As soon as I said it, I wanted to snatch the words out of the air before the potential customer heard them. But the smile that grew on his face told me I was too late.

It was a true statement, and I knew it would help get a first order from the prospect, which, I suppose, was why the words slipped out of my mouth.

Illustration: David Clark The meeting wasn't going great. The conversation was filled with dead spots where I'd hoped Leonard, the custom home builder and prospective customer, would open up a little. I was hearing the typical answers delivered in a dry and professional tone, giving no indication we were connecting in any significant way.

I had just finished reviewing some of the product lines Leonard had expressed interest in.

“Can I answer any questions about the products?” I asked.

“No,” Leonard answered.

We lapsed into another silence.

“Would you like me to leave you any samples?” I pointed to the cabinet and trim samples I had brought to the meeting.

“That won't be necessary.”

Painful silence.

“Have I reviewed the pricing we would offer?”


Now it was excruciating silence.

I racked my brain for something to throw out there that would elicit conversation. I thought back to how we had gotten this lead in the first place. One of our suppliers had mentioned Leonard was severing ties with one of our competitors. The story was that Leonard had a cash crunch a few months back—a situation not uncommon for custom home builders with many projects in progress. Leonard approached all his suppliers and explained the situation. He asked for an additional 60 days on his account, during which time he would close on two houses and be back in healthy financial shape.

Our competitor declined to extend his account, choosing instead to place him in C.O.D.—a measure that Leonard understood, but resented enough to start looking for a new vendor.

The agonizing silence continued as I remembered these facts, and before I could stop myself the following words broke the silence:

“And of course we understand the financial challenges that you face as a custom home builder and are ready to work with you on comfortable account terms.”

Of course this is what Leonard had wanted to hear. He started talking freely about his next project, describing the special material he would need and explaining his purchase order system. It became apparent that payment terms were all that Leonard was interested in hearing.

As a salesman, I was thrilled that the meeting was finally moving in a positive direction. Being stuck in the limbo of a forced and awkward conversation is a nightmare. And what I said was true: Sometimes even our best customers have cash-flow issues.

But the manager in me immediately saw the blunder of my statement. I had basically given Leonard permission to go months without paying his bill.

Tad Troilo Sure enough, Leonard started giving us business. And sure enough, he was late on his very first payment—and every payment after that.

My eagerness to end some quiet time during an uncomfortable meeting got our business relationship off on the wrong foot. Salespeople hate silence. But sometimes it's better to leave some things unsaid.

–Tad Troilo is a manager for Cranmer's Kitchens by Design in Yardley, Pa. 215.493.8600 E-mail: