By John Graham
Selling is a tough profession — and from all economic indicators, it may not be getting easier any time soon. While the recession seems to be moving into the past, what is clear is the impact it has had on the way buying decisions are made. Just about everyone in sales is experiencing cautious, reticent buyers who expect more for less. Don't expect to see this trend change. While the cup is at least half full, it may take buyers much longer to see it that way.
If this is what the real world is like today and this is where salespeople find themselves, what should they be doing? To get ahead of the competition and put more business on your company's books, here are some strategies that can make a difference.
1. Sharpen your skills at reading customers. At the get-go, recognize that your customers may not be quite the same people they were two or three years ago. Chances are they've changed. They're looking at everything differently since what appears to be the light at the end of the tunnel may be an illusion. They don't want to be fooled.
If we continue to think of our customers and prospects as the way they were before the recession, it's easy to misread what they are thinking. They can be cold and seemingly disinterested because they don't want to be bothered.
But it's a mistake to write off anyone. It's time to "recultivate" both customers and prospects as they find new comfort levels. Needs will still occur and those who empathize will have the inside track.
2. Look out for the inevitable conflict that exists in every sale. This is so big it's often a deal breaker, and we see a sale go south. Few sales managers ever talk about it. It may be so obvious that no one sees it, even though it's the huge gulf that's almost impossible to get across to make a sale.
Theodore Levitt, the late marketing genius at Harvard Business School, expressed the inevitable conflict that exists in every selling situation. He wrote, "Selling focuses on the need of the seller; marketing on the needs of the buyer." No matter how we rationalize it, this conflict exists in every sale. Instead of attempting to ignore or gloss over it, it's best to admit it and recognize that it's real — no matter what's said, no salesperson can really sit on the buyer's side of the table.
Since "getting the fish in the boat" is a salesperson's objective (no matter how that's expressed in kinder, gentler words), it shouldn't surprise anyone that buyers are unconsciously uncomfortable and wary of salespeople who "send a message," no matter how subtle, that getting a signature is all they care about, no matter what they say or do. This suggests that by bringing the conflict out in the open salespeople can enhance their credibility.
3. Watch out for the peacock's plumage. While waiting for a haircut, a sales executive encountered a "peacock moment." In one chair, a customer was showing his new wristwatch to the barber. It was big, heavy, and techie. Evidently, the barber failed to show proper interest, and the customer said quite seriously, "You're not manly enough to wear this watch." For the customer, the watch was a badge of his manhood and anyone who didn't like it was less of a man.
The move to strip CEOs and other corporate executives of their "plumage" by denying, or at least making unpopular, high-priced perks such as jets, trips, luxury office accommodations, and more denies them the "signals of superiority."
But it isn't just the rich and famous. Almost everyone has a "plumage factor" that presents itself in almost everything they buy, either individually or for a business.
4. Let the customer take the lead. This may be asking too much from a salesperson that's determined to press forward, no matter what. But not Kenneth Kahn. His company, yourgiftcertificate.net, offers businesses a sophisticated "newcomers to the community" type program.
At one point, Kahn attempted to contact a prospect that seemed like a good fit for his product, particularly since it had nearly 50 locations throughout the region. Unfortunately, he was met with little interest. Kahn didn't give up, however. Nearly a year later that disinterest changed when he sent the prospect a sample of the new version of his product.
Instead of trying to beat down the door, Kahn skillfully followed up with additional information, carefully answering the prospective customer's questions and never once using a sales pitch or pushing for a meeting. His approach was seen as professional and thorough.
Kahn didn't try to persuade or make unrealistic claims. Rather, he encouraged responses and kept the conversation going. By always letting the customer take the lead, he received the order.
5. Become more gender aware. This may seem politically incorrect. Yet, in our effort to avoid distinctions, we fail to recognize significant differences between men and women.
Here are two examples. A salesperson couldn't understand why a customer, a woman, was taking so much time making a decision about a new car. She had been to the dealership three times, clutching a folder filled with evaluations, customer comments, and reviews. As she came into the showroom, the salesperson said to a coworker, "Why doesn't she make up her mind? I don't get it." Of course, that was the problem.
At the same time, a male customer may go to buy a digital camera and the salesperson, who is enthusiastic about these exciting products, may launch into a detailed presentation of all the features and not be able to understand why the customer interrupts and says, "I know all that. Just tell me your best price."
If the two salespeople knew a little more about evolutionary psychology, they might fare better. You can see this played out in the aisles of any supermarket. Many of the women compare products, ingredients, and prices and weigh their decisions. Male shoppers come along with their carts and move at NASCAR speed, barely stopping to grab what's on the list.
The answer to these differences seems to be in our genes. Eons ago, women spent their days caring for offspring, carefully gathering edible plants and berries for food. As hunters, men knew the necessity of proper planning to locate their prey, make the kill, and get the meat back quickly before it spoiled.
These behaviors are played out every day when men and women make purchases. It also explains why it's often frustrating when they go shopping together.
6. Be known for your ideas. Most customers want to believe that the salespeople they work with really care about their account — but often they're less than sure. While there are certainly ways to let customers know you value them, there's nothing more effective than a salesperson with new, innovative, and helpful ideas that bring value to a customer.
The most stunning example of this is Apple. People eagerly buy their products, but it's what the products do that gets the "wow!" Steve Jobs describes the company's mission as "Creating products that unleash human potential." Incredibly, months before the iPad was available, physicians, hospitals, colleges, book publishers, newspapers, and magazines were creating software for it. The power of ideas makes the difference.
Selling success depends on communicating ideas that capture buyer imagination and enhance the account. Without that, we're just ordinary salespeople trying to figure out why we're having trouble meeting the numbers.
John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He writes for a variety of business publications and speaks on business, marketing, and sales issues. Contact him at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170; (617) 328-0069; [email protected]. The company's web site is grahamcomm.com.