To convince a customer to buy, a salesperson must define that person's product needs and problems. Part 2.

4. Identify the customer's product or sevice needs and/or any problems he's facing.

Understanding your customer's product or service needs is so basic to selling that one might wonder why we cover the subject at all in this series on how to persuade a customer to buy. Here's why we do: If salespeople make certain errors in regard to the customer and his product needs, they can create obstacles for themselves.

For example, with a new product in hand that beats out the competition, many salespeople will be tempted to rush out to present it to a customer. That could well prove unsuccessful, for any one of many reasons. The customer may be someone who shies away from any thing new. Or, he may be a technical type who will look askance at an enthused salesperson who hasn't taken the time to find out how the product actually works. Even with a long-time customer, the sales pitch on the new product may boomerang if it causes him to be dissatisfied with what he bought from the salesperson in the first place. With some awareness of the pitfalls and some advance planning, salespeople can avoid creating such obstacles for themselves.

If salespeople find themselves presenting a new and vastly improved product to a customer who bought the equipment he now uses from them, they must tread carefully. To avoid having the customer feel annoyed about his previous purchase, they should plan in advance to preface their presentation with comments that will ease the situation. Here's an approach that works: "I know that you have had excellent results with (name the item), and it is an excellent product. We now have a new (model or feature) that I felt I should make you aware of." Salespeople should not in any way remark that the older equipment is now outmode; the customer will realize that is the case without being told.

When dealing with a customer who has purchased his present equipment from them, salespeople should consider in advance whether he is in a position to afford the new and improved product. If the customer feels dissatisfied with his previous purchase, that's bad enough; if on top of that he feels unable to afford the new offering, the consequences will be dire. Computer salespeople face this problem constantly, as that field is exploding with new models that are more "powerful" than the ones their customers purchased only a short time ago. These salespeople must decide how they can convince their customers that the computers they purchased last year have already saved more money than they cost or have paid for themselves in improved operating efficiency.

At times, electrical distributor salespeople have much in common with computer salespeople. When faced with such situations, they must plan in advance how to introduce the new product in such a manner that the customer will feel they are not trying to sell it, they are only letting him know it is available. (Salespeople may be pleasantly surprised to find the customer so impressed with the new offering that he wants to buy it.) They should never criticize the product the customer has at present, if they sold it to him.

When salespeople are enthused over a new product, they may forget that to demean a product the customer purchased from them previously will imply to the customer that he has used bad judgment.

If the customer is one who dislikes anything new, salespeople must come prepared to provide examples of other customers who are having great success with the new product. To persuade this type of customer, they must use presale planning to collect the facts that will overcome the customer's worries.

If the customer is technically oriented, salespeople risk having her lose confidence in them when they prove unable to answer questions. By presenting the customer with printed technical information on the product, salespeople can avoid such a situation. Alternatively, if a product specialist is available, it will be helpful to have him along on calls to customers who will want in-depth technical information. Bringing in a product expert may also have the side effect of making the customer feel she is important to this supplier.

When salespeople bring a product specialist with them, however, they should coach him on what to do-and what not to do. He must be told which model they want to sell to the customer, and it must be made clear to the expert that he should not switch the customer's attention to other models.

Those are just some of the problems salespeople can encounter if they fail to take identifying a customer's product needs and problems seriously. In essence, salespeople are in the business of selling solutions to problems and helping customers to become aware of potential problems. Salespeople sell solutions to problems and help customers fill needs!

Professional salespeople must make every effort to learn of the customer's current problems, then judge which product or service they have that will alleviate or eliminate those problems. The customer will never be persuaded to buy from salespeople who appear unaware of his or her problems. Such salespeople will be regarded as order takers rather than professionals. A customer will buy from salespeople who (a) are aware of and understand his problems; and (b) demonstrate a desire to help him solve or prevent problems.

Current customer problems and needs are relatively easy to identify if salespeople listen with their eyes as well as their ears. For instance, a customer may appear more harried than usual on a routine call. An innocent, "How are things going?" can often elicit a recitation of what has caused the worried or annoyed expression. Another way to get an inside track is to form close working relationships with others in the customer's organization who may be aware of problems facing the customer. Such information should, of course, be handled with extreme care. The sole motive is to help the customer; nonetheless, some will resent it if they learn someone else in the company made a salesperson aware of their problems.

Once salespeople identify a customer's problems from their own observations, a good approach is to avoid mentioning them. Instead, on the next sales call, they should concentrate on presenting a product or service they know will help the customer solve the problem(s). Again, there's no need to mention the customer's problem. He will readily recognize that the product being offered will solve it.

Another technique that often pays off is to use the "third-party" approach, starting with a statement such as: "A number of our customers brought a problem to our attention and we-and they-found that (mention product or feature) helped them solve it. Even if you don't have that problem, this (product or feature) will help to prevent it from ever arising." The customer may say, "I've got that same problem!" Or she may find other reasons to buy without revealing that she has the same problem as others.

Some salespeople can become so excited over a new product, feature or service they can offer that their enthusiasm becomes contagious-and the customer buys. There is nothing wrong with that-unless the purchase does not solve or prevent a problem or does not really meet a need of the customer. Later, the customer may realize that he bought something on impulse that he did not really need. Being human, he will tend to find some reason why he made the mistake; and ultimately he will blame the individual who sold him what he didn't need. Salespeople in that situation will have great difficulty in persuading that same customer to buy in the future.

To be continued.

A salesperson often must change others' views.

1. Consider facts that should influence the timing of your call. 2. Encourage the customer to state his or her views. 3. Seek reasons why the customer holds the views he does. Probe carefully. 4. Identify the customer's primary psychic need (to be rich, powerful or famous, to have life easier, to feel secure.) 5. Identify the customer's product or service need and/or problems. 6. Seek and find a point of mutual agreement. 7. Isolate areas of disagreement. 8. Avoid and eliminate semantic traps. 9. Clarify the customer's stand by restating it. Listen to his or her reaction. 10. Rephrase and overstate the customer's objections. 11. Concede minor points; let the customer be partly right. 12. Obtain minor agreements to produce a good climate. 13. Narrow down the areas where the customer's opinion and yours diverge. 14.Avoid anything that will appear as a challenge. 15.Show respect for the customer's views. Don't attack motives. 16.Avoid "red flag" words, people and/or subjects. 17.Get the customer to agree on a premise. 18.Think before agreeing to a premise the customer presents. What will it imply? 19.Be sure of your facts. Don't ever bluff! 20.Don't counter the customer's emotion with reason. It won't work. 21.Don't become emotional. Anger blows out the lamp of the mind. 22.When you are wrong, admit it without equivocation. 23.Don't demand immediate agreement. Give the customer time to think. 24.Avoid a defensive position; shift the burden of proof. 25.Restate and modify your position to reflect your concessions. 26.Never interrupt a customer. Wait! 27.Listen-really listen. And listen with your eyes, too! 28.Don't debate. If you win a debate, you could lose the order. 29.Reinforce your points. Recap and summarize. 30.Give customers who were in error an escape hatch. 31.Make your idea the customer's idea. Don't insist on getting credit. 32.Ask for the order. Get a commitment. 33.Quit while you are ahead. Express thanks and leave.

Copyright c 2000 by John J. McCarthy; all rights reserved.