Getting The Edge In Professional Selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

IT IS ALL too easy to come back from a sales meeting that has not gone well and blame the client. “Why can’t the client understand what I am trying to say?” “Why is the client insisting on something that we don’t have?” or “It’s not fair. We’re competing against companies who are more competitive and my clients are always driven by price.” These are commonly uttered questions and statements. What concerns me is that they all try to place the fault at the hands of the client rather than looking at our own performance during the course of the sales call.

The outcome of a sales meeting should tell a salesperson much about his own performance and provide guidance about what needs to be done the next time he visits his client. Instead of blaming the client when a sale does not go to plan, the salesperson should be asking, “What could I have done differently to affect or influence the outcome of the sale?” One of the main reasons this is rarely done is that pre-call planning has been neglected. The salesperson secures an appointment and turns up at the client’s office thinking, “I’ll see if I can sell anything to the client today!” or, “I’ve managed to get an appointment. I’ll go along and see what happens.” Setting a clear objective for the sales call is essential. However, it should be realistic, appropriate, and achievable.

Selling is a step-by-step process; it is not a simple matter of visiting a client and asking for a commitment. There may be others in the organization who are involved and they too will have to approve or endorse the purchase. For high value or complex sales, it is unlikely that the seller will be in a position to close the sale at the first sales meeting. Multiple meetings with the client, extended selling cycles and submission of quotations, proposals, and other correspondence may well precede a final commitment to buy.

The salesperson must think about what he hopes to achieve at the end of each and every sales meeting. It may be to secure an appointment with others in the organization, submit a proposal, conduct a field trial, demonstration, or even prepare the contract and deliver it to the client for signing. Setting these steps as objectives for each call will help the salesperson determine success at each sales meeting.

Once the objective has been set, he can begin to think and plan for the desired outcome. What information does he need to gather to prepare himself for the sales meeting and where can this be gathered? Once he is in front of the client, what questions will he need to ask? Thinking about who each player is and what their role is in the decision making process will dictate the sort of information he can realistically expect to get. Since the salesperson should be concentrating his efforts on uncovering problems and needs, he can plan his questions before the call. For example, technical personnel are often able to reveal information about technical problems. The operations department will have a handle on performance and output with concerns about reliability, application and use of existing equipment (and how this is affecting production).

If this process is followed, a careful evaluation of what happened during the sales call can be made. The salesperson can ask himself the simple question, “Did I achieve the objective?” If he did, was the objective the right one or perhaps too easy? And of course if the objective was not met, the salesperson should be asking himself, “What could I have done differently to affect the outcome in line with what I wanted to achieve?” Call-planning notes may be taken to the sales meeting and referred to. In all my years of selling, I have never met a client who has had any objection to me referring to notes during the sales call or indeed, jotting down a few notes when questions are answered.

Planning forms and reports should be filed after review; there are a number of benefits of doing this. If the salesperson leaves his company or is reassigned, another person can read the previous call reports and know with confidence that he is up to speed before the next meeting.

Another reason for keeping these forms on file is for a sales manager to help, coach and support his salesmen. Ask any sales executive how he got on at his last sales call and he will probably respond, “Okay!” “pretty good!” or “The client seems interested.” None of these comments paint a clear picture of the true result of sales call. Asking the same salesperson what his call objective was and if it was met it will provoke a much more telling and informative reply. This will help the sales manager to get a clear picture of what is going on and provide practical advice on what to do next or how to set a more appropriate objective for the next call.

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.