The way you approach selling can make a huge difference to your chances of winning new customers and making sales.
You need to do as much as you can in advance to find out about the customer and their needs. Good sales technique can help you reach the right individual, overcome any objections and close the deal.
1. Developing a sales strategy
Ensure you know as much about your target audience as possible
- Check you understand what your target customers do, what products they need and why, what key benefits they require and when, where and how they buy.
- Keep an eye on key trends in your market, such as changes in buying patterns and the activities of competitors.
Decide which customers in particular you want to target
- Be clear how much each potential customer is worth to you. This allows you to determine the time and effort you should put into selling to each one.
- Aim to focus most of your efforts on customers who will provide the most profitable business. Only sell at a loss when the deal will bring in more (and profitable) business from that customer in the long term or could attract new business from others.
Ensure you are clear about your unique selling proposition (USP)
- Your USP is the unique customer value that your offering can bring and is why customers buy from you rather than your competitors.
- Offering the lowest price for your product or service can be a USP, but it is dangerous to compete on price alone.
Decide which sales methods to use
- A mixture of methods might well be appropriate.
- Direct sales methods include face-to-face, direct mail, telesales and ecommerce.
- Selling face-to-face is best for high-value sales and for complex products or services that require demonstration or explanation.
- Direct mail, telesales and ecommerce are more cost-effective options, especially for lower-value products.
- You might use an intermediary, such as a retailer or wholesaler, to enable you to sell goods to individual consumers. In this case, you will need to focus your sales efforts on selling to the intermediary.
- If you want to sell your product or service overseas, you might wish to consider using a sales agent.
Establish your sales forecasts
- Map out monthly sales targets for the year ahead.
- Try not to be over-optimistic. Initial sales of a new or untested product or service may take longer than expected.
- Monitoring actual performance against your forecasts can help you identify potential problems and areas for improvement.
Remember the importance of generating repeat business
- It is far cheaper to sell to existing customers than to generate new business.
- There is a huge range of software available to help you keep records of dealings with customers, including free versions.
2. Planning your approach
Identify decision-makers and other individuals who influence purchasing decisions
- Your aim is to talk with individuals who have both the budget authority and the need to buy your product.
- Looking at a company’s website or having a brief conversation with a receptionist can often reveal information about a business and who you need to talk to.
Before making contact, be clear what you want to achieve
- For example, do you want to make a sale, set up a meeting, or simply ensure that the customer will be receptive to future contact?
- Some large companies and public sector organisations invite selected suppliers to tender for business. Your aim will be to ensure that you are invited the next time they are buying your sort of product or service.
Prepare your pitch
- Be ready to sell the benefits your product or service offers for this particular customer.
- Anticipate and be ready to handle objections.
Tender for contracts successfully
Make sure you will know when new opportunities arise
- Build relationships with potential customers.
- Check the trade press.
- Register to receive alerts on public sector opportunities.
Check that you meet potential customers' requirements
- Large customers may only buy from large suppliers. Subcontracting to one of their existing suppliers may be a more realistic opportunity.
- You may need to formalise the way you manage your business. For example, by having a structured quality management system and written policies for issues like equal opportunities.
Decide whether it is worth bidding
- Bidding can be expensive and time-consuming.
- Try to get guidance from the customer. For example, how many other suppliers are being asked to bid?
Make sure any bid you submit matches what the customer is asking for
- Read the tender carefully and make sure you understand how they are going to decide which supplier to choose.
- Check that your bid covers everything they have asked and includes any documents they require.
- Make sure you meet the deadline.
3. Getting access
If you are telephoning a customer, follow a few basic rules
- Ring at the right time. People are naturally more responsive to calls in the morning.
- Get the crucial first 30 seconds of your pitch right. If you fail to prepare your opening carefully, you have little chance of interesting the customer in what you have to offer.
- Check you are speaking to the right person. Ask what involvement he or she has in making purchasing decisions.
- Always get your customer’s name and give your own, too.
Get receptionists and assistants on your side
- Be friendly, not pushy. Ask them to help you. Make a note of their name and use it the next time you call.
- Part of an assistant’s job is to prevent unwelcome sales calls getting any further. Explain the benefit the customer will get from taking your call or giving you an appointment.
When you make contact with decision-makers, treat them considerately
- Check that you are talking at a convenient time. Be ready to keep your call short.
Engage the customer’s interest
- You need to establish right away that you are not wasting the prospect’s time.
- Introduce yourself and establish the basis for talking. For example, "Did you receive my email?" or "X suggested I call you".
- Briefly outline the key benefit your product has for this particular customer.
- Ask if the customer is interested in what you have said so far. If the answer is yes, go on to ask more questions. If not, ask if your product or service might be of interest at a later date.
Be prepared to be persistent, particularly if you do not already have a relationship
- If you get an immediate brush-off, try to keep the conversation going. For example, if you are asked to put something in the post, say that you would like to send something tailored to the customer’s specific needs.
- If customers say they need to think about it, ask what their concerns are.
- Stay focused on what you want to achieve. If you want a meeting, ask for one. Suggest a time and a place. Customers prefer and are less likely to cancel meetings on their own premises.
- Use each time you make contact to build your understanding of the customer. Record useful information including details of the customer’s circumstances and needs. For example, about budgets and the names of decision-makers.
4. Asking questions
Whether you are selling face-to-face or over the phone, asking questions is essential if you want to understand your customer’s needs. Do not attempt to sell at this point.
Make the customer want to answer further questions
- Start with questions to which you know the answer will be yes. For example, "Are you interested in reducing your production costs?"
Find out the customer’s situation
- Use open questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. For example, "How do you plan to reduce your production costs?"
- Ask questions that uncover problems the customer may be experiencing that your solution will address.
- Then explore the value of finding solutions to those issues, before showing how you can address them.
- Try to establish what the customer’s business would be worth to you.
- Show your understanding of the customer’s field of business. For example, "Now that you are getting orders abroad, distribution must be more of a challenge."
- Encourage the customer to ask you questions.
Listen to the answers carefully and take notes
- Check you have understood the customer’s needs by summarising in your own words what has been said.
5. Selling the benefits
Once you understand what customers are looking for, show the benefits they will get from buying your product or service.
Emphasise the benefits your product or service offers - not the features
- Features describe what a product can do. Benefits explain what these features can do for the customer.
- A feature is an attribute of the product or service, such as size, design or simply what it achieves. A feature of a new PC might be that it has a processor speed of 3.6GHz. The benefit might be that it lets you do things twice as fast.
Match the benefits to the customer’s needs
- The same product may be sold differently to two different customers, according to their priorities.
- For example, if you are selling a car, you might stress the benefits of its safety features when selling to parents, while focusing on style and design when selling to a non-parent.
- Try to quantify the benefits, perhaps by stating how much money a customer could save by using your product or service.
- Stress the knock-on effects your product’s benefits could have. For example, “If your accounting software was easier to use, your accounts staff could spend more time chasing debtors.”
Produce evidence to back up your claims
- Photos, cuttings, research reports and testimonials all help reinforce the point.
- Mention other customers and their comments.
Be prepared to discuss rival products
- Provide proof of the advantages you offer.
6. Handling objections
Do not be put off by objections - they can be a sign that the customer is interested. Make sure you handle them in a direct and positive way.
Show the customer that you take the objection seriously
- Listen carefully to find out what the customer really means. For example, "The price is too high" could mean "It’s over my budget sign off" or "I’d buy it if you gave me a discount".
- Summarise what you understand the objection to be.
Isolate, test and address objections
- If there are several, clarify what each one is before tackling them, one at a time.
- Test each objection. For example, ask: "So, if I could satisfy you that delivery would be reliable, would you place an order?"
- If an objection is valid, address it and then ask if you have satisfied the customer’s concerns.
The most common objection to making a purchase is price
- Try to find out exactly what aspect of price the customer is unhappy with before deciding how to respond.
- Demonstrate the savings your product or service would bring.
- Sell the full package you offer, including your reliable after-sales service and the fact that there are no hidden costs.
- Explain how payment terms, credit or financing could make a deal possible.
- If the individual you are negotiating with does not have budget authority for the level of spending you propose, ask your contact to refer you to someone within the organisation who can authorise the purchase.
Ensure you have responses ready for other common objections
- You will soon begin to recognise what these are for your particular product or service.
- If doubts are voiced about quality, explain how your product meets the customer’s specification and stress your quality control procedures.
- If the customer says it has an established relationship with an existing supplier, try to make an opening for your business. Emphasise the benefits you offer and suggest the customer tries you out with a small order.
7. Closing the deal
Create a sense of urgency
- Try to convince the customer that your product is needed now. Link a quick sale to meeting the customer’s own needs and deadlines. For example, "If you book the holiday now, we can get you the best rooms in the hotel."
- Do not falsely state that a product will only be available for a limited time in order to get consumers to buy there and then - this is illegal.
If the customer makes buying signals - stop selling
- Typical buying signals might be: “When would you be able to deliver?”; “What other colours do you have?”; “That would be really useful”; “This is just what we need”.
- If you do not stop selling, you might go on to talk yourself out of a sale.
Take responsibility for closing the sale
- The simplest way may be just to ask, "Can I take your order now?"
- Take your cue from the customer. For example, if he or she asks about the price of a product, say "So is that the product you would like to buy?"
- Propose alternatives. This makes it more difficult for the customer to say no. Ask, "Would you prefer it in green or blue?"
- When only one objection remains, make closing the sale conditional upon removing this obstacle. For example, "If I can guarantee to bring the delivery date forward to meet your schedule, will you place the order now?"
- Once you have asked for the sale, stop talking. Your silence encourages the customer to think things through and reach a decision.
Agree actions and confirm these in writing, including timescales
- Confirm that you have understood correctly what the customer wants.
- Give your customers good after-sales service, so that they will want to buy from you again.
- Confirm your terms of trade including your terms of credit. This will minimise the risk of late payment and subsequent cash flow issues.