I know that business over the next 20 years will not look like it did for the last 20 years. And I know that customers are more diverse, and that change is happening about as fast as Ashton Kutcher gets followers on Twitter. But I also know that when it comes to making sales, the basic fundamentals never change: The customer has a need, and a sales person’s job is to first discover that need and then help the customer see how his/her product meets that need.
If you don’t know how to identify a customer’s need, you’re not going have much success in sales. When companies hire me to screen their sales applicants, one thing I do is have each applicant role-play selling me a watch. It’s pretty hard to make it to the second interview if the applicant doesn’t ask any questions during that simulation, but rather starts telling me how great the watch is that he has for sale.
Many people who are new to sales use this talk-talk-talk “product-focused” approach. They often get into sales because they’ve been told “you have the gift of gab – you should be in sales!” The problem is that – at least at the outset – nobody cares about your product nor how enthusiastic you are about it. Customers care about the problems they’re facing and how to get them solved. What they really want is for someone to truly understand those problems and help them come up with affordable, workable solutions.
Therefore, the first essential skill in successful sales is asking appropriate questions and listening so that you can truly understand. People with this skill have their antennas in “receive” mode, not “send” mode. They proactively explore the client’s concerns, ask a lot of questions, seek clarification, and take a lot of notes. Sometimes they realize right away that their product is a perfect solution to the problem they’re hearing, but they don’t go there right away.
They know that customers want to be sure that whatever solution is offered, it addresses the customers’ specific problems, and that usually won’t happen until after an appropriate dialog occurs.
Instead of “product-focused,” think of such selling as “customer-focused.”
One technique I teach to help sales people acquire this skill is open-note mind-mapping, and it works like this: When you meet with a client (or prospective client), open a notebook and start taking notes, letting the client see everything you write. You don’t need to make a big deal about it, the point is don’t try to hide what you’re writing. Essentially, the process is to “mind map” all the issues the client is concerned about.
You can use the mind map as a springboard for asking clarifying questions and recapping everything along the way. Doing so not only helps you better understand the client’s needs, it builds trust by showing the client that you’re truly listening.
To illustrate the power of this method, one sales rep for a software company came to me complaining about his lack of sales. The software he sold was expensive (running between $20,000 and $45,000), and although his boss told him he’d be happy with three sales a year, the man hadn’t made any sales after nine months on the job.
After learning the open-note mind-mapping method, he made a sale on his very next presentation. He later told me that 20 minutes into his mind-mapping, the CFO of the organization stopped the conversation and said, “You’ve got the sale. You are the first sales rep to come in here and truly listen to our needs.”
That’s not going to happen every time, but most sales reps report an improved closing average when they use the technique, and a decrease in sales when they forget to do it.
Something to watch out for is using the customer-focused approach only halfway. In other words, you start out listening well enough, but you get excited when you realize your product is a perfect fit for the client’s situation and you switch too soon from “receive” mode to “send” mode.
Think of it as taking a bite of piping hot pizza as soon as it comes out of the oven. It looks so perfect and it’s going to fix that hunger you’re feeling, but by moving too soon you burn the roof of your mouth. After that, it’s hard to enjoy the rest of your meal.
You can also think of it as throwing a football. If you don’t release at just the right time, the pass can be intercepted or knocked away. The idea is that if you talk too soon about how your product addresses the client’s problems, you reduce the chances of making the sale.
So, the essential fundamentals of good selling start with listening and understanding. We can talk about how to move through the rest of the sales process, but that will have to wait for another column.
Dan Bobinski is a management trainer, best-selling author and director at the Center for Workplace Excellence. He makes his home in Boise. Reach him at (208) 375-7606 or firstname.lastname@example.org.