This role calls for salespeople who are focused, insightful, and knowledgeable about their products—as well as their customers’ needs, markets, and business objectives. This knowledge enables them to serve as experts in creating solutions based on what they sell.
Star performers are such experts that they are able to completely internalize their customers’ points of view. They often seem, in fact, as much employees of their customers’ organizations as they are of their own. This produces the following benefits for them:
The stature to be asked by customers to help evaluate competitors’ newly-released products
The opportunity to give advice on customers’ high-level decisions and policies that have a long-term impact on future sales
Invitations to cross-sell elsewhere in the organization (instead of having to request access)
The observable daily indicators that salespeople are performing this role include the following.
To be successful business consultants, salespeople need to be knowledgeable experts in the eyes of their customers. They need to establish their own reputations, separate from the organizations they sell for. “It’s important that my customers perceive me as someone who is fully aware of their issues,” said one salesperson. “Basically, if I am going to advise people, they need to believe I know what I’m talking about.”
Said a sales manager about one of his salesmen, “He knew his product, and he knew what he was talking about; [his knowledge] convinced the customer to give our organization the opportunity to submit a proposal.” In many cases this knowledge is personal. “I personally tried (our) products, so I was aware of them all before the sale,” reported a cosmetics saleswoman in China. “This made me more convincing to the customer.”
Echoing the practice of many superior salespeople, one manufacturing sales rep said, “I became knowledgeable about the customer’s organization. I got immersed in knowledge about them and what they wanted and needed. I had a good understanding of the company.” This star performer clearly went beyond reading annual reports and prior sales figures to become familiar with the company on a cultural level.
Putting themselves in their customers’ shoes by identifying market objectives is another key behavior of star performers. “I’d been trying to sell Internet advertising to a customer for eight years,” said an advertising account executive. “Even though he had a Web site, he wasn’t interested. During the course of last year, whenever I saw articles about ad successes in his line of business, I sent them to him. Two months ago, I made another presentation. This time he was more knowledgeable and ready to listen, and I made a very large sale.” Said another salesperson, “[The customer] bought a $60,000 package because we met one of their hidden goals, which we found out by doing our research.”
In today’s busy world, there is no greater sales technique than demonstrating to customers that you understand their needs. As a buyer of industrial commercial hardware said, “I was thrilled that someone understood our needs and customized an approach that was tailored to my budget and my timetable.” Good salespeople know that asking the right questions is key. (As one respondent said, “Selling is a process of listening to what the client wants, then educating them about exactly what they need.”)
The answers to these questions enable salespeople to make sure their solutions respond to their customers’ voiced and unvoiced needs. The questions don’t have to be complex. As one pharmaceutical salesperson put it, “I have learned to shut up and just ask the doctors what they want. This gives me a clearly defined set of needs that I can then show how our products respond to.” The truly dazzling solutions may exceed what the customer was expecting, as another respondent points out when describing this incident, “The salesman offered options that even the client didn’t see; he offered an alternate equipment package and closed the sale.”
Busy customers expect salespeople to be able to present well. One salesperson of group health insurance apparently learned the importance of this skill only after an unsuccessful presentation. “As a result,” she said, “this time I gathered more reliable, well-spoken, and polished team members.”
Many salespeople report that they rehearse presentations before giving them. “I role-played with my managers and thought of every conceivable question they could ask me,” notes one salesperson.
A well-rehearsed presentation also can forestall price objections. “Our presentation was much sharper and to the point,” reported a salesperson of manufacturing machinery in South Africa. “We had every issue within the deal covered before we went in there, so we left nothing to surprise. The customer felt we knew what we were talking about and could give him the reason for the 50 percent premium on the package.”
A successful salesperson knows when it’s time to close the sale. When they see buying signals from the customer, they move to summarize benefits and ask for the order. “One reason he made such good use of his time,” said a manager about a member of her sales team, “was that he knew when it was time to stop probing and asking for clarification, and wrap things up in terms of closing the sale.”
Most of the negative examples in our research could have had a happy ending if the salesperson had asked—and listened— more. As it was, the salespeople in the following incidents not only missed the point, but they also gave the impression that they didn’t care:
“We did not rehearse the presentation beforehand. The organization was sloppy. Everybody did as they pleased. I should have spoken to each member (of the presentation team) ahead of time to clarify our direction.” (Salesperson, group health insurance)
“I didn’t peel back the skin of the onion enough. I didn’t probe deeply enough. I accepted what they said they wanted at face value.” (Salesperson, training software)
“We didn’t do enough investigation of the target audience. We didn’t understand their culture and environment.” (Salesperson)
“We developed a solution for a problem that didn’t exist. The customers looked at us like we had three eyes.” (Salesperson)
“I ignored the fact that the customer had no technical background, and I kept talking about technical stuff. This distanced me from the customer.” (Electronics salesperson, China)
“When I was asked technical questions that I couldn’t answer immediately, I said, ‘I’ll get back to you with answers.’ The customer said, ‘You don’t know?’ I was told to come back with someone who understands what they’re talking about.” (Salesperson, Japan)