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Selling in the ‘new normal’ By Bob Etherington. Managing Director, SpokenWord Ltd

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Whenever you talk to those who sell products and services in the financial sector,
the current strategy can often be summed up as ‘waiting for the good times to come back…one day’. The golden days of booming markets, global expansion and Greenspan’s famous ‘irrational exuberance’. All the things that were going to go on forever in an exponential paradise.

The situation today is completely different and likely to go on for some time to come. This is being described, in many quarters, as the ‘new normal’. There’s an air of uncertainty, a jobless recovery, company consolidation, ever more competition and shrinking markets. So what are the best – the top 4% of sales people – in smart companies, changing about selling into this environment? Everything.

The ‘hard times’ fallacy

Let’s look at what many large companies are actually doing with their approach to sales and marketing. Research shows that in recessions, downturns and difficult times, they follow one or all of the following strategies:

They change nothing and pray for a miracle (the most common approach).

They try to encourage custom by slashing prices. Yet there’s no evidence that cutting prices brings much new business.

They fiddle with their advertising – either doing a lot more or less. The first option generates more enquiries, which they don’t have the skills to convert. The second creates the impression that the company has gone away.

They tell their sales people to go out and see more people following the old sixties mantra, ‘the more people you see the more orders get’. Not so true in ‘the new normal’.

Yet now is actually the best time for companies with the right techniques and attitudes to steal a march on their sleeping competitors. Because there is no evidence anywhere that customers stop spending money in hard times. So where do they spend it? In these sophisticated markets, they will spend money in areas that can be shown to reduce risks and avoid problems. Focus on these areas and the explicit concerns expressed by individual prospects, and the money will come your way.

Secret of the top 4%

So what ‘right techniques’ are most effective in this new normal? The key thing top sales people actually do is not on the usual list of selling skills and behaviours. Because the one differentiating behaviour is that they ask more questions. There is a proven correlation between the number of correctly placed questions and the number of successful sales-meeting outcomes. The customer’s perception changes from that of being ‘sold to’ to one of ‘buying’. A subtle but extremely potent change in emphasis, and one that puts the old fashioned ‘sales-pitch’ firmly on the back burner.

Planned questions, it seems, have two powerful effects during the sales process. They provide the salesperson with information about the prospective customer’s thinking and requirements. But they also have another interesting and powerful effect. When anyone is asked a question, even in a relaxed and conversational environment, that person is forced to think about what the sales person wants them to think about. The most effective questions therefore concentrate on problems that the salesperson knows his product can solve.

This accent on ‘problems’ rather than the classic product ‘benefits’ may appear at odds with classic sales training. However the research shows that so called ‘problem questions’ have a very powerful and persuasive effect on a sale. This is quite opposite to the effect of the average sales pitch or presentation when the salesperson does most of the talking. In these ‘average’ situations the customer often loses concentration after 30 seconds.

Bob Etherington is Managing Director of the London based training company SpokenWord Ltd.(www.spokenwordltd.com) Until 2001 he was Director of Sales Training for Reuters. SpokenWord works with companies and institutions worldwide to improve their skills in business persuasion.
SpokenWord Ltd. Tel: + 44 (0)20 7486 4008 enquiries@spokenwordltd.com

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