Making the most of the customer’s time

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Getting The Edge In Professional Selling — Terence A. Hockenhull

I HAVE PROBABLY mentioned before that the last couple of years have been an opportunity to put many of the things I have been teaching over the years into real-world practice. Working for an Italian geotechnical company, I take responsibility for a large sales team as well as all of the ancillary activities one expects from a sales and marketing director.

One of my real surprises is how much it actually costs to maintain a sales team. Let’s leave the salaries and commissions to one side of the moment — although, as a generous employer, I would like to think these are significant. For me to get my sales team out and about every day visiting clients and making sales, there are some very significant costs. Rarely do I see allowance liquidation at less than a couple of thousands per week.

Earlier this year, we opted to book flights for our sales team on local low-cost carriers. For a time, I was using my credit card to make these purchases. Each month my statement arrived, I was amazed at how much money we were spending on air travel. Add in the hotels, food, allowances, local transportation, and the cost of shipping samples, brochures, and proposals. (A couple of months back, we participated in the PhilConstruct industry event, the Chamber of Mines conference in Baguio, and a host of small exhibition, events, and trade shows.)

We have many of our flyers printed locally. Technical brochures for our international product range are all printed in Europe at a cost that makes a pocket book from National Bookstore pale in comparison!

Why all of these facts and figures? Well, as I say, it is costly to maintain a sales team, so it is essential they perform. Would I prefer to keep them in the office and not send them to the far reaches of the Philippines? Well, I would if I could still make sales. Regrettably, even our flashiest and most expensive brochures will not do the trick and close sales.

Of course, every sales manager’s frustration is that having spent money, time, and other resources to get salespeople in front of a clients — be this in Makati or in the far south of the country — the salesperson opts to take the easy way out and spout a canned sales pitch which, in all reality, is delivered equally well by our product literature.

The salesperson should meet with a client with a view to effectively communicate and persuade. This means entering into a dialogue. If all the salesperson is doing is talking about his product, this can hardly be described as a dialogue!

The professional salesperson recognizes that the easiest way to proceed is to ask questions. First, by asking questions (and of course, listening to the answers provided), he maintains control of the sales meeting and the selling process. This is essential if potential and usual objection areas are to be addressed before they arise. The questions will also push the customer to provide information that may help the salesperson select appropriate products and models from his range that will address the client’s needs.

Even the most inexperienced of salespersons know that there is certain key information that must be collected in order to find out more about customers. Yet these “profiling” questions are often unnecessary if only some basic research is conducted prior to the sales meeting.

A call to a company receptionist, review of company reports, industry magazines, and in-house client files are all good sources of such information. After all, we don’t want the salesperson out there in front of a client “interrogating” him about his business. By doing so, he will demonstrate that he hasn’t done his homework and, by default, show that he cares little about the client.

Also, the client, if forced to answer a string of such questions, will quickly become bored and disinterested — and, in some cases at least, cease to provide responses in a positive manner to the salespersons.

Although assumptions may be made about the customer’s needs, the salesperson should confirm as much information as possible before proceeding to the product pitch. Matching the product to the client’s responses is what wins the sale.

The salesperson might say: “Let me summarize. You need to replace your copier and you are looking for a machine that will guarantee you the same clear copies. However, you also made the point about servicing, and this is something you need addressed if you are to consider another vendor. I also understand your copying requirements necessitate an automatic document feeder (ADF), but space constraints limit you to smaller machines.

“Let me suggest Model C1345. This is the smallest copier we produce with ADF but, with very high resolution and a new imaging system, will assure you of very high resolution on the copies. Since we support this equipment with a two-year warranty on parts and labor with a 24-hour call out service for our technicians, you will not be facing any of the problems you have had in the past. Oh yes, it also has a one-touch screen panel that clearly displays numbers of copies, size, and other information for clearing paper jam or troubleshooting problems”

Sensible questions involve the client in the sales interaction, create a dialogue, and provide information that help the salesperson offer the most appropriate product to the client. Consider this. The salesperson who fails to ask questions will have to describe every product in his range hoping that one of them may interest the client. This is going to take time, and since it costs money to sit a salesperson in front of a client, time should be used productively, to identify needs and offer the right products or service.

If the salesperson approaches the customer as a “talking brochure”, he is not justifying the high cost of selling, and his company may as well spend the money on printing charges!

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.