The Gentle Touch

Winning customers and retaining their loyalty requires a sensitive and intelligent approach – a poor or pressurising sales technique is more likely to send the client running to a rival operation, says Keith Francis.

Today’s customers are much better educated about the buying process. They are aware that most companies are producing reliable products of high quality, giving good customer service and projecting a polished corporate image. Selling can no longer be based on an armoury of unique features and benefits – if today’s customers feel uneasy, manipulated or pressured into making a purchase, they will not come back.

Once a customer is lost, they will have a protective barrier put around them by another supplier and the task of winning them back will be insurmountable.

Against this scenario then, how does one ensure customer loyalty? The answer lies in “new selling” – meeting the customer’s expectations of the value of the offer as a whole. This often means meeting emotive requirements of the customer’s perceived value, selling from the customer’s perspective, understanding how they see their needs and requirements, and the way in which the buying decision is made.

It also means not selling from a pre-determined format, but with the sales people using their own personalities and interactive skills to build a relationship or partnership with the customer. This also requires understanding the buying organisation, the culture, politics, decision-making process and the buyer’s role within it.

Despite much research and development undertaken in some quarters to provide modern skills and tools for professional sales people, the bulk of traditional sales training has changed little to meet the expectations of the new, empowered customer.

The problem with traditional selling methods is that they provide a structure which the salesperson is supposed to follow. Steps to the sale might include structured questions, establishing needs, selling features and benefits, overcoming objections and – of course – closing. This approach is seriously flawed. It is purely designed to meet the sales person’s agenda, and takes no account of how the customer might be thinking.

Training in new selling, however, is designed to meet the expectations of the customer and to form the natural complement to relationship marketing. New selling recognises that advanced communication skills, rather than structured questions, are needed to gain information; that objections do not need to be overcome if they are not created in the first place; and that unique features and benefits are these days very few and far between so the customer may not easily recognise the product difference that the salesperson holds so dear.

New selling also accepts that customers do not like to be sold to or interrogated – they need to feel in control. Consequently, closing is now viewed as a primitive and manipulative process (first conceived some 50 years ago) to push a customer through indecision. These days selling should be a mutually beneficial process where the customer is gently persuaded to make the purchase.

Equally important is the professionalism which goes into protecting and developing a customer base. Account management must move far beyond regular visits and contact strategies, and adopt a systematic approach with each account managed individually with all internal and external influences considered.

In all this, the crucial question is, how do people make a buying decision? Selling to needs is all very well, but how are those needs being perceived by the customer? And where is the customer in the decision-making process? What are his or her values?

The answers to these questions are critical in understanding customers, being able to see the decision from their perspective and developing trust and building a business relationship. To find them, advanced communication skills must be second nature.

Research into buying behaviour has enabled the development of a “decision model” which can be used as a gauge to help the salesperson understand where the customer is in the decision and to select the best approach for that situation. This does not intend to imply that people start at the bottom and move up in stages – nobody is that predictable.

But it does give the salesperson a good indication of how to progress the meeting professionally and be on the same wavelength as the customer. For example, if a customer is only just aware of a budget reduction, then he or she is not going to be ready to discuss expensive plans. However, if he or she has found a way of operating within the new budget, then there will be no requirement to discuss the impact of that change.

It does not end there, of course. Many factors will influence how the customer approaches that part of the decision. There may be hidden agendas and internal politics, as well as the particular background and training of the individual, all having an impact. It is simply a matter of speaking the same language as the customer.

A complete understanding of how the customer sees the decision, and a full set of advanced communication skills, will certainly give today’s sales people an advantage. But more is still needed. The whole process needs to be managed – not by the manager, but by the individual.

Sales people may know what they want to achieve in a sales meeting, but what about the customer? Would it not be a good idea to find out what they want to get out of the meeting, particularly if they are a customer with whom a long-term business relationship is required?

If the sales meeting is to initiate this relationship, it must be run in professionally. The meeting must be properly managed, the agenda checked and the way forward agreed. It is not only in the areas of products and service that customers expectations have changed. They expect quality in every aspect of the process – starting with the sales meeting.

In today’s rapidly changing market, the whole concept of needs, features and benefits has been left behind by the importance of the perceived value of the whole proposition. Focusing on the customer’s perspective must become the key feature of sales training. And such training must not be a process through which sales people are pushed, but an experience which gives them the tools to develop a selling style with which they feel at ease and with which they will be successful.

Being able to view the buying transaction from the customer’s perspective and truly understand their motivation is the vital element to that success. Reality is, after all, in the eye of the customer.

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