Sell On The First Call

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Sell On The First Call
from The Dynamic Manager’s Guide To Creative Selling

“Most prospects expect the seller to have done their homework before they come in the door.”

One of the great myths about selling is that you need to make a series of calls on a prospect to determine their needs before you can make a proposal to them. If you’re selling anything less complicated than enterprise computing systems, this is time-wasting nonsense based on a misunderstanding of consultive selling. Why wait? You’ll speed up the prospect’s decision-making process and save yourself hours and hours of selling time (which you can use to make more sales) if you present a specific proposal on your very first call.

This suggestion invariably sends traditional consultive sellers into convulsions and they say things like, “How can you make a proposal without ascertaining the need?” “Won’t the prospect think you’re arrogant to come in with a proposal the very first time you meet them?” “What if your proposal is wrong?”

This response comes from a lack of understanding of my method. You’ll notice that I want you to make a proposal on the first call—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that call will be the first time you’ve visited the prospect. Nor does it mean that you haven’t done a needs analysis. In fact, the time and effort you put into needs analysis (before the first call) will dwarf that of a typical consultive seller who goes into the first call with questionnaire in hand. And your needs analysis will be more accurate, which will mean a more accurately targeted proposal.

Selling on the first call isn’t as simple as it sounds, of course. It’s not a matter of taking the same product to as many prospects as possible in hopes that you’ll stumble across someone that needs to buy something today. Nor does it mean that you ignore the prospect’s individual needs and try to sell them a one-size-fits-all product. To make a sale on the first call, you need to research the prospect in advance, ask probing questions during your presentation, and be ready to change your design or other elements of your proposal—on the spot. It takes preparation and a set of ears finely tuned to what the customer is saying.

Consultive selling, about which shelves full of books have been written and decades’ worth of seminars presented, is based on the principle that you need to understand the prospect’s needs before you can make a sale. Nothing wrong with that. But some practitioners of the approach believe the first step is to set up a meeting to ask the prospective customer a series of questions, the ever-popular “needs analysis” call. By answering those questions, the theory goes, the customer will tell you what they need or want to buy. Then you can come back with a proposal on the next call. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the intentions of that approach, but in my experience it seldom works out quite so neatly.

The Truth About Consultive Selling

For one thing, few prospects will give you the time to answer your questions unless they’re already interested in your product, which sounds good until you realize that making presentations only to those people means you’ve eliminated a large group of prospects who won’t give you the first appointment. I’ll grant that pre-qualifying prospects this way may be a good time management method, but I can’t help but believe that the “not interested” prospects could be a very valuable source of new business.

And that number grows every day because the “needs analysis” approach is hugely over-worked as more and more prospects refuse to invest their time in it. Business operators are bombarded with offers to study their financial needs, manufacturing systems, advertising plans, and insurance programs. “It’s a valuable study without any obligation to buy” is an offer they’ve heard so many times that they’ve become immune to the pitch.

What can be even more discouraging is that, in many industries, the same prospect has undergone the consultive needs analysis multiple times with the same company because the vendor has such high turnover in its sales force. And they’ve gotten nothing in return except another proposal to buy which looks suspiciously like the last proposal they got from that company’s previous salesperson. In other words, fewer and fewer prospects are falling for the “needs analysis” gambit.

But what about those who do let you in the door to answer your questions? While generalizations can be dangerous, I don’t believe that they’re going to give you the best, most accurate information on which to base your proposal. They wouldn’t be seeing you unless they already had some pre-conceived notion of what they would like to buy from you. This, in turn, will tend to color the answers they give to your needs analysis questions. Not that the prospect would lie to you, it’s just that when someone already knows the answer, they tend to interpret the question to fit it. And their interpretation of your question may not be the same as yours, with some possible confusion over the answer as a result.

And that’s assuming they’re fully cooperative to start with. What are the things you want to learn when you conduct the needs analysis? Most of the questionnaires I’ve seen can be boiled down to two questions: 1) How can the prospect best use my product and 2) How much money can they spend on it? The variations on the first question will get some fairly accurate answers, but the second will often generate purposefully wrong answers because most people are pretty sensitive about giving out financial information to perfect strangers.

And that’s what you are, after all—a stranger. Since this is the first call on the prospect, by definition you don’t know them and, even more importantly, they don’t know you. All the prospect knows is that you’re there to get something from him (information and time) and he’ll get something in return (a proposal) sometime in the future. You should look on every sales call as a transaction in which items of value change hands. Even if a sale doesn’t occur, information changes hands—and that’s an item of value. In a solid transaction, items of equal perceived value are exchanged in a two-way process. On the consultive sell first call, though, the prospect gets nothing of value in return for his or her time and cooperation.

I worked with a furniture store in Texas whose owner told me the story of how her local newspaper advertising department came to do a needs analysis for her. She was a big advertiser with them already, but the rep told her they could do an even better job for her store if their team could spend some time with her studying the situation. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

The newspaper’s team consisted of the ad sales rep, the retail ad sales manager, a layout artist, and two other people whose functions were never completely clear. Their “study” consisted of the ad manager asking a series of questions about who her target customer was and which were her busiest months. While he and the sales rep were asking the questions, the other three team members wandered around the store. When the questions had all been asked and the answers dutifully written down, the team left, promising a report within a week.

This needs analysis interview took up two hours of my client’s time. The “report” she got back consisted of a proposal for doubling her space contract for the next year, delivered to her by her sales rep. She never did find out what the people wandering around the store were looking for.

The point of the story isn’t that this needs analysis process was poorly handled, it’s that this is a fairly typical perception of the process by most of your prospects. They’ve either had this happen to them or know someone who has, so they are very hesitant to give you the time to conduct your needs analysis “study.”

Prospect Priorities

In the Creative Selling System first call, the seller “pays” for the prospect’s time with an idea. And ideas are valuable.

What you get for your payment is information about the prospect. That information comes in the form of responses to your proposal—not as answers to your direct questions. Since the responses are spontaneous and voluntary, they’re generally more accurate than answers to questions. For the same reasons, the prospect will often give you a greater amount of information because they’re not limited by the specific subject of your question.

If you’re in business-to-business sales, you know where you and your product generally rank on the list of priorities of most prospects. It’s usually way down there near the bottom of the list simply because a business operator or manager has so many situations clamoring for their attention every day.

Start with personnel (the biggest headache of all) and all the issues that go with it: hiring, firing, motivating, compensating, absenteeism, benefits, training, and on and on. Then there is the cost of goods if the business is a retail establishment or the cost of materials if it’s a manufacturer. These contribute directly to the profit margins, which are thin and getting thinner in most businesses today. There’s the “infrastructure” of the business—overhead items like rent, utilities, computer systems, debt service, and insurance. There are partners and shareholders to deal with, not to mention the most important of all, the customers. And then there’s that old bugaboo: taxes in all their myriad forms.

With all these matters weighing on the prospect’s mind, is it any wonder that it’s tough to get an appointment—especially one to ask a bunch of questions?

It’s even tougher when you factor in the competition—other salespeople. And I’m not just talking about your direct competitors. I’m referring to the army of salespeople peddling items and services that deal with all the above issues. Vendors, manufacturer’s reps, insurance agents; the list is endless. They all want a few minutes of the prospect’s time every day. If the prospect saw them all, they’d never get anything else done. If you want an appointment, you have to break through the clutter. You should pay the prospect for his time, not expect him to pay you.

These days most prospects expect the seller to have done their homework before they come in the door. They barely have time to do their own jobs, much less educate every salesperson who wants to sell them something. So, do the research first, then come up with a product or service that will meet the needs you think the prospect might have. Now, instead of calling the prospect and asking for some of their valuable time to educate you, you can offer to give them something of value—an idea to help their business in some way. Approached that way, the prospect is much more likely to give you a few minutes to make your pitch.

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