Selling to Customers with Their Own Agenda
By Jill Konrath
Recently a Quantum Leaps subscriber wrote me about how to deal with difficult buyers who are in the process of evaluating several competitors. His situation is so universal and problematic to those of us who sell that I asked him if I could publish his question along with my response. So here it is.
Mark's Sales Scenario:
They want literature from me and don't want to talk "fit" or benefit. They're disinterested in talking about anything that's not on their "feature functionality" list or comparison survey form. I try to find the needs that are driving their decision to change, but they keep the discussion from going there.
I expect this is a "low hanging fruit" situation but we have gotten business from this kind of "interrogation". Typically, though, I don't get add-on business or get to know the client very well.
Any thoughts or suggestions here?
My Response to Mark:
Your customers have done their "due diligence" and already determined their selection criteria. They're satisfied they have all the information they need to make a sound decision. Now they're just checking with suppliers to find which ones meet their needs at the lowest price point. They may even be comparing your company against a preferred vendor who has worked with them for months.
So what's a seller to do? Here are a couple suggestions. Like I said, this is NOT the ideal sales situation.
First find out who your competitors are. Ask: "Who else are you evaluating?" Most customers will tell you. If not, you know the usual suspects.
Once you know the other companies vying for the business, it's possible to set up a situation that JOLTS these buyers out of their checklist mentality and actually gets them to want to learn more. Also, if done correctly, it positions you as an expert in your field.
For example, say you know Competitor A's software doesn't integrate as well as yours with a primary application need. As the customer grills you, slip in a question such as: "How important is it for you to do __?" (The blank is for something your main competitors don't do as well as you.)
Look seriously concerned (and you should be if they want a specific outcome and your competitor can't easily help them achieve it). Don't say a word about your offering. Just look vitally concerned so they're forced to ask, "Why?"
Then without stating the competitor's name say, "If this is really important, you might want to spend more time investigating this in depth with all the vendors. I know some of them have extremely awkward interfaces requiring extensive workaround to get to the end result you want."
This plants uncertainty in their minds -- that they might have overlooked something critical and that it might be worthwhile to spend more time with you.
Conversely if they ask you a question that's directly related to a competitor's strength -- and you lack the specific capability or aren't as good -- here are several things you can do.
If you lack the capability 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--but do it a different way. You need to know what they're trying to accomplish. Many sellers never check this out - and lose sales as a result.
With your competitive weaknesses, help customers understand why your strengths make up for your shortfalls. No one has a perfect product. Your goal is to maximize your strengths by moving them to the top of your customer's priority list and to minimize your weaknesses by making them less important.
Last but not least, there are times you need to walk away from prospective business. Much as that is against people's nature (especially when sales are down), there are times it just isn't worth it.
So be bold and deal with it upfront if the buyers aren't giving you the information you need to do your job properly.
Say, "Mr./Ms. Customer, I know this is important to you and a big decision. But in order for me to determine if it's worth my time to prepare a proposal, I need to clearly understand what business objectives you're trying to accomplish with this decision. I also need to know your decision-making criteria and it's priority. Without this information, I can't do my best job for you." Then shut up.
When they answer, ask them secondary questions to really understand. If they say broad things like "service", get them to define it. If they can't, suggest ways that play to your strengths.
If things are stacked for your competitor, you'll soon find out. Also on the issue of price, ask: "Are you choosing the lowest price vendor?"
Or ask: "Once you determine which companies can meet your needs-- how will you decide? What factor will (product/service) play in your decision? How about the cost of ... (add other things that are your strengths such as service or other differentiators)."
You need to know if it's worth your time and effort to pursue their business. So ask. If cost is their only consideration, you have lots of other things you could be doing.
One last thought -- Practice these skills with a colleague. Doing new things the first time with a customer is a disaster waiting to happen. Role play. Role play. And role play some more. It's the only way to get good at something new. You don't want to blow a good opportunity.
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