Part of what I didn’t realize when I made my grand belly flop in 2007, the year I first attempted self-employment, was the need to learn fundamental skill sets that were alien to me at the time. One such skill set, among others: I hadn’t learned to market myself.
There are a lot of misconceptions about sales, many of which I once believed. I used to think you needed a certain kind of personality to be successful in sales. Now I’ve come to realize that, given a good process, almost anyone can learn how to sell. Part of the reason a lot of people struggle is the inability to separate sales into buckets. I think of three specific phases of selling: there’s marketing, there’s prospecting, and there’s closing. (Other people might break down phases differently. Personally I try to avoid having more than three categories when it comes to most things.)
Closing isn’t hard when you’re talking to a qualified prospect. If you’ve ever worked at a cash register, then you know how to close the sale. You also likely know how to upsell and cross-sell.
“Do you want the regular package or the deluxe package?”
“Want fries with that?”
“Are you ready to go ahead and schedule your follow-up?”
“Will that be cash or credit?”
“Would you like to protect your purchase with a 3-year plan?”
Closing is nigh impossible and easily comes off as “pushy”, rude, or aggressive when the person across from you is not a qualified prospect. In my experience, people struggle with closing because they are trying to close the wrong people, or starting the closing process at the wrong time. You can close too soon, when the prospect has made it clear they’re not yet ready to move forward. If you wait too long, you may find that the prospect has already cooled off or bought from someone else. Inexperienced salespeople often think the goal of closing is to get every prospect to buy. Great salespeople approach closing with the goal of helping every prospect make a satisfactory decision. They either close the deal or they cross the prospect off their list (perhaps with a date to follow up). The prospect might buy today, decide that now is not a good time, or decide that the product or service will never be a fit. Either way, the sales process is closed. But they don’t try to close a disqualified prospect.
Inexperienced salespeople often operate as if the goal of prospecting were to move every prospect to the next stage of the sales process. The goal of qualifying is to identify who’s a prospect now, who will never be a prospect, and who will be a prospect later. Do they really have the money? Do they have the authority to pull the trigger? Is now the right time? Are they really looking to buy, or are they just tire-kicking? Without properly qualifying a prospect, setting an appointment is a waste of your time and the prospect’s time. Unfortunately, sales managers sometimes put pressure on their reps to set as many appointments as possible without sufficiently paying attention to the quality of the appointments. Qualifying isn’t hard when you’ve got a steady supply of prospects. If you’ve worked any kind of professional job, you likely have at least some experience with the qualifying stage of the sales process.
Getting a prequal letter from the bank before house-shopping
Credit checks / credit references
Contacting past landlords before renting an apartment
“Anything I can help you with today?” (Qualifying a shopper’s interest)
One common rookie move for inexperienced salespeople is to mistake curiosity for buying intent. Aggressive salespeople ignore interest altogether and try to dive straight into qualification (or even closing). For instance, I think of the annoying salespeople in the mall who walk right up to me and ask “who is your internet service provider?” I have learned to answer with, “I’m not interested.” Some of the more persistent ones have attempted to continue the conversation past that point, to which I say, “Like I said, I’m not interested.” You can cajole some people into answering unwelcome questions (people who are more patient than I am), but you will likely get untruthful answers.
Qualifying is easy when you have a stream of leads. When you don’t have enough interested people to fuel the qualifiying process, you need a way to generate interest. Prospecting is the most important step of the process. Generating interest often takes time, which varies depending on what you’re selling and to whom. If you don’t prospect sufficiently, you run out of leads and there’s no one to qualify or close.
Prospecting is the lifeblood of sales. It’s the biggest piece I see companies get wrong all the time. The cool thing about prospecting, when done right, is the opportunity to generate word of mouth business from people who aren’t even necessarily buyers. The key is to do something interesting, not necessarily connected with a transaction.
Here are a few ways of drumming up interest (not intended to be an exhaustive list).
Hosting an event at your store or location
Giving talks at local groups or Chamber events
Sponsoring a local charity fundraiser
Creating whitepapers that answer key unaddressed questions for your customers’ industries
Running a contest or “loss leader” promotion
Creative signage in well-trafficked areas
Attending trade shows or conferences
A Note About Cold Calling
Traditional cold-calling attempts to combine all three phases of the sales process, which some salespeople can do very well. I also believe cold-calling still works much better than the nay-sayers give it credit for, but the tactic needs to be used correctly. Regardless of whether you cold-call or not, your prospecting routine is more likely to be successful if you focus on generating interest without worrying about qualification and without trying to close anyone on the spot. I think we could create a cold-calling renaissance of sorts and make the practice fun. One way to think about cold-calling is to set a different goal. For instance, you could identify 100 businesses and set the goal of visiting each one and learning the owner’s first name, with no expectation of accomplishing anything else.
Regardless of how you go about prospecting, the process needs to begin by identifying a target population. In my experience, ineffective salespeople struggle with prospecting because they don’t do their homework. They don’t learn the needs, desires, values, and expectations of the people they’re talking to. They don’t educate themselves about the seasonal cycles that affect the communities where they want to do business. Instead, they treat every prospect the same way. They repeat the same script, they ask the same set of memorized questions, and they try to push everyone to the next step. If you treat every prospect like an average prospect, they will treat you like an average salesperson.
Like any other process, sales is much easier to learn if you break it down. You don’t have to be a “natural salesperson” to succeed in business. You just need to develop a learning strategy that you can repeat enough times to master the skill.