The winning edge

The winning edge
Paying attention to three basic steps can help you win more business

By Marcia Gauger, for SBT

Question: Lately, I’ve been losing sales and I don’t know why. Some are being lost to competitive situations while others just drop off my hit list for reasons that I am unsure of. Do you have any suggestions for increasing my effectiveness with potential business?

Answer: The first step to overcoming your predicament is to understand why you are losing sales. Ask customers specific questions before the sale is finalized to uncover what they will base their decisions on and, if competition is involved, what they like best about the competition. Then, make corrections.
If you have already lost the sale, go back to the customer and ask what the final decision was based on. Check your attitude before you do this. Make sure you are willing to listen and make corrections based on the customer’s recommendation. Don’t get defensive or try to prove your point; it’s simply a learning experience at this point.
You are right to keep what you refer to as a "hit list." I would define this as a list of potential businesses that you have identified, qualified and are actively working. Let’s break these three steps down further.

Identify the business – A hit list should not be a laundry list of every conceivable business in your target area. The customers that you identify should be viable potential customers, a good fit both from a product standpoint and what I refer to as "personality traits."
Those traits are those attributes that go beyond whether or not they can use your product or service.
The traits refer to attributes that make potential customers a good fit to work with. For instance, are they easy to do business with? Do they fit your plan for growth? Will they take time away from developing business that is more fruitful?
Once you know what your best customers look like, actively seek them out by attending meetings that they attend, getting lists from manufacturing groups and then by actively making contact.

Qualify the business – There are a number of steps to take to qualify your business.
1) Make sure you understand the implied and unspoken needs of the customer. Sales are often lost because there are gaps between what the customer expects and what the salesperson thinks they want.
You may be losing sales simply because the competition more closely understands the customer’s needs. Ask good open-ended questions that help the customer predict the future. For instance, you may ask something like, "If you decide to go ahead with our recommendation, how will you evaluate the success of the program?" Then, frame your recommendations based on the responses you receive.
2) Complete a checklist prior to the first sales call. Develop a list of questions of what you need to know about a customer to sell to that business. Use it as a checklist to determine what you know about the customer and what you need to find out. Develop questions prior to the sales call to help fill in the gaps.
3) Assess your competition. Don’t be afraid to ask the customer who they are considering besides yourself.
Once you know who your competition is, evaluate how you have stacked up to that firm in the past. Ask yourself some hard questions like, "What are my strengths/weaknesses compared to the competition?" "What does the customer like about the competition?"
Use the information you gain to emphasize your strengths when you deliver your proposal and make your specific recommendations. Don’t guess at this information. If you don’t know, ask!

Work for the business – Just because a potential customer is on your list or you have submitted a proposal doesn’t mean that the prospect will turn into a customer. You need to stay in front of the client.
Research issues affecting the customer and send the customer a copy.
National averages show that it takes at least five contacts to make a sale. Only 10% of all salespeople make more than five calls and 60% make only one call to the same account. So, just by being more active in the account, you will gain business over your competition.

— Sell to all of the influencers. An influencer is anyone who can affect whether or not you get the sale. Such people may be obvious or they may not.
Think in terms of who will be affected by the decision to buy your product or service. Who will release funds for the sale and who will make judgments or recommendations?
Then, make sure you sell each the value that is important to them. Don’t assume that because your relationship is good with one buyer that it’s good with all.

— Be persistent but not pushy. Make sure you stay in front of the customer. This doesn’t always mean face to face.

— Recognize buying signs. Do you know what buying signs are? If a customer leans forward, it’s a buying sign and an opportunity to close. If the customer asks specific questions, that’s an opportunity to close with a line such as, "How soon could we take delivery if we decide to go ahead?"

— Clarify stalls. Stalls are dangerous because they tend to look like the truth even though they usually aren’t. Typical stalls include; "We’ll look over your proposal and get back to you." Or "Give us a call back in a month." Clarify stalls by asking open-ended questions. It could make the difference between gaining or losing a sale.

— Use closing techniques to check the pulse of the buyer. Closing techniques are very personal. You need to feel comfortable with the ones that you use. Practice several until you find a couple that work for you. An example of a closing question that works well for many is, "Is there any reason why you would not go ahead with this?"

Most important is that you learn from each sale and don’t give up. If you are marginally missing sales opportunities, consistently executing the basics will make the difference between you and the competition.

Marcia Gauger is the president of Impact Sales, a performance improvement and training company with offices in Wisconsin, Florida and Arkansas. Her column appears in every other issue of SBT. You can contact her at 262-642-9610 or marciag@makinganimpact.com.

May 30, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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