sylvain courcoux

internet entrepreneur

my blog

Sales: prospect, ask questions, and close

If you'd asked anyone when I was in my teens if some day I would become a salesperson, I think most people would have said "no way", including me. I remember that when I was in my teens, I was shy and introverted. In general, we have this stereotype that salespeople are suave outgoing people who just talk and frankly, I used to think that too. Until I had to learn how to sell.
I think the common perception is that personal selling is just about closing: we've all seen movie scenes where a salesperson makes a sale in 2 minutes and with this misperception in mind, it's easy to overlook everything else; and sales is more about "everything else" than the just the glamorous moment of the close. In fact, I'd say the most important aspect of personal sales is the preparation phase because unless you have a prospect you can talk to, there can be no sales presentation to begin with. Depending on each person's industry and company, either prospects come to you or you need to find prospects yourself. For instance, salespeople who work in retail usually have a stream of walk-in prospects, so the process of creating the sales opportunities falls back on the company's marketing team: they're in charge of creating branding and determining the products and services that will bring prospects to stores. But in many other industries, the burden of finding prospects falls upon the salespeople themselves, and that's hard, repetitive and boring work. I've trained salespeople and from my experience, most newcomers come into the business of personal selling thinking that prospects magically appear. In reality, the bulk of the work is about finding prospects, not closing sales presentations.
Have you ever walked in a clothing store and had a salesperson come and ask "Can I help you with anything?" I hate that and I think 80% of the time, most of us politely answer "no thanks, I'm just looking" and then leave without buying. Imagine all the hard work that marketing people put in only to have badly trained salespeople turn prospects away! And yet it happens all the time. If I were running a clothing store, I think I'd train my salespeople to look at the color of a person's clothes and ask something like "hey, is your favorite color X?" as a means of opening a conversation. Granted, my example question might not be the best but instead of starting by asking a yes/no question that usually ends up with a no answer, I'm pretty sure that question would create more selling opportunities than the over-user "Can I help you with anything" question. In sales, you want to ask questions that open conversations that in turn trigger purchasing thoughts. One day I was at an Ikea store and they had a huge selection of pillows stored on the wall. I think most people don't walk into an Ikea store thinking "I need to buy a pillow". What if instead Ikea hung a huge sign on the ceiling that said "How old is your pillow?" Now would that not trigger some people to think that their pillow is 5 years old and that it might be worth buying a new one? For some people, I think it would. In sales, you need to ask opening questions that create closing opportunities; and that takes preparation, training and experience.
One day, I was in sales training in the mortgage business. I went along a colleague and for at least 45 minutes the salesperson bombarded the prospect with a never-ending sales presentation. I could see that the prospect was bored and tuning out by the minute. On the other hand, as the salesperson was making his presentation, he looked pretty happy, probably thinking he was delivering an awesome presentation. Finally, when he was done, he left his business card and simply said "Ok, call me if you have any questions". Not a single opening question and not a single closing question but great presentation! That prospect never even had the opportunity to ask even a single question during the presentation, and then obviously never called back after. In sales, you need to ask opening questions and closing questions.
Not long ago, I was at Best Buy listening to a sales pitch: a salesperson was describing all the features of a TV. Obviously, the only reason these prospects were listening to a sales pitch is that they wanted to buy a TV, otherwise they would have not spent their time listening to the somewhat boring list of techie stuff. I wanted to grab the sales guy by the throat and tell him "ask them if they want to buy this freaking TV!!" But he never asked the closing question. Every sales presentation needs to escalate and trigger a closing question that moves the conversation into the closing phase. Now sometimes, it's not an objection that blocks the sale but a condition. For instance, I don't have any objections into buying a Ferrari, it's just a matter of a condition; and a good sales person should be able to identify sales conditions early in their sales presentations. But other than that, if you've answered every objection, then a closing question is what makes the sale happen. If the prospect agrees then you can move into the technical part of the close: asking for the signature on the dotted line. And if the prospect has an objection, you simply address it and close again. So, if you're making a sales presentation, make sure to remember to ask questions: opening questions and closing questions.