The call went out from a major manufacturer looking to hire a new food-service provider to manage its cafeteria. The contract was worth millions.
The crack sales team from Big Vendor locked themselves away and got down to work. They created a compelling script with an irresistible parade of benefits and features. They rehearsed responses to objections. They armed themselves with spreadsheets, statistics and diagrams.
Going up against them was Gene.
He was a seasoned presenter. But this time he tried something different. Instead of preparing a fancy presentation, he went visiting.
First, he visited other vendors that the prospect did business with. He asked, “What does the prospect like? What makes them mad?”
Then he visited the prospect’s cafeteria. He asked anyone who would sit still why they were unhappy with the current vendor and what they wanted in a new one.
He got some of his questions answered, but not all. And many of the answers contradicted one another.
The big day
When presentation day came, Big Vendor’s performance was dazzling. “Great job,” the committee chair said. “You’ve given us a lot to think about.”
Passing Gene in the lobby, the reps from Big Vendor tried not to smirk. Where was the presentation team? Where was the projector? The leave-behinds?
Gene walked in and introduced himself. “I understand you’re having problems with your food service. Why don’t you tell me what kinds of problems you’re having.”
For the next hour, Gene could hardly get a word in edgewise. The buyers fell all over themselves helping him understand their problems. When the conversation finally wound down, Gene reviewed his notes. “It looks like you’re having trouble in this area, and this and this. Here’s what we can fix, and here’s how I think we can do it.”
He didn’t even have to quote a price. He got the business before he left the room.
Big Vendor’s pitch boiled down to this: “Here are our reasons why you should buy from us.”
Gene’s approach: “Tell me your reasons for buying.”
Buyers buy for their own reasons, not yours. That seems to be the most obvious fact in the world. Yet most sales still focus on “what we’ve got” rather than “what you want.”
Try Gene’s approach on your next sales call and see how it changes the dynamic:
- Invite buyers to to tell you where it hurts. Ask what problems they’re facing or what they’re trying to achieve. If they were contented, they wouldn’t be shopping. Let them unload.
- Resist the temptation to provide a solution. This is the most critical step. Once you propose a solution, you stop learning about the customer’s reasons to buy. Keep asking questions until you completely understand why you’re there.
- Recap and get the customer’s agreement: “So your main problem is X, but Y and Z are important, too. Is that correct?”
- Show how your capabilities can address the buyer-defined problems. You’ve researched their problems beforehand, so you already have an idea of how you can help.
If unexpected needs emerge, look for solutions together. If need be, ask for time to consider their problems and come back to them. That’s better than trying to sell a canned solution that doesn’t fit.
Source: Stephen Heiman and Diane Sanchez, authors of The New Strategic Selling, Nightingale/Conant.
Subscribe to the Sales Blog
Get the latest research on workplace learning with weekly posts delivered to your inbox