Small Business

The Case of the Reluctant Customer


Rocket scientists and brain surgeons have it easy. They seldom hear their customers or patients tell them, "I can do this job myself. Why should I pay you?" But for those of us who sell services that could be deemed easy enough to do by yourself or within your company, it's a constant struggle to find customers who understand the value of hiring a professional. No matter what type of service you sell -- accounting, design, speaking, house painting -- the challenge is the same.

Perhaps your prospective customer hears his mother's voice in his head, "Don't squander your money. Do it yourself." Maybe you're dealing with a perfectionist who believes that no one can do the job as well as he can. It's also possible he doesn't want to be dependent on an outsider and wants to develop the expertise in-house. Whatever the source of the objection, sales pros should know how to locate the sales hurdle -- and tackle it head on.

PREPARE YOURSELF. A recent e-mail from a potential customer was the perfect example of this type of sales problem. The e-mail read, "I'm currently in turmoil trying to decide what's best for us right now. [What] usually happens, whether you know it or not, upon contemplating outside help for a situation, internal motivation to not 'need' help [is stirred up]. And [because of this], new ideas, some renewed energy, and dare I say 'commitment' have surfaced, which makes me wonder if we should go with this self-created wave [to address the problem] for now, and then call you in if we don't achieve our goals which might really make your input/advice stand out."

Aargh. Has this ever happened to you? I actually appreciate that the writer was bold enough to let me know what was going on in his mind. If you sell services of any kind, here is some battle-tested advice to help increase your numbers.

1. Anticipate the objection. In my standard diagnosis questionnaire, I ask, "How have you solved similar challenges in the past?" This question guarantees I don't spend a lot of time in the sales process only to hear at the end -- surprise! -- the customer will now be handling the service on her own.

2. Qualify buying style. If the customer's answer to the above question is that he had his nephew read a book and do the computer-programming work, or the president of the company went to a class and learned how to do office design in her spare time, you know this customer doesn't fit the profile of someone who buys professional services easily.

If you've got a customer like this on your hands, take one good shot at selling him on the value of the time and energy he will save. It's worth a try, but face it, you're now taking on the role of an educator, trying to teach a decisionmaker the importance of prioritizing. There's a chance that you'll convince him -- but only a small chance. If the customer is a dyed-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfer, you're going to have a tough time selling him your service.

3. Look for the match. On the other end of the spectrum, if the customer is the type who outsources practically everything, she is a prime candidate for buying from you. Sometimes this mentality is a result of corporate maturity -- long ago, she tried to do it all but over the years has learned the wisdom of hiring specialists. It may reflect her corporate culture, where she runs a lean, mean operation doing what she does best, and no more. She might sell a professional service too, and innately understand the value of yours. Who cares exactly why? She's predisposed to buy your service.

4. Be bold. Idora Silver, professional speaker and author of the book The Chutzpah Connection, told me that when potential clients call her with a request, she usually offers two or three other ways they could fulfill it on their own. In one instance, a prospective customer wanted to hire her to do some sales training. She said, "Why don't you buy everyone on your staff a sales book?"

Then she added, "Why don't you send them all to a sales class?" She explained that the customer responded with reasons why he didn't want to try those alternative solutions. This exercise strengthens prospective customers' resolve to buy from her. It's a great example of chutzpah, or boldness, in selling (see BW Online, 11/18/05, "Getting Prospects to Say 'I Do'").

5. If they fight you, let them go. Yes, this approach will increase your sales. Too many reps spend their limited selling hours with unqualified clients. Respect everyone's buying motives, even if you don't agree with them. Maybe they have issues they haven't shared with you that are keeping them from moving forward and signing your purchase order. Rather than waste your time, move on and look for new customers -- or new business from current customers.

6. Be encouraged by the example of the home-improvement industry. The rise of big-box stores like Lowe's and Home Depot have actually contributed to the success of contractors by making homeowners eager to renovate. Today, many are inspired to tackle a renovation project on their own only to discover that getting a professional-quality result is a lot harder than it seemed. The next step for these reformed do-it-yourselfers is to hire contractors.

The good news is there will always be customers who value the expertise of professionals. Go find them -- and happy selling!


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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