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Selling Process

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The selling process is defined as a process by which a salesperson identifies and locates the prospects, separates the prospects from the suspects, approaches them and makes a sales presentation, handles their objections, and closes a sale. Subsequently, he also follows up the existing customers to identify further sales leads, and measures the success and customer satisfaction level of the current products and service offerings.

The selling process starts with presale preparation, identification of prospects, and making a sales presentation in which a salesperson tries to convince the customer that the specific product or service can satisfy his need. A salesperson tries to make the customers feel and evaluate the brand or product positively in response to their current need and in relation to the other products available in the market. The end result of this planned process is sales realization for the salesperson, satisfaction for the customer, and positive word of mouth for the firm as a quality product or service manufacturer.

The different stages in the process of selling are:- 1. Pre-Sale Preparation 2. Prospecting 3. Pre-Approach before Selling 4. Approach to the Customer 5. Sales Presentation 6. Handling Customer Objections 7. Follow-Up Action.


Selling Process: From Pre-Sale Preparation Stage to the Follow-Up Action Stage

Selling Process – 8 Stages in the Selling Process: Pre-Sale Preparation, Prospecting, Pre-Approach before Selling, Approach to Customer, Sales Presentation and Handling Customer Objections

The selling process is defined as a process by which a salesperson identifies and locates the prospects, separates the prospects from the suspects, approaches them and makes a sales presentation, handles their objections, and closes a sale. Subsequently, he also follows up the existing customers to identify further sales leads, and measures the success and customer satisfaction level of the current products and service offerings.

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The selling process can help a salesperson to identify the customers’ needs, arouse their interest in the product or the brand, and motivate them to make a purchase decision. According to a famous sales guru, the sales process is 90 per cent preparation on customer handling strategy and 10 per cent on sales presentation.

This implies that a salesperson has to undertake a scientific method of preparation for handling the customers, and if the preparations are good, then his chance of closing a sale is higher than that of others who go for a hit and trial method. It is assumed to be a chain process that a salesperson has to follow step by step to make a synergistic effort.

Each of these steps can be called as a sales proposition. It is an orderly process in which a salesperson can respond to the decision-making process of the customers and close a sale at the end of the process.

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The selling process starts with presale preparation, identification of prospects, and making a sales presentation in which a salesperson tries to convince the customer that the specific product or service can satisfy his need. A salesperson tries to make the customers feel and evaluate the brand or product positively in response to their current need and in relation to the other products available in the market.

The end result of this planned process is sales realization for the salesperson, satisfaction for the customer, and positive word of mouth for the firm as a quality product or service manufacturer.

Xerox Corporation across the globe and at Xerox Document University in the US trains its employees in such a selling process. This sequential series of actions takes customers to the desired action stage and ends up with a follow-up to ensure purchase satisfaction.

Stages in the Selling Process:

Stage # 1. Pre-Sale Preparation:

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Though many sales personnel suggest that the pre-sale preparation is done after doing the pros­pecting, in a planned, scientific process, any selling is preceded by the pre-sale planning. In this stage, the salesperson prepares himself with adequate knowledge about the product he will sell, the company he will represent, the market in which he will sell, the competitor products and prices, the category of customers or segments he will target, and the various selling techniques he will apply during the sale.

Pre-sale preparation helps a salesperson to present a much credible picture to the customer. The trust is the foundation stone of any relationship, and this trust is built by the candour, dependability, competence, customer orientation, and likeability of a salesperson. Pre-sale pre­paration also assists in developing empathy towards the customers as it allows the salesperson to put himself in the customer’s shoes and think what can satisfy the customer most.

It helps a salesperson to garner customer, industry, and product information and develops a more customer- oriented attitude. Salespeople who are well prepared and have understood the complexity of the product and consumers’ buying behaviour will be stronger in communication and delivering the product to the customer.

Customers always live in a world with a lower level of knowledge than what is required to make an informed choice. So a salesperson with adequate knowledge about the industry, the technology involved in making the product, and the target segment of each customer is well placed to provide valuable information to the customers than others.

Product knowledge includes knowledge about the quality of the product, the various units of sales popularly known as stock keeping units (SKUs), price points at which they will be sold to various customers, the unique selling propositions (USPs) of the product or relative superiority of the product to that the competitors, the extra value propositions that the product offers in relation to the competing products in the market, and the level of value that the product can deliver to the customers.

Customers depend to a large extent for the product information on the salesperson as they take product information for granted in any sales deal. If a salesperson fails to supply the relevant information, the competitors may take advantage of the situation and make the deal. Sales man­agers should train the salespersons for acquiring adequate product information. The salespeople should read all company product literature and attend all the company-sponsored training programmes.

If they are required to sell a product line, they should pick up the products one by one and internalize the relevant product information. When they have acquired the relevant product information, they should also develop a comparative chart of the competitors’ product information. They can talk to the users to identify the core benefits from every product attribute so that they can be used during the presentation.

The salesperson also has to collect information about the company whose products he will be selling, its selling policy, its after-sales service and other conditions of offer, the locations of its field offices, the inventory points and product flows in its value chain, its policy regarding man management, its structure and hierarchy of personnel, its lines of communication and command, and its sales, profit, and other qualitative targets for the salesperson.

He should possess adequate knowledge about the history and growth of the company, its financial position, its management, its size, and its policies and procedures.

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The basis of price quotations for many companies is list price, the rate that is cited to the customers. But in many instances, the buyers go for a bargain over the list price and settle for a lower price than the list price. Discounts and allowances reduce the list price. These can be cash discounts, trade discounts, and quantity discounts. Cash discounts are given for early payments, or for buying more than a certain quantity level within a specific period of time.

Trade discounts are given to the intermediaries. Quantity discounts are given for bulk buying. They can be discounts on one-time buying or cumulative discounts offered over a longer period of time. Allowances are similar to discounts but are given in the form of trade-in allowances or advertising allowances that are given for promotion of products and services. These are part of a company’s policy and a salesperson should have adequate knowledge about these policies.

A salesperson should have knowledge about the type and timing of various consumer promotion tools such as coupons, contests, refund offers, price packs, and premiums. They should have adequate knowledge about the transportation charges. They can be free on board (FOB), FOB plant or FOB origin, or FOB destination.

Free on board origin pricing means that the buyer must pay for all the freight charges. The seller only pays for the costs associated with load­ing and carrier. Free on board destination pricing means that the buyer does not have to pay any transportation charges and the seller has to pay for everything.

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The salesperson should be aware about the credit policy of the organization. The credit policies should be explained to the customers because it can be a major factor in purchase deci­sion for the customer. The common practices include cash on delivery (COD), cash with order (CWO), and cash before delivery (CBD). The salespeople should be knowledgeable about the order processing procedures of the company. The more knowledge they have on the order processing cycles, the better they will fulfil commitments for the firm on time.

A salesperson has to collect information about the competitive environment, the structure of the industry, the bargaining power enjoyed by each of the forces in the business, the market share held by each competitor, and the availability of the substitutes and complements available in the market.

A salesperson also has to collect information about competitors’ marketing mix and strategic moves in the marketplace and their new market operations through active market scanning and market intelligence. The sources of such information include the customers, the intermediaries and channel partners, the press and the television, advertising, and trade shows.

Modern marketing is always supported by adequate efforts in marketing planning. Strategically the company identifies its potential customers through market segmentation procedures and targets its marketing efforts at these customers. Though a high level of customer information is already available, a salesperson has to gather more customer intelligence. Customer information is of two kinds.

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Information that explains the way customers make a purchase decision is called the behavioural correlate, whereas the non-behavioural correlate includes socio-demographic and psychographic information about customers and explains their state of being. A salesperson has to collect information about customers’ attitude, preferences, buying habits, perceptual biases about companies and brands, media and other habits, motives, and process of decision-making for a category.

Modern-day salesmanship is highly technical and logical in design. A sales manager should have all the knowledge about various selling techniques including a basic understanding of the customer psychology, sales support and promotion tools, instruments for demonstration, and product information dissemination literature.

A successful salesperson is always proactive in the consumer contact approach and tries to identify customer intentions from the response clues generated during the sales presentation and other interactions with customers. So a sales manager should plan and prepare his approach well in advance with adequate understanding of the various selling techniques and strategies.

Stage # 2. Prospecting:

Prospecting is the process of identifying potential buyers who have a need for the products and services offered by the company, the ability to pay for it, and the adequate authority to buy it. A successful salesperson always effectively utilizes the selling time by distinguishing the prospects from the suspects.

Suspects have no potential demand for the goods at the point of probe in the selling process. However, a proper follow-up many a time results in converting the suspects into prospects. A salesperson identifies three sets of customers at the stage of prospecting. They are lead customers, prospect customers, and qualified customers.

Customers with a desire and need to purchase the product but no or inadequate purchasing power are called lead customers. A salesperson needs screening skills to identify their buying power, financial transaction capacity, volume of transaction possible at their end, special need re­quirements for delivery and choice, location parameters for delivery, and likelihood of generating additional sales in future either for the same product in offer or for any other product in the portfolio of the firm.

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The process of collecting customer data and checking lead parameters to make them qualify as prospects is also referred as prospecting.

The prospects are the buying units who have a current demand for the product and can get substantial benefit through the acquisition of the product. A salesperson’s job in this case is to take the prospects higher in the decision process, i.e., the salesperson identifies the current stage of decision making of the customers and then takes them higher in the decision-making process for realizing a sale.

Similarly, consumers move from a stage of being aware about the product to being interested in them, and then evaluate the alternatives before making a purchase decision.

The qualified prospects are those who have a need for the product or services in offer and have the ability to buy them, but need further persuasion about the product delivering the desired level of satisfaction. The prospects in an advance stage of decision-making become qualified prospects for the salesperson.

A good prospecting helps the salesperson to differentiate between prospects and suspects among the lead prospects so that his energy and efforts can be used for achieving higher sales. According to David Ogilvy, non-addition of new customers is a process of bleeding towards death.

Stage # 3. Pre-Approach before Selling:

Before the salesperson approaches the customers for a sale, it is necessary to develop a sales strategy by collecting customer data and combining them with the product attributes as a fit for satisfying the individual and organizational needs. The more a salesperson becomes knowledgeable about the customer’s behaviour and his requirements, he is better equipped to do a sales presentation.

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Different personality elements may be found in customers such as price sensitiveness, varied level of intellect, capacity and propensity to bargain, and level of self-indulgence, and a salesperson has to develop different selling strategies for each type of customers.

A pre-approach selling strategy for each prospect requires a clear understanding of his personal characteristics and need, and how the salesperson’s product or service will satisfy his need. Strategy development consists of identification of the general need of the customer and then matching the product benefit to the need. The need-benefit match is the initial process of developing a sales strategy.

The salesperson contacts the customers and uses the generalized need identified beforehand as an induction method to develop a positive attention towards the product. This is very critical in the first thirty seconds in sales interviews. The perceived needs of the customer can be influenced by the adoption rate of the customer and the stage of the product life cycle.

An innovator with a high-risk capital and attitude to experiment will look at the innovativeness and novelty of the product, whereas a laggard will be looking for a set of customers and classes already using the product.

A product in the late stage of the life cycle is treated as a commodity as the choice and the criteria of choice are well developed by that time. So the customer will decide on the basis of trade inputs such as price, credit period, delivery dates and schedules, and the billing practice.

A product at the introductory stage will demand more information about the product and competitor by the prospect. So, the old and the new product demand a different kind of need-benefit match for buying purposes.

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The selling plan of the company also helps in building up the selling strategy because it explains the call norms and objectives, additional benefits and differential advantages to be offered to the customers, and the suggested closure of the deal with various rallying pricing points corresponding to the customer’s demand and tenure of relationship with the firm.

The selling plan also explains about the seasonality of the business operation. For example, a fan manufacturer may decide to have a discounting sale during winter, whereas it may decide to add new product features during the summer in the Indian market.

Identification of prospects’ needs and matching them with product benefits constitutes the essential part of any selling strategy. These needs may be professional or organizational needs, or personal needs. Professional needs are needs of the job created due to the role or responsibility of an individual in an organization, whereas organizational needs are linked with the needs of the organization.

These needs include growth, profitability, and economy of scale of operation, effective utilization of the company’s physical, financial, and human resource, enhancement of the corporate image of the firm among employees, customers, and larger stakeholders. So, a salesperson who understands these needs will include them as part of the statement of benefits for the sale of the product.

The best way to understand the personal needs is to think the way the prospect will think. This approach helps the salesperson to translate the product attribute to substantial consumer benefits. The salesperson should also understand the hierarchy of personal needs so that he can translate the attributes of the products to those needs that customers give urgent attention.

Identification of the complex need pattern through skilful probing helps the salesperson to build up his sales presentation strategy through skilful listening, careful questioning, and observing the non-verbal cues such as body languages and decor of the prospects’ environment.

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Some authors are of the opinion that women are better salespeople because of their natural talent of being empathetic to people. They can easily picture how the buyer will react due to their higher social inclination and attention to details.

The selling plan of the company also helps in building up the selling strategy because it explains the call norms and objectives, additional benefits and differential advantages to be offered to the customers, and the suggested closure of the deal with various rallying pricing points corresponding to the customer’s demand and tenure of relationship with the firm.

The selling plan also explains about the seasonality of the business operation. For example, a fan manufacturer may decide to have a discounting sale during winter, whereas it may decide to add new product features during the summer in the Indian market.

Identification of prospects’ needs and matching them with product benefits constitutes the essential part of any selling strategy. These needs may be professional or organizational needs, or personal needs. Professional needs are needs of the job created due to the role or responsibility of an individual in an organization, whereas organizational needs are linked with the needs of the organization.

These needs include growth, profitability, and economy of scale of operation, effective utilization of the company’s physical, financial, and human resource, enhancement of the corporate image of the firm among employees, customers, and larger stakeholders. So, a salesperson who understands these needs will include them as part of the statement of benefits for the sale of the product.

The best way to understand the personal needs is to think the way the prospect will think. This approach helps the salesperson to translate the product attribute to substantial consumer benefits. The salesperson should also understand the hierarchy of personal needs so that he can translate the attributes of the products to those needs that customers give urgent attention.

Identification of the complex need pattern through skilful probing helps the salesperson to build up his sales presentation strategy through skilful listening, careful questioning, and observing the non-verbal cues such as body languages and décor of the prospects’ environment.

Some authors are of the opinion that women are better salespeople because of their natural talent of being empathetic to people. They can easily picture how the buyer will react due to their higher social inclination and attention to details.

The next stage of building the sales strategy is to develop the call objective. Call objective explains the action that the salesperson wants the prospect to take. The call objective decides whether there will be a sales call in the first meeting, or it will be used as permission for demonstration in the next visit, or it is just a formal meeting to supplement product information.

The objective may change as the sales process advances, as many times the customer readiness stage will be different from the calculated level of the salesperson.

The major benefits of doing a pre-sale planning are grouped into four categories. The sales­people build up a high level of self-confidence before meeting the customers. They are able to develop an atmosphere of goodwill and trust with the customers. They help in creating an image of professionalism in the eyes of the customer. This increases the scope of achieving higher sales because people are prepared for making a sale.

To summarize pre-sale planning, it involves four steps- determination of call objectives, development of customer profile, determination of customer benefits, and determination of sales presentation.

The sales call objective should be specific, measurable, and directly beneficial to the customer. The customer profile is developed in the form of demographics and psychographics or behavioural characteristics. The profiling largely depends on how the target segments are explained in the marketing plan.

Development of customer benefit plan involves four basic steps. In step one, the sales­person does FAB analysis. FAB stands for features, advantages, and benefits of the product to be presented to prospects. Here the salesperson does differential advantage analysis with the competitor’s product, which basically addresses the issue of why the product should be pur­chased.

What benefit and solution the product provides better than the competitor should be ascertained beforehand. The salesperson should develop the marketing and contact management program.

Here the key decisions involve the pricing issues, the channels of distribution, and the promotion program. In the next stage, the salesperson should develop a business proposition that includes issues such as price, per cent mark-up, forecasted profit, return on investment, and customer payment plan.

0In the last stage, the salesperson develops a suggested purchase order based on a customer benefit plan. A proper analysis of FAB, marketing plan, and business proposition will enable the salesperson to justify the customer’s purchase quantity and period of reorder plan.

Stage # 4. Approach to the Customer:

The next step is the sales approach to the customer. When the prospect is classified and the selling strategy is developed to satisfy the customer needs, the salesperson comes in contact with the potential customer and makes efforts to influence them for a favourable decision.

This step is crucial because in this step the salesperson tries to get the customer’s attention and generate interest in him for the sales presentation. It is necessary on the part of the salesperson to fix an appointment with the customers at their desired place and time and place himself for the presentation.

The appointment can be taken over phone, mail, personal visit, and third person reference, sending introduction cards, or by email. Customer visits without prior contacts are called cold calls. The purpose of a cold call is to undertake a brief contact with the customer at his place of availability or to fix up a date for future contact.

In cold calls, the salesperson should try to impress the customer with his manners and body language rather than any sales talk. The goals of any sales approach can be summarized as getting the prospect’s attention, removing any inhibition, gaining the prospect’s respect and confidence, probing for the benefits most wanted by the prospect, and arousing their interest for hearing the presentation.

There are various approaches used for this purpose. They include the benefit approach, focusing on consumer benefits; the referral approach, focusing on a third party’s recommendation; introductory approach, focusing on the selling company and the salesperson; and the product approach, focusing on the physical elements of the product.

The strongest and the suggested approach is the consumer benefit approach in which a salesperson would like to begin by saying ‘Would you like to save your costs by 20 per cent through buying of this particular line of adhesives that also saves the average wear and tear by 10 per cent?’

The referral approach is valid when the prospect values the status and opinion of the referee. In most common instances, the salesperson follows the introductory approach in which he introduces himself and the com­pany, and in the product approach the salesperson hands over the product to the consumer for generating interest and attention.

Probing is the art of asking the right questions at the right time. It will occur at many points during the selling process. The salesperson probes to learn additional insights into the customer demand and benefit requirements. It involves gathering primary data that could not be collected prior to the sales approach.

In a later stage during the presentation, when a customer does not accept a stated benefit, the salesperson will use the probing to confirm the customer’s needs and gain acceptance of the benefit. Open-ended questions starting with five W’s and ‘How’ help in gathering more information, whereas close-ended probing helps to clarify a point, reach an agreement, and obtain a response from a conservative and silent customer.

The second part of probing is careful listening of the customer’s answers. One should listen to what the customer says and what he does not say but wants to say. At this stage the salesperson will also like to confirm who the decision-maker is so that presentation can be made to the decision-maker. This is aptly applicable to organizational buying situations.

The salesperson should be careful about some of the commonly occurring mistakes, such as:

i. Disregarding the concept of first impression

ii. Forgetting the goal of obtaining the order

iii. Selling the company’s image than the products

iv. Lack of responses to needs and objections of customers

v. Overcomplicating with technical and managerial jargons

vi. Relying on product literature for product information

vii. Talking and arguing instead of listening

viii.Brushing of questions and objections

ix. Failing to ask for the order

Stage # 5. Sales Presentation:

There is a need for two-way communication between the salesperson and the prospect during a sales presentation. Here the salesperson presents his products and services before the prospect and makes effort to create and modify their interest into sales realization for the company.

While giving sales presentations, the salesperson should always try to link the features and attributes of the product with the customer needs so that the gap or conflict and level of customer ob­jection can be reduced in the subsequent stages.

The presentation should always be made by keeping in mind the level of customer interest, nature of the product, and time available for the presentation and for leading the prospect to the next stage. In a typical presentation, the salesperson presents the benefits and the customer accepts, objects, counters, demands an ex­planation, stays indifferent, doubts the potential of the product to deliver the stated level of benefit, or gives no clear reactions.

If the customer agrees with the opening idea, the salesperson goes for a trial closure. If the customer looks for more information and probes further, the salesperson delivers additional benefits; if the customer is indifferent and the response cannot be classified, the salesperson should probe for further information. If the customer has some doubt regarding the product performance and delivery of the brand promise, a proof should be demonstrated to the customer during the presentation.

Objections of the customer should be classified as minor or major, and the salesperson should wait for customer response at each stage before moving to the next stage. Probing helps in confirming the fit between the stated need and the promised brand benefit. It should be a natural part of the conversation and demands careful listening.

Stage # 6. Handling Customer Objections:

Customers make objections after or during the presentations. These objections are many times excuses for not buying. Objections normally pause the sales process because the customer either has not fully understood the product and its benefits, or is not fully in agreement with the salesperson.

When a salesperson does not face any objection, he performs the functions of an order taker only. An objection is always interpreted as ‘I am not yet ready for the real buying.’

It is the duty of the salesperson to remove all the doubts of the customer before he proceeds further in sales realization. If the customer has doubts about the quality, quantity, price, and usage of the product, it is the duty of the salesperson to clarify the doubts and objections before the close of the sale.

Many authors are of the opinion that sales presentation is like a hurdles race and the salesperson has to jump over each hurdle before reaching at the touchline of sales realization.

It is human to raise objections about new products and services because the customer may not be much aware of his needs and the ability of the product to deliver desired benefits to the consumer.

The customer will also raise complaints when he does not agree with the promised utility of the product, fails to evaluate his need properly, fails to understand the language and proposition of the salesperson, needs additional information for making a choice decision, fails to compare the benefits with that of the other products available in the market, is perceptually biased towards few products already available in the market and in use by the consumer beforehand, or lacks purchasing power.

Objections may take the form of doubts, minor objections, and major objections. A doubting prospect asks for a proof of the product delivering the desired or stated benefit. The sales­person provides answers to the doubts in the form of demonstration, sampling, additional information such as research reports, quality certificates, or by quoting authority or institutions of repute in the field. A minor objection may be about the incomplete facts and figures given by a salesperson.

The salesperson normally paraphrases the objection as a question and answers it with facts. Normally, pricing a point lower is not always a good strategy if the consumer is not complaining about the prices, and objections are more on the quality and service features. The salesperson should concede strategically.

Following are the steps suggested by Smith:

1. Start with your highest expectations

2. Avoid conceding first

3. Be sure the customer understands the value of a concession

4. Make concessions in small amounts

5. Admit mistakes and make corrections willingly

6. Be prepared to withdraw a concession

7. Avoid split the difference strategy

8. Do not advertise willingness to concede

A major complaint from customers is often a disadvantage in the product when applied to the prospect’s mind. Suggesting additional benefits can overtake a minor objection, but if it is central to the prospect’s problem then it may be necessary to terminate the presentation at that point. Excuses or stalls are the reasons that customers use to disguise their real objections and evade making a decision.

The valid objections relate to the prices, product design, colour, size, shape, usage method, installation and delivery schedule, transportation, financial conditions and credit related issues, history and transparency practice of the sellers firm, reciprocal relationships, and role reversals in the future.

Objections provide feedback for those points where the prospect does not agree with either the need or the stated benefits that will meet these needs. Objections require backing up in the selling process to confirm needs and to provide features that produce agreed upon benefits. This step also helps to reclassify the customers from the point of view of ability to buy, needs (both stated and latent), and authority to buy.

An objection is the prospect’s way of asking for more reasons of buying. Minor objections, if not handled properly, may become major objections in future. So attentive listening is necessary before responding to a customer’s objections. Once the salesperson identifies the hidden objection, it is possible to handle it directly by showing how the benefits more than offset the need of the consumer for the product.

The salesperson needs negotiating skills to increase the area of agreement and reduce the area of conflict or disagreement. Negotiation is an exchange of perceived values. An exchange takes place when both the sides perceive that the values gained are greater than those given by them respectively.

The salesperson should identify these benefit propositions that have high-perceived value to the buyer. A successful salesperson anticipates objections from customers and prepares the selling strategy as a response to those objections.

Stage # 7. Follow-Up Action:

The objective of follow-up action is manifold. This helps the salesperson to evaluate the compe­titive sales moves, generate additional leads from satisfied customers, and also help the company in the idea of cross-selling and up-selling. A follow-up normally begins by thanking the customer after the sale and, in case of a failure in sale, it helps in building up of customer interest and in generating repeat sales after a deal.

It also helps in maintaining goodwill and taking corrective actions for the promises made during the sales presentation and discrepancy arising out of non-performance of a part or the whole of the product. The salesperson has to complete the territory records for this account by showing the needs, objections, and specifics desired by the customer during the sale.

Completion of the weekly call report may also include an evaluation of the product when it was impossible to overcome objections. If other salespeople share these problems, it may be necessary to redesign the product or add additional features to solve the customer complaints.

The salesperson should also do a post-call self-evaluation to identify personal strengths and weaknesses in product and company knowledge and selling skills that need attention for improve­ment. The self-analysis could include measures of the successful managing of accounts in terms of sales volume, market share, contribution, expenses, and return on investments compared with the previous year, other territories, and other successful salespeople in the organization.

After-sales service is an important part of the selling process. It assures that the order will not be cancelled and it paves the way for building confidence and establishing relationship with customers for future revenues. It costs five times as much to get a new customer as it costs to retain an existing one for an additional sale.


Selling Process – 7 Stage Process: Research, Objectives, Problem Identification, Objections, Benefits, Close and Follow up

Selling is best thought of as a seven-stage process. The same process applies to prospec­tors, sellers and those responsible for future sales. In fact, there is no reason for all stages of the process to be the responsibility of a single individual, although it is often all carried out by one person.

The stages of the selling process are:

1. Research

2. Objectives

3. Problem identification

4. Objections

5. Benefits

6. Close

7. Follow up

The middle stages of problem identification (asking questions), meeting objections and explaining benefits do not take place in a formal sequential manner during sales contact. New objections can be raised, or questions asked, at any time during a negotiation. The objections often show that the customer is still interested in matching needs with a suit­able offer.

This middle stage is the negotiation/presentation period. It is the most critical part of the selling process. However, a well-researched solid foundation is a necessary starting point. There have been too many occasions where salespeople have caused themselves problems by failing to prepare properly.

1. Research:

The research stage involves obtaining information on four key elements:

i. The product/offer mix

ii. Competitors’ products/offer mixes

iii. The customers

iv. The relationship between the organisation and the customer.

The first item seems obvious but it relies on proper internal communications in an organisation, so the salesperson fully understands what is being offered. There have been times when a customer has seen details of a new product, maybe in a trade journal, before the salesperson.

You can imagine the embarrassment this can cause when a cus­tomer tells you your business. It is also important for salespeople to know the constraints on how far they can negotiate. Buyers are well informed and this must not be underesti­mated. But the object is a win-win deal when both buyer and seller are satisfied. The limits need to be established well before negotiations start, hence the need for consistent and clear information.

Individual salespeople often learn a lot about their competitors and the directly com­petitive offerings being made. These individuals can, therefore, be a good source of such information, and they are able to utilise this knowledge in their selling.

But organisations should not believe that all salespeople will have full information on all issues in their marketplace. Collection and dissipation of information on competitors to all salespeople can be linked to suggestions on how to counter the claims that competitors could be making.

The third element is again obvious but necessary. It is the studying of the prospect organisation, and this helps to reveal opportunities and threats which could arise. The customer should still know his own organisation better than the salesperson, but if there are plans for expansion, or contraction, or other developments, then prior knowledge can help in setting objectives, and in the face-to-face meeting. Additional information is obtained during the selling at the problem identification stage.

Prior knowledge is equally necessary for the relationship between suppliers and their customers. Maybe there have been problems in the past, or perhaps there are reasons above normal trading that bind the organisations together. All previous contacts will affect the relationship, so they must be known by the salesperson who can then decide a negotiating strategy with regard to such information.

Issues of power in negotiations can come from any size of organisation, but these can also come from the control of information itself. The sophisticated article number schemes, used by retailers, often give the retail trade more information than a salesperson on the product sold through these intermediaries.

In dealing with intermediaries such as food retailers, the suppliers are at a disadvantage unless they can gather similar information.

2. Objectives:

Setting objectives is necessary for businesses as a whole, and for individual negotiations. A strategy for a meeting with a customer will have objectives – let’s say, for example, to get an order for 500 items, or to get machine X in the customer’s plant for a test period, or to increase prices by 10 per cent and keep the business – but objectives must not be rigid. Selling is about negotiation.

In the UK we rarely negotiate in private life. You are unlikely to succeed if you offer to pay 10 per cent less for your grocery bill when you reach the supermarket check-out. That is because the check-out operator has no power to negotiate. In other circumstances, in a retail store, it could work – try it! In some countries this type of bargaining is well established.

The requirement in setting objectives is to have an acceptable ‘fall back’ position of alternatives which could be offered; not just price but perhaps payment terms, or special after-sales service, or free merchandising help. Such alternatives can be introduced during the negotiation, if appropriate, with a view to making an offer that is acceptable to the customer.

There will be other objectives for a meeting, such as to introduce a new product to an existing customer, or even to discover the names of potential new cus­tomers for existing products.

3. Problem Identification:

Objectives are a necessary preparation for a sales contact, but when that contact actually takes place it is still necessary to re-establish the facts from the customer. It is obvious that a cold caller will need to ask questions to establish the needs a prospect may have. The same is also true of regular sales contacts because changes do happen and a sales presentation will fall flat if there has been a fundamental alteration in the needs of the customer’s organisation.

Questions need to be open-ended to allow customers to respond and to volunteer information that can be used in the subsequent presentation.

Open questions are typi­cally ones such as:

i. In what way does this machine fail to meet your requirements?

ii. What are the main reasons for your interest in this service?

Closed questions, such as the ones below, do not give opportunities for enlargement:

i. Does your company use a three-tonne press?

ii. Who currently supplies this service?

Questions should be used to identify problems. But they can also be used as a way of keeping control of the situation by dictating the agenda. The one question that should never be used, on an exhibition stand or in a retail store, is ‘Can I help you?’ The obvious response is, ‘No, thank you’.

4. Objections:

The experience of all the authors is that objections are a natural part of the sales process. They can come during the initial approach for a meeting right up to the point when the salesperson is trying to close the sale. If no objections are raised, even an experienced salesperson will worry that something unknown is wrong.

Objections can highlight issues of direct importance to a buyer, but equally they can be ‘false objections’. In these cases the salesperson has to dig for the real problem. When dealing with objections it is essential that the salesperson does not take any objection personally. It is not a personal rejection and, if considered to be so, could be demoralising. Objections can be countered.

Rebukes such as, ‘I’m too busy to see you’ can be countered by saying, ‘Of course, I appreciate you are a busy person, but what I’d like to show you will only take ten minutes of your time’. This technique agrees with the prospect but then counters with a reasonable suggestion.

It is vital to respect the customer during negotiations. Do not interrupt and certainly do not argue with a prospect/customer – if there is an argument and the customer wins, the sale is probably lost; if the salesperson wins the argument, then the sale is definitely lost.

5. Benefits – The Solution to the Problem:

It will be noticed that the sales process described here does not specifically include a sales presentation. That does not mean such presentations are not used. They are. The need is for the presentation or negotiation to address the customer’s needs, and to describe the ‘offer’ in terms of benefits as seen by that customer.

An offer must be – acceptable, affordable and available. Since the customers are the judges of these factors, it is preferable to present the customers with benefits they can understand, not technical features that could confuse.

Benefits can be described at two levels:

i. The benefits offered by a particular product or service

ii. The benefit of dealing with the salesperson’s organisation.

The way to describe the benefits will come direct from customers and will use the cus­tomers’ own language, something all successful salespeople are able to do. The benefits required will be probed. Later in the meeting, the objec­tions and other needs will be revealed. A good salesperson uses the customer’s own words to describe why a particular product best fits that customer’s requirement.

6. ‘Closing’:

Closing is a word from sales jargon. It relates to the key requirement of closing the sale – getting the order, or meeting the objectives of the sales contact. To close, finish, bring to an end, conclude or complete is the last stage of a sales negotiation. But this is not a sudden action, at some prearranged time.

It is a logical development that can take place at any time. Skilled salespeople look for signs, called buying signals that the customer is ready to close. The body language is important in a personal sales situation, and it is often said that the whole period of contact is an attempt to bring the situation to a satisfactory ‘close’.

There are all sorts of devices for forcing a ‘close’, and successful salespeople have an instinct as to when they should use these. They know when to ask for an order, and then the golden rule is to shut up. By doing this, they do not talk themselves out of an order after the event. The use of silence is powerful in forcing customers to either accept the proposal or raise another objection.

If a new objection is raised following an attempt to ‘close’ (get an order), then the process of dealing with that objection, such as offering compensating benefits, is repeated. And then, perhaps, a new ‘close’ can be attempted. A successful ‘close’ might be the end of a particular sales contact but it is only the start of the next important stage – the follow-up.

7. Follow-Up or After-Sales Service:

Some delivery issues might be in the control of another department but, even if they let the customer down, it is the salesperson who has to visit the customer again next period.

The salesperson is the real point of contact, and good after-sales service can mean increased business. It can also lead to contacts with new prospects. Poor service is likely to do the opposite.

Six Things to Avoid:

Salespeople must carry out the various elements in the sales process effectively.

However, there are six major mistakes that can be made even by successful salespeople:

1. Not following-up quotations, enquiries or other promises quickly enough

2. Making unrealistic promises to customers

3. Overestimating their own ability to get a sale, and underestimating the competitors’ ability

4. Exaggerating the probability, size and profitability of future orders

5. Underestimating a customer’s potential

6. Overselling a customer, so that the customer buys more than is needed now.

The first two factors are ones where there is no excuse. A good salesperson knows what is possible, and then deals with customers on that basis. The next two are more difficult. They stem from the necessary optimism and self-confidence required by a salesperson. In compiling sales forecasts from the estimates of sales forces, a usual precaution is to reduce such predictions by a little to allow for excess claims.

The final two factors, under­estimating potential and overselling, are major errors. It is difficult to identify when underestimating happens, but it obviously represents a lost opportunity. It is cheaper to get increased business from existing customers than from new customers, and hence the full potential of existing customers must be considered.

The role of identifying problems by asking questions could be renamed identifying opportunities. For a salesperson every problem is a potential opportunity. But overselling is perhaps a worse mistake. In the continuous contact between supplier and customer, this represents an abuse. It will not help the building of trust so necessary in a good relationship.


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