SELLING is the oxygen of business: from a billion ringgit international business-to-business deal to, more modestly, a baju sale in Mid Valley Megamall, Kuala Lumpur.
Selling is basic to our everyday life because, at its simplest, it is about fulfilling a need or solving a problem.
It is one person seeking to persuade another that he has the answer to a need; the other agreeing (or not), and the transaction taking place. In this very crude, basic sense we are all sales people and customers.
This article will look at some of the basics of what is called “relationship selling”; the proven, successful way to add value and durability to selling in a global marketplace swamped by sales messages and direct order opportunities via smart phone or laptop as well as the more conventional ways of telephone, television, radio and printed media.
I hope to follow this up with another article which will develop the relationship selling process a little further.
I will concentrate on one-to-one, business-to business selling in the belief that the sales person (SP), far from being a questionable cost, can provide part of his company’s “unique selling proposition” (USP).
We have all had the dreadful sales experience: the bored SP, the lack of interest, the lack of product knowledge, the “take it or leave it” attitude. Chances are you will go somewhere else the next time, even if you had reluctantly made a purchase.
Hopefully, we have all known the opposite: the personable, knowledgeable, helpful but not pushy SP who genuinely adds value to the buying experience; whose advice, in short, we trust. Just the sort of person we would go back to and recommend to others.
The core idea behind relationship selling, ever more critical as you move up the value chain, but still important in any basic selling situation, is for the SP to demonstrate the right attitudes and behaviours that forge a genuine relationship with the customer leading to repeat purchases over a long period of time.
Today’s SP knows that innovative products and services have a limited shelf life as far as their advantage in newness goes. Copycat products will soon be competing.
Assuming the products/services being sold have genuine reliability and brand value, and the SP believes in them (if he doesn’t, move on fast, insincerity will always show in the eyes and body language), it is in the trusting relationship between the sales person and customer that the USP so often resides.
This is because the sales relationship is predicated on the SP adding genuine value to the customer. Let’s be clear, we are definitely not talking freebies, treats, favours or money under the table. In the long run, they don’t work and are corrosive.
We mean a process whereby the SP thinks out of the traditional, “here’s our product leaflet, I can give you a special discount of 10%,” approach, and reframes his offer in terms of customer need fulfilment or problem-solving.
Meet the needs
Every sales visit, telephone call or e-mail is a need fulfilment opportunity and a step on the road to cementing customer confidence and trust which, together with products or services that consistently deliver what “the packet promises”, form the vertices of our relationship triangle.
In this relationship, trust, confidence and reliability will always tend to outweigh advantage based solely on price.
Apart from knowing the products or services inside out, the relationship SP is able to demonstrate an informed knowledge of the market, its pressures and opportunities, and of the competition, as well as of the customer’s company.
Incidentally, the SP should never leap to dismiss the competition. It tends to reduce his credibility. Competitor strengths, if raised by the customer, should be acknowledged, but in the context of the advantages, direct or indirect, that the SP products provide.
Empathy is a vital part of building trust with the customer. The right personal presentation and behaviours will help reduce tensions resulting from age, gender, status, ethnic and cultural differences.
Following a neat, appropriate business dress code, general politeness, eye contact, awareness of cultural norms, care of one’s body language (eg. remembering to smile, to lean forward to show interest, not to fidget) and watching out for signs of interest or disinterest from the customer are all essential.
Above all, the SP needs to listen actively to his customer and ask open-ended questions to really understand his upfront and hidden needs. Focusing desperately on a sale is not the path for building trust. A no-sale or a small sale as part of the confidence-building process for long-term success is fine and probably inevitable.
It is very helpful to find common ground with the customer — background, education, hobbies, family, etc. — to build empathy. Of course, it is essential never to outsmart or embarrass the customer. Nothing will shatter empathy faster.
If customer trust is part of the SP company’s USP, it is, at least initially, in tension with the customer’s assessment of risk. Just how reliable are those products? Can he really deliver on price, time and maintenance? Will the SP really take ownership of problems?
The SP’s task is to minimise the customer’s sense of risk, not least by recognising that the customer also has personal concerns clustered around reputation, stress and ambition within the company.
The SP must therefore provide constant customer reassurance. Reference can be made to other satisfied clients. If possible, an escape strategy for the customer in the unlikely event of things going wrong should be offered — yes, as the SP, you are that confident!
Perhaps an introduction to the SP’s technical colleagues may be appropriate, or a company visit would help. Critically, the SP must emphasise that he will always be there as first contact throughout the contract, and afterwards, to take ownership of any difficulties that occur. And the SP should make it clear that the success of the sale really matters to him professionally, and personally.
With trust over time, the SP can gradually become a strategic adviser to the customer. That is the gold standard of relationship selling.
Once achieved, the SP can move the selling proposition up the value chain to mutual benefit. That is the benefit that fully justifies the cost of the SP. That is SP as USP.
ALEX CUMMINS DIRECTOR MANGO TRAINING AND CONSULTANCY
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