Getting the edge in professional selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

I THINK it would be fair to say that more people are involved in sales than almost any other profession. Consider for a moment that from the most lowly store clerk to wheeler-dealers selling high value limousines, planes, luxury yachts, or country estates, you don’t have to look far to find someone making a living from sales. Yet with the exception of sales training courses delivered to companies and individuals (usually a couple of days at best), preparing people for a career in sales is woefully lacking. Sure, there are those who attend college and collect marketing degrees, but this does not prepare an individual to sell effectively.

Most people who end up in sales do so more by accident than design. With no disrespect to professional sales people, I have yet to hear of anyone who has a burning ambition to be a salesman. Having said this, the lucrative remuneration packages that are promised for many sales positions make it an attractive career choice. And the existing culture would tend to indicate that you need no special skills to be effective and make a lot of money! All well and good until the inexperienced, neophyte salesman faces real customers. With no background or training, it can be a daunting task to determine what needs to be done to be effective and close sales.

Some salespeople carefully prepare a sales script before meeting their clients. Whereas this approach may give the salesperson a degree of confidence, sales scripts rarely produce tangible results. They are “one-sided” and unfortunately do not engage the customer in conversation; rather they leave him to listen to a sales pitch. Sending salespeople out to meet customers is a waste of time unless problems and needs are uncovered. And this has to be done by asking questions and engaging the customer in the sales call.

A typical sale will pass through four distinct phases. Opening the call is important and may help salespeople invest time and effort to establish rapport, exchange credentials and set a friendly tone for the sales meeting. Consider however, that whereas opening the call may make the process of selling easier, it will never close any business. The next stage of the sales is the most crucial. Asking questions to elicit information from the customer is critical. “Probing” or “investigating,” it is this phase where the salesperson identifies situations where his products and services will help the client solve specific problems and address stated needs.

A common mistake of inexperienced salesmen is to assume that clients already have needs. Instead of probing, they use their prepared sales script to tell the client why he should buy. This is a bit of a pointless exercise. Unless a client has clearly stated needs for the type of products that the salesperson is selling, the canned pitch will not work. And of course, the only way of finding out if the client has needs is to ask questions!

Once the salesperson is quite clear about his client’s problems and needs, he can begin to think about proposing an appropriate solution. This is another area where inexperienced salespeople make mistakes in selling. They put in the necessary work to determine customers’ needs and then offer products that they want to sell rather than products the customer wants to buy.

The third phase of the sale, demonstrating ability, must concentrate the sales pitch on features of the product or service that will address the stated needs of the client, not the needs that the salesperson thinks the customer should have!

Let me give an example here. Joe, our ever friendly photocopier salesman, sits with his customer and spends time asking what his customer needs. The customer explains that most of the office copying is done on the large unit but occasionally it breaks down or is in use by other departments and a small back-up unit would be helpful. The customer goes on to use words like “desktop unit,” “small-footprint,” “easy-to-operate,” and good service and support. Yet Joe proceeds to present an expensive replacement for the large photocopier!

Closing is the final phase of a sale and if (and only if) the rest of the sales process has been done correctly, it should be a relatively easy part of the sale. If problems and needs have been uncovered and explored and an appropriate, cost effective solution has been offered, chances are that the customer is ready to make a commitment to buy. Unfortunately, too many salespeople try to shortcut the process offering solutions before uncovering needs. Little wonder that the client (who can’t see any real value or application for the proffered product) resists making final commitment to buy!

The best advice I can give is not to talk about products and services until the client has told you he needs them. This is common sense! Opening a sales call with a long list of features and benefits will rarely be met with anything other than objections. The process of selling is simple. Ask questions, listen to answers and proffer appropriate solutions! This will always deliver better results than a canned sales pitch!

Terence A. Hockenhull is a long term resident of the Philippines. He is an accomplished sales consultant and currently holds an executive sales position with an Italian geotechnical company.