Making sure you get the sale

Sept. 13, 2010

By John Graham

Selling in a broad swath of industries is arguably more difficult today than at any time in the last half century. No matter what the optimists say, competition for customers is horrendous. Ask any salesperson. One said recently, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Along with everyone else, those in sales constantly look for signs of hope from the latest economic reports, whether the reports are relevant or not. Like everyone else, salespeople are faced with doing their jobs, whatever the economic conditions.

Hoping for a better tomorrow is the right attitude, but it takes more than hope to make sales. For that task, here are five concepts worth considering:

1. Challenge sales strategies. There’s hardly a week that goes by when someone isn’t tantalizing salespeople with what they call “the ultimate sales solution.” Whether it’s how to get in the door, get endless referrals, make powerful presentations, close the sale with one meeting, or connect with endless prospects, the list goes on and on.

Now, here’s the point: Salespeople are easy targets. Like beagles, they’re always sniffing around for a new approach. They’ll try just about anything that offers hope for making selling easier.

What they don’t do often enough is ask that one important question when they encounter the latest and greatest sales strategy or technique: “Does this really make sense? Or do I just want to believe that it will help me make more sales?”

For example, every salesperson knows that if a customer or prospect calls them, they have a far greater chance of making the sale than if they make the contact. Yet, how much time do salespeople spend chasing prospects rather than investing time in the activities that will result in getting more prospects and customers to contact them?

Challenging every sales strategy is time well spent.

2. Never start out by talking about the company, yourself, or your solution. Whether it’s a sales presentation or a first meeting, never make the fatal mistake of starting out by talking about your company.

Here’s an example: A marketing executive was invited to meet with key people of an insurance organization. The first words from the president were, “It’s your meeting, tell us what we should do.” Fortunately, he avoided the trap. No one today will listen to a talking head and then sign the order.

It may be helpful to think of sales meetings as seminar-type events, with the objective of getting the key players involved. You want to know what they’re thinking, what they want to accomplish, the problems they’re encountering, their opportunities, and the hurdles they must clear.

As you respond and help clarify their thinking, they can determine if you’re on target, responsive to their situation, or collegial in the way you work with customers. Ironically, when a sales meeting is the customer’s meeting, it becomes yours as well.

3. Keep your priorities straight. Today’s customers can detect, almost instantly, if a salesperson’s only goal is to do whatever it takes to make the sale. This sticks out like a sore thumb and is equally unpleasant, perhaps more so than before. Salespeople may not wear their emotions on their sleeves, but their intent is more than evident.

Every salesperson has the same objective. They want to get the business, the commission, and keep their job. Some want to qualify for an incentive trip. And there are those who are out to prove they’ve got what it takes.

Unfortunately, all of that often gets in the way and scuttles the chances of closing the sale. This happens when a salesperson attempts to figure out what the prospect will buy and settles for that instead of what the customer actually needs. They figure a quick sale is better than no sale at all. Get in and get out, at least with something. If that’s the idea, it’s dead wrong. The customer figures it out soon enough and never wants to see that salesperson again.

It takes time to gather information and prepare a proposal with thoughtful options. It takes time to discuss the options with the customers and listen to what they say. It takes time to show how one or two of the options may best align with the customer’s objectives. That’s keeping your priorities straight. That’s also what it takes to earn a customer’s trust and business.

4. Be the producer as well as the presenter. After making a presentation, a salesperson will often say to an associate, “How did I do?” The person often replies, “Terrific. Just great.” That’s the wrong person to ask. It’s the audience that counts.

Too many sales presentations fail because the focus is on the presenter instead of the participants. What do they look for in a presentation? What do they like and dislike in other salespeople? While it’s your presentation, they’re still the decision makers.

No one listens to a talking head. Studies show that attention spans are very short. Listeners become bored. The first time you see a Blackberry appear, you’re through. It’s a signal that your presentation is not going well.

Since the objective of a presentation is to move people to action to approve your proposal, your production will be much more compelling if the participants are involved. Here are three ways to achieve this goal:

• Use carefully crafted stories. Experience may not be the only teacher, but it’s certainly the best one if it involves stories that touch the emotions. Doug Nielsen, an insurance salesperson at Archibald Insurance Center in Rexburg, Idaho, is often asked why he’s so passionate about workplace safety. He replies, “Years ago, I was a foreman for a big printing company. One day, a new pressman’s arm was severed in a press accident. I was to blame because I hadn’t trained him properly.” Doug never has trouble getting business owners, managers, and workers to listen to what he has to say. He speaks with authority.

• Forget about paper presentations. You might as well give everyone the sports section of the newspaper to read or a movie to watch. Keep them focused on you by saving the paper until the end.

• Change the way you use PowerPoint. Follow Steve Jobs’ lead and have a few slides with a word or two accompanied with great graphics and a few video clips that illustrate your message.

The success or failure of a sales presentation is never out of your hands. You’re the producer, so it’s your show. No matter the conditions or circumstances, you must come through.

5. The action step. You want feedback from the participants. In other words, you want them to tell you what they tell each other after you’re gone. To do this, ask: Does this solution meet your expectations? What are its strengths? How can it be improved? What did you like or dislike? What wasn’t clear? What did you like best?

Not only do you want to have the last word, but you also want to gather feedback so you’re prepared to revise your proposal, if necessary. Without it, your proposal is in danger.

A feedback discussion also sends a powerful message to the participants. It says that you’re open, you really want to know what they’re thinking, and you want your proposal to be right for them.

Remember, your competition in a sales meeting isn’t just other presenters. It’s what the people listening to you have on their minds. One may be thinking about a customer crisis, while others may be preoccupied with an argument with a spouse, a job-related problem, a financial concern, or a sick kid. You’re competing with all of this! You don’t have anyone’s undivided attention. It’s your job to make a successful sales presentation in spite of it all.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He writes for a variety of business publications and speaks on business, marketing, and sales issues. Contact him at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170, 617-328-0069, or [email protected]. His blog is, and his Web site is