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Answering the Customer's Questions

Once you have identified the person who represents the best point of entry to a potential customer, it is time to initiate the first formal contact. Many books have been written about this initial contact. They cover telephone skills and conversational gambits aimed at one thing—getting the appointment. Unfortunately, most miss the most important consideration in the initial customer contact.

Successful salespeople think beyond simply setting the appointment. Their goal in the initial conversation is to determine if this customer is the optimal place to invest their resources at this time. The more resources they involve in the initial appointment, the more scrutiny they give this conversation. They want to get invited into the right customer's organization by the right people for the right reasons. The real secret to "getting invited in" is in approaching your first conversation from the customer's perspective and by focusing the content of your call exclusively on the customer's situation. Successful salespeople don't initiate contact by talking at length about their companies, their offerings, or themselves. They introduce and describe themselves through the issues that they address, not through the solutions they offer, diagnostic positioning.

Any time a prospective customer picks up the telephone and speaks to a salesperson for the first time, the customer is seeking answers to a short sequence of questions. The key to being invited in is in offering customers the information they need to answer each question—no more and no less. If the customer is able to answer questions in a positive way, the result is continued interaction. If not, the conversation is over. The questions that customers ask themselves are simple, and the answers they infer are considered from only one point of view—their own:

  • Should I talk with this person?

  • Is this call relevant to my situation?

  • Is this something we should discuss further?

To talk or not to talk? That is the question and the starting point of all conversations. It's a basic decision, and its answer is determined on basic information. You know what makes you decide not to talk—the mispronounced name, the rapid-fire delivery, or the canned spiel. Consider the things that make customers decide to stay on the line with a salesperson. Certainly, the sound of the salesperson's voice is one. Does this person have a professional tone—relaxed, not rushed? And, what about the introductory statements callers use? Does the caller say the customer's name? Has the caller been referred by someone the customer knows? Is the caller talking to the customer or reading from a page? Does the caller suggest that the conversation that is about to ensue may not be appropriate? (Suggesting to customers that the call may be inappropriate is an empowering statement. It immediately relaxes the customer and actually begins the conversation with agreement. It also suggests that the salesperson will not pressure them if they feel that there is no value in the conversation.)

All of this adds up to a single judgment in the customer's mind: Does this caller sound and act like a professional, like a colleague? When we sound professional, customers stay on the line. When we don't, they don't.

The next question customers consider is whether the call is relevant to their current situation. Customers want to know if we understand their world, and we need to prove that we do. Here, successful salespeople begin to demonstrate the knowledge they have obtained about the customer's industry and company. If you were in the customer's shoes, you would want to know if the caller typically works with (as opposed to sells to) people like you. What kinds of issues do the salesperson's solutions typically align with? Do these issues concern the customer? Once this information is communicated, the customer is ready to make the final decision in the initial contact.

The final question customers consider is whether the initial contact should be extended. They are trying to figure out if this salesperson can add to their understanding of the problem at hand. The customer often asks questions such as, "How can you help me?" Conventional salespeople are very happy to begin presenting solution ideas now, but top-tier salespeople take a step back and begin to describe the diagnostic process through which they will guide the customer. At this point, they begin to establish the ground rules for further engagement.

The topics covered herein concern solution sales, consultative sales, and consultative selling.

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