rest of the concepts an average of 7.
Recommendation: Reading the book and taking the course will be a wise investment in time and money for most salespeople – even those who don't want to use high-volume cold-calling to hunt for business. However, do not adhere rigidly to the concepts for very long – if they aren't working as expected within 5,000 to 10,000 dials, then change or adapt something.
Gill E. Wagner, Sage of Selling
President of Honest Selling
Founder of the Yellow-Tie International Business Development Association
Notes by Carl Ingalls, Aug 2020.
The review written by Gill Wagner above seems to be much more about the sales process (as it was taught before 2003) than it is about the book itself. I agree with many of the opinions and recommendations, some of them strongly, but I disagree with many others.
I started learning HPS in 2003. My teachers were Jacques Werth and Neil Myers. My experiences in learning HPS were significantly different from Gill Wagner's. Apparently, they were teaching it differently by then.