Image: Pui Shan Chan
By Tony Hughes, CEO of Huthwaite International

Selling is one of the oldest professions on Earth, and so over the years the way we sell has naturally adapted, changed and become ever more complex. However, at its core, the fundamentals remain unchanged; ‘I want you to buy what I have to sell’. The trickier element is convincing the individual that they not only want your product, but they need it.

Enter the age-old hard sell – the pushy approach that often alienates and frustrates your target customer. The problem is, as we entered the digital age, we also entered the age of over-communication, commercialisation and indeed over-selling. On every corner, a brand sells its messages, its USPs, its benefits – and it has become white noise.

So, what does this mean for sales? Drawing on the world-famous SPIN® Selling technique, sales people can learn valuable lessons when it comes to appealing to a contemporary audience – primarily that the customer isn’t interested in a product, they’re interested in their problem and finding a solution to it. Here are five top tips to help you secure a sale:

Ask questions and apply your research

By asking questions that open discussion around the business’ challenges the customer is facing, you can position yourself as a helpful adviser and problem solver. This also helps you to steer the conversation – meaning you can apply your research findings and start to build a valuable rapport with the client, in turn, this will help to differentiate you from all that white noise.

Find the answers you need

While asking clients questions is better than simply talking ‘at’ them about the features of what it is you’re selling, our research shows successful salespeople ask more of certain types of questions. Situation questions are used to uncover the facts and background of the customer’s existing situation, for example, how many people they employ, or what locations they are based in. Problem questions are about customer’s problems, difficulties and dissatisfaction. They identify whether or not something is a problem and should also be used to clarify that problem, for example, how satisfied are they with their present equipment? Or where does the problem happen?

Listen to your customer

Our YouGov research found 85% of business decision makers believe a good buying experience involves a salesperson listening carefully to their requirements. This shows a desire on the customer’s behalf to be heard by the salesperson. And if salespeople aren’t listening, it means they’re talking; usually about the product or service, they are looking to sell. This is a real danger as it’s a missed opportunity to discover how you could help your customer. Sellers must be careful not to be caught up in the excitement of talking about the bells and whistles of their offer.

Agree a meaningful next step

In a major sale, clients are seldom likely to order something or decide ‘no sale’ immediately; next steps are likely to be what we call Advances or Continuations. An Advance is when a customer commits to take action that moves the sale forward by providing access to a new, meaningful resource. A Continuation, on the other hand, is when the customer doesn’t commit to doing anything, but the seller may have to do a lot. We consider Advances to be successful, but Continuations not to be. Successful sellers look for the highest realistic commitment they can get from each interaction to continue in the sales cycle.

Don’t immediately make a counterproposal

Negotiating terms is standard in a major sale but can be a potential minefield. A finding from our negotiations research is that skilled negotiators are less likely to make a counterproposal than the average negotiator. Responding with an immediate alternative to the one proposed by the client often gives the impression that you aren’t listening to your customer’s needs. Successful negotiators concentrate on exploring the underlying causes for the client making their proposal, so that they can discover their customer’s true objections.