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Talk less and listen more

Published on Thursday, 18 Feb 2010
Illustration: Brian Wang

Everyone involved in sales soon learns that it's far tougher to win over a completely new client than to gain additional business from a satisfied customer. One commonly quoted theory even suggests a ratio of 7:1 in terms of the comparative time and effort required.

The first major challenge in any kind of selling is to understand the customer. That is especially important in the business-to-business context where individual contracts can generate millions of dollars. However, patience and perseverance are needed to build the initial relationship.

Doing so takes an ability to see the client's "concept" and to focus on what they want to fix, accomplish, improve or avoid. Only then can you properly show how your company can make that happen.

Even savvy strategic marketing and aggressive business development efforts can quickly become exercises in futility unless they look at things from the client's point of view. In every case, the fundamental approach should be to discover "what they want to buy", not just to pitch "what we want to sell".

It may sound simple, but many companies and individual sales people "forget" the customer in their eagerness to promote their own organisation's particular strengths, presumed competitive advantages, attractive price points, and all the rest of it.

Instead, the starting point should be to think in terms of providing solutions. For that, it is essential to realise two things: clients don't always know what they need, and each customer's concept is different and entirely subjective.

Therefore, if discussing the potential benefits of new software, it may make sense to emphasise enhanced functions to an information technology department, whereas the simplified screen layout will be of more interest to a customer service team.

The only way to do this is by first discerning what the client really wants. That is often very different from, say, what may have been approved in the budget, what a director has heard a rival has, or what a specific department thinks it needs.

The temptation for any sales person is to push whatever seems most likely to generate quick turnover. However, that can be a short-sighted approach and may lead to "mis-selling", which erodes client trust and limits the chance of repeat business over the longer term.

It's much better to be crystal clear about the concept and the expectations of all parties involved before presenting any solutions. Keeping this information in mind and acting upon it will make it possible to build what is ultimately a stronger relationship, earn credibility and draw obvious distinctions with the competition.

Throughout the process, it is also important to remember that individuals in diverse roles influence corporate decision-making, and that changes are always occurring.

For example, the present head of finance or engineering may have firm ideas about expenditure and preferred suppliers. Transfers or retirement may bring in new personnel who see the world in a different way and perhaps accept more readily the need to invest in the latest technology or to work with other partners.

Sales is also about understanding which features and benefits appeal to various decision makers - and why. The answers are sometimes straightforward, like having to save costs in the downturn, sometimes more complex, involving corporate politics and power struggles within the chain of command. But it is up to the salesperson to discover what motivating factors are in play and to craft a solution that meets genuine needs where, ideally, subsequent improvements will also be measurable.

In many instances, the actual product or service doesn't make or break a sale. It is the client's subjective view of what the proposed change will do for them. Once that is established and accepted, discussions about price, exact technical specifications and so on become secondary concerns.

To achieve this, the seller has to listen more and talk less. Salespeople are generally guilty of doing the exact opposite. They forget that having two ears and one mouth is a clue to how to proportion their time when with customers.

Rather than rattling off product features and talking at a mile a minute, they need to strike a balance between getting and giving information. The more they listen, the easier it becomes to understand what the client wants and, if necessary, to read between the lines as well.

It will become clear that the motivation  to buy is usually determined by three factors: discrepancy, importance and  problem solving.

The first occurs when clients perceive a gap between their companies' position and where they want to be. That is a catalyst for change, and the salesperson's goal is to listen well enough to understand all the whys and wherefores. Any indication of discrepancies is a chance to sell, and even a standard opening question such as, "how's business?" can spark a reply that immediately points the way.

An effective salesperson should also be able to discern the level of importance a client attaches to different areas and priorities. Every company has known challenges that no one gets too excited about, and others demand more urgent attention because of their possible impact on business efficiencies or the bottom line.

To gauge the relative importance of various issues, the salesperson should make sure to ask, "when?" The answers to that question will make it easier to see where priorities really lie and, consequently, in which areas sales are most likely to be agreed.

Thirdly, business is all about solving problems. As a result, individual decision makers are more inclined to buy when they are in one of two modes - growth or trouble. The fact is, though, that by a broad definition most companies are either growing or in trouble most of the time. One year they may be failing to meet revenue targets and looking for new efficiencies. The next they will be investing in expansion and planning again to launch new products or services.

Needs and priorities will change accordingly, but in either case the astute salesperson will find chances to sell. To take an easy example, one year the advice may be on outsourcing and cutting costs; another, it could be consultancy services on entering new markets or hiring additional staff.

The ultimate goal of any sales process is to create a satisfied customer and generate profitable revenue - the classic win-win situation. It is worth remembering that within this framework there are endless variables and no absolutes. Sometimes, what constitutes a win can be based on narrow criteria and personal considerations.

An operations manager, for example, may be under intense pressure to hit an annual production target. Or a director of information technology may need to get a new system up and running within three months.

A good salesperson will be sensitive to these factors, while also realising that they can and will shift as individuals come and go and corporate policies shift in line with the wider economy. The important thing for long-term sales success is to deal with realities, not assumptions, and to keep adapting. In that way, the concept of consultative selling will really mean something. It will be possible to sustain successful partnerships by meeting changing needs and remaining on the same page as the client.

Guy Fraser is associate director, Miller Heiman, at MDS. Miller Heiman is a provider of sales performance training. MDS delivers executive coaching and leadership training in Hong Kong and on the mainland, and distributes for Miller Heiman in Greater China.

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