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Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California

Information or Irritation?

Let’s say that you are a satisfied BMW customer, and you go into a BMW dealership shopping for your next Beamer. You already know the product line, already trust the company, and already have a pretty good idea of which model you are interested it. Up comes the salesperson, and begins lecturing you on the way-cool new features of something called “I-Drive.” As a buyer, can you get past this feature presentation? Probably. You’ll listen for a while, take a test drive, and—all else being equal—you’ll buy your BMW. Were you impressed by the salesperson or by I-Drive? Not really. How much selling was done here? Not much. You came in the door as an expert buyer, and you bought. If you didn’t buy, has the salesperson earned your loyalty? Wouldn’t you buy the same car for $500 less from another dealer? The seller has missed an opportunity to become part of your buying decision.

So is it a good idea for salespeople to spew features? Almost never. The expert buyer already knows about, or knows enough not to care much about, I-Drive. As for the rest of the buying population—most people, in other words—those who do not understand I-Drive might not ask for an explanation that could expose their ignorance to someone they don’t trust. They could be intimidated, and start to distance themselves from the salesperson. Most people have their own version of I-Drive in their buying past. For example: Have you ever been told that the car you are thinking about buying has an overhead camshaft? Well, do you know or care what an overhead cam is, or how that feature might be useful to you? How about a McPherson strut? Does that sound like something you might put to good use? Could you explain the usage or value of these commonly spewed features at a cocktail party?

The Customer-Focused definition of selling is “helping a buyer achieve a goal, solve a problem, or satisfy a need.” So what do we do if we’re not BMW—if our buyer has no clue as to why he or she might need our product, or how to use it? Presumably, our product has some features that are of interest. So how do we position our features to nonexpert buyers?

The first step in a buying process, of course, is having someone decide to look. Assuming that our business-development efforts succeed in stimulating some measure of curiosity or interest on the part of prospective buyers who we believe should be looking at our offering, what then? They will stay interested only as long as they are curious about what we are selling, understand the importance of our offering to them, or have hope for a solution from us. If we launch into a feature presentation, we will lose most nonexpert buyers very quickly. They will stay interested only as long as they perceive the conversation, and therefore the seller, to be relevant.

Many salespeople experience a 6- to 12-month learning curve when they join companies selling enterprise solutions. In those weeks and months, they frequently get their heads stuffed full of product features—which in the case of a complex product may number in the hundreds or even the thousands. Then they go out into their territories and attempt to convey their personal versions of that vast mental archive in a 30-minute presentation—and are surprised, and frustrated, when their prospects don’t get it. How well can CEOs sleep when they come to the realization that each of their 200 salespeople has developed his or her own boiled-down version (opinions?) of what the company sells?

In most cases, the buyer who doesn’t get it isn’t stupid. So what’s going on in a buyer’s head when he or she encounters a seller describing a product as a noun (versus a verb)? Here are some of the questions a buyer may be asking:

  • “Is the salesperson trying to sell me?”

  • “Am I supposed to understand what the salesperson is talking about?”

  • “Why is the salesperson telling me this?”

  • “Why does the salesperson think I would be interested in that?”

  • “Am I supposed to take the salesperson’s word for it?”

  • “Are these facts or opinions?”

In situations like this, buyers defend themselves with objections. Dozens of sales courses over the years have had modules on handling objections, as if an objection were an ailment or character flaw in the buyer. Many companies have taught the “feel, felt, found” approach. When encountering objections, the seller takes three steps:

  1. “I understand how you feel.”

  2. “Others have felt that way.”

  3. “But they found that (insert phrasing indicating that the buyer is mistaken in having the concern mentioned).”

The fact is, most objections that salespeople encounter are salesperson-induced. Sellers invite objections by the way they present their offerings.

Even some sales approaches that seem customer-friendly are really “spray-and-pray” presentations in disguise. In early Xerox sales training, for example, salespeople were taught to talk about benefits: “Because of Feature X, dear buyer, you can expect to get Benefit Y!” But strangely enough, Xerox’s sellers were not encouraged to find out what the buyer wanted to accomplish before they made their initial benefit statement. In that sales culture, therefore, the alleged benefit of a feature resided mainly in the mind of the seller.

And Xerox was not unique in this regard. We sometimes ask our audiences the question, “What sales culture did you grow up in?” Most large selling organizations have their subtle sales-culture idiosyncrasies, but virtually all of them encourage presumptuous benefit statements by sellers to buyers.


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