As we saw in the Types of Selling Roles 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 (i.e., order supporters), responding to customers who are interested in purchasing (i.e., order takers), or serving as support for the organization’s sales team (i.e., sales supporters).
Yet for a large percentage of marketers that use 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, consider a product manager who must convince the VP of Marketing to fund a major marketing 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, which is the hallmark of 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.
Activities in the Selling Process
The selling process is a set of activities undertaken to successfully obtain an order (i.e., customer agrees to purchase) and, in many cases, begin building a long-term customer-salesperson relationship. 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 actively support sellers who are well-trained and ethically responsible.
The selling activities undertaken by professional salespeople include:
- 1. Generating Sales Leads
- 2. Qualifying Sales 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 her or his selling process. In this example, it will require the salesperson address the buyer’s resistance before beginning to present the product.
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1. Generating Sales Leads
Selling begins by a salesperson locating potential customers. A potential customer or “prospect” is first identified as a sales lead. A lead is someone the salesperson believe exhibits key characteristics that lend them to being a potential customer. 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 the 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 lookout for potential new business. In fact, for salespeople whose chief role is that of an 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 the contact, such as when they fill out a website form, enter a trade show booth, or respond to an advertisement.
Profile Fitting – Uses marketing research tools, such as organization 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, social media, online forums, and corporate press releases.
Canvassing – Here leads are gathered by cold-calling (i.e., contacting someone without prenotification) 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 include 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 – This method uses free gifts to encourage prospect to provide contact information or attend a sales meeting. For example, offering free access to one of the company’s online products if the prospect also agrees to a demonstration of another online product.
2. Qualifying Sales Leads
In the Targeting Markets Tutorial, we discussed how marketers should only pursue customers who are qualified to make purchases. Much of what was discussed in that tutorial also applies to salespeople in that not all sales leads hold the potential for becoming sales prospects. The reasons someone may not be a prospect are similar to what was discussed in the Targeting Markets tutorial and include:
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.
3. Preparing for the Sales Meeting
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 on 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
- how are purchase decisions made
- what products are currently being purchased
- how frequently are purchases made
- what is the customer’s organizational structure
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 discussion 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.
4. Making Initial Contact
With some information about the prospect in hand, the salesperson must then move to make initial contact. In a few cases, a salesperson may be fortunate to have the prospect contact her/him but in most cases salespeople will need to initiate contact. In many ways, arranging for contact is as much as selling effort as selling a product.
There are two main approaches to arranging contact:
Cold Calling for a Presentation – A challenging way to contact a prospect is to attempt to conduct a sales meeting through a straight cold call. In this approach, the intention is to not only contact the prospect but to also give a sales presentation during this first contact period. This approach can be difficult since the prospect may be irritated by having an unannounced salesperson interrupt and take time out of her/his busy work schedule to sit for a sales meeting.
Cold Calling for an Appointment – A better approach for most salespeople is to contact a prospect to set up an appointment in advance of the sales meeting. The main advantages of making appointments is that it gives the salesperson additional time to prepare for the meeting and also, in the course of discussing an appointment, the salesperson may have the opportunity to gain more information from the prospect. Of course, this way also has the added advantage of having the prospect agree to the sit for the meeting, which may make them more receptive to the product than if the salesperson had followed the Cold Calling for Presentation approach.
5. The Sales Meeting
The heart of the selling process is the meeting that takes place between the prospect and the salesperson. At this stage of the selling process, the salesperson will spend a considerable amount of time presenting the product. While the word “presenting” may imply the seller is taking center stage and does most of the talking by discussing the product’s features and benefits, in actuality successful sellers find effective presentations to be more of a two-way conversation.
Additionally, the meeting is not just about the seller discussing the product, rather much more takes place during this part of the selling process including:
Establishing Rapport With the Prospect – Successful salespeople know that jumping right into a discussion of their product is not the best why to build relationships. Often it is important that, upon first greeting the prospect, the salesperson spend a short period of time in a friendly conversation to help establish a rapport with the potential buyer.
Gaining Background Information – The salesperson will use questioning skills to learn about the prospect and the prospect’s company and industry.
Access Prospect’s Needs – Taking what is learned from the prospect’s response to questions, the salesperson can determine the prospect’s needs. To accomplish this task successfully, sellers must be skilled at listening and understanding responses.
Presenting the Product – The salesperson will stimulate a prospect’s interest by discussing a product’s features and benefits in a way that is tailored to the needs of the customer. Part of this discussion may include a demonstration of the product.
Assess the Prospect – Throughout the presentation, the seller will use techniques, including interpreting non-verbal cues (e.g., body language), to gauge the prospect’s understanding and acceptance of what is discussed.
6. Handling Buyer Resistance
It is a rare instance when a salesperson does not receive resistance from a prospect. By resistance we are referring to a concern a prospect has regarding the product (or company) and how it will work for their situation. In most cases, the resistance is expressed verbally (e.g., “I don’t see how this can help us.”) but other times the resistance presents itself in a non-verbal fashion (e.g., prospect facial expression shows puzzlement).
While handling sales resistance may sound like a difficult part of selling, most successful salespeople actually welcome and even encourage it as part of the selling process. Why? Because it is an indication the prospect is paying attention to the presentation and may even have an interest in the product if the resistance can be effectively addressed.
To overcome resistance, salespeople are trained to make sure they clearly understand the prospect’s concern. Sometimes prospects say one thing that appears to be an objection to the product but, in fact, they have another issue that is preventing them from agreeing to a purchase. Salespeople are rarely able to make the sale unless resistance is overcome.
7. Closing the Sale
Most people involved in selling acknowledge that this part of the selling process is the most difficult. Closing the sale is the point when the seller asks the prospect to agree to make the purchase. It is also the point at which many customers are unwilling to make a commitment and, consequently, respond to the seller’s request by saying no. For anyone involved in sales, such rejection can be very difficult to overcome, especially if it occurs on a consistent basis.
Yet the most successful salespeople will say that closing the sale is actually fairly easy if the salesperson has worked hard in developing a relationship with the customer. Unfortunately some buyers, no matter how satisfied they are with the seller and the seller’s product, may be insecure or lack confidence in making buying decisions. For these buyers, salespeople must rely on persuasive communication skills that help assist and even persuade a buyer to place an order.
The use of persuasive communication techniques is by far the most controversial and most misunderstood concept related to the selling process. Why? Because to many people the act of persuasion is viewed as an attempt to manipulate someone into doing something they really do not want to do. However, for sales professionals this is not what persuasive communication is about. Instead, persuasion is a skill for assisting someone in making a decision; it is not a technique for making someone make a decision. The difference is important. Where one is manipulative, the other is helpful and designed to benefit the buyer. And as we noted, persuasion does not always occur. Many times buyers take the lead in closing a sale since they are convinced the product is right for them.
For salespeople, understanding when it is time to close a sale and what techniques should be used takes experience. In any event, the close is not the end of the selling process but is the beginning of building what may be a long-term business relationship.
8. Account Maintenance
While account maintenance is listed as the final activity in the selling process, it really amounts to the beginning of the next sale and, thus, the beginning of a buyer-seller relationship. In selling situations where repeat purchasing is a goal (compared to a one-time sale), following up with a customer is critical to establishing a long-term relationship.
After a sale, salespeople should work hard to ensure the customer is satisfied with the purchase and determine what other ways the salesperson can help the customer be even more satisfied with the purchase. The level and nature of after-sale follow-up will often depend on the product sold. Expensive, complex purchases requiring installation and training may result in the salesperson spending considerable time with the customer after the sale while smaller purchases may have the seller follow-up with simple email or text correspondence.
By maintaining contact after the sale, the seller is in a position to become more accepted by the customer, which invariably leads to the salesperson learning more about the customer and the customer’s business. With this knowledge, the salesperson will almost always be presented with more selling opportunities.