The danger in presuming you know what your prospects are thinking

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Picture it: June. Southeast Texas. HOT.

I’m talking swamp-in-the-seat-of-your-pants HOT.

I’m on the hunt for a new car because after my car accident, I’d been stuck driving my stepdad’s old Ford pickup truck. The one with the bench seat, the loud engine, and the open-all-windows variety of air conditioning.

I arrive at the 5 billionth dealership I’ve been to in just a few short months.

I’m armed with weeks’ worth of deep-dive cost comparison info from Kelley Blue Book and a VERY bad attitude.

I know what I want and I’m here to get it.

But I’m Texan, so I put on a smile. ‘Cause that’s just what you do when it’s time to get shit done.

I walk into the blissfully cool command center of this dealership, and a vulture of a salesman immediately swoops in.

I imagine he was anticipating easy prey, someone who wanted a “pretty” car.

Little did he know…

Like machine gun fire, I rattle off what I’m looking for.

I’ve done this song and dance before, and had been let down by salespeople who spoke directly to the male travel companion du jour (ignoring me – THE BUYER – completely).

Or, they stubbornly showed me vehicles I had zero interest in, but that I suspect would have greatly padded their bottom line.

But this vulture kid catches me off guard…

…he takes me to a car that seems to perfectly fit the bill.

Pleasantly surprised, I slowly circle the car, inspecting every inch of the exterior.

I quickly figure out this car is way overpriced for the mileage. Plus, the back bumper has one side that’s hanging a good 3-4 inches below where it should be.

Lopsided. Totally safe. Right?

As I round the car and come back into view, he cheerfully blurts out, “I know what you’re thinking – it’s perfect, right?!”

And I went from 60 to zero in about 0.3 seconds.

Maybe I wouldn’t have had such a drastic reaction if he’d been closer to what I was actually thinking…I don’t know.

But he was so far off-base in his assertion about what I was thinking that I found it repulsive.

My kneejerk sarcasm kicks in and I tell him, “yeah – that back bumper is perfectly suited for the junk yard. And technically, it’s what I’m looking for. But this car is not even remotely worth that price.”

He nervously rebuts with, “Well, how much does it cost to replace a bumper? It can’t be that expensive.”

And reply, “I’m going to assume you’ve never been rear-ended. Count yourself lucky, sir.”

In an instant, that easy sale became pretty difficult.

What just happened?

From all outward signs, everything seemed to be going well, right?

He had what I wanted. He talked directly to me.

But this eager young salesman made one teensy mistake that instantly turned me off.

And it’s a tactical mistake I see copywriters make all the time.

…He presumed to know what I was thinking.

And a psychic he most certainly was not.

Now, as copywriters, we spend hours, days, weeks, months steeped in research.

When you know so much about a particular customer avatar, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you know what’s really going on in their mind.

But don’t read too much into it, or you could fall into the mixed signals trap, where you misinterpret the signs you’re seeing in another person.

But more often than not, telling your market what they’re thinking is gonna do one of two things:

1) Inspire a toddler-like reaction called “rebounding” where the prospect says NO YOU DON’T, and you’ve lost them.

2) Accidentally repel your prospect because they don’t identify with what you’ve said, decide “this ain’t for me”, and you’ve lost them.

The great news? There’s a really quick fix.

Stop telling them what they want.

You’ve seen it before, so it should be easy to recognize…

“I know what you’re thinking…why is this price so low? How can you afford to do this?”

Actually I was wondering where the buy button was so I could see the price and decide whether reading your letter was worth 5 minutes of my time.

“This deal is so hot you’re gonna want to get out your wallet!”

Fat chance, buckaroo.

This is why long-time copywriters talk about entering the conversation in the prospect’s mind.

Much like joining a crowd at a bar, you’ll have more success inserting yourself into the conversation if you listen and join in when you have something relevant to say.

To quote the Copy Chief and John Carlton,

Good salesmen know that a good sales process often involves getting interest with logic and rationality, but selling on emotion.

And the emotional appeal relies a great deal on the know, like, and trust (KLT) factor.

The salesman could have easily learned what makes me tick from asking me questions and/or paying attention to the way I came in to shop (which was…admittedly hostile).

He could have learned WHY I needed a new car (I was relocating across the country for grad school) and discovered an entire set of unasked questions that could have led me to a car I didn’t even know I wanted!

If you spend all this time getting to know your prospects, you need to show them you know.

But also how to say it without saying it.

And if I need your product, and you KNOW that I need it, the best way to persuade me is show me that you understand my needs.

Show is ALWAYS more powerful than tell.

It’s how get your prospect to insert THEMSELVES into your story and naturally see you as the solution to a problem.

You tell a story that conveniently hits on all their pain points and shows your understanding.

You demonstrate the product so they can see for themselves how it will solve their problems.

You invite others to share their experiences so your prospects can see your product working for them.

To put it bluntly: prove your case, and you won’t ever need to articulate that you know what they’re thinking and activate that NO YOU DON’T kneejerk reaction.

Have you ever encountered this in a sales pitch? How did you react?


For more snarky advice on how to get good, visit Angie’s blog.

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Angie Colee
Angie Colee
Angie Colee is a Senior Copywriter in retail by day and rockstar blues vocalist by night. She is obsessed with marketing strategy, simplifying complex ideas, and making her cat the next internet sensation. Life goals include trademarking her awesomely red hair and figuring out how to drink hot coffee without burning herself. If you’re ever in the San Francisco bay area, look her up.
Showing 12 comments
  • Reply

    Angie… I love this piece.

    Great example of how copywriters see selling in a unique way. We’re always thinking about how to optimize the “one-sided conversation.” And, as you so colorfully taught us here, nailing it starts with LISTENING to your prospect.

    Thanks for contributing to the blog and all the smart guidance you provide the members of Copy Chief.

    I hope we’ll be seeing you here more often.


  • Alix P

    Personally, I fall into the toddler-esque camp. My knee jerk reaction when someone tells me they know just how I feel, just what I’m thinking, or just what to do in my situation is “lalalalala I’m not listening” a good 90% of the time.

    This can be problematic for me, of course, because sometimes they really DO have good advice, or a good product to sell, or even EXACTLY WHAT IM LOOKING FOR GIVE IT TO ME NOW AND NO ONE HAS TO GET TRAMPLED. But we’ll never really know because they didn’t ask if I wanted to join their camp. They just put me in it.

    On the other hand, I’m really susceptible to people who are willing to ask questions about what I want.

    For example, three years ago I was feverishly pinning (under cover of night, because that’s when pinterest addicts get our fix) and found one of those “this-will-fix-your-life-and-make-your-children-grow-up-to-be-heads-of-state” pins. It was about how to best store your home-made baby foods in a way that made it more cost-effective and serving-size-conscious. Namely, that you make really really big batches of food, then freeze them in portions in an ice cube tray. Then when it’s time to feed baby you just pop one or two of those suckers out, heat ’em up, and baby’s ready to eat some non-gmo, preservative-free, whole-foods-acceptable glop.

    I decided I MUST do this (because mommy brain) and off i went to the nearest food-contraption store. Not the cheapest mind you, the nearest. That happened to be Sur la Table. I immediately went to the clearance rack, because the stuff in there is WAY overpriced, and I knew it. I had been there only a minute or two when a salesperson approached me, and asked if he could help me find what I was looking for.

    My immediate response was “oh I’m just looking for some new ice trays.” And then something magical happened. He asked me why I needed new trays.

    Now, maybe 90% of the time the answer to “why do you need new ice trays?” will be a funny look and ….to make ice?” In which case the salesperson can simply point to the ice trays and move on.

    But because this salesperson asked the “obvious” question, I got up-sold to the 2-oz perfect-cube 18-section silicone ice cube tray. In orange. Price tag? WAY more than I needed to pay. Like maybe 4X what I needed to pay.

    But I paid it happily, because that guy KNEW. He knew that to get frozen baby food out, I’d be looking for something with more give. He knew that since I’d be making large batches, I’d be looking for something that would hold a LOT of cubes. And he knew that if I was worried about portion size, that getting a pre-measured 2-oz cube per tray would cut out some of the guesswork of picking a tray.

    How did he know? Because he asked. He asked a LOT of questions about what I needed in an ice cube tray. AN ICE CUBE TRAY.

    Can you imagine how much money a guy like that could make selling cars?

    • Reply


      That is a fantastic story! If I were training in-store salespeople, this dude would be my featured player.

      If you can upsell an ICE CUBE TRAY, you can sell anything. Just listen to what they want!

  • Reply

    Thanks Angie, great article!

    My dad is an old school type sales person and my entire life I have been hearing, “the only thing that matters is what’s in your prospects head, who cares what you think”. In his sales process he tries to do as little talking as possible and it’s been incredible effective for him. It always amazed me hearing people remark that someone would be a good sales person because they talk a lot. Your article is a great example of those principles, great stuff!


    • Reply

      Yeah, my Stepdad was also a salesman at one point and said the same kind of thing.

      It’s interesting from a psych standpoint too – when you listen and are silent, people tend to want to fill the space, especially with people they don’t know well. It’s a tactic I learned in negotiation courses, but applies fairly well to sales. Ask good questions and then sit in attentive silence – let them tell you what they want or disqualify themselves.

  • Len

    This is one of the most common mistakes I see made by copywriters. Yet, as you point out, it’s so easy to fix. Great article, Angie. Keep ’em coming. – Len

  • Reply

    Appreciate it, Len. I’m actually collaborating with Alix (above, my trainee for more than a year now) to figure out all the little nuggets I’ve shared with her that I can share here.

    Definitely want to keep helping up-and-comers.

  • Reply

    It’s very subtle and it happens all the time when people write to me on LinkedIn. Recently I got a message, “Since you’re a copywriter you’ll probably like this course I’m offering on how to get more clients with …”

    Even if I might be interested, I can’t help being a little insulted! She doesn’t know me and she assumes i’m desperate.

    • Reply

      Hmm…must be something in the water. I swear I’m getting a lot of those types of emails in various places where I hang out, including the corporate office email.

      I’m on board with that brief pitch in situations like this – ask me a question I can easily answer and if I’m interested I really will get back to you.

  • Reply

    Loved this! I hate when salesman assume they know what I want. I like it so much more when they ask. When I worked sales I always asked questions and then related to my prospect through story and focused on getting them what they wanted and relationship building. That’s how you get them to come back and look for you.

    • Reply

      Exactly – if you know, like, and trust someone (you don’t even have to know them all that well – just really like and trust them), you’re much more likely to say yes and then keep that person in the back of your mind the next time you face a similar buying decision.

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