By Michelle Nichols "Selling is easy," a reader told me recently, "once I get through to my customers!" I laughed out loud because what she said was so true. The problem salespeople face today is that there are so many screeners, reaching the person who makes the decisions involves nothing less than negotiating a perpetual obstacle course. Voicemail, unanswered e-mails, approved-vendor lists, human gatekeepers, and what is known as FUD -- fear, uncertainty, and doubt -- all impede the selling process. Add up those factors and it's a wonder anything ever gets sold.
Actually, getting through to customers isn't a new problem. Back in the early '90s, I traveled around giving a presentation called, "Getting Your Message Through." As hard as selling was back then, the days when the biggest hazard was likely to be a stern secretary standing between you and a sales prospect now seem like a cakewalk.
What's frustrating is that there really are plenty of potential customers yearning for someone to expose them to products that will help their businesses become cheaper, faster, and better. Others crave products they can resell to their clients. In love stories, when boy wants girl, the author usually manages to bring the interested parties together in the end. Unfortunately, when it comes to selling, there is no unseen scriptwriter making sure that everything ends happily. What to do? For those with a sales quota to meet -- and sales records to beat -- I recommend a three-step approach.
TARGET PRACTICE. First, be specific when targeting those prospects most likely to benefit from your products or services. Study your list of existing customers until the profile of the perfect client comes into sharp focus. Who buys a lot of what you sell, on a frequent basis, and at a fair price? The more specific your target profile, the better chance that your message will get a fair hearing when you try it on a new prospect.
Just as duck hunters head for the marshes, make a point to be where your targets are the most plentiful. For example, I have a client who sells accounting services to restaurants nationwide. After reviewing her client list, she realized that reps encountered and recruited a lot of clients at conventions of state and national restaurant associations, but only a few at Chamber of Commerce functions. Now, the sales team devotes much more time and effort to covering industry associations.
FORGING A LINK. Next, make the connection with your clients-to-be. If time is tight and the obstacles to a meeting thick and many, find a way to meet them out of the office. One suggestion: Tap your network of contacts for someone who knows your targeted prospect and is willing to introduce you socially. Thanks to the Internet and the web of potential connections it weaves, the much vaunted six degrees of separation has shrunk to four or three.
The Guerrilla Marketing books by Jay Conrad Levinson are full of great ideas. Other strategies, however, need to be approached with caution. One suggestion circulating in 2003 was to send a shoe in a box with a note that read, "Now that I have my foot in the door, I'd like to meet you." Speaking personally, this approach strikes me as downright weird -- and the mental image of some misguided rep slipping his stinky old sneaker into the mail makes me shudder. Ugh!
If you can't push your way through the barriers to connect with prospects, perhaps you can get customers to come to you. Here are a few ideas worth considering: How about a ticket to a free seminar dealing with a subject likely to rouse your prospect's interest -- a symposium, say, on tax laws or what's new in their industry. Similarly, consider sponsoring an event through Junior Achievement or your favorite charity. Add lunch, and the combination of business, worthy cause, and social activity makes a potent combination.
NOTHING PERSONAL. Once you're in front of a real, live prospect, you must be able to clearly and succinctly communicate the benefits your product or service bestows. Can you help the potential client save money, time, or both? Can you offer the hope of higher margins and new customers? Are your wares likely to sharpen your client's image and position his or her outfit on the leading edge of consumer awareness? Whatever benefits you can deliver, don't hesitate to lay them out for consideration.
At this point, it helps to see your product the way others do -- and the best way I've found to see your offering through their eyes is to ask your current clients why they bought from you, and why they continue doing so. Their answers can make for an illuminating experience, believe me. Salespeople often think they know everything about their product and its market appeal, but until they have heard clients explain their unique perspectives, they will never grasp the full picture. Remember, customers buy -- and, with any luck, keep on buying -- for their own reasons, and some of the factors that culminate in a purchase order may come as quite a surprise.
Getting your selling message past the screeners is hard, but don't forget that they are just doing their jobs. Accept those obstacles as a fact of life and work both hard and smart to circumvent them. That means picking your targets carefully, getting their attention, and connecting -- and then, briefly and powerfully, laying out how your wares can help them achieve their goals. Take it step by step, keep your cool, don't be discouraged, and you'll achieve your sales goals. Happy Selling! Michelle Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston, Tex. She welcomes your questions and comments. You can visit her Web site at verysavvyselling.biz, where her new CD, 72 Ways to Overcome the Price Objection is available. She can be contacted at Michelle.firstname.lastname@example.org