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Act Like a Salesman

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More selling basics for when sales start to slip.

Sept. 1, 2003
Salespeople should remind themselves to search for each customer''s psychic needs. The latest selling technique may catch a salesperson''s fancy, but

Salespeople should remind themselves to search for each customer''s psychic needs.

The latest selling technique may catch a salesperson''s fancy, but when business starts to falter, it''s the basics that serve best. This article picks up where we left off with the last installment, with a review of the “basics.”

The salesperson should center his sales presentations on things that appeal to the individual customer.

In their sales presentations, many salespeople make the mistake of emphasizing what appeals to them. But features and performance specifics that interest the salesperson may interest the customer little or not at all.

By adroit questioning (and with an eye to the customer''s past actions) the salesperson should try to identify the customer''s prime area of interest. If this key concern escapes detection, he can simply note the customer''s reactions to the benefits mentioned and hone in on those that seem to awaken interest.

This technique becomes especially important when a salesperson''s offering contains new or revolutionary features. While the tendency to wax enthusiastic about these features may be understandable, it may put customers off. Some buyers fear features of “unproven value” and others dislike having to exhibit their lack of technical knowledge.

If the need exists to “educate” the customer, the salesperson can preface explanatory remarks with such openers as, “As you probably know…” Some customers who “do not know” will say so, but many will not.

Above all, the salesperson should stress benefits first and then show customers which product or service features produce those benefits. Mentioning benefits first opens customers'' minds. Mentioning features first rarely does so.

Salespeople should always make customers feel as if they empathize with customers'' problems and situations at every stage of the sale. Sincerity counts in this effort. Salespeople should also avoid anything even approaching an argument; they can always find some point upon which to agree with customers.

At times, a salesperson will encounter customers who hold views based upon erroneous information or resulting from a lack of expertise in the salesperson''s field. To deal with this situation, a salesperson can use such statements as, “I certainly understand your point of view. In fact, I felt just as you do now, until I obtained some information that had not been available to me.” (Then the salesperson presents the missing facts.) As long as a customer''s viewpoint remains clouded by hearsay or lack of knowledge, the salesperson faces a problem. A salesperson must use phrases and approaches that will save face for the customer. Such tactics do not manipulate the customer. They motivate that individual to take action in his or her own interests.

Salespeople should remind themselves to search for each customer''s psychic needs.

In the effort to identify customers'' product or service needs and problems, many a salesperson fails to consider another type of need all of them have. Customers have images that they want to project; i.e., ways in which they want to be seen by others, including the salesperson.

Customers will have psychic needs, whether they own the business or work for it. An owner may feel that others in his field will judge him by his buying decisions, and their opinions could matter a lot to him. For example, if he were seeking an office in a trade association, he might wish to appear capable when he met with other business owners in the group. At the other end of the spectrum, buyers who work for a big company may feel higher management will judge them on the wisdom of their buying actions.

For reasons like these, customers may well be concerned with more than the products, service or price offered; they will also be concerned about the “psychic price” they may have to pay if they make an unwise buying decision. A professional salesperson realizes this fact. Salespeople who concentrate only on the features of the product or service, giving little or no thought to such psychic needs, can lose an order or waste time getting the order. Those who brush off any talk about “psychic needs” as so much gobbledygook will likely fail to get the order. They do not realize that behind every customer''s buying decision a psychic need may play a role.

The question remains: how can a salesperson identify these psychic needs? The first rule is to listen and look. Listen to what the customer says, but also look for a pattern in his behavior. Do the trappings — pictures, diplomas, awards, etc. — in his office relay anything about how the customer wants to be seen? What kind of car or type of home does the buyer own? It may also reveal something about how he wants to be seen. A word of caution on this: A salesperson needs to look for a pattern rather than make judgments based on a single possession or status symbol. A person''s office may tell nothing; in some large firms, company policy dictates what may be displayed. Or, the customer''s spouse may have decorated the office, purchased the car or chosen the house. A key indicator of how the customer wants to be seen is what he likes to talk about when given the opportunity.

If the buyer''s primary psychic need is satisfying his or her superiors in the company, it becomes very important to the salesperson to know as much as possible about the customer''s company organization. He needs to know, too, whose opinions in that company matter to the customer he''s trying to sell. While he''s coming up with ways to satisfy the customer''s product needs, that customer may be worrying about how higher management will regard the offerings. This problem can be difficult to identify because most buyers who harbor such a fear will not knowingly reveal it to others. It''s the salesperson''s job to provide the buyer with information that can be used later in convincing others in the company that the buying decision was or will be, a wise one. The salesperson should make every effort to determine who makes the final decision. It may not be the individual upon whom he calls.

If the buyer''s primary psychic need centers not on how he will be seen by others but on how he wants to see himself, the situation requires slightly different handling. Since these customers will be very concerned with protecting self-image, they will resist making buying decisions they fear they will regret later. Such customers need proof, examples, testimonials and sometimes demonstrations to supply the assurance they need.

When self-image governs a buyer''s behavior, the salesperson must give thought to such mundane factors as how to dress, how to address the customer (by first or last name), how to make certain that the customer knows he listens, etc. Faults in any of these and similar areas may turn customers off no matter how good the offerings. They may feel subconsciously that they are being asked to pay too high a “psychic price” if the salesperson seems to not pay them their due respect.

In general, when salespeople try to sell expensive items to customers, they tend to think of product or service features. Many find it hard to believe that a customer who''s spending large sums of money for a product will let psychic needs play any part in the buying decision. But how many of us know individuals who buy very expensive cars when far less costly ones would meet their “product needs?” Or others who purchase homes that far exceed their basic housing needs? How many of us have at times bought any of a long list of items that surpassed our product needs because they satisfied some psychic need (pride of ownership, desire to have the latest), even one we might not like to admit was the basic buying motive?

The salesperson should try to identify his customer''s primary buying motive and then use strategies and tactics that will satisfy that motive. But he should never let on to customers that he knows that a psychic need has dominated over a product or service need. In selling situations, at the very least the salesperson must avoid saying anything that will threaten a psychic need. A customer may not have any such need until the salesperson inadvertently says something or acts in a manner that causes one to come to light. On the other side of the coin, these psychic needs can be of help to a salesperson. Having identified them, he can work toward making customers feel that the product offered will not only satisfy product needs but will also enable them to project the image they want.


Salespeople often pat themselves on the back for being good listeners who hear what the customer says. But they may forget that what the customer does counts, too. Here is an example:

A manufacturer needed a major piece of equipment. Every time the sales engineer called, the customer said he would not buy the product until a specific feature was added. Three times the sales engineer was successful in having his company add a feature, only to have the customer ask for yet another. In the meantime, the manufacturer met his operating needs by purchasing used equipment from another supplier.

Up to this point, the sales engineer had considered only the product needs of this customer. Now, he was forced to identify any other need that might be their reason for the customer''s requests. He listed some observations:

  1. The customer''s plant was immaculate, but others like it were commonly coated in grime. Every week it was hosed down until it was spotless.

  2. When the customer visited the sales engineer''s plant, he would charter a plane and would introduce the hired pilot as “my pilot.”

  3. He traveled extensively overseas and was quick to recite his experiences.

  4. He would also return from each trip with items that an observer would know came from a foreign country.

  5. He constantly asked the sales engineer what new equipment had been sold to his key competitor.

On the sales engineer''s next call, the customer asked for a new feature — a huge metal dust shield to cover the equipment. The sales engineer reported this request to his company — and met with a furious and negative response when he suggested that they meet it. “This guy is just leading you on while be buys used equipment and adds features he asks us for,” he was told. “We are NOT going to add a @!*& dust shield.”

The sales engineer responded with, “Look, I''ve finally got this fellow sized up. He wants to be the biggest manufacturer in his business, and he wants to have features that his key competitor lacks. He also loves to bring visitors to his plant, and he likes to hear their “Ohs” and “Ahs” when they see the place spotless. I''m convinced that if we build that dust shield, we''ll get the order we''ve been after.” In his presentation to his own company, the sales engineer related all the idiosyncrasies of the customer.

The sales engineer prevailed, and the dust shield was constructed. As a result, the customer purchased the product. Within a few months he purchased three more units.

The story had a happy ending, but the sales engineer could have handled the sale better. A lot of time could have been saved if he had asked himself, “What psychic need is the man trying to satisfy with all of his unorthodox actions?” If he had identified the customer''s need to be the largest and the best, he might have sat down with him much earlier and asked, “If you were designing this product, there, apparently, are features you would add. Let''s list them so that I can go to my management and come back with a proposal that will meet all of your needs.” The chances are great that he would have obtained the order many months earlier.