My selling techniques article for Opening sales discussions provides tips and strategies for initial conversations with customers and warming them up (for a great compliment to that advice see my various articles on cold calling and prospecting!). Here, I want to talk about the next step in the sales process model I am using which consists of i) Opening, ii) Qualifying, iii) Presenting, iv) Objection Handling and v) Closing. Qualification is when the sales process begins in earnest and provides the fuel for everything that is to come. As I will discuss below, a successful sale is predicated around successfully qualifying a prospect or customer. Qualification is where you set up the sale by gathering the information that will be key to closing the deal. In my opinion it is, in fact, the most important step in the whole sales process.
I have already discussed qualification in my articles on qualifying sales leads and sales process management among others. Here I provide more strategic selling techniques for qualification and a different run-through of the entire process. In all of my articles on sales, I try and provide advice that is thorough and practical but at the same time general enough to apply to both phone sales and in-person sales for any kind of product or service. When looking at qualification, I generally assume that this is not a first conversation with your customer or prospect. Usually, an initial opening conversation is required in order to engage a customer and set up a follow-up qualifying meeting.
The most important thing to keep in mind with qualification and among indispensable selling techniques is understanding that it is never-ending. One of the most valuable selling techniques anyone can teach you is to learn to ask good questions and then listen. A customer may really be engaged if you are talking and they are listening but the truth is that oftentimes they only appear to be engaged. A lot of the time they are tuned out and lose interest in what you are saying. The only way to engage your customer for sure is to get them talking and the way to do that is with questions. As I have said, I believe that qualification is the most important part of sales and everything else leads up to it or stems from it. Here is why I say that and how that is...
You begin your relationship with your customer by asking their permission to ask them questions. Even as you progress through the sales process and Present, Handle Objections and Close, you will continue to solicit feedback and information with questions. Every time there is a bump in the sales process or you feel that your customer is tuning out, what do you do? Ask questions! Even after you sell your customer one of the selling techniques you should use to re-engage them is asking them how their experience was. This is especially true in sales and in marketing this kind of feedback informs future product and service enhancements. Once again, the goal is to keep them engaged by keeping them talking and the way to do this is through questions. That is all qualification really is, asking questions. That is why it is the most important part of sales.
Here are selling techniques, steps and strategies in qualifying your customer:
i) Open the Door
Sometimes in the sales process the first stage of engaging with a customer is called “Open Door”. This usually refers to connecting with an interested prospect for the first time but I think it is an apt description for the stage of qualification. You will by now have – hopefully! - earned a customer's trust and they are interested in learning about your solution. As such they “let you in” for the first time, so to speak, to have a proper conversation. You should usually have set up the call in advance and they will have scheduled some time so that you have their undivided attention. Always ask for at least 20 mins which is short enough to be acceptable to most busy professionals and can roll into half and hour or more if there is enough interest. For in-person meetings you would usually ask your customer to book off a full hour because it takes time to meet and get settled in. If you have not done so already, it is a good idea to read some of the selling techniques in my article on Opening such as being prepared and professional. A qualification meeting quite often a "make or break" presentation and should be taken very seriously. Not only do you have to position your solution as being the ideal answer to the customer's needs but you also have to demonstrate that you are the kind of person and business that the customer would want to work with
Consultative Selling is often listed amongst the latest and greatest selling techniques over the past few years but I suspect that all good salespeople have always been consultants. For the most part it is just not possible to talk someone into buying something or, at least, not anymore. In qualifying you should see yourself as a doctor or some other kind of specialist whose mission is to diagnose. Only then can you prescribe a solution (which ties into Solution Selling!). Or, see yourself as a police officer at the scene of a crime. That is what your mindset needs to be at this point. It is very easy to jeopardize the trust and goodwill you have created with your customer by trying to sell them. You need to earn that right and the first step is gathering the required information. Contain your excitement, sit back, ask and take notes! Just as with Opening, have a professional demeanour for the most part in order to maintain their trust in your and your credibility. Mix this with being personable and friendly from time to time in order to stay approachable and not make things too heavy
Now that you have the mindset down pat, one of the most basic selling techniques in qualification is have a standard list of questions to go through based on the type of customer you are speaking with and the product or service. Before anything else, it is important to qualify the customer based on the VBANT criteria I have written about previously in order to make sure that they have a) Vision, b) Budget, c) Authority, d) Need, e) Timeframe. After this, your goal is not to employ any fancy selling techniques but to try and find out if your customer is a good “fit” for your solution. To that end, you must devise a set of questions to gauge the compatibility of your solution with their business and situation. You may have to cover things like whether a customer's environment can support your solution or technical specifications. You should know the features of your ideal customer and so coming up with qualification questions should not be a problem. A good starting statement is simply to ask, “Can you tell me a bit about your current environment / process?” or “What are some of your current goals / priorities?” The bigger your solution, the more you need to become an expert in your customer's business and understand organizational and operational drivers
Qualification is like prospecting for gold – just like cold calling! - and as I have mentioned, one of the most invaluable selling techniques for this process is the ability to ask questions. I would almost go as far as to say that there is no such thing as “too many” questions in the beginning of the qualification process. What you are trying to do is build a case for your solution and before you present your case, you have to do your research and gather your evidence, so to speak. Your list of standard questions should be a guide and you should not limit yourself to just these questions as you engage with your customer. Pay particular attention to the things that they seem passionate or emotional about and dig into those. Find out what makes them and their business tick. You never know where you will find the crucial details and bits of information that will allow you to successfully close business with a customer. There is nothing wrong about asking about the most mundane of details in the beginning as long as your customer is happy to talk about them. If nothing else you are establishing a relationship with them and demonstrating your genuine interest in their situation
A key difference between sales and marketing is that marketing is generally one-way while sales is a two-way process. Unless there is a back and forth between yourself and your customer, a sale cannot take place. It is not like many people think, once again, that a salesperson shows up and overwhelms you with their sales pitch to the extent that you are convinced to buy in spite of yourself. Rather, the customer must be an active and ongoing participant in the process - at least to the extent that you are if not more! - otherwise you will have no sale. A sales meeting should be a dialogue and not a monologue. Not only do you exchange words with your customer but also ideas. As such, you will come away learning new things after each customer qualification meeting. With some customers you might learn about their business and with others their own personal likes and dislikes in certain things. You may learn about their dog! The point is that among selling techniques is having an open mindset and not think that you are there to teach and the client is only there to learn. If you want them to open up to you then you have to open up to them. Along the way, you will become an industry expert for your solution and will be able to guide customers in related areas based on your experience as you continue to learn
I have already stated how most everything in sales is reciprocal. There is always a give and take; if a customer wants something from you - e.g. information! - then you have a right to ask them for something in return (beware of situations where you are doing everything because this means that your customer is not engaged!). Selling techniques include making sure that there is always a "quid pro quo" in order to maintain what a colleague of mine used to call "sales tension". If either you or the customer is doing either too much or too little then this goes slack! It is the same with ideas and information. Most companies are big on "educating" their customers on their solutions and such but from my perspective learning should always precede teaching. Everyone likes talking and this includes your customer. Besides being courteous and letting them do most of the talking to begin with, it is essential for you to do this in order to learn about their needs and interests. Only then can you teach them about your solution because you will present your solution to them in their terms and as a direct answer to their problems. For one customer, your solution is a cost-reducer and for another customer it is a way to maximize efficiencies. You must understand exactly what your customer is looking for and talk to them about just that
What you don't want to do is drill a customer for 20 minutes like they really are a suspect in a crime. This is where you apply some of the interpersonal selling techniques that I mentioned in my article on Opening. Build rapport by cracking a joke from time to time to lighten things up. Talk about others things and not just business. A lot of sales gurus swear by getting to know a customer personally or finding some common ground before talking business at all. I will simply say that you should try and gather the information you need in a conversational manner and not like a teacher asking a pupil questions. Another thing to keep in mind is that you want to try and have a genuine back-and-forth with your customer like two friends. At the beginning of your qualification meeting, your customer should be doing most of the talking but by the end it should be both of you. I also want to point out here that if you can't become friends with your customer then it is not the end of the world. It used to be said that “people buy from people they like” but the truth is what sales guru Paul DiModica says: “people buy from people they respect”
viii) Create Agreements
I am torn between whether the ability to ask questions or the ability to create agreements is the most important of selling techniques (I would put them both near the top if not at the top of the list!). People – salespeople included! - often mistake sales as being about talking when in fact it is about engaging. There is a big difference between the two. In the first, you drone on and on and your customer tunes you out and patiently waits for you to shut up so that he can say, “no”. In the second, you ask questions, talk, seek affirmation and create agreements more or less in that order. “Can we chat for a few minutes? Thanks! My company helps organizations like yours [do a,b,c]. Is that something that is of interest to you? Great, I will take a couple of minutes to tell you about it and if it makes sense we can schedule a follow up meeting”.
In your qualification meeting your first agreement should be to have a presentation if it makes sense at the end of the qualification meeting (settting next steps). Then, throughout the meeting, keep your customer customer engaged by asking, “Does that makes sense?” when you say something or repeating what they say back to them when they are speaking in order to gain their affirmation. In positioning your product as a solution to your customer's problem you can lead up to it with questions like, “Would it make sense in that case to do [x, y, z]?” Basically, you are creating an agreement of what the perfect solution should look like for your customer, step by step, “yes” by “yes”. This is part of what is meant by getting a customer to say “yes” many times to little things so that you can “yes” them all the way to a sale.
ix) Find a Need
I have said that qualification is the most important part of the sales process and, indeed, part of every stage in your sales cycle. In the same way, finding a need is the most important of selling techniques in your initial qualification meeting with your customer (of course, you need to ask questions to uncover the need and then seek affirmation of it from your customer!). At times this need will be something that they are aware of and at other times it will be what is called a “latent” need that you need to make the customer aware of through your questions. One starting point for needs analysis might be, “What initially drew you to our product / service?” There must have been a reason your customer decided to meet you, after all. Some other great needs-based questions are, “What are some of your main challenges?” / “If you could change one thing, what would that be?” / “Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?” Part of your repertoire of questions should be those that are aimed at drawing out a customer's pain, problem or need.
x) Expand the Need
Once you have brought the customer needs that you are going to be serving to the surface, you should prioritize them and then drill into them. For the most part these needs will be pains or problems that need solving. One of your main selling techniques should be to focus on the main 1 or 2 pains – most customers buy for 1 or 2 reasons! - and ask questions like, “Who does this affect?” / “What does this cost you per week / month / year?” / “What if this does not change?” Basically, you are expanding the problem in the customer's mind to the point where they feel overwhelmed and leaving it unattended to is simply not an option. A past sales trainer of mine, John Costigan, is fond of saying that you “rip their arm off and beat them with it!” This is a pretty graphic description but at the end of the day sales is hard and most customer will not buy. It takes a lot of effort to get someone motivated enough to act and more to part with their money! Your job as a salesperson is to make solving the customer's problem a priority and top-of-mind for them
I have been talking about the use of questions as one of the most invaluable selling techniques you can develop. Most people know about “open” questions that can have any number of answers and “closed” questions which are yes / no questions. However, there are other closed questions that will be invaluable to you in guiding your qualification conversations towards desired outcomes. For instance, if you are familiar with the kinds of problems that most customers use your solution for, you can begin to allude to those problems if your customer does not latch onto them or bring them up by themselves. For example, let's say that the customer problem is a part that overheats. Just keep asking more and more specific questions like, “How does this machine operate under such circumstances?” / “Do you have a problem with any of the parts?” You are looking for a specific response where the customer says, "Oh yeah, the [x] part begins to overheat!" Keep narrowing the focus of your questions and ultimately if the customer still does not bring it up, go right ahead and ask, “What we see with other customers is this part overheating. Does the same happen to you?” Compare that approach with the approach of just blurting out, “Our solution makes sure that [x, y, z] part does not overheat!” With the right questions you allow your customer to discover their need and the ideal solution and be the ones to tell you about it themselves. That way, the name of the game becomes solving their problem by implementing their ideal solution
xii) Get them to Buy
The key to selling and one of the most ingenious of selling techniques is to discover and understand exactly what your solution represents to your customer. This is one of the main purposes of qualification. Remember that a product or service will mean different things to different people. To some, it will represent solving a business problem and to others it is simply something that gratifies them on a personal level. Unless you find out your customer's reason for wanting or needing your product, you are simply selling because you are pushing features. It is when you find out what their individual and specific motivation is that you can turn the process around. When you then proceed from the customer's perspective and address their needs then they are buying, aren't they? At that point, it is like sales guru Jeffrey Gitomer says, “people don't like to be sold but they love to buy!” This mindset is a big part of what qualification is about. The reason you are asking questions is to find out what a customer wants, needs or is looking for and then ask them to visualize the ideal solution. Then, you simply compare that image with your own solution
xiii) Get them to Tell
A Qualification meeting is not to sell your customer, per se. At least, you are not going to be selling them your product or service outright for the most part (unless you are selling a relatively low-cost item that does not require multiple meetings!). You are, however, going to be utilizing various selling techniques in selling an idea to your customer which is that your solution may be the answer to the burning need they have (which you have helped them visualize!). The purpose of all of this is to set yourself up for your presentation which is where you will focus on the customer need as per your qualification meeting. What you want to do ideally is get your customer to say what their need is and then get them to say what the solution is. You do this with the skillful use of questions which goes back to the immense value of being able to ask the right questions in sales. Once your customer has described what their ideal solution is based on your guiding questions, at that point you are in a position to say, “We may be able to help you with that.” (The real fireworks are left for the presentation, of course!). The point here is that it is far more powerful for a customer to verbalize their need and the ideal solution themselves than hear it from you
xiv) Ask and Receive
Qualification is important and making sure you gather all of the information you need to is important as well. Not only is this among essential selling techniques, what you are trying to create as well through your qualification meeting is a mood and a shared mindset where you and your customer see eye-to-eye and are ready to take next steps together. Sometimes you will come across a customer who will try and bypass or rush the qualification process (“Just show me the product / tell me the price!”). At these times you should patiently explain what your process is and that there are certain questions you need to go through in order to make sure that they are a good fit. As well, at times you will not be able to pinpoint a concrete need or the customer will just not see it. My advice is to continue asking questions as far as is reasonable in order to try to get your customer thinking about things a different way. If all else fails you can go to step xiii) below but sometimes you will just have to bow out gracefully and move onto the next customer. If you can't ask your questions or don't get the information or connection you are seeking then there is no point in scheduling a presentation because that will be a waste of time and a failure
The crux of all selling techniques, once again, is that if they trust you, people will tell you exactly what you need in order to sell them. Sometimes you will find yourself in a situation where a customer is just not connecting with your product or service. This may be more common with low cost commodity products where you have to sell a customer in a single sales meeting. Rather than have a failed meeting with the customer deciding it is not worth seeing a presentation of your product or service (or go the next step), you should at this point by all means start pitching them on features, benefits and reasons to buy. You should know what other customers like about your product or service and you can mention these things. Saying, “other customers just love [x, y, z]” really is a powerful statement. As you go through points you may find that your customer is drawn to something you say and so you should stop and zoom in on that. Generally speaking, pushing features is an unsophisticated sales technique and should be used only as a last resort
xvi) Plan then Proceed
Assuming that everything goes well with your selling techniques and the outcome of your qualification meeting, what next? Let's say that you have made your customer aware of a pressing need they have to address and have also educated them in passing on how your solution may be the answer they are looking for (note the use of the word “may”; this is on purpose because it sounds presumptuous to claim right away that you have the ultimate solution to the customer's problem. It is the same on the phone where you might use a line like, “We have a solution that may help you increase [x, y, z] and save you money? Is that something you might be interested in chatting with me about for a few minutes?”). Let's say that your customer likes you and likes what they have seen so far and are raring to go. So you schedule a presentation, right? Wrong.
One of the selling techniques that salespeople overlook is that you first need to make sure that you are aware of all the pieces that need to come into play for a sale to happen. Who else needs to be involved? Do you need to invite them to the presentation? What is the customer process for making a purchase like this? What kind of paperwork is involved? What is the timeline for a deal to be finalized? You may have asked some of these questions prior to this but now that you have fleshed out the customer's problem(s) and they are on board, you can make this their cause and ask questions like, “What do we need to do to make this happen if everything looks good in the with the presentation?” If the customer is not aware of all the parts of their process – for example, if this is their first purchase like this! - then it becomes their homework to find out. Basically, you want to have absolutely everything ready so that you can move right from Presentation to Close
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