Lamenting loyalty Featured

9:52am EDT July 22, 2002

It seems relationships no longer matter when it comes to selling. There is simply no loyalty anymore. How do we keep customers in this age of increased competition and price cutting?

The days of the glad-handing, back slapping sales person are over, but that doesn’t mean relationships no longer matter. Despite the advent of fax machines, e-mail and voice mail, people still buy from people. In fact, our modern conveniences have disconnected us from our prospects for so long that most prospects are stroke-deprived.

In other words, most prospects are starved for attention and will hand their business to the sales person who really makes the effort to understand their problems.

This is especially true when it comes to existing customers. Most of the time, customers change vendors for the same reasons people get divorced — because their expectations aren’t being met and they don’t feel that their old vendor really cares about them anymore. Still, it’s a risk for customers to shift their allegiance to a new vendor, even when they are dissatisfied. As the saying goes, the devil they know may be better than the devil they don’t know.

After all, they left your competition to come to you because your competition wasn’t living up to their expectations. Obviously, you haven’t quite lived up to their expectations either, or they wouldn’t be looking.

Managing expectations is the secret to strategic account management and client retention. Too often, a sales person will paint a picture that is rosier than reality to get the sale. When these lofty expectations aren’t met, the customer becomes dissatisfied and eventually comes to feel that the company doesn’t care about him or her.

You can prevent this through clear, up-front agreements about what is expected of one another, periodic meetings to seek out potential problems before they occur, and an escalation policy to prevent molehills from turning into mountains.

We have a lot of sales reps who seem to have great people skills, but they aren’t closers. How do I change this?

If there is one universal truth in sales, it is this: Time kills deals. The longer it takes to close a sale, the greater the likelihood that something will get in the way to prevent that deal from ever closing. Therefore, you absolutely have to reduce the selling cycle.

You evidently have two parts to your problem. When it comes to closing, you’ve got the technical side —how do you do it — and you’ve got the conceptual side, which relates to why people still won’t do it even when they know what to do.

On the conceptual side, I have found that only decision makers can get other people to make decisions. People who have trouble making decisions themselves will empathize with the prospect who wants to “think it over.” In the end, they often lose the deal.

To change this, you’re going to have to change the way your sales reps make their own personal buying decisions so that they don’t inhibit their ability to close sales in a business context. They also need to become comfortable hearing “no.”

On the technical side, you need to change your strategy for reaching mutual agreements with your prospects. The old tactical closes, such as the “assumptive” or “Ben Franklin” closes, no longer work. People don’t want to be sold. The minute a sales person attempts to “close” a sale, the prospect begins to feel controlled and manipulated, causing him or her to resist.

The secret to effective closing is to establish clear, up-front, mutual agreements at various checkpoints in the sales process, where a determination is made to either proceed or stop. Immediately prior to submitting the proposal or making a presentation, the prospect must agree to decide yes or no when the presentation is concluded. Both parties agree in advance that the prospect will make a decision. As a result, there are no surprises and, by knowing in advance that it’s OK to say no, no pressure.

With this agreement in place, halfway through the presentation, the sales person should stop and take the prospect’s temperature. It goes like this: “Mr. Prospect, based on what you’ve seen and heard so far, where are you on a scale of one of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning that you are ready to buy?” If the answer is a 6 or better, ask him what he needs to get to 10, then proceed along those lines. (If it’s a 6 or less, back up and ascertain what he is uncomfortable with.) Once he has reached 9 or 10, the close is very straightforward. Simply ask, “What would you like me to do now?” and allow the prospect to close himself.

Larry Lewis is president of Total Development Inc., a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm specializing in sales development and training. Send him your comments and questions via fax at (724)933-9224 or e-mail him at LTLewis@totaldevelopment.com. Reach him by phone at (724) 933-9110.