Idioms are phrases established by common use to have a meaning not immediately deducible from the words themselves. When we say that your colleague “let the cat out of the bag” for example, we do not (in most offices) literally mean that she had released a wild ginger tomcat from her purse but that she had spilled some secret or spoiled some surprise – comparative to a bygone era when cats actually were put in sacks of potatoes to surprise unsuspecting consumers.

Aside from making languages much harder to learn, idioms provide wonderful sales tools. They provide a way of saying something precise without being overly technical. They tend to be informal, social language, and their use helps to warm up social situations, since both people are both “in” on the coded meaning.

Here are seven favorite idioms for salespeople to use in their everyday conversations with clients and prospects.

1. Play It By Ear

Originally coined by musicians who would play a tune by ear – using their sense of sound rather than a fixed sheet to guide the way – this expression is all about process. It means starting with a basic plan or first step and then responding to feedback and modifying the direction as you go.

“How do you want to go forward with this, Mary?”

“I’m not sure … there are so many variables.”

“Why don’t we play it by ear? We can get moving with stage 1, arrange a review meeting and then map out the transition into stage 2.”

2. Start the Ball Rolling

This idiom is about making that first interaction in order to get the wheels of something much bigger in motion (excuse the double idiom!). According to the oldest origin story, it is a sports expression taken, of all places, from the game of croquet.

“Harry, we’ve been talking about this for a little while now. Why don’t we start the ball rolling? Are you free for a meeting next Tuesday?”

3. Put the Cat Among the Pigeons

The leading edge of any sales pitch involves unsettling the status quo. You want to draw attention to a way your prospect’s situation can be improved, which means pointing to gaps in their current processes. This idiom – useful in the context of challenger selling – originally refers to the disturbance likely to be caused by putting a cat inside a dovecote.

“I know I’m putting the cat among the pigeons here, Samantha, but I really think there might be substantial room for efficiency improvements in your organization. Have you ever considered X? We can help with this…”

4. Hit the Ground Running

This idiom is all about preparing ahead of an important meeting or before the implementation of a solution. It is actually a 20th-century idiom with origins related to various ways in which a person might hit the ground running, ranging from drifters jumping off freight trains to troops dropping into enemy territory by parachute.

“So, Harry, we’d really like to spend some time asking questions and doing our research so that we can hit the ground running with a fantastic solution to meet your requirements next year. How does a preliminary meeting on Monday sound?”

5. Bend Over Backward

Let’s say you have a difficult client or a prospect who really needs to be impressed. This idiom is a great one to try. This phrase was used as early as 920 A.D. to compare the gymnastic act of back-bending to doing something difficult.

“We always make a major effort to deliver a premium experience to our clients. And Jane, I can assure you, we’ll bend over backward to get this sorted for you…”

6. Hit the Nail on the Head

This idiom is about correctly identifying a problem or a potential solution. Imagine, for example, you are trying to diagnose your customer’s requirements. In the process of asking questions and describing your service, your customer spontaneously makes a remark – perhaps on what differentiates you from the competition or what exactly your service will aim to solve.

“You the hit nail on the head there, Sam. Exactly right. Let me talk with you further about how that works…”

7. Elvis Has Left the Building

Finally, if you’re brave enough to try this idiom, it provides another way of saying, “It’s over!” It is a phrase that was often used by public announcers at the end of Elvis Presley concerts to disperse audiences who remained in hope of an encore.

“I’m sorry to hear that, George, but Elvis has left the building. If you had been more up front with us about this problem in the original meeting, we might have been able to come up with a different solution.”

There you have it! I would, of course, recommend particular phrases to use and questions to ask at particular moments in the sales process, such as, “How would you like to move forward?” (when closing) or, “What do you look for in a supplier?” (when building the initial relationship). But at a time when establishing dialogue and building rapport is an essential focus area for salespeople, perhaps idioms should also be encouraged as tools to help them build confidence and mutual understanding at every stage of the sales process.

What do you think? Do you have any favorite idioms? Are there any that you particularly like – or don’t like? Do you have any more to add? Let us know by tweeting us @TrainingIndustr and @ LDL_Learning.

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