Back in February, I posted briefly on one of the most overlooked selling skills: how to make a great first impression. The tips I gave then are still valid, but the sales meeting isn’t going to accomplish much if all you’re trying to do is create a first impression. So I wanted to write a little about getting the sales conversation started.
At your meeting, after the small talk is over, the customer will expect you to get down to business. At this point, many sales professionals stop exercising their selling skills. They pull out the briefing book or bring up the PowerPoint and launch themselves into "Who we are and what we can do for you."
But think about it for a moment. If the customer already knows who you are, it’s likely she has an idea of what you can for her. And if she doesn’t know who you are, she probably doesn’t care. Her mind is on her needs. Unless it is focused on her needs (from the first slide!), your canned presentation is not going to start the sales conversation. So exercise your selling skills: start the conversation first, then bring in the presentation when the customer asks for it, if at all.
One of the least appreciated selling skills is mastery of the opener formula. Notice I said “formula,” not “script.” Trying to script a conversation can be dangerous. It can make you come off as wooden or robotic, and it can restrict your ability to respond to unexpected developments.
Exercise your selling skills by starting the sales conversation with this formula:
P --> I --> B
Purpose. The “P” stands for purpose. In this step of the formula, you tell the prospect why you think you are there: “I have been studying the problems of this industry, and I am prepared to discuss ___________________.” You have already been applying your selling skills before the meeting, so fill in the blank with your well-researched understanding of the need you are there to fill:
- "the logistical problems of long-haul shipping"
- "the unpredictable costs of business travel in your busiest season"
- "the challenges in a fast growing business of getting all employees on the same page with the organization’s mission."
Invitation. The “I” stands for invitation. In this step of the formula, you exercise the most critical of your selling skills: you invite the prospect to talk. “But if you could give me your thoughts on it first...” Say it any way you want, but make sure the customer understands you are there to get his perspective. In terms of the sales conversation, his perspective matters a lot more than yours.
Benefit. The “B” stands for benefit. In the final step of the formula, you make use of your selling skills by offering the customer a benefit for answering. What benefit? The benefit of getting her need met: “We can focus on what’s important to you.”
So here’s what the opener looks like when your selling skills have put it all together:
“I have been studying the problems of this industry, and I am prepared to discuss __________________. But if you could give me your thoughts on it first, we can focus on what’s important to you.”
You can phrase it any way you want that makes sense. Part of your portfolio of selling skills is the precise way in which you apply the formula to a particular customer at a particular company in a particular industry.
Your most important selling skills are listening skills, and most of your strategy for a sales meeting should center on getting the customer to talk. As long as the customer is talking and you’re listening, you’re building a relationship. And as long as the customer is talking and you’re listening, you’re learning about the customer’s needs, which is the first step to filling them.
Learning how to apply this formula in specific cases is one of the most critical selling skills and an element of our sales training. It’s one of the things taught in Communispond’s Socratic Selling Skills®<link to: http://www.communispond.com/modules/solutions/sss.aspx>, part of our Sales Performance Solutions. So if you enroll in a Communispond sales training course, be prepared to learn a formula for opening the sales conversation: purpose, invitation, benefit.
Here's another good reason not to tell your customer every feature and benefit your product has before you've found out what they really need. By holding back some information, you may discover hidden treasure.
"Hidden treasure" can be features of your product or service that are not top priorities to the customer, but can add value during negotiations. If Saturday delivery is something you can offer, but hasn’t come up until now, offer it and see how they respond.
Frequently the customer has to feel that they’re getting a concession from you. By offering something you know you can do without any added cost, the customer feels they’re getting added value.
Does your audience overvalue advice when the problem is critical, and undervalue it when they don't see a threat? According to Harvard Business Review, that’s not unusual.
Research by Francesca Gino shows that decision makers overvalue advice when a problem is hard, and undervalue it when the solution seems clear. They also tend to overvalue advice from external consultants versus internal stakeholders.
What does this mean to us as presenters?
Does your audience truly understand the gravity of the situation you’re trying to address?
Have you established your credibility to speak to the issue under discussion?
Do you know the stakes for your audience?
Making yourself a resource to decision makers is a vital step to project (and career) success.
Listening skills are critical in every phase of your business, but there's a place where they have a dramatic effect on the bottom line: sales. Selling is not simple, but it is governed by a simple law: other things being equal, the sales professional who listens best sells the most.
But it's not enough to have good listening skills. You have to be good at getting the customer to give you something to apply those skills to.
How do you get the customer to talk so you can exercise your listening skills? Ask questions. But note that there are different kinds of questions, and you need to ask questions that will elicit substantive answers - answers you can follow up on, answers you can probe.
In a sales meeting, the kind of question least likely to put your listening skills to work is the closed question:
Are you concerned about costs?
That may sound like a substantive question, but consider this: the customer can answer "yes" or "no". Any question that gives the other person a simple choice for an answer is a closed question. And that answer stops the conversational process and gives you no opportunity to put your listening skills to work.
If a closed question gives the customer a choice of answers, an open question gives the customer an opportunity to provide information. Is there a way to convert the closed question above to an open question? Just think about how you could begin it with "what", "why", "how", or "give me an example". Then you'll get a response you can use your listening skills on:
How have you been managing cost issues?
It seems like the same question. But instead of a simple one-word answer, this question is likely to elicit at least a sentence, or maybe a paragraph. And when the customer answers with a sentence or a paragraph, you can take notes, play back information, summarize, or reflect feeling. In other words, you can exercise your listening skills.
The Communispond solution, Socratic Selling Skills, applies universally proven dialogue techniques to effectively maximize sales productivity. It teaches sales professionals to listen - really listen - to customers. But before you can exercise your listening skills, you must initiate the dialogue. And for that, you need an open question. Think about that before your next sales meeting. Go through the questions you want to ask the customer and figure out which of them are closed and which are open. Every closed question is a missed an opportunity to use your listening skills. Convert it to an open question with "what", "why", "how", "give me an example", or something else of your own devising.
When customers want to know how you'll back up the claims you make, they want compelling evidence. Remember, not every customer is swayed in the same way. Here are the 5 most common kinds of evidence:
Data: statistics and numbers
Relevant case studies
Images and pictures of the product in use
Not everyone is persuaded by the same methods. Listen to the questions your customer asks and use them to guide you.
An audience's willingness to act on your recommendations frequently depends on the degree of change you're recommending. In other words, your audience's response hinges on how crucial your audience thinks the problem is and how dire the consequences.
The three degrees of change are:
"We could be doing this better." Things are working, but things could be improved. This is hard to get people to buy into because it requires change, and the advantages of your recommendation aren’t always clear.
"If we don’t fix this, we’re in trouble." The problem is now apparent, and the consequences of not taking action are obvious. This is often the easiest to get people to buy into, although it elevates the stress level and can complicate implementation.
"It’s a major crisis." The problem is big, and we’re already suffering the consequences. By this time, options may be limited and people aren’t thinking clearly, but they have to do something. If you’re going to get people to take action, how you approach them will depend on the degree of change you’re asking them to make.
Here's an unlikely tip for effective communication: if you want to be heard more clearly in conversation, listen harder.
Normal American conversational speech is about 125 words a minute. Normal comprehension, on the other hand, can occur at 400 to 500 words a minute. That means you are capable of listening at a rate four to five times faster than the other person can speak. Given the amount of unused capacity you have on the “listening” side of a conversation, your mind tends to wander or you think about what you’re going to say next. If both people in the conversation are spending their “listening” time daydreaming or thinking of the next point they want to make, the likelihood of effective communication is small.
Active listening is a set of techniques designed to focus your attention on the content of the other person’s speech and increase the likelihood of effective communication. These techniques consist of
- Playing back what you’ve heard
- Reflecting emotion
- Taking notes.
Active listening creates more effective communication, not just because it leads to better, more efficient information exchange. It also raises receptivity in your conversation partner.
When you raise the other person’s receptivity, you dramatically increase the chance that person will understand whatever point you’re trying to make. Hence my tip for effective communication: listen harder.
The acid test for this tip is your company’s call center. We have found that training call center professionals for effective communication is one of the most challenging – and rewarding – of jobs. Call center professionals spend most of their workday fielding angry questions from frustrated customers. And, to the extent that satisfied customers are a business organization’s most critical asset, the call center operators’ skill is critical to the success of the business. Our Call Center: Solving Customers’ Problems™ program teaches a structured approach that incorporates active listening techniques.
We have found that training call center professionals to probe for customers’ issues and use active listening skills to defuse customer frustration enables them to control customer dialogue. This speeds their success, increases their confidence, and bolsters their job satisfaction. Now that is effective communication!
Many sales people have been trained to "assume the close". When discussing a future opportunity with the customer, a salesperson may ask, "How can (our company) be part of your budget next year?" This invites the customer to slam the door on the presumptuous salesperson and say, "You can't."
Early in a conversation, try asking neutral, conditional questions that help you understand what the customer is thinking without putting undue pressure on them. "How do you see spending your budget next year?" That will reveal the customer’s priorities, while keeping the focus on their needs, not yours.
Nobel Prize Winner Linus Pauling had this advice for his students: "The key to creativity is to have lots and lots of ideas, then throw away the bad ones."
Whether you're trying to break new ground in biochemistry or update the project team, take the time to brainstorm and generate lots of ideas before creating your presentation, then throw out the ideas that don't work. It's a whole lot easier than trying to get the only idea you've got to come out coherently.
I have written before about storytelling as one of your essential presentation skills. In this post, I want to tell you a little about why storytelling is so powerful.
Consider the brain of someone in your audience. Neuroscience research tells us a bullet point on one of your slides activates the two areas of that brain that are dedicated to language processing. Even the most lackluster presentation skills can light up these two areas of your audience member’s brain.
But when you tell a story, you activate other areas of the brain, namely, the areas that would activate if your audience member were actually experiencing the events of the story you’re telling. The brain, in other words, reacts to a story as if it were a simulation of reality. The more detailed, colorful, and pointed the story, the more of the brain that is engaged by it. With a good story, your presentation skills make your remarks more than communicative; they make your presentation immersive. So let me tell you a story...
Steve Jobs began his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005 by saying, “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.” If you want some quick presentation skills training, watch his commencement speech on Youtube, where there are a half dozen versions that have been viewed over 25 million times. Note how his stories are perfectly calibrated to the needs of an audience of young graduates.
Jobs’s speech makes three points, and he might have communicated them more efficiently by putting them on a slide, in bullet points. But Jobs was one of the great presenters of the age, and he knew when to use bullet points and when to use stories. I have to level with you. I can’t really endorse his presentation skills in that commencement speech. He read his speech to the audience, which is something I would advise you never to do. But he could get away with reading his speech because his stories were immersive! When you hear them, you can imagine Steve Jobs at three different stages of his life. Even better, you can imagine what it was like to be him as he struggled with three different crises.
So how do you pick an effective story for your presentation? Of course, you need to be able to relate the story to the point you are trying to make, and that requires imagination. Next, you need to choose a protagonist the audience can identify with. It doesn’t have to be you; it just has to be someone who is believably human. Finally, the story has to be about this protagonist struggling with a crisis of some sort. Our world is full of stories. If you learn to follow those three steps for recognizing the ones you can use, you will have mastered one of the essential presentation skills: storytelling.