The Selling Process Tutorial

As we saw in the Personal Selling tutorial, many sales positions do not include a strong emphasis on generating customer sales, rather these positions help meet promotional objectives in other ways, such as communicating with people who influence the final buyer, responding to customer-initiated inquiry (e.g., customer carrying product to a retail counter) or serving as support for the organization’s sales team.

Yet, for a large percentage of marketers seeking the benefits of personal selling as a promotional tool, success is measured in terms of products sold as a direct result of personal selling efforts (i.e., order getters). For this reason it is important that all marketers fully understand how order-generated selling occurs.

Additionally, understanding the selling process is beneficial for many others who do not view themselves in sales roles. For instance, a product manager must convince the VP of Marketing to fund a major market research study. Though what the product manager must do may seem far removed from what most people perceive as selling, the key is whether one person is persuading another person to make a decision. Whether it is convincing someone to make a purchase, accept a point-of-view, change attitudes or an infinite number of other behavioral decisions, it all comes down to mastering persuasive communication or selling.

In this part of our Principles of Marketing Tutorials we take a detailed look at the activities involved in personal selling. While most of what is covered concerns the activities salespeople undertake when a principle part of their responsibilities includes obtaining orders, the information presented can be valuable for anyone who finds themselves in need of guidance in handling persuasive situations.

The selling process is a set of activities undertaken to successfully obtain an order and begin building long-term customer relations. While the activities we discuss apply to all forms of selling and can be adapted to most selling situations (including non-product selling such as selling an idea), we will mainly concentrate on the activities carried out by professional salespeople. For our purposes, we define professional salespeople as those whose principle occupation involves selling products (i.e., goods and services) to buyers and do so for organizations that appreciate and support sellers who are well-trained and ethically responsible.

The selling activities undertaken by professional salespeople include:

  1. Generating Sales Leads
  2. Qualifying Leads
  3. Preparing for the Sales Meeting
  4. Making Initial Contact
  5. The Sales Meeting
  6. Handling Buyer Resistance
  7. Closing the Sale
  8. Account Maintenance

It should be noted that while we present these activities in an order that is suggestive of a step-by-step approach (i.e., one activity must be carried out before the next), in many selling situations this will not be the case. For example, a buyer for a large retailer may have observed a salesperson's product being used while visiting a competitor’s store. The buyer, anxious to obtain the product for use in her own stores, contacts the salesperson immediately upon returning to the office. After addressing a few questions from the salesperson confirming the buyer’s status at the retail company and without much prodding by the salesperson, the buyer places an order and agrees to meet the salesperson for lunch the next day. In our example, only activities #2 – Qualifying the Lead, #7 – Closing the Sale and #8 – Account Maintenance are carried out in order to obtain the sale and to begin building a long-term relationship.

Additionally, salespeople often find circumstances in which all activities are required but the order these are carried out may be disrupted. For instance, salespeople are often confronted with a buyer who is resistant to making a purchase even before the salesperson has made a presentation (e.g., "I don’t think I'm interested in what you’re selling"). This will likely force the salesperson to adjust his or her selling process. In this example it will require the salesperson address the buyer’s resistance before beginning to present the product.

Not all sales leads hold the potential for becoming sales prospects. There are many reasons for this including:

  • Cannot be Contacted – Some prospects may fit the criteria for being a prospect but gaining time to meet with them may be very difficult (e.g., high-level executives).
  • Need Already Satisfied - Prospects may have already purchased a similar product offered by a competitor and, thus, may not have the need for additional products.
  • Lack Financial Capacity - Just because someone has a need for a product does not mean they can afford it. Lack of financial capacity is major reason why sales leads do not become prospects.
  • May Not Be Key Decision Maker - Prospects may lack the authority to approve the purchase.
  • May Not Meet Requirements to Purchase - Prospects may not meet the requirements for purchasing the product (e.g., lack other products needed for seller’s product to work properly).

The process of determining whether a sales lead has the potential to become a prospect is known as "qualifying" the lead. In some cases, a sales lead can be qualified by the seller prior to making first contact. For instance, this can be done through the use of research reports, such as an evaluation of a company’s financial position using publicly available financial reporting services. More likely, sellers will not be in a position to qualify leads until they establish contact with a lead, which may occur in activities associated with either Making Initial Contact or The Sales Meeting.

Selling begins by locating potential customers. A potential customer or “prospect” is first identified as a sales lead, which simply means the salesperson has obtained information to suggest that someone exhibits key characteristics that lend them to being a prospect. For certain sales positions, locating leads may not be a major task undertaken by the sales force as these activities are handled by others in company. For instance, salespeople may receive a list of sales leads based on inquiries through the company’s website.

However, for a large percentage of salespeople lead generation consumes a significant portion of their everyday work. For salespeople actively involved in generating leads, they are continually on the look out for potential new business. In fact, for salespeople whose chief role is that of order getter, there is virtually no chance of being successful unless they can consistently generate sales leads.

Sales leads can come from many sources including:

  • Prospect Initiated – Includes leads obtained when prospects initiate contact such as when they fill out a website form, enter a trade show booth or respond to an advertisement.
  • Profile Fitting – Uses market research tools, such as company profiles, to locate leads based on customers that fit a particular profile likely to be a match for the company’s products. The profile is often based on the profile of previous customers.
  • Market Monitoring – Through this approach leads are obtained by monitoring media outlets, such as news articles, Internet forums and corporate press releases.
  • Canvassing – Here leads are gathered by cold-calling (i.e., contacting someone without pre-notification) including in-person, by telephone or by email.
  • Data Mining – This technique uses sophisticated software to evaluate information (e.g., in a corporate database) previously gathered by a company in hopes of locating prospects.
  • Personal and Professional Contacts – A very common method for locating sales leads uses referrals. Such referrals may come at no cost to the salesperson or, to encourage referrals, salespeople may offer payment for referrals. Non-paying methods including asking acquaintances (e.g., friends, business associates) and networking (e.g., joining local or professional groups and associations). Paid methods may include payment to others who direct leads that eventually turn into customers including using Internet affiliate programs (i.e., paid for website referrals).
  • Promotions – The method uses free gifts to encourage prospect to provide contact information or attend a sales meeting. For example, offering free software for signing up for a demonstration of another product.

If a prospect has been qualified or if qualifying cannot take place until additional information is obtained (e.g., when first talking to the prospect), a salesperson’s next task is to prepare for an eventual sales call. At this stage the salesperson's key focus is one learning as much as possible about the prospect. While during the lead generation and qualifying portion of the selling process a seller may have gained a great deal of knowledge about a customer, invariably there is much more to be known that will be helpful once an actual sales call is made. The salesperson will use their research skills to learn about such issues as:

  • who is the key decision maker
  • what is the customer’s organizational structure
  • what products are currently being purchased
  • how are purchase decisions made

Salespeople can attempt to gather this information through several sources including: corporate research reports, information on the prospect’s website, conversations with non-competitive salespeople who have dealt with the prospect, website forums where industry information is discussed, and by asking questions when setting up sales meetings (see Making Initial Contact). Gaining this information can help prepare the salesperson for the sales presentation. For example, if the salesperson learns which competitor currently supplies the prospect then the salesperson can tailor promotional material in a way that compares the seller’s products against products being purchased by the prospect. Additionally, having more information about a prospect allows the salesperson to be more confident in his/her presentation and, consequently, come across as more knowledgeable when meeting with the prospect.