Sales Techniques: There's a reason you chose selling as a career. Here's a review of the fundamentals that could put things back in perspective. The first in a series.

Every now and then it is helpful to professional salespeople to step back from the emphasis on precise techniques to look instead at the big picture. With this next series of articles, I intend to do just that--to remind you of what you need to succeed and, in the process, to remind you of why you chose selling as a career.

1. Build self-confidence. It is the sine qua non of selling. Without self-confidence, no real success is possible. You should not equate it with cockiness. Self-confidence is what you have when you know you have prepared as much as possible for the sales call, you have "done your homework" and you have a willingness to help the customer. You can develop self-confidence by practicing the elements that follow.

2. Determine to be the best in the world in your field. As you read this article, someone, somewhere is the best! Why can't it be you? Several years ago a major magazine wrote that the marketing organization of a certain large company was the best in the world at the time. There was a reason for this outcome. Each person assigned to Marketing Services was told, "You will be the best in the world in your activity."

3. Know your product. Whether you sell a product or a service, it is essential that you know it thoroughly. That means you should know what it will do, what it won't do and how to use it. It means you should be able to answer any reasonable question a customer may ask about anything you sell. It means never bluffing. It means when you don't have the information requested you promise to obtain it--and then keep that promise!

4. Know competitive products equally well. You should know the benefits and disadvantages of the product or service you sell, and you should have equally complete information on the competition's offerings. You must be able to draw honest comparisons between your offerings and those of your competitors so that you can emphasize the features and benefits of yours.

5. Believe in your product and exhibit that belief. Hell must be a place where salespeople are required to sell products they don't believe in. Enthusiasm and honest conviction are contagious. They will "rub off" on your customer.

6. Identify your customers' problems and have a burning desire to help solve those problems. All too often the customer views your efforts as a burning desire to get the order, rather than as your determination to help him solve a problem, fill a need or prevent future problems.

If you review your own past experiences on the customer end of a transaction, you will remember how few times you felt that the salesperson was really concerned about your problem. Isn't it the exception, rather than the rule, to encounter truly helpful service? Can't you think of a source of your own supplies to which you return over and over because the salespeople give friendly, helpful and interested service?

It is undeniably true that some customers will take advantage of good service. You give them the help and advice they require, then they buy elsewhere on the basis of price. Our own experience indicates that about 2% of customers engage in this behavior. You need to focus on the other 98%-that's a pretty desirable batting average.

You are primarily in the business of selling solutions to problems! Showing the customer that your key interest is in helping him or her will bring in the orders.

7. Love your work. This may sound corny, but studies show that 70% of employed men are not in the occupational field of their first choice. With the barriers that have been erected against women, the percentage in their case will undoubtedly be even higher.

Many of us, having been denied the opportunity to engage in the field--or the work--that was our first choice, turn to another that promises toput food on the table and that can be tolerated. It might even promise some satisfactions. This frame of mind prevents us from giving the maximum effort to the job and affects our progress. If salespeople would understand the importance of their work--its contribution to the economy, the chance it provides to help others, its professionalism vs. order taking--they would not only "get more out of the job," but they also would achieve maximum success. Take a new, hard look at your job and fall in love with it!

We all do best when we are engaged in activities we like. It is, therefore, self-defeating to look upon the job of selling as something "I have to do." Loving your work isn't "corny;" it's pragmatic and rewarding.

8. Anticipate objections. One of the airlines had a slogan, "We want pilots who fly out in front of our planes." In other words, they wanted pilots who anticipate problems, then take action to avoid them.

Professional salespeople ask themselves, "If I were the customer, what objections would I have to this product or service?" They try to determine what objections they may encounter, then decide in advance what they will say and/or do if any of those objections arise or if problems occur.

Obviously, the quality of their actions is going to be incomparably more effective simply because they have given these anticipated objections sound and unhurried consideration outside of the emotional situation that a sale often represents.

This type of professionalism has other advantages. It causes you to be customer-oriented, to think in terms of the customer's problems or needs. It also means that you are not "surprised" when an objection is raised, so you aren't forced to produce an off-the-cuff reply.

Note: As a companion thought, when you do have an answer ready because you anticipated the objection, don't give the customer a fast reply. You will make him think that you haven't even considered the objection being raised and that you are giving a spur of the moment reply. You should present your answer to the customer in a measured, thoughtful manner.

9. Learn to question. Questions are the most powerful tools you have. Consider what they accomplish:

* They obtain information. * They keep you off the defensive. * They can start discussion-or stop it. * They demand proof. ("Can you give me an example of the problems you have had with similar products?") * They help identify the customer's real need, be it product, economic or psychic. * They force the silent type of customer to talk. * They can cause the customer to realize that you really are interested in his or her problems. * They give you information that helps you to know which of your products or services will be most acceptable to the customer.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of using the questioning technique is that it forces you to listen. There are ten types of questions (rhetorical, direct, overhead, etc.). You should not only learn what they are but also what each of them accomplishes and when to use them.

These nine values of questioning are far from the total benefits that accrue. Stop and consider other key advantages you will obtain from questioning. Avoid ambiguous questions; make them clear and open to one interpretation. Ask questions that require factual answers, facts that will help you identify the customer's primary buying motive and will enable you to select the product or service features that satisfy the customer's need or want.

10. Don't stereotype. You cannot make assumptions about people based on physical appearance, clothing, race, color, gender, creed, nationality, educational background, age, accent, etc. In other words, you should not stereotype by anything because it's stupid. Let's see how foolish it is.

Probably we and the British are, in one respect, the worst of snobs. We tend to consider a person who speaks English with an accent to be something less than intelligent. Ask yourself, "How many languages do I speak fluently in addition to English?" This customer with an accent speaks at least one other language fluently and speaks enough English to make himself understood.

Ask the above question in almost any European country, and the answer will almost certainly be, "I speak two, three, four (or more) other languages." We rationalize by saying, "Oh, they live in such close proximity that they must learn other languages." What a flimsy excuse that is. We have met Europeans who have never been more than 18 kilometers away from their hometown who spoke English almost flawlessly. The reason? They start learning other languages in the primary grades.

Or take education. We assume that if our customer is college-educated, she will be intelligent, but if not, her comprehension level will be low. Under that system, Harry Truman would never have been President because he did not go to college, and Charles Wilson would never have been chairman of the board of General Electric Co. for the same reason. The list is endless.

Judging by the way a customer is dressed? There's a smart one. We may tend to equate dressing with buying power, but it can be a costly error. Our files are loaded with examples of people who dress poorly but who have more cash resources that either you or I will ever have.

Keep in mind that those with money can afford to dress any way they care to. It is often those who have little money who dress well to project the image of the way they want to be seen ("the me I wish I were"). We often see age as synonymous with wisdom and experience. An answer to that was given to us by the late Norris Hyett, professor at the University of Texas, who said, "We have people whose epitaph on their tombstones should read, 'Buried at 70, died at 30.'"

Conversely, we often equate youth with vigor and curiosity. There are some young people who are so insecure that they will run for the hills when confronted with any new idea, product, service or method.

Probably the best guard against stereotyping is to ask yourself, " How would I like to be typed because I fall into any one of the groups mentioned in the list?"

Above all, stereotyping robs your customer of his or her birthright, the right to be seen as a unique individual. That right will not be surrendered, and it will lose sales for any of us who attempt to steal that right.

11. Treat the customer as unique. Customers dislike canned sales presentations. Right or wrong, they often believe that no one has ever had the problems they have. Before you use any other customer as an example or as a testimonial, you should determine what this customer thinks about the one you intend to refer to. If you fail to do so, you may cause the customer to think, "Does this salesperson see me as being like that individual?"

12. Don't hesitate to say, "I'm wrong." Salespeople often hesitate to say to the customer, "You're right, I'm wrong!" They think of it as a sign of weakness or fear this admission will destroy their credibility. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Think of how you regard the exceptional person who says to you, in the middle of an argument, "Wait--I never thought of that. You're right, I'm wrong." We think that person is great. Our own ego has been inflated, and he has shown himself to be open-minded.

This is just the way we will be seen when we do not hesitate to admit we are wrong. Only the weak are afraid to make this admission. The strong know they are right most of the time, and they don't hesitate to admit when they are wrong. Instead of being the most difficult words that come to the tongue of a human, they can be the easiest and the most productive in building rapport with the customer.

13. Treat everyone as though that person were the chief executive officer of the customer's organization. At a meeting in the customer's organization, a salesperson was talking in an informal session before the meeting started. Later someone said, "Do you know you were just talking to the chairman of the board?" The salesperson was aghast and wondered, "What did I say?"

The problem will never arise if, in talking to anyone in the customer's organization, you treat him or her exactly the same way you would treat the CEO.

14. Don't treat the customer as the person "he used to be." You often become so familiar with a customer that you do not see the day-by-day changes that have taken place in that customer's intellectual growth. This is like the manager who is told that one of his people is doing a great job. The manager replies, "Yes, isn't Danny doing fine for a mechanic." Danny started out with the organization as a mechanic ten years ago. Last year he went into sales and is doing the best job in the department, but the manager will always see Danny as the mechanic. You may get away with this attitude with employees, but never with customer. You must see each of them as they are today! You must keep current with the customer's growth, self-image and aspirations.

15. Don't think the customer likes only you. Another serious error you can make is to think that if the customer likes you she won't like other salespeople in other companies just as well. She may like you and others, too. You must constantly earn the customer's faith by going all-out for her.

Hazards lie in depending too much upon past relationships. If the customer likes others as much as she likes you, the antidote is to find ways of giving that customer something more than others give her-better delivery, better post-sale service, better problem-solving or the like.

One way to enhance your favorability rating is to identify problems your customer has that have nothing to do with your product or service, then find ways to help solve those problems. If you do this simple but effective service, you will soon find that, in her mind, there are few salespeople like you. 16. Ask for the order. It is amazing how often orders are lost solely because the salesperson fails to actually ask for the order. There are many reasons why it happens, which are less important than knowing it's a problem that can be easily overcome.

Too often, salespeople fear a negative answer. A "no" is not necessarily the end of the sale, or at least it shouldn't be. Trial closes are just that. If you find through this trial that the customer is not sold, then you can determine what it is that you have not done by asking the customer. Often the customer is on the verge of buying, but is hesitating; and a direct request for the order will force the customer to decide now or will help you discover the reason for the hesitation so that you may address it.

To be continued Copyright 1998 by John J. McCarthy; all rights reserved.