How to sell: Fine tune your skills in the five stages of sellingby
The popular view is that only some people can sell, that salesmen are born, not made. The reality is that anyone can sell, and that the art of selling can be learnt in the same way that any process can be learnt.
Selling is a mix of skills and techniques: a process that once understood, is obvious; interpersonal skills that are more about human psychology; and perseverance.
At a very basic level there are five steps in making a sale:
- Qualification: Is this person worth talking to?
- Fact finding: What do they want?
- Demonstration: Show them the product
- Objection overcoming: Dealing with their issues that are stopping them buying
- Close: Getting the order
Let’s go through each stage in more detail in the next sections, starting with qualification.
Before you spend a lot of time on a prospect, you want to know if they are likely to buy. So there are four simple tests:
- Are they the decision maker? In other words, do they have the power to sign the purchase order? Or are they an underling who has no purchasing power?
- Do they have the budget? Can they afford your product or service?
- Are they looking for what you have? If they need features or capabilities that you don’t have, you’re unlikely to make the sale.
- Are they looking to buy now? If they are just looking but don’t want buy for a year, they won’t help you reach your sales target.
So how do you find out these facts? In many cases they’ll tell you in their first conversation, as the lead comes in. “Hello, I’m the finance director of so-and-so plc and I’m looking for a simple CRM system for about ten users. Need to be up and running in three months’ time.” That’s just passed all the tests for Really Simple Systems, apart from the price but as they are a plc that shouldn’t be a problem. “Hello, I’m an intern at Bob’s Plumbing and I’m just doing some initial research for a CRM system we can run on our tills” patently fails.
Good sales people spend more time listening than talking, and in most cases you’ll only get some of the qualification questions answered unprompted. So when they’ve stopped telling you what they want, you ask the unanswered questions: What’s your job title? Do you have a budget in mind? When would you want the system installed? Any particular requirements that are important?
A good salesperson will develop words and phrases that will make these questions seem unthreatening and natural.
Why does the car salesman always ask you what car you are driving at the moment? Because if you’re driving a Ford he’s not going to offer you a test drive of a top range BMW on his Saturday morning.
After qualification, you now know that the prospect is worth time selling to, so now you have to find out their more detailed requirements.
Some people will know what they want and what the offerings in that market all do. Others may need educating.
But what if qualification fails?
If the prospect wants a feature that your offering doesn't have, you can:
- Try and persuade them its isn't needed; or
- Find a work around; or
- Try and minimise its importance to their decision; or
- Qualify out.
There's no point continuing the sales process if you know that the prospect has a requirement that is key to them that you can't meet.
After they have told you what they want, and assuming you haven't qualified them out, you have the opportunity to introduce some new features to their list that the competition doesn't have. If you can persuade them that a certain USP of your offering is a mandatory requirement, then you're going to do well against the competition!
Finally, run through the requirements list and confirm with the prospect that this is what they want, and all they want, and then roll out your conditional close "If I can show you that our product does all of this, when will you place the order?".
The purpose of the demonstration is to confirm that the product meets all the requirements defined in the fact finding process – it should not be to allow the prospect to make up their own mind as to fit! That sounds a bit harsh, but as a sales person you need to control the sales process. That’s why many companies won’t allow prospects to see the product until they’ve been though the Fact Finding process.
You should make sure that you cover all the requirements that were agreed, with particular attention paid to mandatory ones. With really key features you should get the prospect’s agreement as to fit after showing that element – “Are you happy with how the sales forecasting works?” (see Conditional Closing).
At the end of the demonstration you should ask for feedback, and again do a trial close:
"Can you see this product working for you?", or
"How does this compare to other products that you've seen?".
You'll probably not close the prospect at this stage, but the questions will give you insight into where the prospect's head lies.
The objection 'overcoming stage' is about listening to the prospect’s concerns about the product or service after they have some knowledge of it (“It doesn’t do this”; “it is more than I have budgeted”; “I don’t like the way it handles this issue”) and overcoming or minimising those problems.
Of course, not all objections need to be overcome if your competitors have the same limitations, or would fail to meet the prospect’s other more important requirements.
In text book selling, the objection overcoming sales stage comes after the demonstration and before closing. However, in reality the prospect can introduce objections at any time in the sales cycle. Here are some typical objections and some solutions to overcoming them:
Price is too expensive:
- Differentiate your offering from cheaper alternatives: features, service, customer satisfaction.
- Try to minimise (“an extra £10k over five years is only £35 a day!”).
- De-scope offering: take out features not needed in return for a lower price.
- Discount (in return for quick sale or customer endorsement).
- Offer different financing or payment terms, perhaps across multiple budget years such as staged payments or leasing.
Fit: missing features:
- Look for workarounds.
- Try to minimise importance versus 100% fit for everything else.
- Point out that nobody else does that.
Competitor has more features:
- List features that you have, and that the competitor doesn’t
- Point out any restrictions or drawbacks of those features
- Disprove if possible (“they say they do that, but actually they only do this”)
- Minimise desirability of their features
Your company is too small or too new:
- Offer happy reference customers.
- Point out they’ll get better customer service from a small company than a big one.
- As an early customer of a new company, their needs can help shape the product.
- They’ll be ahead of the competition by going with a leading edge product.
Prospect is not ready to place order:
- Work prospect’s time scales back to prove that they need to order sooner than they thought.
- Find or create a compelling event.
For many sales novices the word “close” fills them with dread, that scary and secret process that only seasoned sales people know how to do without trembling in their shoes. It doesn’t have to be that way, if you have run though the other stages correctly.
In most B2B sales the prospect will make up their mind to purchase over the time it takes to evaluate and maybe test your proposal. During that time you need to build their confidence in your offering (and in you and your company) until is is complete, or at least complete enough for the prospect to take the last bit in the hope you’re reputable and won’t let him down. You need to grow your personal relationship with the prospect so that they trust you enough to believe you when you say that your offering will work for them.
Closing shouldn’t come out of the blue and the final close should be a natural progression from all the little/conditional closes that you’ve done through the sales process. If you’ve done conditional closes at the end of fact finding and throughout the demonstration, and maybe during objection overcoming as well, you should have led the prospect into a position that the final commit to purchase is a small, natural step, not a big decision.
Having said that, there are numerous ways of leading the prospect into committing.
In the jargon of sales methodologies, there are a number of named closing techniques. Here are the main ones:
- Direct close. You simply ask for the order: “Are you ready to go ahead?”
- Assumptive close. You just assume the prospect is going ahead and let them wriggle out of it if they dare: “Let me fill out this order form and then you can get going.”
- Conditional close. You set the criteria for their decision to close later: “If we can meet all your requirements within budget, will you go ahead?” Or “If I can get it delivered this week, can you place an order today?” Or “If I throw the roof rack in for free, can you commit to purchasing?”
- Alternative close. You offer them alternatives, but not buying isn’t one of them: “Do you want the red one or the green one?” Or “Shall we deliver this week or next?”
- Puppy dog sale. Not really a close but a technique that creates a compelling event at the end of the trial: “Try it free for 30 days, no obligation!”. Beloved of software vendors (like us!), this is named after the pet shop that will let you take a cute little puppy home for the weekend – there is no way your kids will let you take it back to the shop!
As with all canned sales techniques, you need to adapt the words to suit the situation and to make them your own so they don’t sound artificial or overly pushy.
The final close.
Closing, asking the customer to commit to a purchase is often seen as the hardest part of the sales process. It shouldn’t be if you’ve done the homework and the customer is ready to buy.
Most people spend time weighing up the pros and cons and then emotionally commit to purchase. Some prospects will get to a certain point and then just say “Fine; let’s do this”. Others will need help committing because they find making decisions scary, especially if there is no deadline for making a decision (see compelling event).
If you’ve followed the process then you will have done lots of little conditional closes throughout all the sales stages, so when you finally ask for the order with a direct close the prospect is emotionally prepared and is happy to say “Yes”.
As we said at the start of this short course, the popular view is that only some people can sell, and that salesmen are born, not made. We hope now that we’ve demonstrated that anyone can sell, and that the art of selling can be learnt in the same way that any process can be learnt.
This classic approach divides the sales process into five stages: qualification, fact finding, the demonstration, overcoming objections and closing. In reality, although you may try to run through those stages in that order, you should be thinking about all of those stages all of the time:
You may qualify out in the middle of the demonstration when the prospect announces a key requirement that simply can’t be met. You might be overcoming objections when qualifying the prospect and they are saying that the price is too high. The prospect may announce some new requirement in the middle of the demonstration that need further investigation.
There’s a sales saying “Always be Closing” and that is true, you should be doing mini closes throughout the whole process to make sure that the prospect is still on track for the final order. So you need to be alert through the whole sales cycle to any new information that might come up, and branch off and qualify/fact find/close/do a mini demo.
As long as you keep your eye on the final objective of getting a purchase order and steer the process back towards that goal, you’ll minimise the chances of getting lost during the sales cycle and finally close the deal.
John Paterson is CEO of Really Simple Systems.