According to US executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, the majority of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies spent their early careers in finance or sales roles.
If you’re involved in sales and your figures have dipped, the natural instinct is to blame your product or other factors such as its price or availability. But the problem could be you. Even the best salespeople can forget to apply the fundamentals. So ask yourself:
1. How much do you really know about the customer?
Do you understand their position in their organisational hierarchy and how their business works (in terms of how decisions are made and who sanctions them). Keep notes on their company: read their website, their annual report and their trade magazines. It’s your business to find out all you can about their business.
2. Are you really sure of all of the features and benefits of your offering?
That includes knowing the specifics of availability, delivery dates, repairs and your aftercare service, so you can answer any queries on these aspects. You also need to know about competitor offerings, so you can set your product or service in context.
3. Do you know the complete history of the relationship between your company and the customer’s organisation?
That includes what they’ve ordered in the past. Know your facts about any challenges or issues that may have arisen and how they were resolved.
4. Are you setting appropriate objectives for your meetings?
Meeting a customer without an objective is like doing your week’s shopping without a list: you’re just wandering around hoping for inspiration! Your objective is not just to create a rapport with the customer, it is to sell. But you’ll need fall-back objectives too, so prepare some alternatives. For example, settle for a smaller, trial order or persuade the customer to undertake a cost-benefit study on your solution. Your objective must be realistic.
5. Are you probing the needs of your customers effectively?
If a customer starts to buy fewer products from you, always check to ensure you understand the reason why. Find out if anything has changed. It might be possible for you to sell another product, to help them meet their new requirements.
6. Are you listening effectively?
When you’re with your customer, listen to them. We all know that people don’t buy features, they buy benefits, but are you genuinely looking at what you’re selling through the customer’s eyes? Relate the product to their needs and make sure you sell the benefits.
7. Are you struggling to deal with difficult customers?
Stay calm and don’t get personally involved. Be careful with customers who try to put you on the back foot by asking lots of questions. Remember, you can answer a question with a question (“why is that important to you?”) to keep control of the conversation.
8. Are you failing to overcome customer objections?
Customers will always have objections, so probe until you understand their specific objection, then put it in perspective and give your counter argument. Try to uncover what is behind their concerns and get to the root of their needs. Don’t take objections personally and don’t get defensive. They’re not objecting to you.
9. Are you missing the ‘buying signals’?
Whenever you hear a positive indicator that the customer is interested in your product or service, ask for the business. Once you’ve got the sale, stop talking.
All great salespeople will occasionally experience a slump. The trick is to believe in yourself, believe in your product and make sure you get the fundamentals right. Those who succeed are the ones who are best able to get back up and get out there again.
Steve Webster is head of sales at Video Arts, the learning content specialist.