Solid customer relationships is the underlying goal in successful sales.
By Barb Ernster
Sales strategies might serve different objectives and involve different tactics, but for the most part they are universal to businesses of any size, follow the same trends, and transcend industries. Building solid relationships with customers is the underlying goal in successful selling, and that involves the art of communication, ability to listen, and willingness to provide insights into customer needs. This is especially true when you’re selling a premium product as opposed to a commodity.
Jeffrey Baumgartner, a former business owner with 20-plus years of professional sales experience who is currently selling Information Technology support services to small businesses, says there are four basic pillars that must be established, in order, with your customer before they will buy from you:
- The customer must like and trust you.
- The customer must believe in your company.
- The customer must value your solution.
- The customer must agree with the price.
“When you have those strategies in that order as your foundation, then price is not as much of a concern because you’ve centered your relationship on those top three,” Baumgartner says.Â “How do you do that?Â You ask a lot of questions about them. It’s your job to draw out of the customers what matters to them. You do it because you want to help them reach their goals.”
Providers need to be knowledgeable about their products and materials and be able to answer questions honestly. It establishes credibility, says Charlene Clark, who has been in sales and marketing for more than 20 years, and is now co-owner, with her husband, of Signature CanvasMakers in Hampton, Va.
“Overpromising and under-delivering can ruin a business,” she said. “Customers have a lot of choices, and if the experience with your business is not positive, they not only will not return, but they will certainly not recommend you.”
The Clarks are avid boaters, spending a lot of time on the docks and out sailing where they can network and show their canvas products on their boat. They also make presentations on canvas maintenance at their local yacht club. “Networking is a big part of selling because so much of the sales process is developing a relationship with the customer,” she says. “People tend to do business with someone they’re comfortable with and who they feel will take care of them.”
One of the biggest challenges in today’s marketplace is that customers have the ability to gather a tremendous amount of information on their own through technology and even from face-to-face sales calls, and then they take that knowledge and shop for the best price. The whole system has changed, says Thomas O’Brien, an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in sales and marketing at the university’s Opus College of Business in Minneapolis.
“When it comes to sales strategies, sales reps in the past became adept at discussing customer needs and selling them solutions,” he says. “Now they have to be skilled at being able to find an unrecognized need that the customer has before the sales call. You have to contact them before they pinpoint the problem.
The other important sales strategy is to have a differentiator. How do you do things different than the other guy? “Differentiation is huge because that gives people an edge. Sometimes it may be a differentiator for a year or two and then everybody else catches up,” says O’Brien.
Knowing customers’ needs can help you address their potential objections. Clark tries to anticipate what those are before the customer brings them up. When objections do arise, she advises, listen intently; customers will often tell you something that will help you close the sale. Don’t be dismissive; ask open questions that are light and relevant. Once you know more, it’s easier to overcome the objection and close the deal.
“Objections to price can usually be overcome by educating the customer on the value of the product, the quality of the materials and your reputation in the industry,” Clark says.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between reasons and excuses, the two types of objections, notes O’Brien. “Always clarify. Pricing has always been an excuse. You can’t work with an excuse; you’ve got to find out what they’re thinking. It builds on the relationship because you work them through it. If you can handle an objection well, you can close out every sale, but if you don’t do that, closing is hard.”
John Kissel of Kissel Boat Covers in North Olmsted, Ohio, puts his sales and marketing efforts into high-end boat customers. He no longer advertises in the local Yellow Pages because they were drawing the wrong customers, and he now relies heavily on his website to attract his customers from the greater Cleveland area.
Kissel notes that to be successful in this business, you have to market yourself where you are going to succeed and that would be at the marinas where the high-end boaters dock and are interested in quality and service. Many of his referrals tell him they were warned ahead of time that he’s expensive, but he’s known for his
“When a customer calls me, I feel them out on how long they plan to keep their boat, and how old the boat is, and that determines what direction I will go with them—either low-end or high-end materials,” he says. “If I’m dealing with a well-educated customer who would like to replace what he has but isn’t happy with the quality, then I can go to the next level of conversation and suggest top-of-the-line fabric, and the craftsmanship will be second to none. There’s a good chance 99 percent of the time I will get the job.”
When customers are hesitant because of the price, Kissel suggests secondary materials that suppliers offer at discounted prices, to lower the cost. “I try to be up front with my potential customers about the fabric. It is real important to take the time and listen to your customers on what they want and need for their boat. If you do that you will succeed in your business.”
Closing the sale
Clark says she never thinks she knows what the customer wants or is thinking, and never assumes a sale is guaranteed. “The goal is not just to sell for the sake of selling,” she says. “The goal is to make a satisfied customer and a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship. Be prepared, communicate openly and honestly, overcome objections with solutions that meet the customer’s needs, ask for the sale, and then deliver as promised.”
It’s common for a salesperson to relay all kinds of benefits and explanations for their product, but they don’t ask the customer to buy from them, says Baumgartner. “You’ve earned the right to close the sale if you’ve done your work in establishing trust in you and your company and you’ve offered the solution that meets the need,” he says. “Try to find some reason for them to take action. What is the cost to the customer if they don’t take action now?Â Think about those risks and have them ready to talk through before you ask them for the sale.”
Closing the sale starts at the very beginning, says O’Brien. “When you’re working with a customer and having their best interest at heart, and helping them make a decision that they’ll feel good about, to me that’s closing.”