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Practice Makes Perfect

May 1, 2003
Developing good selling habits takes time and discipline, but it’s essential for the professional salesperson. Learning and exercising good self management

Developing good selling habits takes time and discipline, but it’s essential for the professional salesperson.

Learning and exercising good self management is perhaps the best personal investment you’ll ever make.

Knowledge, attitudes and skills, examined in the previous two articles, are the more obvious items in the sales professional’s tool kit needed to achieve consistent success. Now, let’s dig a little deeper in your tool kit to identify those specific — and often very personal — traits that separate the true professional salesperson from the order taker.

Unlike sales skills, which define what you do, these traits relate to how you do it. They might more properly be called habits. That’s good news, because habits are learned behaviors. You can develop them if you don’t have them already. The bad news is that developing them is never easy. It takes time and self-discipline. It often involves the painful process of eliminating old counterproductive habits.


Practice anticipatory selling

How often have you entered the selling situation confident that you could predict the customer’s behavior or his reaction to your proposal, only to be surprised by something you’d never considered? Suddenly your well-planned presentation gets derailed. Because you’re caught off-guard and must react quickly, the likelihood of making a poor decision or giving an ill-considered response increases.

Why? Several reasons — all related to how you think about the customer and the selling situation.

Salespeople sometimes fall prey to the tendency to oversimplify the selling situation. Because you want to succeed and make a sale, you tend to think only in terms of the most positive results. In other words, you view the upcoming selling situation as you hope it will transpire and neglect to consider potential barriers to the desired outcome. Positive thinking is a worthy attribute, but not if it blinds a salesperson to the possible obstacles that may come up.

Salespeople also fall into the dangerous habit of oversimplification by assuming that all customers buy for pretty much identical motives. Such thinking ignores the fact that customers are highly individualistic. They have unique goals, needs and problems that generate unique buying motivations. By treating them as average you rob them of this uniqueness, which can cause personal resentment, and you also run the risk of appealing to incorrect motivations, therefore losing the sale.

This kind of thinking can lead to asking the wrong questions during presale preparation. For example, in an effort to evaluate your intended approach, you’ve probably asked yourself, “How will the customer respond?” The trouble with this question is that it usually leads to a single answer — the outcome you want.

Instead of engaging in wishful thinking, rephrase the question and ask yourself, “How can the customer respond?” Broaden your view of your customer’s available options. Anticipate the full range of potential customer objections, and after you identify each, decide in advance what you will do and say if it arises during the selling situation.

The quality of your actions will improve simply because you have given potential problems sound and unhurried consideration prior to entering the often-emotional selling situation. It will make you more customer-focused, causing you to think in terms of your customer’s unique problems and needs rather than your own.

Because customers are unique individuals, you’ll never be able to predict their behavior with unerring accuracy. But if you know your customers well and apply this knowledge, you can better anticipate the range of expected behavior and be prepared to deal with it.

Avoid projection

Projection, the tendency to assume you and the other person share an identical frame of reference, is typified by the following statement: “If I were the customer, this is what I’d want. Therefore, it’s what the customer will want.” The fallacy, of course, is that you are not the customer.

Projection is especially insidious because salespeople often resort to it with the best intentions. They assume they’re being customer-focused and put themselves in the customer’s position. In truth, however, they’re doing exactly the opposite. They are forcing the customer into their position — and it’s usually not a very good fit.

Why do we project? Probably because we’re a bit lazy. Projection provides a ready excuse for avoiding the hard work involved in developing the detailed personal and business knowledge necessary to sell your customers. It’s so much easier to assume that you and the customer are alike and share identical needs, satisfactions and motivations. Deluded by this assumption, you see no need to get to know the customer as an individual.

Regardless of its cause, projection leads to lost sales. By concentrating on particular features or benefits that appeal to you but hold little interest to the customer, you risk destroying any interest the customer might have. You might end up dwelling on “benefits” that are just the opposite to him or her.

The cure? Know your customers. Find out as much as possible about them as individuals. Then redesign your presentation to concentrate on their particular interests and the satisfaction of their unique needs. Rather than projecting your own values, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • “Given what I know of the specific customer and his needs and goals, which benefits will likely have the greatest appeal?”

  • “Given the customer’s problems and concerns, what objections might he have to this offer I’m about to make?”

If you cannot come up with satisfactory answers prior to the selling situation, you will have to probe for them with the customer. Design questions with the unique customer in mind. This shows your real aim is to solve his or her problems, not simply to get the business.

Control your emotions

Like us all, customers are imperfect. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they are thoughtless or inconsiderate. Or they can become angry over seemingly minor matters and say or do things that may annoy you or make you furious. But allowing yourself to become visibly emotional about your customers’ behavior accomplishes little and will only jeopardize future business relationships by damaging your relationships with them.

Anger blows out the lamp of the mind. In other words, to the degree to which you get angry your thinking ability is impaired and will be reflected in your subsequent words and actions. As one salesperson said, “I save my anger for those things worth getting angry about!” Then, with a grin, he added, “And you know, these are the very things that getting angry about doesn’t seem to help.” How true.

Why do salespeople sometimes get visibly angry with their customers? Because they allow themselves to get angry. They take what the customer says or does as a personal attack that demands an active defense or counterattack. This type of behavior only injects further acrimony into the selling situation and allows the customer, at least partially, to control the salesperson’s actions. More importantly, it usually kills the sale. Think about it. How often have you bought from someone who displayed anger toward you?

True sales professionals keep a tight rein of their emotions and control the anger customers sometimes cause. They realize that when a customer becomes upset about something, there is usually a good reason, at least in the customer’s mind. They realize that logic can rarely overcome strong emotion and allow the customer to “blow off steam” before addressing the problem directly. They display sincere empathy for the customer, a shared understanding of the customer’s worries and concerns, and then focus on removing the cause of the problem, the reason behind the customer’s anger.

Admittedly, you will occasionally encounter truly mean-spirited customers — a tiny minority that seems to take sadistic pleasure in being hostile or inconsiderate. But even with those few, trading emotion for emotion will not help achieve sales goals. Instead, why not consider this sort of customer as a personal challenge to your selling ability? Keep your cool and imagine the amount of satisfaction you’ll experience when you’ve successfully sold him or her.

Watch out for friendships

Developing a strong personal friendship with a customer can certainly help you, but only if you keep it in perspective. A personal friendship is a differentiator; that is, it can separate you from your competitors in the customer’s mind by enhancing an already strong business relationship. It is not, however, a substitute for a business relationship; and no customer will buy from you, at least not for long, based solely on friendship. You must still satisfy his or her product, service and economic needs.

Don’t, therefore, fall into the habit of thinking, “He’s my friend. He’ll never buy from anyone else.” Such thinking will only cause you to take the customer for granted and will leave his door wide open to more enterprising and energetic competitors. Instead, view a customer friendship as a personal relationship that offers the advantages of greater access and openness. Then use these advantages to reinforce the business relationship. Keep finding new ways to satisfy the customer’s changing needs and to solve his or her current problems.

Admit your mistakes

Few people like to admit their mistakes publicly; salespeople are no exception. Many see an admission of error as a sign of weakness that will damage their credibility. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. If the customer knows you’re wrong about something, and you refuse to admit it — well, you can imagine how it will affect his or her opinion of you. Trust and confidence take a long time to establish, but they can be destroyed in a moment.

Only the weak fear admitting they are wrong — when they truly are. The strong don’t hesitate. So instead of trying to cover up your mistakes with half-truths or outright lies, admit them. Then focus on the real problem — the effects of your mistake — and do something about it.

Get organized

Much of a salesperson’s time is spent making and keeping appointments, fulfilling promises, noting and communicating customer requirements, arranging for needed corporate resources and following up via letter or telephone. This work demands attention to detail that many salespeople, often extroverted people by nature, find difficult to provide. Personality, however, is a poor excuse for being disorganized. Customers expect quality from more than your products. They expect it from every aspect of their interaction with you and your company. In today’s highly competitive markets, an error or oversight, even a minor one, can severely damage customer relationships and result in permanently lost business. A disorganized salesperson is a disaster waiting to happen.

Fortunately, effective self-management is a fairly simple task if you take the proper steps.

  • Accept personal responsibility for every aspect of your work.

  • Establish long-range objectives and short-range goals that reflect those of your company and the requirements of your job.

  • Use these goals and objectives to create a system of priorities on which to base the allocation of your time.

  • Practice self-discipline by following the priorities you’ve established.

How you actually accomplish these steps is up to you. The key is not to trust your memory. If you don’t put critical information in writing, you will either make mistakes or forget it entirely. There are dozens of manual and computerized time-management systems on the market today, most offering effective, low-cost means to keep up with your job. Do some comparative shopping and find one that appeals to you. Or do what many salespeople have done and design your own, customizing it to your specific needs.

Learning and exercising good self management is perhaps the best personal investment you’ll ever make. The rewards are substantial: greater personal productivity, satisfied customers, increased discretionary time, significantly lowered stress levels and an enhanced sense of accomplishment. By proving that you can easily handle the job’s present requirements, you’re more likely to be considered for promotion to a more responsible, challenging and better paying position.

Consider your appearance

Your appearance can have a major impact on the customer’s perception of both you and your company. Just be careful about generalizations. Clothing styles and formality vary widely depending on geographic location, community standards, customer expectations and company policies. For example, a salesperson visiting a contractor’s job site might not want to show up in a business suit, but the contractor might expect such attire from those who call at the office.

For these and other situations, there is no rule other than to know your customers and dress accordingly. You must also consider the image your company strives to project in the marketplace. One of your responsibilities is to support that image, not only by your professional behavior, but also by your personal appearance.

Some might feel that succumbing to such concerns represents a form of personal compromise. They’re right. But there is nothing new about this. Virtually every human activity that involves interaction with others requires some degree of compromise, and selling is no exception. It makes little sense to stand on your “right” to dress as you please if doing so will cost you sales and the economic security they bring.

The key to developing these habits, and thus making them an integral part of your on-the-job behavior, is self-knowledge — an awareness of your current attitudes and capabilities combined with a willingness to make the positive effort needed to reinforce your strengths and eliminate your weaknesses. So, as you consider each of the habits discussed, take a moment to reflect on your own performance. Then, make up your mind to take the necessary steps to add these habits to your sales professional’s tool kit. I guarantee you will notice a positive difference in your performance. More importantly, so will your customers.

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