By Lee Perlitz Author of  text books on Business, and Training related subjects for Pearson Publishing and McGraw Hill publishing 

The ability to successfully sell products and services to customers is very important to any business. Without sales no business can survive. So it is important to make the most of every sales opportunity and there is an art to doing this well.

Selling products and services is like an endless cycle: you need to learn all about the products and services your organization offers, and you need to approach customers with confidence and find out what their specific needs are. Once you know what they are looking for you can then, using your product knowledge, recommend products and services that match their needs and handle any objections that might arise before, finally, closing the sale. The process then starts over again with the next customer.

Following this sales pattern will develop satisfied customers who have received the products and services they wanted while at the same time earning revenue for your organization. And just as importantly, they will recommend your goods and services to other potential customers.

Developing and applying product knowledge

Product knowledge is one of the corner stones to selling successfully. In order to effectively sell products and services you must have a sound understanding and knowledge of them, and how they link to the needs of the customer.

Why is this important? Because:

  • the success of any business depends on making sales
  • customers (and businesses) spend their hard earned money with you and deserve to receive value for their money
  • keeping customers happy ensures that they come back again (and tell their friends about you) thereby building a solid and loyal customer base.
  • it avoids complaints (or returned goods) about products or services that do not perform as the customer expected
  • it fulfils your duty of care towards the customer - giving them the best and most professional advise possible.

Product characteristics

Product knowledge means that you have an in-depth knowledge about the characteristics of a product or service: at least enough to be able to demonstrate your product meets the customers' needs. The types of information you should know include:

  • what the product is used for
  • how many different functions can it perform
  • does it come in different sizes (or colors)
  • how long will the product/service last
  • under what conditions must it be used
  • are there any optional extras
  • can it be applied in a variety of ways
  • is there a use by date that customers should be made aware of
  • is the item currently in stock - or do you have to order it. If so, what is the expected delivery time
  • what are the products safety features
  • what is the price range

Specialised knowledge

Having established yourself within your organization and industry you can develop more in-depth knowledge of your products and, indeed, become a product or service specialist. This means that your knowledge of a product or service extends itself beyond just general facts and that other staff members may well ask for your advice and input on the sale of that particular product or service. Specialized product knowledge may include:

  • Brand options
  • Safety features
  • Competence to demonstrate
  • Terms and conditions of use
  • Use by dates
  • Stock availability

Competitors

It is also very important to know about your competitors; how do their products and services compare with yours? This means being aware of:

  • who your competitors are
  • where they are located
  • what services and products they are offering
  • how these services and products compare with yours
  • how their prices compare with yours
  • what promotional activities they are currently engaged in
  • what special offers they are currently promoting

A customer will often shop around for the best deal and it is vital to the success of your organization that you make the most of every opportunity to sell your products and services. This means knowing what your competitor is offering and either bettering or matching their offers or persuading the customer that your service is better. In persuading a customer that your organization's products and services are better than your competitors you should NEVER bad mouth or say negative things about the competitor. This is unprofessional, puts you in a bad light and could, potentially, lead to legal action against you. You should be able to persuade the customer without resorting to making negative comments

In offering professional advice to customers you need to be able to explain the difference in the various products and brands, why one may be more expensive than another (even though they seem to be the same) and why your products and services are better than your competitors. You need to be able to do this accurately and with a confidence that stems from an in depth knowledge of your products, services and industry.

Why do customers buy?

In order to better understand the sales process, we will take a moment to look at why people buy - what motivates them to buy one product over another.

People buy for two very basic reasons:

  • they have a need
  • they have a desire.

The motivations for the two are very different. A need is something that is necessary to a person's physical or mental comfort. A person will need to buy food or pay rent. A person may need to travel for business purposes and will therefore need to buy air travel and accommodation. A desire is something very different. A desire is something we don't actually need but want anyway. Impulse buys, for example, are driven by desire. You don't actually need a new jacket but you want it, so you'll buy it. Buying the latest surround sound system isn't really necessary but movies are your hobby so you go to the shop and buy it.

Decisions to buy products to satisfy a need are made with the head (logic). Decisions to buy products to satisfy a desire are made with the heart (emotion). To be successful the sales process must activate the customer's head or heart, depending on their reason for buying. In short, you must appeal to their logic or to their emotions.

Buying to satisfy a need

When people are buying to satisfy a need, you must appeal to their logic. These customers want things done quickly and they want them to work! You should take an efficient, no nonsense approach, telling your customer exactly what you can do for them. They won't want to waste any time so they will want you to meet their needs as quickly and efficiently as possible.

You will generally not have to spend a great deal of time on such business as the customers will probably know what they want. To make a successful sale in this type of situation you should:

  • be efficient and courteous.
  • listen to what they want
  • tell them exactly what you have and why it meets their needs.

Buying to satisfy a desire

When a customer is buying to satisfy a desire you must take a very different approach. For many people, particularly when a large expensive purchase like an overseas holiday is involved, even the process of planning and researching will be part of the 'total experience'. In this situation you need to appeal to the customer's emotions. You do this by:

  • using descriptive, emotive words.
  • speaking with enthusiasm.
  • demonstrating the product / let them have a go themselves
  • telling them about your own experiences.
  • involving them in the process by asking for their thoughts and ideas
  • painting visual pictures for them - 'sell them the sizzle'

In this type of situation your customer should be completely involved. They will need to feel that they are spending their money wisely and you must continually reassure them of this

So, depending on the customers reason for buying your approach could be efficient and to the point, or enthusiastic with lots of interaction.

Customer types

Not all people are the same and therefore will not need or expect the same things when making a purchase. The approach you make to a customer will depend on a number of things; the type of customer, their reasons for buying and their specific needs and expectations. They can be different ages, come from different cultures, have different values, have different social needs and more, so when selling the benefits of a product or service to a customer you need to take various issues into consideration. Looking at these customer types in a little more detail:

  • Age- This grouping of customers can be broken down into a number of 'sub-groups' i.e., children, teenagers, young adults, mature adults and senior citizens and so on. Each of these sub-groups will have very clear ideas on what their purchase should include, how they like to receive customer service, and what level of explanation may be needed etc..
  • Social background- Here your sub-groups could range from the high social stratum of society who are used to getting the best of everything to people of more modest upbringing and background. What these groups need and expect when making a purchase will vary to an enormous degree and will depend not only on cost but also the lifestyle they are used to.
  • Economic background- In this group of customers you will have high through middle to low income earners. The needs and expectations of each of these sub-groups will be different. High to middle income earners may well have more disposable income and may therefore be in a position to spend more on their desired products or services. Low income earners may be more budget conscious.
  • Cultural background- Sub-groups in this category of customer will range from a variety of religious beliefs and differing customs depending on their country of origin and so on.

Please note, these same groupings can apply to the individual you are talking to when in a business-to-business selling situation. Some will apply to the whole business. For example a small business may have a much smaller purchasing budget than a large one. These considerations of the business, as a whole, need to be applied, as well as the consideration of the person with whom you are dealing.

Needs and expectations

In looking at how best to work with customers, you must address not only what they need when they are buying a product or service but also ensure that the product or service meets their expectations.

What is the difference between a need and an expectation? The heritage dictionary states:

  • need is; "something that is necessary to your physical or mental comfort".
  • An expectation is; "a great hope that something will happen" (or) "An anticipation of success or fulfillment".

So to make sure that customers are happy you first have to find out what their basic needs are and then find out what they believe should happen to fulfil this need to their satisfaction. Fulfilling needs and expectations will depend a great deal on the type of customer you are dealing with and there are a number of things that will need to be taken into consideration.

Leverage

Finding the right product or service for the right customer is a matter of knowing your product (often learnt this over time, and always increasing). When matching products to customer needs consider:

  • The type of customer, their needs and expectations
  • The products or services that your organization offers
  • How the products and services that you have match up with what the client wants, how it satisfies their needs.

Using the travel industry as an example, things to remember when matching products to customers include:

sun, sea and surf holiday is not the same for everyone. One person's idea of sun, sea and surf is lots of activity, plenty of nightlife, great beaches and friendly people. Another person's idea of sun, sea and surf might be to completely get away from the noise and crowds and to just laze the day away doing nothing. Where you choose to send these people will be very important. For example, a holiday at a Club Med resort will usually entail a lot of fun pre-arranged activity. There'll be a lot to do, plenty of night life and staff who actively seek to involve their guests in all that's going on. Sending a customer there, who is only interested in getting away from the crowds and simply wants to lie under a palm tree for two weeks, would probably be disastrous. This customer might prefer somewhere like the Maldives, where it is quiet and very relaxing with little to do all day but eat, swim and relax.

In the same way, an ocean cruise is not the same for everyone. There are cruises, such as those offered by P&O Holidays where everything is included; the accommodation, the meals, the entertainment, the fun and the passenger need never lift a finger. These cruises are on very large ships that resemble hotels and can take you out to sea for between one to three weeks. Other cruises are a little less grand - you will need to supply your own food, your own entertainment and sometimes even your own skipper.

There are an enormous variety of products available; something to suit every taste and every customer. It is your job to find out exactly what it is that your customer wants, what their needs are, and then find the right product for them.

This is where leverage comes in. Leverage is how you match your product or service to the needs of the customer, without dumping all of the information you have on them. What you say applies only to them, and shows straight away why you are the right person to purchase from. This leads into a discussion of features and benefits.

Features and benefits

Quote:

"Don't sell me products or services... sell me ideas, a better self-image, freedom from fear and want, and a philosophy that will help me achieve my potential as a human being"

Jack Collis - When your customers win, you can't lose

Having determined what a customer is looking for you now need to explain the products features and benefits so that they can make a fully informed decision.

  • feature is a fact about the product; what it can do (appeals to logic)
  • benefit is how the product will improve your life (appeals to the heart)

It's not enough to tell the customer that a digital camera has a 2 gig memory and a 10 x optical zoom. These are features. You need to tell them what this means to them. Why is it a good thing that it has 2 gig memory and 10 x optical zoom. Explain the benefits:

  • It has a 2 gig memory (feature) so that means you can take and store many more photographs (benefit) than a normal camera and this in turn means that you don't have to worry about running out of storage space (benefit).
  • It has a 10 x optical zoom (feature) so that means you can zoom in very close to a far away object (benefit) without getting into danger (benefit) or if the object is too far away to reach (benefit).

So while knowing the features of a product or service is very important, it is equally important to explain how these features will benefit the customer. Doing this well, can make the difference between getting the sale, or not. The customer's main interest, in making a purchase, will always be their comfort and enjoyment. Features do not address these needs but benefits do. When describing the features of a particular product or service always be sure to involve the customer's emotions by explaining what that means in terms of comfort, status and entertainment value.

"Sell the sizzle, not the steak" is the key to selling benefits. People don't buy products or services for what they are; they buy them for what they can do for them.

In other words... "Features tell and benefits sell".

Customer objections

In sales objections are not the same as complaints. Objections are the reasons that a customer might come up with, not to buy from you. It is quite possible for you to spend a considerable amount of time working on a customer's proposal and just when you think you've got it just right, they will find something to object to. There are a number of reasons why this might happen. These could include:

  • No desire to buy. They just don't want what you're suggesting. Perhaps you did not understand their needs and expectations correctly or did not explain its features and benefits in a way that matches their requirements.
  • Too expensive. The product or service that you are suggesting to them might be okay, but the price is too high.
  • Product or service will take too long to deliver. Customers will often want their product or service immediately, or within a reasonable amount of time after the purchase has been made.

The sales process is a fairly structured one. If the process is followed correctly and a true understanding of your customer's needs and expectations is reached and the products you offer match up with these, then objections should rarely come up. If you've understood the requirements, then you and your customer should be on the same wavelength and be working towards the same goals. Having said that, objections are still always a possibility. When objections occur it means that, somewhere in the sales process, something has gone wrong. For example:

  • You may have been listening to them, but were distracted for some reason and therefore not clearly understood the requirements.
  • You did not summarise their needs at the end of the conversation to ensure you were both on the same track.
  • You misread the non-verbal signals that were given.
  • Important information was not given by the customer - indicating a need for better or further questioning - and so on.

No matter the reason for the objection, you need to accept that the customer has concerns and these must be addressed in order to satisfy their needs and secure the sale.

Solutions to objections

In order to overcome the objection and still make the sale, further communication or negotiation may be necessary. There are a number of problem solving techniques for handling doubts or objections from a customer. These include;

  • Listen carefully. Use your positive listening skills. Listen not only to the words that are being spoken, but watch for the non-verbal language - look for signs of what is actually bothering your customer.
  • Hear the customer out. Let them voice their thoughts and objections without interruption. At this point a "yes... but..." from you is definitely out of place and could cause your customer to simply leave.
  • Feed it back. To make sure that you are now talking about the same thing, feedback (or summarize) to the customer what you think they mean. For example; "So what you're saying is that you want to......", then wait for them to agree or, if necessary, further clarify.
  • Think before answering. Think through the objection or problem before offering a solution to make sure; firstly that your solution is feasible and; secondly to consider whether this is what the customer actually wants.
  • Answer calmly and convincingly. Don't let your own emotions get involved. Don't get annoyed or frustrated if the customer doesn't respond the way you want them to. Your objective is to help the customer not to win a difference of opinion.
  • Confirm the answer. Make sure your customer understands what you have suggested and, if all is agreed, continue with the normal sales processes.
  • Continue to present. Make sure to keep showing the customer how the product matches their stated requirements
  • Ask them for their ideas on how to solve the problem. If their idea is reasonable and in line with store policies (dealt with shortly) then an agreement can be reached. If their idea is not entirely in line with store policy then further negotiation can take place

In the above process show empathy and use phrases like "I understand how you feel" or "I can see how you would think that. Have you considered....." etc. Do not use "yes, but...". This is a clear invitation to an argument and shows that you are not really willing to listen to them.

Remember the positive side of a customer voicing an objection..... it means that they are at least considering the purchase. An objection is far more valuable than a simple dismissal, such as "I'll think about it". An objection gives you something to work with. As your skills develop you will become more proficient at dealing with objections.

Recognizing buying signals

Buying signals are an extremely important part of selling. Look for them, learn to recognise them and then act on them! All of your good selling efforts can be for nothing if you miss the buying signals a customer sends when they are ready to purchase. Timing is critical here;

  • if you're too pushy you can turn a customer off and they'll leave
  • if you push the wrong product too soon the customer may think that you have not listened and be turned away
  • if you take too long over the sale the customer could lose interest or even leave frustrated because they've sent out all the right buying signals, but you've kept right on selling. This can lead to a condition known as 'un-selling' where a customer who was ready to buy something changes their mind due to overzealous and/or unnecessary sales pitches.

When customers come into your organization they will be sending you signals that indicate that they are either not yet ready to buy, or that they are ready to buy. The signals that they send will include:

  • I am just wandering around with no real interest in products and intention to buy.
  • I am interested in this product, but am not currently anxious to buy.
  • I am very interested in this and might well buy it if you can answer a few questions.
  • I want to buy this, now!

When a customer is not ready to buy, it does not mean that they will not buy, but it does mean that you will need to keep an eye on them and be ready to approach them when the signals are right!

When they are not ready to buy

'I'm not yet ready to buy' signals can include:

  • Avoiding eye contact with you. When you look at them and they immediately look away, they are probably not ready right at this moment.
  • Making 'not now' excuses - If they say 'just looking' or otherwise in a retail store to indicate that they don't need help, then make an encouraging remark to keep them looking and back off. If in a one-on-one business situation and they are directing the conversation away from what you are talking about, or still stating their needs, keep encouraging them to talk.
  • Looking at many different products (in a retail store), or looking at their emails or notes on their desk (if in a business - indicates that they are not focussed on your products or services.

When they are ready to buy

'I'm ready to buy' signals can include:

  • Spending time looking at or discussing one product type. When they are looking or discussing one particular product, especially if you have a wide range from to choose, then they may well be interested in buying.
  • Looking around for somebody to help them. If in a retail environment and you see them looking around, catch their gaze, and perhaps raise your eyebrows a little to signal that you are ready to help. If they sustain the glance or raise their eyebrows too, move in to sell.
  • Asking questions about the product- If, when you offer, a customer gets into more detail about the product, then they are likely to be more interested. If they ask about the functionality of the product, they may well have a checklist of things they are looking for, so ask for details of their requirements.
  • Asking about price- This is a good buying signal. You can tell them the price or you can ask how much they are looking to spend. If they tell you, then you can help them find the best value for the money they have to spend.
  • Using possessive language- when they are considering a product, they are getting a sense of owning it. This continues when they talk about how they will use the product. Look for 'I' language. Get them to use it. Ask how they will use it. You can even talk about it as if they already own it, although be careful of being unsubtle and pushy.
  • Asking another person's opinion- When they ask another person what they think about the product, they are likely thinking about buying the product and are seeking confirmation. You might find yourself selling it to the second person too!
  • Body language- Any transition in non-verbal communication will typically signal a change in mental state that may well indicate readiness to buy. If they suddenly relax after asking questions or discussing the product, this may well signal that they have changed mental state.
  • Touching the money- If a customer touches their wallet or purse and especially if they get out cash or credit card, this is a very strong signal for you. Get to them and ask if you can help. If they say they want to buy, just take their money

Closing the sale

When you receive a clear buying signal stop selling! The customer is ready to buy so let them. If you have further things you would like to say about the products or services, do so while processing the sale. Keep any additional information light, letting them know they've made the right choice.

In some industries a sale may not necessarily occur as quickly as it would in a 'normal' retail store. You can often spend a great deal of time and energy consulting with a potential customer. For example in a travel agency you may have to research information, you may make many phone calls on their behalf, you may have checked computers, manuals and all manner of other things - you will listen, you will question, you will clarify. It is at this point where you may also encounter the first customer objections and if they do arise then you should deal with them as outlined in the previous chapter. Once they've been settled however, don't let it all your hard work go to waste by not asking for the business!

Many sales are lost because the sales person or consultant was not confident enough to ask the customer for a decision. Your time is worth money, you've done a good job so far and you shouldn't go unrewarded.

You now need to get a commitment from your customer - so ask for the sale! How? It is normally only a simple matter of asking;

"Can you leave a deposit with me...?"

"So... what do you think?"

"Is this what you're after?"

"How will you be paying for this?"

Questions of this nature, or similar ones, will lead the customer into making a decision; to buy or not to buy.

The other close is the contract. As stated, few people will buy a car or house with the first view. Their decision to purchase will come after extensive thought. The purpose of the contract is to get the customer to agree to consider your product or service, and to commit to a further sales discussion with you. For example, a car dealership may allow the customer to take a vehicle for a test drive, and ask them to complete some form of evaluation at a later time. Some dealerships may allow the customer to 'borrow' the car for a night, to guarantee that the customer really evaluates it and that the dealer will definitely have the opportunity of a follow-up discussion when the car is returned.

The challenge with the contract is to find something that you can offer, informally, that gives the customer a reason to come back to you. This is informal, but very valuable. Of course, every other aspect of your ability to engage with the customer, demonstrating an understanding of their needs and a willingness to meet those needs, comes into play as well.