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How to foil the bogus 'expert'

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(MoneyWatch) Overcoming objections is hard enough. But what is a salesperson to do when they have to go face-to-face with an "expert" who is, in fact, hopelessly clueless.

The person you encounter at a prospective customer's company who may most test your patience is the self-anointed maven or office know-it-all. These people typically think they know everything, and for some reason their colleagues listen them.

When you bring your new and complicated solution to your prospect, the rest of the firm turns to the only light of information they have and trust -- their resident guru. And as the "smartest person," the client knows everything about the topic in question. Experts are trusted implicitly and completely, even when they're totally wrong.

Because of this unquestioned trust on the part of their colleagues, experts have to be treated differently from anyone else. It helps when you have a "champion" on your side, a high-ranking executive who has agreed to help you get a fair consideration of your proposal inside the prospect company. Even with that going for you, it can be tough overcoming those "expert" objections. Here are some suggestions:

Eliminate the expert from consideration. This almost never works unless your side's champion thinks the expert on the other side of the table isn't knowledgeable. Be careful. An in-house expert enjoys protected class status, and any attempt to eliminate or sideline him during negotiations (by, say, exposing, his ignorance) can backfire. The expert is likely deeply embedded in the firm, and has relationships both professional and personal. The "nobody picks on my sister but me" mentality can take over, with the result that you, not the expert, will be shut out.

Ignore them. Sometimes this is wisest course. Until you know the lay of the land, simply treat the expert as another member of the prospect's table. Give equal merit to his or her questions and comments -- but don't give them any more weight, either. This play works well if you can keep the expert looking informed but not smart. It's often advantageous to agree the expert from their team is knowledgeable, while highlighting the expertise within your team.

Marginalize them. This involves creating clear a clear boundary at which the expert's knowledge ends. In this way, experts can feel validated in their knowledge and affirmed by you, while their potential impact on the overall process can be minimized.

Engage them. This solution is fraught with peril. To engage the expert is to let his or her opinion dominate the conversation. Unless the expert is your firm advocate AND clearly has the ear of the ultimate prospect, your endorsing the person's perspective can make her even more dictatorial. If you choose to engage experts, you must educate them in a way that actually gives them expertise. In this way, you solidify their power base and at the same time make yourself indispensable to their future roles.

Convert them. This strategy is for the expert who has clearly chosen a different solution than what you are pitching, or one who has "seen it all" and just knows that your offering is not going to work. Instead of trying to coerce or convert the person to your point of view, it is usually best to attempt collaboration. In this scenario, bring the expert closer and ask lots of questions. Provide no statements or rebuttals until all thoughts are on the table. Use this dialogue to encourage the expert to shift to your way of thinking.

Not surprisingly, experts often rely on and seek to perpetuate their role as expert. They are not easily replaced or eliminated. And although their true knowledge of the subject matter may be limited, their knowledge of the organization is greater than yours. As such, craft a strategy that puts the expert inside your own team's circle in order to manage the decision-making process with you, instead of outside your circle working against you.