The Art of the Customer Conversation – Overachieving Your Sales Targets Series

What makes a customer purchase your product or service? Is it because it is the very best product on the market? Or maybe it is the cheapest? In that case, what is the purpose of the sales person? And why are certain sales people particularly successful, whereas others aren’t?

The conclusion we must come to is that the sales person has a degree of impact on the probability of a sale of your product. (Obvious, so what?).

Well, if that’s the case, how does the customer decide whether that salesperson has a bad, average, good or great impact? It must be on the interactions with the sales person, and the majority of those interactions are probably face to face or phone conversations (leaving aside emails, portals etc).

So this week we are going to look at the art of the customer conversation. We will cover how you can take a few steps to making sure your customer conversations are as successful as possible. Of course, you can’t plan each customer engagement with rigid certainty, but you can ensure you come to the table appropriately prepared with a few key guidelines that improve your chances.

1) Planning shows you care

We all hear countless anecdotes, stories and recommendations about failing to prepare and preparing to fail.  And unfortunately, these are pretty much correct.  However, thinking deeper about the effect of planning on your customer engagement, planning effectively for a meeting shows you care.  It shows the prospect that you value their time enough that you are going to make the most of the 30 minutes/1 hour that you have with them.

Think about the time it took to secure a particular meeting with a client.  You may have phoned them several times (or someone at your company did).  You may have done some research to get their contact details.  You may even have spoken to a range of different people in their organisation to get to that particular person.  Indirectly, you may have spent hours writing a marketing brief for a telemarketing company to use to cold call a range of prospects, of which your customer was one.  All that work has been done, all those cumulative minutes and hours of activity – then you turn up to the meeting with a blank page and little idea of how the meeting should go.

Too often, sales people do hours and hours of useful, valuable work.  Then let it evaporate during the meeting due to not planning properly.  Sales people with decades of experience may be able to go into meetings with a blank page, but can you truly say that you yourself can?  I can’t.  What those experienced sales people are doing is going in with a blank piece of paper, armed with a mind filled with years of meeting formats, frameworks and questions.  They aren’t playing it by ear, they have tried and tested formats that they don’t need to write down anymore.

So for your next meeting, show the customer that you have done the research and prepare.  Visualise how you want the meeting to go and role play it in your head.  Do you want to eventually end up discussing rising overhead costs within the client’s business?  Well how can you plan the meeting so that you reach that conclusion?

Planning doesn’t need to be an onerous task that is too rigid to work in a customer scenario – Inflexion Point wrote a great article about how sales conversation plans should be a “skeleton, not a cage”.   They should be detailed enough to provide you with a range of insightful questions and pointers to keep you on track, but flexible enough to bend to different topics.

2) Take your client in a new direction

One of the best ways to demonstrate value in a customer meeting or phone call, is to take the customer in a new direction and help them to see their challenge in a new way – or to see potential new solutions to challenges that they hadn’t thought of before.

This sounds incredibly difficult to do in a hypothetical scenario – how can you, who doesn’t work in their business day in day out, find a solution that the customer hadn’t thought of already?

The key is drawing on the experience you do have of visiting a range of customers every week, all who probably have very similar issues, challenges and needs.  You are, in effect, a business troubleshooter – who visits different organisations and has in-depth conversations about their business issues and helps them to find solutions.  Draw on this research that you have collected and use it to provide insight to new clients.

Is there something one customer does that may benefit another?  What prompted one customer to choose your product over another?  You shouldn’t give away any confidential or private information about your customer – but you can share generic challenges that many organisations face.  Sales people are in a unique position in that they engage with a large number of organisations and see a range of different business situations that they can draw on to help them in their new customer conversations.

3) Be personable, humble and listen

We all talk too much.  We know that, we hear it time and time again.  But we still talk too much.  Entrepreneur Magazine says the perfect sales conversation should involve 20% speaking from the sales person, and 80% listening.  Remember, if you like to talk, it probably means that the customer likes to talk too.  Let them do it – it’s worth a sale after all.

Be personable with your customer – that doesn’t mean pretending to be nice and agreeing with whatever they say.  It means being friendly, open and polite – turning off mobile phones and not answering them mid-way through a conversation (simple rule: if it’s not an emergency involving a family member then it should never be answered, however important you may perceive it to be).

Be genuine in your approach – try and like the customer.  See them as a person, see their qualities and compliment them on things that you genuinely admire.  Customers recognise manipulation, however adept and subtle you believe you are at it.  Old school sales tips about sweet talking customers, asking about their family and over complimenting is picked up instantly by those on the receiving end.  I have been in meetings where the sales person makes a grandiose effort to ask about the customer’s family and interests then cuts them off halfway through their answer to respond to an email.  If you don’t want to know, then just don’t do it at all.  It’s fake, uncomfortable and creates a chasm between yourself and the customer.  No one wants to be manipulated.

Finally, recognise that your prospect’s number one priority is not buying your product or service.  They are a human being; they have a family, a house, bills, a job, issues and problems, personal ambitions, likes and dislikes.  Your product has to strive for a space amongst all of these competing needs and desires.  This isn’t to discourage you – it’s to make you aware that, yes, you may believe your product is revolutionary and life-changing, but it’s probably not.  Be humble, recognise your place in the customer’s view and then take it from there – and build up your proposition and relationship.

4) There’s always another level

When conversing with your client, it is important to remember that there is always another level to comments, objections and questions.  And it is your job to dig deeper to uncover those levels.

When a customer says they have a certain challenge (i.e. maybe they find it difficult to collate all of their customer data into one place) – there are other layers to this challenge that it is useful for, as a strategic sales person, to uncover.

So if the initial challenge they raise is that they need their customer data in one place, you need to be asking, “Why is that important?” or “What is that a problem currently?”.

Your customer doesn’t wake up one morning and want customer data to be centralised.  There is an underlying reason.  Let’s say that reason is that the organisation is launching a new business development campaign and need customer information to find new prospects.  Ok, so we have gone one level.  What’s the next level?  You should be asking them about why they have decided to launch a business development campaign, and why have they decided to do it now?

This is the information that will tell you how urgent and important the need for your product is, not the initial challenge they highlighted at the beginning.

The same goes for objections.  Sometimes clients raise objections to shield themselves from revealing a more uncomfortable truth.  When a customer is just not impressed with the solution, they might instead say that they felt a competitor’s product addressed their needs better.  If a customer is unhappy with the treatment from your wider account team, they might instead say that they’ve decided not to proceed with the particular project in the short term, so the product isn’t needed.  Entrepreneur has an interesting article about further probing on objections that is worth a read.  Of course, they may be telling the truth, but it’s worth digging a little deeper around the objection to find out what has changed, why the issue is now not as important as before, or why the competitor’s product addresses their challenge more accurately.

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