‘I know exactly what I want’ – selling to the checklist buyer
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‘I know exactly what I want’ – selling to the checklist buyer

We’ve all faced difficult buyers who are evaluating several competitors and seem to have the entire sale reduced to a checklist.

You go in with questions trying to figure out how you can help, but with checklist in hand, they’re totally focused on ticking off each item as they see how you stack up.

You try to find the needs that are driving their decision to change, but they don’t want to talk about anything that’s not on their checklist or comparison survey form.

Problem is, their narrow view severely limits your chance to add value and differentiate yourself from the competition. You might get the sale or you might not, but it basically turns you into a walking, talking catalog.

Don’t even try to talk these buyers out of their checklists, says sales guru Jill Konrath. The buyer is convinced that it’s the best way to conduct due diligence, make apples-to-apples comparisons and avoid being swayed by silver-tongued salespeople.

This is not the ideal sales situation, but you can turn the tide in your favor. Here are some suggestions:

First, see where you stand.
If you know you’re going into a sale like this, try to find out who your competitors are. If you can’t find out beforehand, ask at the beginning of the meeting. If the customer won’t tell you, assume it’s the usual suspects. Then start by making an honest assessment of how you stack up against them, using the customer’s checklist as a guide.

Expand the List
If the checklist favors your competition, don’t waste your time trying to fight it. Cheerfully provide the information requested. But as you do, look for an opportunity to add items to the list – criteria that will play to your strengths or highlight your competitors’ weaknesses. If done correctly, this approach positions you as an expert in your field, to boot.

Example: Let’s say you know Competitor X’s product has reliability problems. Reliability isn’t on the buyer’s checklist. You want to put it there. Say something like, “You haven’t asked me about reliability. How important is that to you?”

The next step is critical: Don’t say a word about your offering. Just look concerned and wait until the buyer asks, “Why?”

Then say something like this, “If reliability is really important, you might want to spend more time investigating this in depth with all the vendors. Some of them require extensive maintenance, especially after the first year.”

This plants uncertainty in buyers’ minds – they may have overlooked something critical.

Clarify the list
Often, an item on a checklist is broad enough to allow for multiple interpretations. You can help your buyer sharpen these criteria – and guide the sale in the direction you desire.

If buyers use broad categories like “service,” get them to define it. If they can’t, define it for them: “Many of our customers tell us that good service includes X, Y and Z. Is that what you mean by the term?”

Neutralizing competitors’ advantages
If the buyer asks a question directly related to a competitor’s strength – and you lack the specific capability – here are two things you can do.

  1. Address the underlying need. “You say that having __ is critical. Can you help me understand what you need it for? What outcomes does it give you that are important?” Often you can deliver the same end result in a different way. The goal is to shift the criterion from a process or capability you don’t have to an outcome that you can deliver.
  2. Help customers prioritize. No one has a perfect product. Your goal: Move your strengths to the top of your customer’s priority list and move your weaknesses toward the bottom.

Go beyond the list
Don’t let the conversation end with the last item on the checklist. Once buyers are reassured that they’ve done their due diligence, they may be perfectly willing to have a more wide-ranging discussion about their needs.

Say: “I hope I’ve answered your questions. But I still need to understand the business objectives you’re trying to accomplish, your decision-making criteria and your priorities. Without this information, I can’t do my best job for you.”

Don’t wait for permission to follow up. Start asking the questions that will help you add value and differentiate yourself. Role play these approaches with a colleague so you can work out the kinks ahead of time.


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