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Change Your Sales Approach

Salespeople need to understand the buyer’s mindset.

It was a welcome telephone call. “I just want to stop by, say hello, and let you know how much I appreciated your help back then.” Ten years had gone by since we had connected, and I was looking forward to seeing this former executive. A week later, he arrived on schedule. But from the start, I had an uneasy feeling this was something other than a “thanks for being there for me” get together.

It was. The other shoe dropped. The person sitting across from me was calling on his old contacts for a reason: he had something to sell.

Deception destroys credibility.

Another Approach
Then there’s Jeff Bowers, CFP, vice president of Bowers Insurance in Hagerstown, Maryland, who initiated a policy review program for the agency’s personal insurance clients. He made it clear that this was a review only and there would be no attempt at selling. One of the first clients to participate said that it gave him an opportunity to ask questions and come away with a better understanding of his insurance policies.

Is this a sales approach? Yes. There’s open discussion because the customer isn’t being put on the defensive. If insurance program deficiencies are uncovered in the review, these are noted.

The policy review is not a gimmick to make a sale. It’s a strategy to build a relationship with customers based on an open, helpful interaction. It recognizes there are no substitutes for trust and confidence when it comes to selling.

As the marketplace becomes increasingly competitive, the “sales wizards” are coming out of the woodwork promising to transform poor, average and good salespeople into superstars. One sales training company will show enrollees how to wrestle customers to the mat and put a gun to their heads. The sales manager of a large environmental company had a painting on his wall of a boxing match with one fighter getting pounded into ropes. “That’s selling,” he said proudly.

Then there’s the current Customer Relationship Management craze, the latest attempt to gain control over the sales process. While many are eager to do anything to remove “sales” from their business cards, isn’t it really naãve to believe that changing the words makes a difference?

A Paradigm Shift
The immense growth in Internet marketing should send a powerful message to every sales organization that it’s no longer business as usual. Customers want to make their own decisions, and they don’t want to go through time-consuming and unpleasant experiences with salespeople. What so many companies, sales managers and salespeople don’t seem to understand is that a change in buyer mindset has rendered many of their sales efforts dysfunctional. It’s time to figure out that today’s customers have turned thumbs down on sales tricks, gimmicks and manipulation.

Whether in the consumer marketplace or B2B, two forces are driving a change in the buyer mindset: Buying cycles begin with information. Fewer and fewer buyers start the buying process by looking to salespeople for information. They may start by looking at a product Web site, but they move on to reports, reviews and comparisons. They’re also turning to blogs to find out the experience of those who have used the product or service.

Customers enter the buying phase knowing the price they are willing to pay. It can be called “the Wal-Mart syndrome.” Knowing what they want, they decide in advance what they will pay. News reports on Wal-Mart’s “our way or no way” method of dealing with suppliers isn’t lost on buyers. Armed with more information and empowered by the example of others, they take control of the buying process. It’s a strategy that says, “If you want our business, here’s what it takes. Take it or leave it.” There seems to be little loyalty and few second chances.

This is the environment salespeople are operating in today, and anyone who thinks they can break down the barrier by attempting to close too quickly is headed for trouble.

Buying Cycle Begins
with Information
    1. Product Web sites
    2. Reports, reviews, comparisons
    3. Blogs

So, how are salespeople to cope with the prevailing buyer mindset? One way is to just look for the “low hanging fruit.” On any given day, there are those with needs. If you’re in the right place at the right time, you get the order. Every salesperson deserves to get lucky, but that’s no way to build a solid customer base.

While the current buyer mindset is pervasive and powerful, here are a few ways to overcome it.

Focus on the Customer’s Needs
Salespeople talk about understanding customer needs. Sales managers preach it. But experience suggests that most salespeople ignore it. They short-circuit the process, jump to the close and kill sales.

The cable TV advertising salesperson asks a couple of questions and then e-mails an instant proposal that reflects no strategy and ignores the customer’s objectives. “We can get you on the air in April,” he says in a follow-up phone call. His message is clear, although unspoken: “I want you to sign up now.” He calls again a few days later, saying, “I just want you to know that the good spots are filling up for April.”

Starting at the wrong end of the sale process results in no sale; buyers write off the salesperson and the presentation.

Stop Talking
Most of those in sales are really quite normal people, and they do what normal people do: they talk about what they know best. What they know best is themselves and (sometimes) what they’re selling. It’s commonly called “the gift of gab,” and it has no place in sales. In fact, it’s the problem.

Why should a buyer sit there listening to someone’s tired war stories? Buyers are normal people, too, interested in their situation, their problems and their need to reduce costs. The salesperson’s true gift is getting the customer to talk.

The first question many salespeople ask themselves (or whoever is with them) after meeting with a customer is always the same: “How did I do?” That’s the wrong question. The correct question is, “What did I learn?” That’s a polite way of saying, “Shut up.”

Connect with Knowledge
Salespeople look for ways to connect with customers. Some talk about their kids, others look to sports for common ground. Top salespeople use their knowledge to connect with customers. The best way to impress prospects is to let them discover that you really know what you’re talking about.

A customer asked his company’s audio-visual equipment supplier about a particular LCD projector. The salesperson listened carefully and then asked the customer a series of questions as to how the projector would be used. After hearing the answers, the salesperson indicated the limitations of the particular projector based on the answers and then made his recommendation. Because his case was convincing, the recommendation was accepted.

The value of knowledge in sales is that it conveys a sense of respect and regard for the customer. If customers aren’t learning from a salesperson, they should get a different one.

Show Enthusiasm
A recent study by Civic Enterprises makes it clear that uninteresting classes are the major cause of high school students dropping out of school. Adults refuse to tolerate boring presenters, boring TV shows, boring speakers and boring meetings. Why should students put up with boring teachers?

In the same way, why should customers be expected to endure boring salespeople who lack genuine enthusiasm for what they do? In fact, they come across as if they don’t even believe in what they’re selling. On the other hand, the real estate agent who gets prospective buyers excited before they see a property is actually building a positive buying environment.

Tiger Woods is such a compelling figure and quintessential salesperson for causes, products and services because he comes across as genuine and competent and exudes enthusiasm for what he does. Enthusiasm sends the message that salespeople care.

Stay the Course
Selling is a marathon activity, even though most salespeople like to think of themselves as sprinters. Unfortunately, they often sprint away from sales. They feel they should control the customer. If customers don’t respond according to the salesperson’s expectations, they abandon them—not just for the moment, but forever.

Everyone has had calls from the new salesperson who just replaced someone who left. “I was looking over the files and see that Diane talked to you in 2003. Are you still interested?” When this happens to me, I’m surprised how many times I respond by saying, “I’m sorry, but we made that purchase a few months later from another company.”

The heart of sales today is managing leads, and with the technology available there is no reason why the average salesperson can’t handle an almost endless number of prospects effectively. Going the distance is the test.

While writing this article, a meeting took place with a prospective client that brought the customer mindset message into focus. I asked why the business executive had contacted our firm. “We called three other agencies,” he said. “The first one wanted to charge a fee, but didn’t tell us what we would get for it. The next one wanted to know how much we expected to spend and the third agency reeled off a lot of big name clients that didn’t make much sense. Then we called you. You acted as if you were interested in speaking with us.”

It’s really not so complicated after all. 

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association
John R. Graham Meet the Author
John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm located in Quincy, Massachusetts, and on the Web at www.grahamcomm.com.

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