April 2004
Creating successful selling cycles
The key is in asking the right questions and listening carefully
Many elements go into creating a successful selling cycle. The Dale Carnegie Corporation has trained thousands of successful sales reps using its five basic steps: attention, interest, conviction, desire and close. Having taken this course, and discussed its relevancy with other sales reps, most agree that following the five steps will produce the desired result. I personally found that, in my enthusiasm to get the order, I would frequently skip one or two of these steps, and while I was sometimes fortunate enough to get the order, often I was unsuccessful.

When I took the time to revisit the selling cycle, it became very clear that I hadn’t followed each step. If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that I believe it’s important to analyze and revisit both your successful sales calls and the unsuccessful ones. But there are occasions when we provide relevant, meaningful solutions and still don’t get the work. However, unusual circumstances are normally involved in these situations and we should try not to get too discouraged when it happens.

It seems to me that regardless of the type of sales training that a company provides, or how much reading and studying an individual does on her own, there are two concepts that can never be stressed enough: asking meaningful questions and listening.

Ask, listen, understand
When you ask the right questions, you begin to learn and understand both the real and perceived needs of the customer. You need to explore and learn about both the successes and the disappointments that a client may have experienced, and how to orchestrate your sales approach to prevent the negatives from re-occurring. Learning about the client’s positive experiences gives you a good idea of the very minimum effort you must be prepared to deliver. However you can now determine how much higher you must set the bar to exceed your customers’ expectations.
The “right” questions can be asked only when we listen carefully to what the customer is saying. If the customer hears information and sees products that can benefit her company, she will give us some very subtle tips as to how to sell successfully to her. This is the time that we must listen very carefully. Understanding the needs of a customer by listening closely to what he or she is saying is an essential characteristic of successful sales people.

Often times these messages will be very “low key,” and will not appear to be a complaint. However, there will be a hint or an indication that something is lacking or something was not done correctly in the last program. We’re all aware of the problems that can occur during a printing job, and I believe that there is no better source of information than what we receive from the buyer. However, we will learn this information, only when we listen carefully and ask the appropriate questions at the correct time.

Time for something different
It seems that every day we learn about another casualty in this industry. As I write this column, an auction is taking place in Toronto for the assets of a once quite successful printing company. Another is scheduled to take place within the month. Every manager/owner whom I meet tells me that this downturn is the most difficult they have ever experienced. Most suppliers tell me the same thing.

As an industry, is it not time to try to do things a bit differently? Can we assume that we can make some money if we do things well and pay close attention to what our customers tell us? It’s important to remember that our customers do not want us to do something for nothing. They understand that we stay in business by making a return on our investment. While some printers will undoubtedly complain that their customers have never shown any concern with the well being of their company, I believe that most do.

I think that most buyers are under substantial pressure to find better solutions for their printing and duplicating requirements. Could it be that when we’re not listening carefully enough or paying enough attention to what our customers are saying, and are not coming up with creative ideas for them, they tend to focus primarily on the prices we submit? As a result, we think that there is no loyalty left in the business and that nothing else matters except the lowest price.

To project this mind-set one step further, we’ve all heard sales reps say, “My customers buy strictly on price, so why should I try to bring any additional value to the work, let alone give them exceptional service?” My feeling is that often we add very little to meeting or exceeding the needs of the customers, and that maybe we are being “rewarded” proportionally to the effort we make.

Let me suggest that, the next time you work with an account, you ask questions and listen carefully for answers that will help you provide helpful solutions. Think about every facet of the project, from the creative, unit size, number of colours, paper selection, and finishing options to ways of distribution. My guess is that your customers will receive your proposal very positively and you will have a much better chance of securing the business when it becomes obvious to the buyer that you have put a huge amount of work into finding the best possible solution for her.
Duncan McGregor was president of the former Arthurs-Jones Inc., a Toronto-based, award-winning commercial printer. He led the $5 million-a-year firm to a five-fold increase in sales. He is now a consultant to the printing industry and can be reached at (416) 487-7666.
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