Telling Isn’t Selling

Knowing your product catalogue verbatim is not enough to make you a top producer. Knowing the buyer pains your products resolve and the gains they facilitate will get you there. This is needs-based selling.

Espousing your products’ features and benefits is educational and sounds impressive, but it is not selling. This approach is severely limited in its ability to get a yes. Brochures, web sites, and catalogues can do the education. The seller’s role is that of Helper.

Buyers need help in two specific areas. First is working through the logical exercise of “shopping” — that is, narrowing down the list of options to the best two or three.

Second, and most importantly, they need assistance navigating the actual purchase. The moment of saying yes to one provider over the others can be a turbulent time. The best sellers hop in the navigator’s seat and help the buyer find their way.

Fear of making a mistake (“Is this the best option?”), loss (“Am I overpaying?”), and impacts (“Will others in the organization like my choice?”) all weigh on your buyer’s mind. A poor decision can cost a small business thousands, a corporate buyer her job.

Needs-based selling is an effective way to help your buyer work through their purchase decision. When it’s done well, the buyer gets what they want — the best purchase decision for them. And, you also get what you want — a long-term relationship with a buyer who most often chooses you.

Needs-based selling differs from traditional sales approaches in several ways.

Let’s use the example of two Chartered Accountants working to make partner. Successful client acquisition shows their worth. Bill is more traditional when it comes to his selling. Anne takes a needs-based approach.

When asked by a prospective client, “Why should we select your firm?”, Bill responds with a deep dive on the 40 years the firm has been in business, its A list of clients, and its track record of great work. He is clearly passionate about the firm.

Anne is passionate, too, but takes a different path. She says, “I’m not sure why you would choose us. Let’s talk about what your needs are around accounting services. What pains are you facing with your current provider? What gains are you looking to realize by switching to a new firm? Once we know that, we can see if we are the best choice for you.”

Anne is inviting a dialogue, the focus of which is the client and their needs. What is causing them pain? What gains are they after? Anne knows that if she can’t relieve their pains and deliver the desired gains, the firm’s number of years in business and A list of clients are meaningless factoids.

When asked about the firm’s client management, Bill gets excited. He has many examples of above-and-beyond service that show how the firm shines.

Anne gets excited, too, but she doesn’t want to risk sidetracking the needs conversation with a solution conversation. It’s too early for that.

Again, she defaults to a question. “We have an excellent approach to client management which I would happy to tell you all about. First, though, tell me what you are looking for. What client management approach would meet your needs?”

And so it goes. Bill cares deeply about his clients and sincerely wants to help. Ironically, because he is spending so much time talking about the firm he is not being as helpful as he could.

Anne’s approach is helpful because she focuses first on diagnosing her buyer’s needs. Then and only then does she present her prescription (the firm and all it has to offer). She clearly connects each buyer need to the firm’s capability to meet it. This clarity helps her buyers make the best decision for them.

Needs-based selling says “diagnose needs first, prescribe solutions second.” Traditional selling reverses this. Why is needs-based selling superior? Because prescription before diagnosis is malpractice.

Push Softer

Being a revenue-generating sales machine is tough work. After running in high gear for the first 11 months of the year, why not take the last one and enjoy the ride? I know it is year end, every sale counts, and it’s time to push a little harder, right? In fact, when deadlines loom and it’s down to the wire, the strongest finishers pushsofter.  They push softer by getting more strategic.

In the month of December, many businesses slow considerably. Some even shut down completely. Skeleton staffing is the norm. Take cues from your customers. If you have not booked off yourself, take time to create business development plans for the new year by doing what Mike Desjardins of ViRTUS Inc. calls “Mindstorming.” (To read Mike’s full article on this topic, go to

Mindstorming is like brain storming with one distinct difference — you do it on your own. Call it reflecting, ruminating, or good, old-fashioned daydreaming. With work-a-day static and interference eliminated, tune into the needs of your existing customers. They represent the biggest revenue opportunity in your portfolio for next year.

Revenue from existing customers is great! It is the easiest to acquire. They know you and love you already. Your contact base is strong there. You are halfway to a close before you even start selling!

Here are a few thoughts to chase towards identifying where that “10% growth from existing customers” your boss wants will come from:

  • Which departments within your customer’s company are you not selling to that you should be? The key here is to think laterally. For instance, if you are selling transportation services, why might you spend time talking to customer service? Faster transit times and better package tracking lead to fewer inbound customer service calls, that’s why. Each of these calls costs money to handle. Customer service cares about your story and may help you secure more business within that account. Plan to call them.
  • What problems does your buyer face that your products or services do not currently resolve, but would with some tweaking? Be innovative. Think out of the box. Then, talk to your engineering department. You just might create a whole new revenue stream in the process.
  • With which senior-level folks within your client’s organization is your current relationship merely arm’s length? Create a plan to cozy up to them. Senior executives exist to create the vision for the company’s improved future. Help make that future a reality by learning their needs and finding ways to contribute.
  • Find out which division of your customer’s company is below their performance plan this year. Noodle through how you can help them turn this around for next year. In business, anything short of achieving the plan is negative, and your contacts will be highly motivated — read “willing to spend money” to rectify the situation.

Make your new business development plans for the coming year when things are quiet in the holiday season. Go ahead, push softer. Happy Holidays!

Selling With One Hand Tied Behind Your Back

The Internet era has revolutionized our communication. It has revolutionized the way many people sell, too, and not for the better. When you sell using email and the like, you are selling with one hand tied behind your back. This is not the position you want to be in for any competitive situation.

The statistics related to communication effectiveness are well known. Ten percent or so of our message is conveyed by the words we use. The remainder is relayed by our tone and body language. Email limits our communication and thus sales effectiveness proportionately.

Email can be a nice solution to large geographic territories, the expectation of instantaneous response, and the navigation of time zones. It can be a handy way to convey data and facts (e.g., “To confirm, we are set to meet next Tuesday morning at nine.”) Beyond that, it has profound limitations, the most dangerous being that it is an unemotional one-way medium.

When an email is sent (e.g., “Attached is our proposal; please let me know what you think”), there is no way to tell how the receiver truly feels about its contents at the moment it is received. This is dangerous because although your customers shop logically, they buy emotionally. Selling by email helps your buyer to shop, but not to buy (your products or services, that is).

When you sell by email you can’t help your buyers in their moments of need. This will result in fewer closes as they go with the company that takes the time to talk to them.

Your job is to make a human connection with buyers and help them navigate the yes/no decision regarding their deal. Selling by email says to the buyer, “You are on your own,” regardless of the actual verbiage contained within the message.

When put in this position, most buyers will commoditize your offering and simply rank it by price and features versus the other “bids.” They may assess the value your offering brings, but they will use their own yardstick, not yours. If they have any misunderstandings, misinformation, or knowledge gaps, those will remain unaddressed.

How your buyer perceives the value of your offering is critical to your success. Price is more elastic when the perception of value is high. Profit is thus similarly affected. Small differences in features (e.g., your model does not come in red) are more easily overlooked by buyers when they are clear on how the value you can bring matches their needs.

Helping a buyer see how your offering will meet their needs and deliver value is an iterative process requiring two-way communication. Sellers who rely on email short circuit this process and lose more deals than they win.

Email is hurting your sales effectiveness if you are…

Emailing out your quotes or proposals: This is a sales killer. Your buyer needs help interpreting your quote. Misinterpretation may make the competition’s quote look much better. Help your buyer choose you by presenting your quote person to person (by phone or face to face).

Responding to buyer objections by email: Even if the buyer communicates an objection by email, phone them back to stop this exchange before it ever gets started. Handling objections requires questions and conversation (“I understand your concerns. Can you tell me what’s behind them?”). Conducted over email, such an exchange will suck the life out of your sale.

Negotiating price over email: If you weren’t commoditized by this point, you surely will be afterward. Pick up the phone or hop in the car for this sensitive conversation.

So, analyze your sales process. Pick the sales junctures at which person-to-person selling is a must and endeavor to make those interactions happen. In so doing you will ensure you can engage in hands-on conversational selling, rather hands-off ‘sales by email’. With both hands freed from behind your back, you will be infinitely more effective.

The Holiday Contagion

From a November point of view, many salespeople anticipate December as a tough sales month, what with the impending holidays. Why is it, then, that some salespeople are able to make it a great month while these salespeople flounder? Those who succeed know that December is an opportune time to get a “yes” to their deals. They know the secret of contagious Holiday emotions.

In his seminal book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman talks about the contagious nature of emotions. For the full month of December, your buyer is awash in a Petri dish of positive emotions. Holiday advertising, party planning, and in-office decorations are all around. Astute salespeople use this naturally-occurring phenomenon to help set the stage for a great January. They employ this simple strategy to move their deals forward:

  • Be diligent in mailing out personalized holiday cards (non-denominational ones are best) early, so they land on buyers’ desks for December 1st. Most salespeople send out holiday cards anyway, but doing it early gets you pleasantly top of mind with your buyers.
  • Next, consider the buyer[s] you want to meet with and ask yourself, “Would this person prefer an off-site ‘eggnog’ meeting or holiday lunch, or is December a busy time for them, in which case a 15-minute ‘to-the-point’ meeting would be best?”
  • Then call in the first few days of the month to request a December meeting with each buyer.
  • Position the meeting based on each buyer’s anticipated preference. This sounds like “December is a nice time to get out of the office for an eggnog latte,” or “I know you are swamped in December; I think we can accomplish what we need to in 15 minutes or so.”
  • During the meeting, focus only on securing a “yes” to moving the deal forward to the next logical place in the sales process, and no further.
  • To maintain momentum, book a next meeting for January (for many buyers this is back-to-business time) to iron out the more intricate details around implementing or moving the deal forward.
  • If time allows, settle in and use the rest of the meeting to build your personal relationship with that buyer.

Buyers hesitate to meet, and buy, in December because it is a bad month to implement anything new. Wise salespeople address this hesitation by proposing a limited agenda when requesting buyer meetings. In fact, they break the sale into two parts.

They say, “I know December is a tough time to implement new things. Can we talk about what moving forward might look like in general terms? We can set a follow-up meeting in January to discuss the fine-detail stuff.”

In other words, they suggest dealing with the easy part (the decision to buy) now, and the harder part (implementation details) later. And, they make this request when their buyers are in the splash zone of contagious holiday emotions.

December is a fun time to maintain sales momentum. Remember, a great December sales month looks like a fully booked January!

Three Levels Down

If you want to sell more, more often, dig deep to unearth your buyer’s needs.

Generally stated Buyer needs are the problems your Buyer wants to resolve, and the resulting improved situation they desire. You knew that already, right? Where to from here?

For each sales opportunity there are in fact three levels of buyer needs to drill down into:

Level 1 needs: These are the basic needs your product or service meets by virtue of its features. For example if you sell industrial lighting, then illuminating a poorly lit work space is the Level 1 buyer need you meet.

Level 2 needs: These are the specific problems your buyer is facing as a result of his Level 1 need remaining un-met. In our lighting example your buyer is working in a dark space. His Level 1 need is illumination. His Level 2 need is the Pain(s) associated with the resultant poor quality work done due to the darkness.

Level 3 needs: This is the improved situation your buyer desires by fixing his problem situation. It can also be an overall improved situation he desires that is loosely connected with fixing his problems. In a word, Gains. In our lighting example the buyer’s Level 1 need is illumination, his Level 2 Need is to do good quality work, and his Level 3 Need is to do good quality work on this project and thus maintain his reputation as a quality home renovation contractor.

Navigating your sale down to Level 3 needs helps you sell more, more often, because of an interesting buyer phenomenon. That is that buyers will shop to meet their Level 1 needs, will make that purchase to meet their Level 2 needs, but will spend more money on that purchase if they can see that their Level 3 needs are also being met. This is because Level 3 needs are higher order needs. They represent the value the buyer is looking to realize by meeting his Level 2 needs. Buyers who recognize value are generally willing to pay for it.

If your goal is to merely meet your buyers Level 1 and Level 2 needs you will have satisfied, but not excited, buyers. You will also have buyers who are only willing to spend the minimum to meet those needs.

For our home renovation contractor, illuminating his dark work space is satisfying for him. Having a great reputation, being hired back, referred to others, and making more money? That’s exciting to him.

That’s Level 3 stuff.