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Order Takers in Sales, and How to Not Be One

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
13 min read

Being an “order taker” has become a derogatory phrase in consulting and sales. I don’t mean it to be, but it does hint a larger problem: clients want your advice, even when it runs counter to their prevailing wisdom.

Order takers are people who respond to a customer’s needs when asked and respond exactly as stated, but they do nothing more. Don’t be that way, and don’t let your team fall into order taker mode, either!

Instead, be a consultant from the start. In this episode, you’ll learn:

  1. The signs that you (or your team) are an order taker
  2. Reasons why someone is in an order taker mode
  3. How to ditch being an order taker, and become a fully realized consultant instead

Buyers are becoming increasingly aware of the options available to them because of the abundance of information available out there. But they don’t necessarily know best.

That’s why consultants need to be more knowledgeable than ever about their clients and industries they serve. They not only need to be trained in the ways of selling, but also in how businesses within their target markets operate, how products and services solve specific business challenges.

If you want to become a service-oriented consultant, you must become more proactive in your sales approach. Being proactive means sometimes challenging your clients’ thinking.

Mentioned in this episode:

The candle problem
Episode 2: Serve, don’t sell
Episode 4: The power of questions and discovery
Jay Abraham

For more information on remote selling and a complete list of links mentioned in this podcast, visit this remote selling article on our website.

Order Takers in Sales, and How to Not Be One:

Full Transcript

Multnomah Whiskey Library is a local bar and restaurant here where I live in beautiful Portland, Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest. Now, when you go to the whiskey library, you don’t have a waiter. You have what can only be described as a spirit consultant, as opposed, of course to a spirit animal or a spirit guide.

When you sit down, you’re handed a spirits’ menu that feels like a professional folio bound completely in leather. You know the fancy ones I’m talking about it. And as you accept the menu, you’re told that the first 20 pages are their scotch selection. Their first 20 pages are their scotch selection, and it goes on from there. There’s whiskey, and there’s vodka and there’s all kinds of spirits there.

The walls are aligned with six tiers of bottles around the perimeter of the bar with a sliding ladder to access the top shelves, just like in a real old time library. Obviously, there are far too many choices for the average patron. Certainly, far too many choices for the lay, and scotch and whiskey drinker like me.

Your spirit consultant, I believe they’re called hosts at the library, starts by asking a simple question. What do you like? That’s a hugely different experience than you would get at the local burger chain here in Portland called Burger Ville. You go up to the counter, you tell them what you want, they take your order. And a few minutes later, you’re handed a tasty, albeit very mediocre hamburger and fries.

As consultants, sometimes it’s okay to react to what our clients want, like at the burger joint. Sometimes our clients know exactly what their challenges are and how to fix them. But mostly, that’s a mistake. We should be more like the spirit consultants, walking our clients through a process to help them make better decisions.

When you go to the whiskey library, you’ll be asked questions like, do you prefer Scotch whisky? Do you like it PD, smooth and sweet, or dry and spicy? Let’s take another example. How would you feel if you went to the doctor, and told them you need an open heart surgery, and they just did it without asking questions?

Well, being an order taker would not be a good thing for a doctor. So, why do some consultants fall into the trap? In today’s episode, I’ll talk to you about the signs that you or people on your team are in order taker mode, and the critical shifts you can make to switch into consulting mode.

Welcome to modern sales, a podcast for entrepreneurs, business owners and sales people looking to have more and better conversations with your perfect clients. You’ll get a healthy scoop of psychology, behavioral economics, and sales studies to help you create win/win relationships. I’m your host, Liston Witherill, and I’m pleased to welcome you to modern sales.

Now the problem is that you’re not surfacing the best, most interesting and most helpful work you could be offering to your clients. You aren’t identifying the opportunities that are there for you to help your clients solve, for you to apply your expertise, and to help you grow your business while helping your clients at a deeper and bigger level.

The reason for it is that you’re assuming your client knows best, and it puts you squarely in the position of being an order taker. You just do what they tell you. Sometimes they know. But chances are, if they knew, they probably wouldn’t need the help of an expert. So they may not know exactly what they want. In fact, they probably don’t. And even more likely and assured than that, they may not know what’s even possible.

So rather than being an order taker, what I want you to do is start being much more service oriented, just like the host at the Multnomah Whiskey Library, aka the spirit consultant. And if you want, you can call yourself a spirit consultant from now on. I think that’s a pretty snazzy name.

Before I get into the content of today’s episode, I do want to invite you to connect with me. If you’re looking to improve your sales conversations, identify opportunities, and take your team out of order taker mode and into service mode so that they surface the best opportunities, and the best chances to help their clients, please do. Hit me up. All you have to do is go to Liston, You can fill out a quick form there, and we will be on the phone within a week or two. I’d love to chat with you, and see if there’s anything I can do to help you and your team.

Now I want to start the episode by saying, you’re in the service of your client. So, it’s really imperative that you’re always doing what’s best for them, and that takes investigation. Meaning, you’re going to have to ask a lot of questions and a lot of good questions, a lot of guided questions, a lot of questions born out of your expertise.

Once you complete your investigation, then it takes diagnosis, whereby you assess what needs to be done. And in the event that your client thinks they already know, hey, they might be right, that’s fine. You need to know for sure because you’re a professional. This is part of your job.

And perhaps the biggest difference between being an order taker, and being a real service oriented consultant is being proactive versus reactive. In proactive mode, you’re setting the direction, you’re setting the strategy, you’re setting the tone and the tenor of the calls. In reactive mode, you’re just doing what you’re told. And that’s not where you want to be.

And so the first thing I want to cover, some reasons why that might be the case. Whether it’s you or someone on your team, the first and perhaps biggest, most obvious thing that I can think of that may lead someone to be in order taker mode is what I call a limiting frame.

There was an experiment done, and it’s popularly called the candle problem. And the candle problem is a cognitive performance test, measuring what’s called functional fixedness on a participant’s ability to solve a problem. Here’s how it worked, and I’m quoting from Wikipedia.

“The test presents the participant with the following task, how to fix and light a candle on a wall in a way so the candle wax won’t drip onto the table below. To do so, one may only use the following along with the candle, a book of matches and a box of thumb tacks. Still reading from Wikipedia.

“The solution is to empty the box of thumb tacks. Use the thumb tacks to nail the box to the wall, put the candle into the box and light the candle with the match. The concept of functional fitness predicts that the participant will only see the box as a device to hold the thumb tacks, and not immediately perceive it as a separate and functional component available to be used in solving the task.”

Let me summarize that for you. When people were handed a box of thumb tacks, they typically didn’t see the box as being useful outside of a place to hold thumb tacks. When in reality, the box was absolutely essential to the solution. Knowing that selling can be of service, knowing that your client may need more help than you’re currently offering, or that they even understand you can provide, is a limiting frame that you may be putting on yourself.

It is a limiting frame that your team may be putting on themselves. A lot of service providers see themselves only as being in the mode of providing service. But what they fit into that category of providing service, may not also include the insights that can be derived through their expertise along with their clients that may lead to further follow on projects.

Now, I want to tell you something else that’s really, really interesting about the candle problem. Two linguists found that a small tweak in the instructions made a big difference in how likely subjects were to solve the candle problem. And all they did is change the wording when they handed the equipment to people. They handed them a candle, and they handed them a box of tacks. But instead of saying a box of tacks in some scenarios, they said box and tacks. Implying that they were two separate and unrelated objects rather than box of tacks, implying tacks housed in a box and implying that the ultimate use of that box is only to house those tacks.

This small tweak helped some people distinguish the two entities as different and more accessible. So, the frame by which people saw the box itself was ultimately what influenced their likelihood of success. The same exact thing is true of us.

People who are providing services, people who are consulting, people who are applying their expertise, you have to know that that also extends to uncovering new opportunities, new projects, new insights that would, and there’s nothing wrong with this, lead to more revenue for you.

The second big reason that I think people flip into order taker mode is the fear. If you’re not used to selling, you know that making an offer can result in a yes or a no. And in fact, playing in the averages, the more opportunities you surface, the more nos you will hear. You will be rejected. And if you don’t have a lot of experience at this, you may mistake a no for a personal rejection. And I promise you it is not.

In fact, I say no to people all the time but appreciate their offer. You probably do it too. So, don’t take it personal if the answer is no. Separate yourself and your own self worth from the opportunity in front of you with your client. Know that if you’re doing it for the right reasons, any offer you make your client is in service of them. And just remember, your client cannot say yes unless you make an offer in the first place.

The third big reason that you may be in order taker mode is that, it’s a big responsibility to be the one to generate the ideas that your client accepts. You might make the wrong recommendation. Oh, shit. But wait, I mean, is it really that bad? Look, people make mistakes. Now, that’s not an excuse to be sloppy, that’s not an excuse to be unethical or immoral. But it is just a reality of life.

We’re not going to be correct 100% of the time. We will always strive to learn from our mistakes, we will always strive to do what’s in the best interest of our clients. And so, if you agree with those statements, it’s okay if you make a mistake. It will happen. Even in your efforts to avoid making mistakes in the past, I am absolutely certain. Even though I may not know you personally, I am absolutely certain about this, you’ve still made mistakes.

All of your efforts to avoid making mistakes have not landed you in a state of perfection. And that’s okay. That’s totally okay. If you really are good at what you do, take the full responsibility and offer the full help that you can to your clients. It is the right thing to do.

Now, the number four thing that may land people in order taker mode is what I call, and this is a highly technical insider term, the gross or the ick factor. And that is, you or people on your team just think selling is gross, and it’s not though.

I mean, you wouldn’t be listening to this if you didn’t buy a phone, or if you didn’t buy a laptop, or whatever it is that you’re listening to this podcast on. You wouldn’t be listening to this podcast if you didn’t respond to something you saw from me, directly, or online, or on LinkedIn or in your inbox.

However, you found this podcast, I sold it to you in some way. Sneaky as I am and still, you sit here listening ostensibly because you’re getting something out of it. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing.

So selling isn’t just part of business, look, it’s part of life. You and your team members wouldn’t have jobs if there wasn’t some selling involved at some level to you if you’re the owner of the company, to the HR department, to whoever runs their team, or whoever did the hiring, selling isn’t just part of business. It’s part of life.

And it’s a tool just like anything else, and it can be used for good and it can be used for not so good, and it can be used by really good people who have the best intentions and it can be used by shady people who are trying to screw others.

So, as long as you’re not in that second camp, and I hope you’re not, because impact and leaving the world in a better place than I got it is important to me. And if it’s important to you, too, I think you can feel comfortable knowing that taking a proactive approach instead of an order taker approach is actually the right thing to do. And here’s the way out of it.

The big thing I want you to take away from this entire podcast is that, you have to be in service to your client. If you want to learn more about what I mean by this, go back to episode two, serve, don’t sell. It’s kind of my jam, kind of my manifesto. And it will give you everything that you need to know about why I believe service and not sales is actually the best way to sell. But the big thing to think about is, it’s your duty to help your clients.

If you believe that service is critical, it is your duty to help your clients. And you can only help them if you truly and intimately understand the problems that they have. Which means, you’ve got to ask great questions. If you want to learn more about that, go to episode four, the power of questions and discovery. That means, listening more. That means, formulating your questions ahead of time. That means, having an agenda so that you can be more systematic and methodical in how you approach your client conversations.

Secondly, I want you to be an advocate. In my business, I really look at what I do as a way to help my clients grow their own businesses, and deepen their impact by offering what they do to more people and helping more people succeed. And I also look at what I do as a way to give people more confidence.

A lot of selling is soft skills. It is empathy. It’s interpersonal skills. Sure, there’s lots of tech in automation and technical things that I talked about. But the core of it is human to human, one to one interaction for the benefit of each other. For a net combined game, no zero or some bullshit over here. The purpose of all of this is to make everybody better off.

And when I say be an advocate to your client, what I mean is, understand what they’re trying to achieve, advocate for that change and show them what needs to be done in order to get it. That’s not what an order taker does.

Can you imagine if you were standing at the counter at a burger joint, and you ordered a quarter pound hamburger with bacon and egg, and I was the one taking your order? And I said, “No, wait a minute. Should you be eating that? What’s your goal? What’s your health goal right now?” No, totally out of context, right? That wouldn’t be good.

But in this setting, being your client’s advocate, delivering bad news, showing them what’s required in order to meet their goals. That’s what we want to do. We want to be an advocate. So, I implore you to do that.

And finally, the last way you might look at this is to be a fiduciary. And this concept comes from Jay Abraham and also, the entire finance industry. But Jay Abraham is a business coach and kind of like the, an early grandfather of thought leaders. And he gives the definition, which I pulled from of fiduciary, and that definition is, a person to whom property or power is entrusted for the benefit of another. I’ll repeat that, power is entrusted for the benefit of another.

As a consultant, your client is entrusting you with some power. In particular, they usually want you to help them make better decisions. They want your insights, they want your experience. And the reason they want it is because they want to benefit from it. And when you withhold it, you are breaching your duty as a fiduciary. You are abdicating your responsibility.

And so, here’s the takeaway that I want to leave you with. Be upfront and open about your opinions. Will it piss some people off? Yes. So what? If you’re doing it for the right reasons, there’s no avoiding that tension. I know, it’s a big responsibility and it should be. You should be cautious about this.

But being an order taker, not only diminishes your standing and your clients perception of you, but it also diminishes your business and it diminishes your clients’ opportunities to get the help that they need to really improve their own business. And that’s what I want to leave you with today.

Thank you, so much for listening. My name is Liston. If you want to get you and your team out of order taker mode with some concrete strategies about how to do it, I’d love to have a conversation with you. All you have to do is go to Liston, Sign up for a consultation, I’d love to chat with you. And I’d also love it if you told someone about this podcast.

Hit that share button in your pod catcher, email it to someone. Whatever you want to do. Just tell someone that this is helpful. It helps me get the word out, and you might actually be doing something helpful for someone else. So, that’s good too.

Thank you, so much for listening. I really appreciate that you’re here, and I hope you have a fantastic day.

Modern Sales Podcast