It Takes Two (Essential Sales Skills) to Build the Relationship
Many things go into winning a sale ˇX the fit of your solution, your sales strategy, how clearly you articulate value, your pricing, and so on. While all these factors impact a customerˇ¦s decision to buy, Aberdeen, an independent research firm, in its study with 500 best-in-class companies, identified the relationship between the customer and salesperson as the #1 reason why a customer buys from a particular salesperson. It boils down to how the customer feels, i.e., trust and relates to the salesperson. Successful salespeople have known this for a long time, but finally there is hard data to confirm it. Aberdeen also found that core selling skills and improving the sales conversation represented the most significant area for improving sales results. The study affirmed how important a salespersonˇ¦s ˇ§in the momentˇ¨ dialogue with a customer is and how essential it is to use that time connecting to forge the relationship. In many situations without that bond, with other factors fairly equal, a salesperson isnˇ¦t likely to win the deal. In the go-go years when the economy was booming, ˇ§relationshipsˇ¨ were put on a back burner. As one sales manager phrased it, ˇ§Relationships were something that slowed you down.ˇ¨ Today, nothing is further from the truth. The self-reflect questions are: What is my relationship quotient? What can I do to make sure my skills are a competitive advantage in connecting for me? How well am I using ˇ§in the momentˇ¨ time with customers to connect and make customers want to buy from me? The critical dialogue skills that we at Richardson have identified are Presence, Relating, Questioning, Listening, Positioning, and Checking. While all of these skills merit the name critical, the two skills that stand out as the relationship builders are Relating and Questioning. Relating and Questioning are both personal and business connector skills. Surely if you are in sales today, you are saying to yourself you already know how to relate to customers and you certainly know how to ask questions. The fact is that today being good isnˇ¦t good enough. The bar has been raised because customers know more and demand more. So letˇ¦s look at each of these skills. Relating Relating is a skill many salespeople take for granted. Itˇ¦s easy to assume relating to someone comes naturally ˇX you click or you donˇ¦t. Youˇ¦re in sales because you like people, and so on. You have the opportunity to relate to your customers on two levels: personal and business. Personal rapport is established by a combination of things including your presence and dress, which helps customers initially identify with you, personal interest you show, common areas of interest, things that appeal to their personal drivers, and so on. Business rapport is established through things such as professional identification (membership in an association), similar professional backgrounds or education, or providing industry color. Both help you connect with customers. The opportunity to connect on a personal level is often thought of as happening at the start of a sales call where rapport building is normally slotted, but there are opportunities to relate throughout the sales calls by listening for personal connection cues. The internet is changing how customers buy. Often by the time the salesperson is in the picture customers have done extensive research and are down the decision path. Most salespeople know this means they must be much more prepared and that they need to provide insight beyond product knowledge. But although most salespeople are preparing more extensively, most still donˇ¦t prepare for rapport building. Just as customers leverage the internet, salespeople can do so too in preparing for rapport building. Social networking sources such as LinkedIn not only provide referrals but also a wealth of information about prospects and customers. One of the best ways to build personal rapport is to ask personal rapport questions, for example: ˇ§Congratulations on receiving the award. What an honor! When did you become involved with this charity? Itˇ¦s best to start rapport building with personal rapport, and if there is time, move on to business rapport, for example: ˇ§I read your blog on your companyˇ¦s website and found ˇK really eye-opening. When did the company transition to ˇK?ˇ¨ Personal rapport almost always trumps business rapport as a connector. So if there is just time for one, go with personal, but rapport cues that you pick up ˇ§in the moment,ˇ¨ such as new photographs on your customerˇ¦s desk or a class picture on a prospectˇ¦s wall, almost always will take precedence over anything youˇ¦ve prepared. However, donˇ¦t depend on spontaneous cues being there when you need them. While the opening of a call is a key time to establish rapport, there are other opportunities to strengthen rapport, for example: Customer: ˇ§The X you mentioned is something I studied at Penn.ˇ¨ Salesperson: ˇ§Oh you went to Penn, I didnˇ¦t realize that. What were you studying there?ˇ¨ (Of course with sources such as LinkedIn, today the salesperson would know this.) Use personal rapport as book ends for the call. Start with it and end with it, for example: ˇ§Thank you again. See you on the third. John went to Penn too and heˇ¦ll be very interested to know he shares an alma mater with you.ˇ¨ Relating is the vestibule to the relationship. Prepare for it. Pay attention to it. Donˇ¦t squander opportunities to connect so that your customers prefer to buy from you. Questioning What salesperson hasnˇ¦t been schooled in the importance of asking questions? The question is, how effective are you at questioning? Whether itˇ¦s because salespeople believe their customers are too busy and/or donˇ¦t want to be asked questions, they see their role as the ˇ§expertˇ¨ who is expected to provide answers even today, or they feel they are expected to come in with a ˇ§provocativeˇ¨ idea, many salespeople donˇ¦t ask enough questions ˇX or the best questions. Customers donˇ¦t want to be asked questions they feel you should have researched, and with resources available on the internet and CRMs, research has never been easier. Customers also want salespeople to understand their needs and add value. They are keenly aware that for salespeople to add value, they must probe to get at information not found through research. Research gets you ready to probe. It does not eliminate your need to gather information during the sales dialogue. Think about the questions you ask and the flow of the question. Do you have a structure for how you will ask questions? A questioning structure helps you harness and maximize your product knowledge, your experience, and your personal style. When questions are scattered, sales conversations are scattered and so is the impression you make. The Explore Model (The Explore Model excerpt from Perfect Selling by Linda Richardson, McGraw-Hill ˇX 2008) gives you a way to organize your questions and maximize your time. The Explore Model has four parts or actions: „X Action 1: Start with an Objective Question(s)and Drill Down Technical questions lead to technical dialogues. Strategic questions lead to strategic dialogues. Both kinds of dialogues are needed but it is essential to begin with strategic questions to get the big picture and position yourself as someone who will solve business problems vs. being perceived as a product provider. Use the word ˇ§Objectiveˇ¨ in your first question. Example Salesperson: ˇ§You mentioned in our phone call wanting to update your system. So I can focus on what is most important to you, may I ask your objectives for updating the system?ˇ¨ (not ˇ§Tell me about your current system?ˇ¨ or ˇ§What are you looking for in the new system?ˇ¨) Acknowledge broad words and drill down, often with two or three drill-down questions, to get the critical information you need to develop a compelling solution. Drill-down Example Salesperson: ˇ§With your change in strategy, I understand how security issues are more of a priority. When you mention security across diverse business, can you tell me more about that?ˇ¨ „X Action 2: Current Situation With a full understanding of a customerˇ¦s objectives, move on to your current situation questions. Follow that by asking about the customerˇ¦s level of satisfaction with the current situation and then ask what the customer wants to change. And, of course, probe for details or ask, ˇ§Why?ˇ¨ when you get vague or general answers. Example Salesperson: ˇ§What system are you currently using in ˇK?ˇ¨ or ˇ§How would you describe your current system ˇK?ˇ¨ and then find out ˇ§What is working well ˇK?ˇ¨ ˇ§What would you like to see changed ˇK?ˇ¨ „X Action 3: Technical Questions With a clear picture of the customerˇ¦s objectives and current situation, probe to gain the technical information you need. Example ˇV You mentioned ˇK What type of ˇK, How manyˇK, How often ˇK? How does ˇK work now? What capabilities are important to you in ˇK? What is working? What would you like to see changed? „X Action 4: Future and Personal Needs Take a moment to explore future needs so that you can further differentiate your solution. Example Salesperson: ˇ§May I ask what future needs or changes you anticipate so that we may take that into consideration in our recommendations?ˇ¨ It takes sensitivity and attentive listening skills to pick up cues to understand your customerˇ¦s personal drivers. Listen for cues, use acknowledgment, and probe. Cues about personal needs can come up anywhere in the conversation in comments, tone of voice, or word emphasis. Example Customer: ˇ§Our president is focusing on this and I have a lot riding on the outcome.ˇ¨ Salesperson: ˇ§I know how important this initiative is to you and that it has high visibility. We want to make this a success. May I ask whatˇ¦s key for you in the outcome? Or if you have a closer relationship, Iˇ¦d like to understand when you say ˇĄa lot riding on it.ˇ¦ˇ¨ As you Explore, you likely will learn about essential closing details, for example about the customerˇ¦s decision process, time frames, compelling event, and budget. If not, asks questions to gather this information. Example Budget: ˇ§Once you review this, who will be involved in the decision process?ˇ¨ Summary Almost nothing you do has the potential to increase your sales results as much as your improving the sales conversation you have with your customers. It bears repeating: The Relationship is the #1 reason why your customers buy from you. Relating and Questioning skills are strong connectors to help you win more sales.