You wouldn't want a neighbor kid working on your car. So, why would anyone want an unskilled salesperson?

If you needed surgery, you wouldn't want a doctor who had never even assisted an operation. You wouldn't hire a defense attorney who had never stepped foot in a courtroom.

And, you wouldn't ask the kid next door to do major work on your new car. The high value you place on your life, your freedom and your possessions argues strongly against employing people who lack the skills to do a competent job. You might even say that you have a right to skilled, professional assistance, especially when you are paying for it.

Your customers are no different. Because they are paying your company for quality products and services, they too have the right to expect professional assistance so they can feel confident their money will be well spent. Instilling that confidence in your customers demands the application of certain skills on your part, skills that must be learned, practiced and perfected.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

More sales are lost due to two reasons: 1) A lack of professional presale preparations. 2) A failure to recognize and satisfy customers' personal (psychological) needs. I'll address the second problem later. Right now, let's concentrate on effective presale preparation.

Unless you have near absolute authority over people, you cannot motivate them to adopt new behaviors by forcing them to change their actions. Even in those few instances where one does have authority — with one's children for example — such an approach yields only short-term results. “Do this!” or “Don't do that!” might work with a child, at least for a while, but your customers are not children. You can't order them to buy.

Selling is largely a matter of persuasion and motivation. It must, therefore, involve the satisfaction of your customers' long-range objectives and short-range goals — that is, what they hope to achieve for their companies and for themselves. To realize any kind of lasting effect, you must understand and appeal to these objectives and goals. Often, you must take the lead by helping your customers define (or redefine) goals and provide direction for their attainment. Only then can you have a lasting positive influence on your customers' behaviors.

Accomplishing this calls for an organized approach to presale preparation based on thorough, meaningful and accurate information. Making a complete estimate during presale preparation makes you focus on identifying the customer's problems and needs. It also leads logically to the development of effective strategies and tactics. If you apply this proven method consistently, you'll see your rate of success climb.

Learn to question

The skillful use of questions stands among the most powerful tools of the professional salesperson. For example, questions can help you:

  • Obtain information you need in the form of facts and opinions.

  • Keep off the defensive.

  • Start discussion (or stop it).

  • Change the subject under discussion.

  • Demand proof when the customer has made unsubstantiated or exaggerated charges.

  • Force the customer to answer his own objection.

  • Make the customer reexamine his objection.

  • Identify the customer's real problems, satisfactions and needs.

  • Force the silent customer to talk.

  • Stop, or at least slow down, the over-talkative customer.

  • Make the customer realize you have a true interest in his problem.

The greatest advantage of questions is that they force you to be quiet and listen. After all, what do you learn about the customer when you're talking?

Don't ask ambiguous questions

Make them clear and open to only one interpretation. Ask questions requiring factual answers — facts that will help you identify the customer's key buying motives and enable you to select the product or service features and benefits that will best satisfy the customer's needs and wants.

Learn the different types of questions — direct, leading, rhetorical, overhead, etc. Learn what they can do for you, how to use them, when to use them and when to avoid them.

The kinds of questions you ask are important, but how you ask them is critical. You are not a prosecuting attorney cross-examining a hostile witness. You are a professional sales-person seeking meaningful information that will help you solve problems and satisfy needs. You will obtain this information only if the customer wants to answer your questions because he knows your primary aim is to help him. Quite simply, the customer must feel at ease with you as a person. If, on the other hand, your questions are threatening and put him on the defensive, you can expect ambiguous answers, smoke screen objections, even hostility and lies — virtually anything but the truth. You must, therefore, sell yourself before you sell your company and its product.

Listen — REALLY listen

Even experienced salespeople can talk themselves out of a sale. If you find yourself monopolizing the selling situation, you are probably doing something wrong.

Get the customer talking

Use questions. And then listen! Only by listening will you come to understand the customer and his or her needs. Too many salespeople only half-listen, and consequently they overlook critical information.

Good listening skills also help you satisfy several of the customer's basic needs — to feel comfortable in your presence, to be regarded as someone special, and to have her needs seen as important and unique. Her concerns might seem routine to you, but to her they can represent real problems. Some basic listening tips:

  • Avoid distractions, both mental and physical, by focusing on the customer, her words and what she's actually saying.

  • While the customer is talking, avoid the tendency to plan what you are going to say next. You can't listen and plan at the same time.

  • Avoid those nervous habits, particularly hand motions that tend to distract the other person.

  • Don't interrupt the customer. In almost every instance, what you have to say can wait until she has finished speaking.

  • Watch your body language. Just as you observe your customer, so will she observe you.

  • Show the customer that you are listening by providing verbal and nonverbal feedback

By doing these things, you pay the customer the highest possible compliment — you give her your full attention and demonstrate how much you value her and her business.

Listen with your eyes

Generally, a person doesn't want his behavior to appear transparent. In spite of this desire to hide true motives, to someone who listens with his eyes, you're an open book.

What self-image is the customer trying to project? How does he want to be seen? Although few customers will tell you, they will show you if you look for the signs. The way they dress, the organizations to which they belong, the cars they drive, where they live, the people with whom they associate or identify, the possessions they surround themselves with, the topics they discuss, their personalities — these and other external signs will help you identify the customer's self-image and show you how he wants to be treated.

Be careful not to judge your customers by one or two isolated indications. Look for a pattern of behavior or interests — in their conversation, possessions, surroundings — and be especially alert to the subjects your customers talk about when given free rein. Take a personal interest in your customers by showing them that you recognize their self-image and can help them reinforce it.

Provide unique treatment

“Nobody knows the trouble I've seen.” The words of the old spiritual ring true in a lot of hearts, your customers' included.

Advertising, sales promotion, telemarketing and other mass marketing techniques are wonderful tools that can precondition the customer to buy, but they won't close the sale. Your customers want unique treatment. They want to feel special. They want their problems and concerns taken seriously. It will always take you, the professional salesperson, to convince the individual customer that you have a unique product or service to satisfy what he sees as a need thats his and his alone. Providing this unique treatment is perhaps the most effective way to separate yourself from your competitors.

The key? Avoid general approaches, such as canned sales presentations that tend to lump all customers and their problems together. Fine-tune your presentations to address each customer's perception of his particular needs and problems.

Create a dialogue, not a monologue

Actively involve the customer in your sales presentation. Obtain periodic feedback by soliciting her comments and opinions. This forces her to pay attention and brings her concerns into the open. It allows you to alleviate these concerns and obtain agreement on the values and benefits you offer. If you are demonstrating a product or its operation, let the customer take part. If you are addressing the aesthetics of a certain product, don't simply talk about it. Let the customer see for herself. Involve as many of her senses as you can. There's much truth in the old retail saying: “A piece of merchandise in the customer's hands is worth two on display.”

Selling is really a form of communication. The words you use — and how you say them — can have a major impact on the customer's perceptions. Avoid speaking in technical jargon — a guaranteed way to turn off most customers. You are not out to impress the customer with your technical knowledge. You want to sell him. Consider your products and their features and benefits, then come up with words and phrases that create vivid images in the customer's mind. Relate these images to his applications in a way that reinforces his interests and allays his concerns.

For example, it can be difficult to visualize a product's actual application from a dry catalog description. When offered a service, the mental challenge is even greater. Part of your task is to help the customer make this transition. Ask him to describe his application. Then use his own description to create a mental picture of the product or service fulfilling the needs he has described.

“Romance” your products and services by sharing your enthusiasm for them and displaying your conviction that they will solve the customer's problems. A sincere, enthusiastic and positive attitude is contagious and will infect the customer.

Handle objections

Too many salespeople think of objections as obstacles to be circumvented and therefore do everything in their power to avoid or belittle them. If a customer has an objection, ignoring it won't make it go away. In fact, by skirting the issue you only reinforce the validity of the objection in the customer's mind.

Objections are not obstacles! Think of them rather as “windows” to the customer's thoughts, as indications of what is important to him and consequently drives his decision-making processes. If you think of objections in this positive way, you will actually begin to welcome them as necessary and critical ingredients in the evolving selling situation. You will also be more likely to address them positively, thereby creating an atmosphere of trust and confidence.

Objections also provide direction. By handling them effectively, you give momentum to the selling situation, leading the customer toward an obvious conclusion. Lacking objections and the direction they provide, your presentations will take on a “hit or miss” appearance and lose the customer focus required to satisfy needs, solve problems and close the sale.

Do your homework by anticipating the customer's objections before you enter the selling situation. Prepare thorough, straightforward answers to the most likely objections, always remembering to fine-tune them to the customer's unique situation. If the customer surprises you and poses an objection to which you don't have an answer, don't bluff! Tell him that you will look into it and get back to him with an answer as soon as possible. And then keep that promise.

Ask for the order

If you believe you can't close, you won't close. Closing the sale is a mental process, one driven as much by your state of mind as the customer's. If you make up your mind that the customer will buy from you, you will do what is necessary to ensure this outcome — maybe not the first time, but eventually.

Not only must you expect to close, but you must also let the customer know it. Act and look the part. Your every word and action must be directed toward one end: the close. Your demeanor, the words you use, the questions you ask, the respect you exhibit for your company and its products and services, how you treat the customer personally all determine the atmosphere and direction of the call.

Maintain your positive attitude throughout the selling situation

Display your enthusiasm and your sincere interest in the customer. Exhibit the confidence that stems from competence. If you possess a thorough knowledge of your products and services, and if you understand your customer's applications, you can translate this knowledge into effective problem solving to help the customer. Then, once you are confident that all objections have been satisfactorily answered, ask for the order! Show that you expect a positive answer, not arrogantly, but with a sureness that arises from your knowledge and ability. If you do all these things well — that is, professionally — it will have a commanding effect on the customer, causing him to follow your lead.

In the next article, the last of this series, I will address habits, the final set of tools in the sales professional's tool kit.