What makes a great salesperson? One thing's for sure, it's not about having the gift of the gab. Two top sales gurus — Grant Leboff and Andy Bounds — reveal that the secret to great selling is being yourself and listening to your customers
Many small business owners are uncomfortable about selling. "A lot of SMEs are run by decent people who just want to make a living," says Grant Leboff. "When it comes to selling they think, this isn't me, it's just a necessary evil."
Andy Bounds agrees. "Many small business owners originally set up their business because they wanted a job without a boss. But often they hate selling. They feel it's like showing off. Selling just doesn't feel comfortable to them. And many customers don't enjoy the experience either."
Andy and Grant have eight game-changing pieces of advice for small business owners who want to transform their sales results. They are:
"People go wrong because they thinking selling is all about talking about themselves and their products," says Andy. "But you only learn what the customers want when they're speaking; you never learn anything when you are talking."
Rather than trying to perform and impress, you'd be more successful if you focused on listening and helping, says Grant. "A lot of people have a misconception of what selling is. They think they have to be smooth and persuasive, that they've got to be silver-tongued. Even if you're confident about selling, that is the wrong approach."
"People can think that asking questions shows weakness. It's almost that they feel 'I can't ask anything because I should know it all'," says Andy. "Now I'm good at what I do, but I'm rubbish at knowing exactly what's going on in a customer's head. So you've got to ask questions. For example, a useful opener is 'How can I help you?'. Another great question is 'What are your priorities at the moment?'."
But when small business people go into sales meetings, they are often totally focused on themselves, says Grant. "In fact, the only person they need to focus on is the customer and the only thing they need to worry about is finding out what their issues are."
Every purchase happens within an ecosystem. "You have to understand their whole ecosystem – and they will have one," says Grant. "That means finding out what the game plan is. Ask them – what do they want to achieve? Who else is involved in the purchase? What are the timescales? What is the growth plan? Then add your insight."
A common fear, however, is that by asking questions you'll look as though you haven't done your homework, says Andy. "I always tell customers that I've done the usual research – and, of course, I have. But I then say: 'no-one can describe your business priorities as well as you can, so can you tell me about your business?'."
"The customer wants to hear about two things from you – themselves and their future," says Andy. "You have to focus on the 'afters' — why will they be better off after they've used your products or services? For example, if I go into the optician I might think that I want to buy glasses. I don't. I want to be able to see better. If I buy a newspaper, I don't want the newspaper, I want the news."
And because "afters" happen in the future, you need to ask future-based questions. "Ask 'What do you want our work to achieve for you? How will you know it has been successful? What are you looking to do in the future that you can't do now?' All these questions get the customer focusing on the future. It's then up to you to prove that you can deliver it for them."
Remember, Andy adds, that selling is a joint thing. "You may be making a sale, but the customer is making a purchase. So, instead of thinking about making a 'sale', realise that you are both making an 'agreement to help'."
Nowadays, the majority of customers have done plenty of research and they have often already decided on the solution they need before they pick up the phone.
"The problem for the salesperson is that once the customer defines their own criteria of purchase, then all they do is interview you and ask if you can deliver," says Grant. "If you are a service company, you can usually meet their needs so you say yes and then you get hammered on price."
The old idea of solution selling is very "last century" he says. "Customers have self-diagnosed their own problems so they will be bored by your questions. They'll say 'we know that'. So what's the answer? You have to disrupt the buying criteria. If they have got ten boxes to tick, you need to make them think differently about one of those boxes or introduce a box 11."
"Another great tip is to tell them something they didn't know early on in the conversation. This brings them value before they've even paid you a penny. And it shows you're able to deliver something new to them — essential when selling," says Andy.
Grant agrees. "You have to widen the conversation. That means you need to be a real expert at what you do and know your industry inside and out. You need to deliver real insight and understand how your knowledge applies to other people's situations. Anything they haven't thought of allows you to build credibility and add value. Give them an 'aha' moment."
This is a great tip and one that highlights the natural advantage that small business suppliers can have. Specialists from larger companies often focus solely on their particular expertise but fail to put it into a business context, says Grant. "As well operating in your field, you run a business. And that means that you think and talk like a business owner. You can talk about the business drivers and the balance sheet."
Stop focusing on what you do and focus instead on how it helps them, advises Andy. "My IT supplier, for instance, frees up my time, and that's my valuable commodity. I have asked him not to talk about IT and instead talk about how he can save me time. That's empowering for the supplier — he's always looking to come up with ways that can help me — and of course it's great for the customer, in this case, me!"
Objections are a key part of the sales process, and dealing with them during the sales pitch is vital.
"There are three ways this can work," says Andy. "You can raise the objections, they can raise them, or no-one raises them." Of course, most people are relieved when key objections don't come up. But if objections aren't dealt with, you might not get the sale.
If it is the customer that raises the objection, it can put you on the defensive. "So the best option is for you to proactively raise it yourself. You could say, 'Some of my best customers were concerned about X before we started. Is that something that's worrying you at all?'. That shows that the concern was overcome and it allows you to deal with the objections."
Always offer options. "If you give them a yes/no choice, it's easy for them to say no," says Andy. "If you offer options, then they are choosing between A and B, not A and none. I usually offer three options and I find that the vast majority go for option two. I make sure I am always happy with all three options so I don't mind which one the customer picks. That way we're both happy, and we've made an 'agreement to help'."
Written with expert input from Andy Bounds and Grant Leboff.