Heckling Sales People

Do you love to make sales people look stupid? :)

Go on....

A sales consultant recently raised this concern and offered a suggestion on how to handle it:

"How do you handle the really smart guy in the back of the room that loves to make sales people look stupid? The best technique I’ve seen is to warmly encourage his questions. Since you likely can’t answer all of them, write down the questions and tell him that you’ll get with him after the presentation to either discuss in more detail or get back to him with the answers."

In my experience on both sides of the table, typically the goal is not simply making the sales person 'look stupid'. (this is not heckling the ump at a baseball game).

I hate to say this, because I know you will find this shocking, but sometimes sales guys don't what the hell they are saying or are simply lying.

Hello Arecont Friend,

That said, I actually think the tactic of saying "I'll get back to you with answers" is a decent one if the sales person does not know how to handle it, but a knowledgeable technical person can fatally wound a sales person who cannot properly handle criticism, especially in a first meeting.


In my opinion, there's usually no need to make certain sales people look stupid. They do that all by themselves.

Here's a practical example. Avigilon RSM says their VMS works with any ONVIF camera. What do you do?

Is it heckling to point out that it's just ONVIF 1.x, that ONVIF 1.x has massive issues with PTZs and motion detection, etc.?

Because that type of sales misinformation happens all the time.

I tried to teach salespeople to defer questions they didn't know. It didn't often work. Hell, even I'd occasionally take that route if I needed to look up something I wasn't sure on.

Now, if it's fundamental questions you can't answer, there's a problem and you shouldn't even be in front of customers alone, or at all. But for deep technical questions, the response of "I'm not completely sure, let me find an answer for you and I'll get back with you tomorrow" is fine.

That's a good point. There's two different type of issues here then:

  • Sales person doesn't mention something, but tech brings it up ("Err, are you BIPS XXX 713.67 compliant for transmitting XYZ over KLR", etc.)
  • Sales person makes a claim, tech objects.

For the former, I can understand the "I'll follow up later". But, for the latter, the sales person may feel they are being heckled but if the sales person is going to make a claim (my camera does the work of 15 of my competitors), they need to be able to defend it immediately.

Sometimes it helps to preface questions with "I don't expect you to know this, but..."

Not as a matter of arrogance, but because most sales people are 'all about image' to the degree they feel trapped into acting authoritative on issues they know nothing about.

Sure, giving them an out is weak, but sometimes prevents bad information from being shared as fact.

If they are masochistic and choose to press into areas or make claims they know little about, then let em dig their own graves. Especially with young sales people tending to make every effort showing 'how expert' they are.

Anecdote: When I was an integrator, there was a Honeywell Video guy that hated(s) me because he never shut up about stuff he didn't know, and he got stooged in front of his bosses. He made it personal, and sent an email afterward, telling me how 'toxic' I was.

Sorry, salesguy. Facts are not emotion.

"I dont expect you to know this, but..." I'm definitely stealing that one.

John, Carl, Ethan, Brian, and Sean:

I don't give 'sales' presentations.... but if any of you are ever in any of my classes, you are banned from asking any questions (edit for Carl).

Especially Brian and his passive/aggressive rhetorical bitch slap questions.

Quesitons? I rest my case....

you have to wait longer until the edit capability goes away to properly clown someone for a typo

The Most Interesting Trainer In the World

quick. fix that typo.

the typo is the meme. own the typo. it was probably made while driving down some interstate Cannonball Run style to get to your next class.

I know...I was heckling the heclker. <------ see, again.

(Answering for the benefit of the sales consultant finding himself/herself being heckled)

Sooner or later in your sales career you will meet Seymour. I call him that because no matter how much you give him, he always wants to "see more."

He's easy to recognize. He's usually male, and sits in the back of the room. He generally tends to lean back with his arms crossed, figuratively "blocking" you and your message. He's generally older, middle management, and thinks he is the smartest person in the room. And he's probably right. Not always, but he usually has little or no purchasing power. His only power is making you look stupid and he's really, really good at it. His questions, while technically correct, are often not pertinent to the discussion. He's trying to look smart to the audience or perhaps just being cruel to you for sport.

The best way to prepare for Seymour is what you should be doing anyway, which is to BE PREPARED. Know your stuff left and right, inside and out. Study, study, study your products, company, competitors, and industry. Get formal sales training. Don't "wing it" with your charm -- charm won't work with Seymour. And his BS detector is the best there is. You have to know your stuff.

(A side note: Any sales person who thinks they are good at "winging" a presentation only thinks so because they've never been GREAT by being prepared instead)

Assuming you are prepared, here are four ways to deal with Seymour:

- Answer his every question and concern. As his name suggests, this will be an endless effort. No matter how much you give him, Seymour will always want to SEE MORE. So don't try to answer all his questions -- there isn't enough time in the entire day. And you will never get anywhere by "getting back" to him later. He's usually not the decision maker anyway. There is no benefit to him recommending your product, and he's worried about taking blame if he does and then your stuff doesn't work, slick.

- Beat him at his game by winning the arguments. This requires the knowledge base to counter Seymour's arguments. This likely won't work because 1) You aren't as smart as he is; and 2) You will only create an enemy who will work as hard as he can to defeat you after you leave. He can't say "yes" to your product but he sure as heck can get other people to say "no" after you leave.

- Embarrass him. After one of his more damaging questions/comments, announce that you feel like you are on a game show. Address him as Alex Trebek for the rest of the presentation. If the rest of the audience doesn't like him, they will laugh at his expense and shut him up, but you will have created a really smart enemy. Not cool. Worse, they could rally to his assistance as one of their own and turn on you en masse. Also not cool. Yet another way was mentioned earlier in this thread. After you leave, complain to his superiors about how "toxic" his presence was and earn a really smart enemy for the rest of your career.

- Recruit him. Join forces with him. Give him what he wants, which is recognition. Acknowledge, sincerely, his expertise and get him on your side. This is easier than it sounds -- it's where he wants to go anyway. Grab one of his comments that suits you and respond with something like:

"That's exactly right, Mr. Seymour, and (then continue your message)."

"I'm so glad you brought that up, Mr. Seymour, because most people in this industry don't understand what you just said. Can you repeat that, because I think you explained it very well." Let him talk. Comment on his answer and, without pausing, segue back into your presentation.

"It's so helpful to have someone with Mr. Seymour's level of experience in the room who can help me explain a complex topic like..." (start introducing your next topic).

You won't be able to do it more than once or twice, but if Seymour throws you a curve ball you can't handle, say, "Mr. Seymour, some of our most senior developers were discussing that very item just the other day. Opinions differ, but I'm really interested in yours given your level of experience." Let him talk, compliment him on his answer, and segue back into your presentation. Chances are there is at least some part of his opinion that you can agree with and move on without giving a straight up answer (which is why you can only use this once or twice). He won't mind as he got to make his point which is what he was trying to do anyway.

When you get really, REALLY get stuck by Seymour, and you will, say something like, "That topic might be a little too advanced for this part of the presentation / this audience / the timeframe we have today. Let's talk one on one after the break." At the break, hustle out of the room to call your office and find out the answer to what he's stumped you with. Meet with him privately and thank him for his question. Deliver your answer, and without pausing for argument, ask him the favor of helping you explain some certain advanced concept when you get to that part of your presentation.

Until that topic comes up, he will no longer be paying attention to you. He will be formulating in his head what will most likely be a darn good explaination for you. Now he's working for you instead of against you. Delay the topic up until right before a break or the end of the presentation. Or otherwise limit his floor time by saying something like, "CBR versus VBR compression is tough to explain in the three minutes we have left, so I'm going to have Mr. Seymour help me out." Close him out by saying, "Well said" which it will be.

Once you acknowledge that he is the smartest guy in the room, he'll stop trying to make you look stupid. Chances are he will be actually helping you with your presentation at this point. If not, and Seymour is still making you look ignorant, it's likely one of two reasons:

- He's not heckling you; you really are ignorant.
- Seymour is a sociopath.

Assume the former. Go study and prepare for the next Seymour. You can't win them all.

Undisclosed manufacturer, that's a brilliant comment and great insights! Thanks for sharing.

btw, the Alex Trabek line was too funny...

Especially brilliant, since although it is seemingly written as if the U.M. is giving advice to a heckled salesperson, he is no doubt exposing some of us as well for what we are...

Who did YOU identify more with the heckler or the heckled?

Who do you think the average ipvm'er would?

if you say the heckler then congrats! you have just been acknowledged as the 'smartest guy in the room'

Now that that's out if the way we will eagerly listen to the rest of our lesson sympathetically.

Although talking to the heckled sales guy, as the U.M. gives advice, we understand how he himself probably tried the various plausible options given, only to have to deal with the disastrous consequences directly.

This is no ivory tower, pop psychology mishmash, this is blood and guts from the trenches!

And delivered painlessly thru it's underlying tone of humility and self-deprecation...

So we see that the U.M. doing exactly to us what he said to do to Seymour!

And it worked, on me at least...

Truly an epic piece U.M. #0021312!



Thar be my nemesis!

(Great post!)

Undisclosed (#0021312) Manufacturer

So very well said! A good reminder in any industry and for any position from manufacturer to end user.

Undisclosed Manufacturer:

You nailed it with "Seymour". Most every challenge or question in a sales presentation is valid and can't be considered heckling, but that Seymour guy is a heckler.

One point to understand: most of Seymour's co-workers in the audience can't stand the guy anyway, so he probably won't influence or follow him. Answer his questions, but don't let Seymour take you off track. If bold enough, use undisclosed manufacturer's advice.

The real trick isn't heckling salespeople. It is framing question(s) in a manner that will cause the salesperson to obviously trip him/herself up while the questioner appears to be totally innocent of malice.

To make it more social you can always engage in the classic 'Good Geek - Bad Geek', whereby the meeker of two acts totally spellbound by the salesguy's tale by using supportive body language and gestures, not to mention the well timed "a-ha!".

All of which tend to disarm the salesguy and lull him into weaving his own techo-horror fantasy.

If thats not bad enough, The meek geek then proceeds to summarize the salesguy, but intentionally warps it a bit. to which the salesguy not wanting to offend his new fan agrees with.

Freak geek goes for the jugular and is often thought to be the 'jucier' role.

I myself prefer the far subtler meek geek, laying and baiting the trap and making sure the ensuing chaos can't be resolved, by uttering things like 'but i thought u said warm colors have higher temps than cool ones?"

miss it.


I've experienced this from both sides. I've been heckled by "Seymours" who seem to get some kind of thrill by being able to prove someone wrong. I've also heckled some salespeople who obviously don't know anything at all about their product. Having been heckled myself, I'm much less inclined to heckle other salespeople. I'd much rather be polite, or at the very least play on my iPhone and leave the presentation as soon as it is over. If it's a minor issue and I think that the salesperson and the other attandees will be receptive and we have the time, I'll try to interject a correction, but if it's going to break the flow of the meeting, I won't bother, becasue life is too short.

I do work with a Seymour, though. I hate attending presentations and product trainings with him, because it always takes forever with him having to take a minor, unimportant point and discuss it and discuss it and discuss it until the salesman bursts into tears and runs off to become a pro skateboarder or a monk or something.

As far as handling Seymours goes, "I'll get back to you" works often, but some Seymours are just lunatics. If the presentation is unsalvagable, I just say, very calmly but firmly, "I'm sorry, but I don't know the answer to that question". Then I'll go home and play with my kids, because at the end of the day, it's the end of the day. The heck with trying to make crazy people happy.

I've become a fan of holding any questions I have for a presenter until after the presentation is over (That is, if the presenter in question offers the opportunity). Then, I have all the time I need for the presenter to answer my questions without feeling on-the-spot and nervous or emotional. This way, I don't end up wasting everyone's time, and if there really is/was a major flaw in a presentation, other people/Seymour's will point it out anyway.

For presenters, just remember: "If you try to make everyone happy, you end up making no-one happy".

I'll counter Derek here. As a presenter, I'd rather have people interrupt me and ask topical questions while relevance is still high.

Otherwise, when they blurt out a question about something discussed 20 minutes ago, I think "This person hasn't listened to a word I've said for the last 20 minutes while waiting to ask this question."

I made it through college without a prof giving me a black eye, but I suppose this attitude differs.

Good point Brian. A presenter knowing that their audience is engaged and following is essential, but where does the divide lay between honest, topical questions and snide, relevant heckling?

Heckling and pornography, you'll know It when you see it.

Although some may say, "I'm not in sales," actually many life experiences are all about selling. Whenever you advocate a course of action which requires reprioritization of resources, it's a sales pitch. If you have any influence or vision at all within your organization, you are often engaged in sales.

Whatever satisfaction Seymour might achieve, it can be satisfying to brave the gauntlet, and win.

Several years ago, I was part of a team that was managed by a Seymour. Unlike the prior Seymour description, this person actually did have decision making authority, but some of the critical decisions that (I in my subordinate position felt) needed to be made were only effected after his departure, many years and dollars later.

He always kept us on our toes, and it was exhilarating to routinely and effectively address the stream of criticisms and ad hominem attacks. Often, colleagues would offer a quiet compliment after a typical interaction during one of my briefings. After one high-level review, a much more senior person from outside our organization, but with a vested interest in our success, came to me afterward and said , "Thank goodness you're quick on your feet, Joe!" It reached the point where I was routinely placed first on any agenda, because the first guy took the biggest beating and I was equal to the challenge.

For this Seymour, certainly his approach matched his personality, and perhaps he believed that his approach demonstrated that he was tough, engaged, and insightful. It's possible that he was right, although about two years after I departed, the critical failure of his primary product suggests that perhaps more care and less vigour may have been more helpful. I discovered that a number of risk mitigation strategies that I had implemented had been gutted shortly after my departure, such that they entered product release with the same flaws we were aware of (and were on track to correct) two years earlier. Risk mitigation and corrective action often require resources, and in a competitive arena, one must be prepared to justify and defend those resources, or they can evaporate. I feel badly that although I had designed, built, and funded a successful program, my successor did not have the tools to keep it intact through product launch. This leads me a couple of thoughts which may or may not hold water.

First, to be successful, you always want to hire talent that is even more capable than you are. However, if every interaction is a contest, might a manger be inclined to select subordinates who lack the tools to prevail in even some of these contests? Then the manager "wins" more often, although at great cost to the organization.

Beyond that, I think that a leader who is inclined toward Seymourism should give some consideration to the possibility that a number of subordinates may choose to avoid challenging interactions with the boss by concealing shortcomings rather than addressing and fixing them. This can limit what is sufficiently visible to manage, again at great cost to the team.

I enjoy recounting the colorful story, but in context, my colleagues would probably recognize this reference. While it is perfectly accurate, drawing unflattering portraits of one's leadership may limit one's opportunities by leading some to question one's judgement and desirability as a team player. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

I like questions, I dont know what I don't know until I'm asked a question.

I am just getting into surveillance sales and I believe that when presented with a question that you don't know that it is in your best interest to write it down and thoroughly research an answer. Next time you will be ready. In my time in sales it was the questions that stumped me that later on gave me the edge over others. I will report some first hand heckling when I get on the scene. Not knowing is the only way to learn. ;)

As a relativly technical person, my rule of thumb is to never try to get technical information from a sales person. documentation documentation documentation.

Jason, interesting point. One thing I noticed is that a lot of RSMs are basically technically illiterate. Every so often I pop in to small shows and get blind pitches from them. I am dumbfounded about the massive, fundamental errors they have. Obviously, that's not to say all (I know some really sharp and very well informed RSMs) but the average one appears to be of little value from a technical / product standpoint.