I'm sure you'll agree that establishing credibility is one of the most critical elements in securing a new customer. The customer must see you as a credible and trustworthy resource. When we ask our program participants to describe the elements of credibility, they often suggest things like a proven track record, a list of satisfied customers, number of years in business, financial strength, business size, etc.—all are items that contribute to credibility.

Our next question is, "How do you establish that credibility or convey that credibility to a prospective customer?" Invariably, the response is, "We tell them."

Now the sobering question, "How different are your two best competitors' credibility stories from your own company's credibility story?"

Unfortunately, other than a few minor elements, they are likely to sound quite similar. Therefore, telling the credibility story suggests that you and your competitors are more equal than you are different. This type of credibility is what we refer to as "expected credibility." In other words, people expect you wouldn't be in business if you couldn't provide the above credibility story. They really see it as table stakes. It's expected, and they'd be surprised and quite skeptical if you didn't have it.

To truly set you and your company apart, what needs to be developed with your customer is what we refer to as "exceptional credibility." Expected credibility is what you know about your business and your solution. Exceptional credibility is what you know about your customers, their individual job responsibilities, their business objectives and performance, and their challenges.

The best way to develop exceptional credibility is through diligent preparation and thought-provoking questions. Unfortunately, most salespeople prepare very little, ask too few questions, and seldom reach the required level of asking thought-provoking questions.

Let's look at the traditional approach ,which finds the majority of salespeople starting with the needs analysis, which is a fine concept. The trouble is, most of the questions are rarely taken beyond the most superficial level. The following is a worst-case example in a scenario of selling software to control compressors.

  • Qualification: "Are you using compressors to support your manufacturing process?" If yes, they are qualified, go on to Needs Analysis.

  • Needs Analysis: "Are you currently using software to coordinate the output of the compressors?" If no, they have a need, go on to Presentation.

  • Presentation: "Let me show you the advanced control systems we have built into our software and how they will increase the productivity of your refinery and reduce your energy costs." If customer seems interested, go on to the Close.

  • Close: "Let's set a date for the pilot installation."

The emphasis on presenting the solution as fast as possible leaves little time to understand the unique nature of the customer's situation. In fact, the standard approach assumes that the customer has completed some sort of self-diagnosis and therefore will be able to connect our solution to the problem.

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Jeff Thull is president and CEO of Prime Resource Group (www.primeresource.com) and the author of Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales (September 2006), The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale (Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2005) and Mastering the Complex Sale (2003).