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The Big Picture

April 1, 2003
How do you handle a tough selling situation? Do you “shoot from the hip,” relying solely on your experience and your ability to read the customer on the

How do you handle a tough selling situation? Do you “shoot from the hip,” relying solely on your experience and your ability to read the customer on the spot? Or do you fall back on your canned presentations, hoping that something you say will somehow strike a responsive chord and overcome the customer''s objections? Or do you simply shy away from the tough customers and devote your time and effort to those who always buy from you?

If you''re guilty of any of these approaches, you''re losing business — business that could be yours if you took a more professional approach to your customers and the satisfaction of their needs. In this article we will introduce the “Estimate of the Selling Situation,” a proven technique predicated on several basic principles:

  • Customers are highly unique human beings, with unique motivations, needs and problems.
  • Customers'' needs — business and personal — stem from their long-range objectives and short-range goals, the things they want to achieve for their businesses and for themselves.
  • To motivate customers to buy, you must identity these objectives and goals, understand and satisfy the needs they generate, and solve any resulting problems.

Based on these principles, the process of handling any sales situations consists of 11 steps designed to lead logically to a close. Like any skill, however, its application requires practice.

  1. Identify the customer. To start, you must examine the entire account and consider the impact and role of each person involved in the purchase. Who is the actual decision maker, the ultimate authority whose approval is necessary? Who is the key influence on the current buying decision? Who is the contact at the customer with whom you must develop and maintain a lasting favorable relationship?

    Sometimes they are the same person, but not always. Non-decision-makers can have a major impact on the purchasing decision, and some, particularly users, can exert tremendous influence over the sale. Too many salespeople ignore all but the ultimate authority, and by neglecting other key people, jeopardize future business. You should remember, too, that selling is a dynamic process and the customer can, and often will, change as the selling situation progresses. The person you ignore today might well be the customer you must work with tomorrow.

  2. Identify the customer''s long-range business objectives. Business objectives are the customer''s long-range concerns for the welfare of his or her company, and they should not be confused with personal concerns. What does the customer seek to achieve for the company over the long term? What long-term pressures is the customer''s management exerting? Are these objectives important to the customer? How will they be implemented? How do they affect the customer''s perception of his or her job? How do they impact the current selling situation?

  3. Identify the customer''s short-range business goals. What is the customer trying to achieve for the company in the near future? What immediate business concerns does the customer have? What short-term pressures does he or she face? From whom? What business-related problems are bothering the customer now? How do they affect his or her view of this selling situation?

  4. Identify the customer''s long-range personal objectives. Companies don''t make buying decisions, people do — people acting independently or as members of a group. To sell successfully, therefore, you must know your customers as individuals so you can understand the personal motivations that drive them.

    What does the customer want personally over the long term? While personal objectives might relate to the customer''s work or job-related ambitions, they are strictly personal and not necessarily concerned with the welfare of the organization. You need to consider the range of personal needs that motivate people. Which are most important to this unique customer from a long-range point of view?


    The need (or desire) to make money, to avoid losing money or to save money.

    Self image

    The desire to impress others, to look good or to avoid looking stupid, inept, etc. How does the customer want to be seen (and by whom) over the long term? What reputation is he hoping to establish? What position is he striving for?


    The desire to make life easier to avoid problems and decisions. What current problems are causing the customer difficulty? Does the customer want help with decisions or with other job-related concerns? Does the customer view the sale as a complication leading to potential problems?


    The desire to keep one''s values intact. Does the situation threaten the customer''s values? How does he or she like to do business? What personal satisfactions does the customer seek? Are habits, customs, traditions or prejudices involved? What about ethical, legal or moral issues?


    The desire to increase, or prevent a decrease in, personal responsibility, power or authority. Does the customer want to expand his or her influence in the organization? Is the customer trying to exert power over other employees (or over you) in the selling situation?

    You must not overlook the importance of the customer''s personal needs. Although a specific objective might not relate directly to the customer''s work, you might still help achieve it. Doing so will prove your commitment to the customer as an individual, thereby strengthening your personal relationship and creating real obligations in his or her mind. It will be remembered.

  5. Identify the customer''s short-range personal goals. Which of the personal motivations listed in Step 4 are important to the customer over the short term? What immediate personal concerns does the customer have? What short-term personal needs has the customer expressed? Does the current selling situation pose a threat to the satisfaction of these needs?

  6. Identify the customer''s current primary motivation. Which one of the above objectives and goals (Steps 2 through 5) is the uppermost in the customer''s mind now? Is the customer motivated by long- or short-term gains? Is the customer thinking of his or her personal welfare or that of the company? What is driving the customer''s words and actions; what is the motivating force behind his or her current attitude?

  7. Define your long-range objectives. To be successful over the long term, you must achieve consistent win-win results that will strengthen your relationships with customers and lead to continued profitable sales. That''s a given. But what specifically, do you want to achieve with this account over the long run? What are your long-range objectives for the account?

    As you develop these objectives, you must not overlook the constraints of your company''s capabilities and policies, as well as its profitability and growth objectives. This, of course, demands a working knowledge of these corporate constraints and objectives. You have to know your company as well as your products!

    Steps 7 and 8 are included at this point in the process for an important reason. A true customer focus and commitment to customer satisfaction demand that your objectives and goals be driven by the problems, needs and desires of the customer. This can hardly happen if you develop your objectives before you have identified those of the customer. Instead of being customer-driven, you will be self-driven — a prescription for failure in today''s highly competitive environment. Always analyze your customer''s needs first.

  8. Define your immediate goals. As a professional, you should know exactly what you hope to accomplish during every selling situation. What specific results do you want from this customer interaction? Do these goals complement your objectives and help achieve them, or do they result from short-range thinking, representing ends in themselves?

    Are they attainable? If unanticipated conditions or objections arise and jeopardize their attainment, what can you achieve? What intermediate goals should you strive for? In other words, how can you keep the process moving in the right direction? What if things move more quickly than expected? Can you achieve more? What and how?

    Include among your goals the gathering of any critical information necessary to understand and solve the customer''s problems and to satisfy his or her product, service and economic needs. Neither can you ignore the interpersonal aspects of your customer relationships. In most instances your goals should include specific aims for strengthening these relationships.

  9. Identify the problems. What problems do you face? What is separating you and your customer from the satisfaction attainment of your respective objectives and goals? To be meaningful, your definition of the problem must be clear and specific. Simply saying, “How do I get the order?” is insufficient.

    For example, if the customer has made a statement that you know is wrong, your immediate problem might be how to present the facts (proof) without causing him to lose face or become angry. Or if you need access to other key people in the account, how can you obtain it without jeopardizing your relationship with your current customer contact? Or if a customer is about to make a hasty decision against your interest, how can you cause him to delay?

    Conversely, if he is procrastinating and unwilling to make a decision, how can you uncover and neutralize the real reason for his reluctance to buy? Or the problem might be how to overcome an obligation the customer feels toward your competitor, or how to counteract a customer''s prejudice regarding your industry, your company or your products. There are nearly as many problems as there are customers and situations; but this variety is what makes selling such an interesting and challenging career.

    A failure to identify the correct problems will almost surely lead to wrong solutions. And having a brilliant solution to the wrong problem is no way to succeed.

  10. Develop your strategy and alternatives. In light of the defined problems, the customer''s motivations, the desired outcome and the risks involved, what strategy promises to be the most effective?

    Customers and competitors seldom do exactly as we would like, and it''s no fun being surprised in the presence of the customer because you failed to anticipate something. Consider what your customer and competitors can do — not just what you think they will do — and develop alternative actions to deal with these possibilities. One useful method is to write down all possible strategies that occur to you and then challenge each by asking, “Given what I know about the customer and the competition, what might each do if I took this action?” It is remarkable how the best approach often arises to the surface.

    Which alternative should you reject because they will be ineffective, are too risky or might cause future problems with the account? Guard against those seemingly attractive approaches (often the first that come to mind) that promise the immediate gain but threaten your more important long-range sales objectives.

  11. Plan your tactics. This step covers the nitty-gritty. You can''t do objectives and goals; you achieve them by doing work, by taking specific actions.

Based on your knowledge of the account and its people, you must consider the strategy developed in Step 10. How, specifically, will you implement it? Does it include alternatives or a timetable? How will you approach the individual customers involved in the developing selling situation? What critical areas must you avoid — “red flags that might lead to problems? Which of your advantages will have the greatest favorable impact? How can you explore them to the maximum extent with the customer? Which disadvantages will affect this customer most strongly? How do you plan to overcome or neutralize them? Do you lack key information? How (and from whom) will you obtain it? What specific questions will you ask? What resources will you need? Can others in your organization have a beneficial effect on the customer if they are brought in?

Selling is really a form of communication, and what you say — right down to the actual words you use — can be critical. But even more important is how you say it. When planning your approach, therefore, you need to take some time to consider exactly how you are going to present yourself and your proposal to the specific customer. Next, you must fine tune your approach based on the setting, the time, the people involved and the nature of the customer''s problems and concerns. Then, you must consider the words you will use, the questions you will ask and the likely customer responses.

Finally, you should test your approach by asking yourself two critical questions: Why will it succeed? What could cause it to fail?

You should follow the above steps in order, at least on your first pass through process. You must understand, however, that your analysis will represent only a “snapshot” of the selling situation as it exists now. Because selling is a dynamic process, this “now” is constantly changing. Uncovering new information can force a redefinition of objectives and goals, which can open up a whole new range of alternative actions and might even necessitate a reevaluation of your overall strategy.

To become a truly professional salesperson, you must use the tools of the professional. The “Estimate of the Selling Situation” is perhaps the most effective of these tools. To see how effective, try making an estimate prior to your next tough call. If you apply it correctly, you will be rewarded by new and valuable perspectives into your customers and your approach to them. Yes, it takes time, but it''s time well spent and will greatly increase your rate of success.