There's a lot going on when a sale is made - a lot that happened to get to that magical point where the customer reaches into her Coach bi-fold and hands over her plastic. How did she get to that point? What made her choose your product over all the others she could have purchased? Was it the advertising? The features of the product itself? Her mood? The persuasiveness of your sales staff? The behavior of consumers is complex, but there is a systematic set of steps you can take to help turn browsers into buyers.


Assume you're at a party and you spot an attractive person hanging out by the hummus and pita tray. Assume further that you'd like to go on a date with them, and that you have at least marginal social skills. The first thing you say to this person is probably not "Hello-my-name-is-Jamie-would-you-like-to-go-out-to-dinner-with-me-next-Tuesday?" (Even if your name is Jamie). Instead, there are a series of intermediate steps you'll probably take in order to increase your chances of landing the date. Selling is like that, too; it's a systematic, multi-stage process. There are several systematic processes that are effective, but our focus here will be on a process that is highly customer-focused. The steps are outlined below.

1) Establish Rapport and Credibility

People do business with people they like and feel they can trust. Your job is to make your customer want to do business with you. Your job is not to make your customer think you are smart, rich, handsome, or really good at basketball, though some of these may come in handy. How? It depends on your customer. Let me explain…

Highly effective sales people (and sales messages, for that matter) tend to be highly adaptive to the customer - not the other way around. If your customer is casual and low-key, be casual and low-key. Perhaps use humor and light conversation. If your customer is in a hurry, cut the small talk and get right to addressing their needs. If your customer likes to talk about basketball, indulge him.

Adaptation can take place along two dimensions: 1) pace (fast versus slow) and 2) task or relationship oriented-ness (build-relationship versus get-right-to-business). Below is a quick-reference chart for ideas on how to relate to people along these dimensions.

Want to know which type you are? Click here to take a quick quiz.

- Establish your credibility
- Give credentials
- Acknowledge their expert status
- Get down to business quickly
- Listen to their objectives
- Be personal, but reserved
- Engage in informal talk
- Show interest in their work
- Reference people they may know
- Talk about people
- Show interest in them as a person
- Let them talk
- Be entertaining

Pace ---> Faster

While you're involved in this process, now's a good time to establish credibility as well. Some ways to do this:

  • Ask precise questions (it lets people know you've done your homework).
  • Listen intently and actively.
  • Don't be a know-it-all. That just pisses people off.
  • Deliver on your promises.
  • Ask confirmation questions that can be answered 'yes' or 'no,' and that demonstrate you understand where the customer is in the decision process.

An example of a good confirmation question would be "So you're looking for a color printer that's good for printing digital photos, but you're not sure about the value of some of the extra features on the high-end models?"

2) Gather Customer Information

This is potentially a very deep and involved topic, worthy of it's own article or even tutorial. For now, we'll stick to an overview of typical areas of information weakness. The first relates to changes and challenges in your customer's industry. It's important to know the relevant obstacles they face every day, know their pain points, and try to understand how their landscape may be changing. For example: if you're selling office furniture, know what the trends are in your target area. Are more businesses moving toward "hoteling" space for their employees? Are they getting away from cubicle farms and moving back to traditional offices? Maybe there are newly publicized environmental concerns with fabric treatments, or an energy crunch that may call for energy-efficient lighting. Know what's on the horizon for your customers and help them deal with the trends and changes they face.

Another area that can be a potential information void is an understanding of your customer's true objectives and resource limitations. Fill the void by learning what benefits they care about most in your product. Customers buy based on benefits, so be sure you understand what these are. (For a review of what 'benefits' are, read our tutorial "What do Customers Really Buy?")

Also, try to understand what influences their buying decisions and what political and financial factors affect their actual buying procedures. Must they use a purchase order, or will they use a company or personal credit card? Will they be able to make the purchase decision on their own, or will they need compelling facts about the product to bring back to the decision maker at home or work?

Know your competition. This is basic marketing, but cannot be stressed enough. Know where your product lies on a snake plot as compared to your competitors' product. (Need a review of what a snake plot is? See our tutorial "Snakeplots for Understanding Customer Perceptions.") Be frank when you talk about relative advantages of your product versus that of the competition. You can emphasize the positives of your product, certainly, but lying or exaggerating will only erode the trust and credibility you built up earlier, while you were talking about basketball.

Remember: customers buy for their own reasons, not yours. Don't jam your perception of how fabulous your product is down their throat. Listen to what they care about most and address those points.

3) Propose Action

Your proposal for action is some sort of proposal to purchase your product. The way to propose action is to tell your story and let the buyer decide. How do you 'tell your story?' You suggest a solution and then convince your customer that your solution/product can do what the competition does, only better. The key here is that the customer must perceive a distinction between your product and the competition. The most effective way to demonstrate distinction is to make sure that your proposed solution is:

  • Relevant to your customer's needs, which you discovered through active listening and questioning in the information-gathering stage.
  • Different from the actions/solutions/products being offered by the competition.

Help the customer understand how your product provides the benefits that are most important to her. And then explain how it does so better than the competition. You can't do this unless your product has been positioned firmly and your sales force is intimately familiar with your positioning statement. (Need a review on positioning? You guessed it… check out our tutorial on the subject: "What is a Positioning Statement?").

4) Getting Commitment

Some degree of commitment is important at the end of every sales-related encounter. If you don't sense that you can close an ideal sale, try to walk away with at least an incremental commitment. For example, if your customer is not ready to place a season's worth of orders for your Levi's Super Low Hip-Huggers. Try to land a commitment for a special, short-term promotional order, or even to just set an appointment for her to come to your office and look at more samples and discuss various options.

Side note: before you get to that point, it's best to have already formulated some potential commitments. I.e.; have an outline in your head of your optimal commitment, your minimal commitment, and a menu of creative options in between.

On the way to a commitment, you may encounter objections. (Gasp!) To help get past these, try the following:

  • Before you sell, make a list of foreseeable objections and develop solutions for them.
  • Always confirm and demonstrate you understand the objection.
  • Understand that obstacles exist because customers perceive that they might 'lose' somehow; getting around this will require an assessment of the customer's attitude.
  • Use questions to assess the customer's attitude, such as "Is there anything about which you're uncertain?"

Once you understand the objection, you're better equipped to address it.

Some Final Thoughts

It's the customer who matters most; the customer whose needs come first. Listen to them. Know what benefits they care about, learn what their concerns are, and focus on those. Be flexible and adapt to your customer, don't expect her to adapt to you. And remember, if you don't meet your customers' needs, someone else will.


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Wendy Comeau is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. She is not a blonde.