Maters of Loyalty
Where Loyalty is Born – Consistency turns a sales maker into a Loyalty Generator.
They settled into a quiet booth toward the rear of the restaurant and began to peruse the lunch menu. But Tony was more concerned with Mike’s ominous silence.
“Look, Mike, that came out wrong,” he said. No kidding, he thought, kicking himself. You’re the big boss who brought Action Selling into the company, so I imply that you don’t understand it. Maybe I can spill my soup on you, too, and then just resign. “I didn’t mean to…”
Mike waved off the apology. “No, Tony, I’m not offended.” (All right, maybe a little, he thought.) “I’m just thinking. There’s got to be an important clue in what you said: ‘How can I think that loyalty is about the TechShare program?’ You’ve sold more programs than anyone else—a lot more—but when you sell TechShare, you’re not selling loyalty? What do you mean?”
I’m not sure, Tony thought, groping for words. “Well,” he said finally, “I guess I mean that the TechShare program is essentially a product. It’s packaged with a name and features and benefits, like any product. Loyalty is different, isn’t it? I mean, customers have to be loyal before they’ll buy a loyalty program, don’t they?”
‘Customers have to be loyal before they’ll buy a loyalty program.’
That’s clear as mud, he thought. Then inspiration came. “OK, look,” he said, with more confidence. “Action Selling is all about differentiation, right? It’s a system that tells us how to be different and better, in a tangible way, from the competition, even when the competition’s products—or loyalty programs—may be virtually the same as ours. Action Selling tells us how to show the customer that we’re offering unique solutions instead of commodities. It tells us how to communicate differently, so that we stop being order-takers and start to act like consultants or business partners. What matters isn’t what we sell but how we sell, right?”
“Right,” Mike said, thinking: You see it as a consultant’s communication system, not just a way to make sales? I’m not sure I ever thought of it that way.
“Well,” Tony continued, “if customers see us as a unique and valuable solution, and they’d prefer to buy from us rather than someone else, that’s just another way to say they’re loyal to us, isn’t it? I mean, TechShare is a package—a product—that has to be differentiated like any other product. But loyalty doesn’t come from the loyalty program. It comes from the perception of a valuable difference in the sales relationship. Doesn’t it?”
‘Loyalty comes from the perception of a valuable difference in the sales relationship.’
Mike thought it over. As much to himself as to Tony, he said, “If you differentiate once, you make a sale. If you differentiate the sales relationship, you make a loyal customer.”
“Well…yeah,” Tony said. “But now I’m confused again. Action Selling isn’t something you use once with a new customer to get an order. It’s a discipline you practice consistently, on every sales call. Consistency is what turns Action Selling into a kind of perpetual-motion machine that generates loyalty. Don’t all of our reps know that?”
‘If you differentiate once, you make a sale. If you differentiate the sales relationship, you make a loyal customer.’
I wonder, Mike thought. He made a few notes:
The server arrived and took their orders.
Mike reached into his briefcase and fished out a laminated card illustrating the steps of the Action Selling system. “Do me a favor, Tony,” he said. “Walk me quickly through the system as you understand it and use it. Let me try to figure out why you’re ‘making more loyalty’ than anyone else.”
“OK,” Tony shrugged. “Well, as you know, the whole thing is based on a documented fact that I was never aware of. In the course of any major sale, every customer makes five key buying decisions, always in the same order.”
Using a napkin, Tony drew a question mark like the one in the Action Selling training materials, and divided it into segments.
“First,” he said, “the customer decides whether to ‘buy’ the salesperson. Then whether to ‘buy’ the company. Then whether the product is suitable. Then whether the price is competitive. And finally whether the time to buy is now or later.
“Whether they know it or not, customers always make those decisions in the same order,” Tony continued. “That means I can’t be effective at selling my product unless I have first sold myself and then sold my company. Once you understand that, the rest of the Action Selling system is logical and almost inevitable, don’t you think?”
Yes, Mike did.
“Even if I hadn’t learned the rest of the system, finding out about the five buying decisions would have helped me a lot,” Tony said. “I used to think my job was to sell the product, and everything else was just sort of ancillary. Simply knowing that my first task in any sales call is always to sell myself and then to sell my company—that makes a world of difference.”
Mike nodded. He had heard the same thing from other sales reps.
‘The salesperson who follows the Action Selling process the best wins.’
“One huge thing that came out of the training and hit me between the eyes is that the salesperson who follows the Action Selling process the best wins,” Tony said. “So I stopped winging it and tried to adopt the process fully. Today I measure my performance on every sales call by how well I did at selling each of the five buying decisions.
“Obviously, that helps me troubleshoot the sales process,” he continued. “If something isn’t going well, I can almost always tell which decision a customer is hung up on. What hasn’t the customer ‘bought’? Me? The company? The product?”
Mike sat up straighter. Do our other reps think in those terms? He made another note:
“So if you had trouble gaining commitment for Techshare,” Mike said, “your first thought would not be, ‘Why aren’t they buying the loyalty program?’You’d first think, ‘Have they bought me?’ Then you’d think, ‘Have they bought my company?’ Is that right?”
“Well, sure,” Tony said, as if this were perfectly obvious. “That’s what it means for customers to ‘buy me’ or ‘buy my company,’ isn’t it? If I’m always trying to differentiate from the competition, then I’m always selling loyalty. Therefore, first they have to become loyal to me, then they have to become loyal to my company, and so on. It’s just another way of saying the same thing.”
‘I’m always trying to differentiate. I’m always selling loyalty.’
Yes, it is, Mike thought. So why haven’t I seen it in that light?
Their food arrived at the table. “Keep going,” Mike said. “Take me through the system itself. I can eat and listen if you can eat and talk.”
“I’ll try not to do it with my mouth full,” Tony said, silently adding, you being a vice president and all. “OK, Action Selling is divided into nine Acts, or nine steps in the sales process.”
Act 1 takes place before the call, when the salesperson chooses a Commitment Objective, Tony explained. “This was another huge eye-opener for me,” he said. “The idea is that a sales call may have several objectives, but the primary one always must be a Commitment Objective. That’s a commitment you want from the customer—an agreement to take some action that will move the sales process forward.
Commitment Objective – an agreement to take some action that will move the sales process forward.
“Depending on where I am in the sales process, my Commitment Objective might be for the customer to agree to buy the product—or, rather, the solution I’m proposing. Earlier in the process, it might be to get an agreement to let me meet with other decision-makers or to come back and do a more thorough needs analysis. But I never make a call without a Commitment Objective. No more of that nonsense where I used to just check in to see if a customer wanted to order anything.”
And I already know that you set bigger, more ambitious Commitment Objectives than most of our reps, Mike thought. The question is, how do you achieve them? “Do Commitment Objectives relate directly to ‘selling loyalty?’” he asked.
“Sure,” Tony said. “For instance, if I’m calling on a current customer, it’s easy to forget to have a Commitment Objective. But gaining agreement that a customer is more than just satisfied with our performance is a good loyalty Commitment Objective.”
In Act 2 the salesperson opens the call by demonstrating People Skills, Tony explained.
The salesperson begins to ‘sell himself’ by showing that he is personable, likeable, and above all has excellent listening skills. “You do this mainly by asking open-ended questions,” Tony said, “questions that can’t be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ so that they encourage the customer to do most of the talking.
‘Loyal customers expect me to take some time for Act 2.’
“Loyal customers expect me to take some time for Act 2,” Tony added. “If I run into resistance here, that’s a flag that loyalty may be slipping.”
In Act 3, called Ask the Best Questions, the open-ended questions become focused more specifically on the customer’s needs. Tony flipped over the laminated card on the table and pointed to the “Ask the Best Questions Map” on the back. “There’s the outline of the kinds of questions I ask—about the customer, her company, the issues driving the buying decision, how the sales process will work, and so on.
“You asked why Janice trusted me enough to tell me about the acquisition,” Tony said. “I don’t know what to say except that in Act 2 and, especially, Act 3, I showed her that I was interested in her situation and I wanted to help in any way I could.”
“But she didn’t talk about the acquisition on your first call, right?” Mike asked.
“Oh, of course not,” Tony said. “But obviously Act 3 keeps getting deeper the better you know the customer. I mean, Act 3 reveals different needs on your fifth call than it does on your fourth, and so on. And it gets easier to discover what Action Selling calls ‘high-yield needs’—the real hot-button issues that make the buying decision important to the customer.”
“I suppose it does if you remember to do an Act 3 every time you call on a client and not just in the early stages of the relationship,” Mike said.
“Well, sure,” Tony shrugged. “Of course. I prepare questions in advance for every sales call. Say, that might be something other reps don’t do. If they don’t, that could explain why I outsell them. If they’re just winging it in Act 3, I think that’s a huge loyalty slip.”
Consistency, Mike thought again. I know that 95 percent of salespeople don’t prepare Act 3 questions before sales calls. “Please keep going,” he said.
‘95% of salespeople don’t prepare Act 3 questions before a sales call.’
In Act 4, Tony continued, the salesperson and the customer Agree on Needs. “This Act is short but vital,” he said. “After my questions have identified what I think are at least three key needs that really matter to the customer, I check to see if I’m right. I say, ‘As I understand it, you’re looking for a solution that will accomplish X, Y, and Z. Is that correct?’
“This tells me how to tailor my presentation in the next two Acts,” Tony continued. “Instead of just doing a data dump that lists all the virtues of my company, and all the features and benefits of my products, I can speak directly to how my company and my products can serve specific needs that the customer has already agreed are important.”
Mike nodded. “That completely changes the way you make your product presentation, doesn’t it,” he said.
“You bet it does,” Tony agreed. “And my company presentation, too. If Act 4 is done right, you agree on differentiated needs, not commodity needs. Before I learned Action Selling, I didn’t even do Act 4. There is no way to assure differentiation and loyalty without it.” He took a bite of his sandwich and remembered to swallow before he spoke again.
“Act 5 is Sell the Company,” he said. “This is where I start to do a little less listening and more of the talking. Since customers won’t buy my product before they have bought my company, I have to give them reasons to buy my company—not just that we’re reputable and so on, but why we’re a particularly good match for the customer’s situation.”
‘It never occurred to me that my feelings about my company were especially relevant to the customer.’
Tony grinned. “Act 5 has to do with something I never appreciated before I learned Action Selling,” he continued. “I love our company, Mike. It’s a great place to work. We’re innovative, we invest in our people as well as in our customers…we’re really pretty extraordinary. But it never occurred to me that my feelings about my company were especially relevant to the customer.”
He paused. “Actually, my ‘feelings’ about it probably aren’t directly relevant. But I’ve found that when I can communicate my excitement about my company, and tie it to a need I’ve agreed on with the customer, that’s really powerful. I like Act 5 a lot.”
Mike looked at him keenly, feeling another brick drop into place. “I’ll bet Act 5 is something else you do consistently, on every call, isn’t it?” he asked. “I mean, not just when you’re making an initial sale to a customer.” You’re going to say, ‘Of course,’ he thought.
“Of course,” Tony said. “There’s always something new going on that I can mention on any call. Like I said, we’re an innovative bunch.”
One reason you create loyal customers for our company, Tony, is because you’re unusually loyal to it yourself, Mike thought. Somehow we did a great job of ‘selling the company’ to you. I don’t believe we’ve sold it as well to most of our reps. I’ll bet most of them don’t even talk about their company with current customers. Big mistake. Customers unconsciously think, “The salesperson doesn’t seem loyal to this company, so why should I be loyal?”
He made another note:
“Please go on,” Mike said.
“Act 6 is ‘Sell the Product,’” Tony said. “This is where I present the product or solution I want the customer to buy. In the bad old days, before Action Selling, this is what I thought of as the real ‘selling’ part. The rest of it—the conversation, the questions, the so-called need identification—was all just peripheral.”
‘Consistently presenting solutions to agreed upon needs earns loyalty.’
He laughed. “Now I understand that I do most of my real selling when I’m asking and listening in the earlier Acts. Act 6 is usually pretty short. I just explain what we propose to do to help with the needs that the customer and I have already agreed on. I’m a lot better than I used to be at presenting solutions to agreed-upon needs. When you do that consistently, you earn loyalty. Well, hey, you saw Act 6 with Janice this morning.”
Yes, and the remarkable part was not that you’re some extraordinary pitchman, Mike thought. It was the level of the needs you had identified and could speak to. Everything you presented in Act 6 was tied so closely to a solution for her. Funny that didn’t strike me earlier.
“This is helpful, Tony,” Mike said. “Take me through the rest of it.”
‘I never waste their time. That helps loyalty grow.’
“Okay. Act 7 is Ask for Commitment. Whatever my Commitment Objective is, I won’t get the customer’s
commitment unless I come out and ask for it. I felt like an idiot during the Action Selling training when I realized how often I was failing to do that. Because I don’t make calls without a Commitment Objective, the customer sees me as someone who gets things done. It’s a productivity thing—I never waste their time. That helps loyalty grow.”
“In Act 8,” he continued, “I Confirm the Sale by thanking the customer, assuring her that she has made the right decision, and scheduling a ‘future event’ to get her looking forward to the next step instead of backward at the money she spent. Like with the training session for Janice.”
Mike smiled, remembering. “So the training session wasn’t just something that coincidentally had to be scheduled right then and there, eh?”
Tony smiled back. “Customers appreciate how professional this is. Do you think they’d rather be loyal to a pro or an amateur?”
Act 9, Replay the Call, happens after every sales call is concluded, Tony said. The salesperson mentally reviews the call, step by step, to note things that went well and things that didn’t. “That way, you never stop improving your game,” he said. “In the call on Janice, for instance, I should have been better prepared for the fact that you’d be in the room when the secret acquisition came up. I fumbled that part. She rescued me, but that shouldn’t have been necessary.”
‘After every call, I ask myself, “Did my relationship get stronger or weaker?”’
“So,” Mike said, “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, how did he develop that level of trust with Janice?’ and you’re thinking, ‘Wow, I need to anticipate better in unusual situations.’ Is that about the size of it?”
“Well, that’s what ‘Replay the Call’ is all about, isn’t it?” Tony replied. “Oh, and one other thing might be important. After every call, I ask myself, ‘Did my relationship with this client get stronger or weaker?’ That’s just a way of asking, ‘Are they more or less loyal following this call?’”
Mike made a note:
“I’m sorry I can’t be more help, Mike,” Tony said. “I’m just parroting back the basics of Action Selling. The nine acts are like its skeleton. You know this stuff as well as I do. I don’t have any brilliant new insights into any of it.”
Your work is more brilliant than you realize, Mike thought. He waved Tony’s apology aside. “No, you’re doing fine. I appreciate this,” he said. “You told me we’ll be making two more calls today. What are our Commitment Objectives?”