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Help the Customer Make a Decision

If you have a product or service that provides worthwhile benefits, you have an obligation to present it to customers and help them decide whether it is the right solution for them. If you don't bring the product or service to the attention of a customer who could use it, he or she will have to tolerate problems they could solve.

Have you ever been approached by a salesperson with a product you liked, and then not been asked to buy? One survey found that only one in five customers would offer to buy when they weren't asked. There are times when salespeople don't ask for the sale, hoping the customer will offer to purchase the product or service.

When you begin, ask permission to ask for the sale later. You might say something along the lines of "When we are finished, if I can meet your needs, would you be comfortable with my suggesting that we move ahead with this purchase?" What I don't suggest you do is to use one of the standard clichés that salespeople have been taught and customers have gotten tired of hearing, such as "Would Monday or Wednesday be better for a delivery?" In my opinion, those clichés work against you.

Why is it that some salespeople don't ask for a decision? They'd prefer not to hear no. But if you have a good product, one you believe in, you're almost obliged to find out whether it will help the customer and, if it will, to get the customer comfortable making a purchase decision. If you don't and the customer never gets the benefits of the product or service, then you have not been of service to you or your company. That's what sales leaders do.

A salesperson for a water purification company came to my home one day. He had a simple demonstration that was persuasive. He showed, by dropping chemicals into my tap water, that there was more chlorine in the tap water than in my swimming pool. It was convincing. But I wanted to see whether he would ask me for the sale. We talked and talked, but he never asked me to buy.

Five Nonthreatening, Easy Ways to Ask for the Sale

These questions will help you move toward the sale or discover that there isn't a match. Just as important as the questions is the way they are asked. A caring, sincere tone of voice will come across as less confrontational.

Does the Customer Really Know What He or She Wants?

In sales, we say we need to give customers what they want. But if you've been in sales for any length of time I'm sure you have encountered customers who didn't seem to know what they wanted. It may not happen often, but when it does it is disruptive and time consuming. It's best to red-flag the prospects that might be problematic early on and avoid or at least minimize a time commitment with them. Clearly, you would be much better off investing your time with the ideal customers to realize a worthwhile payoff.

Most customers know what they want. Even if they only know what they don't want, at least you can go through a process of elimination to construct options. But when customers can't articulate what they are looking for, when they change their minds, or when they seem to continually find little things that eliminate one proposal after another, you are probably going to find that coming to a resolution either takes too much of your time or is not possible. You end up feeling exasperated. You start to wonder how much more time you should sink into winning the business, but are reluctant to cut your losses because of what you've invested already. The customer keeps dangling the carrot and you keep going after it.

Not all customers are created equal. You need to be sure you understand the customer well enough to be able to make an informed decision about how much time you should invest in him or her.

What are the signs that can help you decide whether to go ahead and, if you do, how much time or money to invest in attempting to win the sale? Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What is the potential size of the sale?

  • How many people are bidding on the work?

  • Do I have a special advantage?

  • What does a cost-benefit assessment show?

  • What are the best- and worst-case scenarios?

  • Is there a way to more efficiently put together a proposal for promising prospects that would allow me to balance the cost-benefit trade-offs?

The more desperate you are to win the business, the more likely you are to ignore telltale signs that the customer will be a time drain, and the longer it will take you to realize it. Table 2 will help put parameters around the issues that you must confront in working with different

Table 2:  Customer Types

Customer Type

Ideal

Promising

Difficult

Buying criteria

Value-based, clear, a good match with your offerings

Basic, not sophisticated, workable

Subject to change, uncertain, price focused

Business issues

Pressing and relevant

Emerging

Crisis prone

Decision

Quick

Reasonable

Prolonged

Budget

Available now

Later

Questionable

Decision authority

One or two people at most

Consensus/committee

Not formalized or uncertain

Customer qualities

Knowledgeable, open to new ideas, honest, moves quickly to finalize agreement, accommodates your needs

New in job or field, just forming

opinions, welcomes suggestions, relies on colleagues

Slow response, new boss, not flexible, always wants multiple vendor submissions, procrastinator, price shopper

What to do

Pursue (work toward an agreement)

Develop (keep in touch with)

Avoid (or make only one standard offer)

types of customers. While there are no exact rules, the table provides a framework for thinking about and recognizing the type of customer situation you have and doing it early enough to take advantage of it or to cut your losses. Some customers may have some of the qualities from different columns, so the categorization of the customer as ideal, promising, or difficult may be blurred—but you can still gain a better understanding about what to do by thinking about it this way than not thinking about it at all.


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