Getting the edge in professional selling
Terence A. Hockenhull
Sometimes, in putting together this article, I seek inspiration by taking a quick look at what other “experts” are saying about sales on the Internet. I have been fortunate enough to have developed my career as a sales consultant and trainer by reading Neil Rackham’s books on SPIN(r) selling and, many years back, working with the Huthwaite Group. I always appreciated Mr. Rackham’s approach because it was built on a solid foundation of research.
Rather than getting the opinions of “exemplary sellers” (upon which countless self-help books and sale technique bibles are based), Mr. Rackham had researchers accompany sales people on sales calls to observe which behaviors they were typically using. By correlating this extensive data with whether sales calls were successful (where a deal was eventually closed) or the client declined to buy, some interesting conclusions were drawn.
Simply put, common behaviors on these calls that resulted in a “no sale” might reasonably be considered to contribute to the lack of success. Conversely, Mr. Rackham concluded that behaviors used by highly successful salespeople were contributing to success. And of course, those behaviors used consistently in both successful and unsuccessful calls could be assumed to have little or no impact on sales success.
The questions begs to be asked: why does one have to conduct research to arrive at meaningful data? After all, wouldn’t asking the exemplary salesperson accomplish the same result? The real problem with this approach is that top salespeople cannot always determine what it is that makes them successful.
Let me take this to ridiculous extremes. Suppose Joe, one of the top salespeople in his company with a proven track record of closing even the most difficult of sales, reviews the way he conducts his sales calls. Joe has a nervous habit of saying “uh-huh” every time his customer finishes a sentence. Based on this, Joe (or anyone who asks Joe how he conducts his calls) might perhaps think that the insertion of a grunt to let the customer know the salesperson is paying attention is the reason Joe is able to perform so well. And, it is a short step to believing that if this is taught to others, they too will enjoy the same level of success.
In the sporting world, there are a few truly exemplary sporting heroes who perform way beyond the rest on the field. Whether this is Michael Schumacher in his years with Ferrari, Rafael Nadal in tennis, Babe Ruth in baseball, Shaquille O’Neal in basketball, or our very own boxer (and now incoming senator) Manny Pacquiao, I doubt any of these five could truly define what sets them apart from the rest. Yet it is not such a stretch to see that someone who watches numerous players on the track, court, or field, or in the ring, may be able to distinguish different behaviors and skills that set a sporting legend apart.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons one rarely (I won’t say never) sees top performers end their careers as coaches. Freddie Roach might have been a competent boxer, winning a number of fights along the way, but clearly, he is no match for Manny’s flair, speed, and skill. So, what makes him a good coach? He has certainly fought enough to know what is required to win fights, but it is watching other fighters both successful and unsuccessful and determining the special factors that set the two apart. Teach and refine these skills, and one will enjoy some degree of success.
Back to the Internet and all the words of these sales experts. Are they worth listening to? Should one slavishly follow their doctrine? The sad fact is that in many cases, what they are saying is good and does have a positive impact on selling. It is just buried within so much advice that has no positive impact.
Let me give you an example here. For many years, a basic tenet of selling has been the need to ask open questions. In other words, ask questions that cannot be answered by a simple yes or no but demand the customer provide some sort of narrative response.
Do I agree with this statement? Well, I agree that asking questions is key to selling, but whether to ask open or closed questions is immaterial. What is important is getting key information from a customer that will help close the sale. “Can you tell me about your business?” (an open question) might reveal some very pertinent information from one client. Another might treat the salesperson to a history lesson of the name of the founder, early years of growth, expansion, mergers, new premises and so on. None of this may be as useful as the simple question, “Have you purchased the new equipment for the factory yet?”
Knowing that what is taught to a sales team is based on a solid foundation of research and objective observation, will go a long way to ensuring that the skills are the ones that will really make a difference. Open a sales call with a hearty handshake, engage the customer in a rapport-building session, and ask only open questions if all of this will make you feel better about the sale and give you more confidence. Just don’t bet that it will have any real impact on the sale.
Terence A. Hockenhull is a long-term resident of the Philippines. He is an accomplished sales consultant who currently holds an executive sales position with an Italian geotechnical company.