Selling Your Price: How to escape the race to the bargain basement
How Professionals Sell – Action Selling in action
Scott opened his briefcase and fished out two things. One was an ordinary notepad. The other was a colorful laminated card. One side of the card illustrated “The Action Selling Process.” The other side showed something called the “Ask the Best Questions Map.” Take note, Christine, he thought. I not only saved this card from the training program, I carry it with me wherever I go.
He laid the card on the table and picked up the notepad. “You want me to explain this as if you don’t know it?” he asked.
“Just walk me through the process quickly,” Christine said.
“All right,” Scott began, happy to demonstrate that he understood and appreciated the system that Christine herself had introduced to Partner Dental. “Action Selling is a step-by-step system for managing a sales call — actually, for managing the entire sales process, from the planning stage to following up after a sale. It’s based on the documented fact that every customer makes five crucial buying decisions in the course of any major sale. And whether the customer realizes it or not, these decisions are always made in the same order.”
On his notepad Scott drew a large question mark, divided it into sections, and labeled each section.
“First,” he said, “the customer decides whether to ‘buy’ the salesperson. This means that I can’t sell my product until I have first sold myself. Does the customer like me? More importantly, does he trust me? Does he believe that I understand his needs and that I want to help him instead of just taking his money?”
Scott ran briefly through the four remaining buying decisions. After customers have ‘bought’ the salesperson, they consider the company the salesperson represents (Is it reputable? Is it a good match for the customer’s company?). Then they make a decision about the product (Is it the right solution for me? How does it compare with competitive offerings?). Then they consider the price (Is the product worth the money?). Finally, they consider the “time to buy” (How urgent is the need for the product and when must I decide?).
“…price is decision number four on the list of five.”
“The important thing to remember about the five buying decisions,” Scott said, “is that customers will not seriously consider any later decisions until the previous ones have been made. A customer who wants to focus on my product or my price before I’ve sold myself and my company is doing both of us a disservice. Action Selling provides a framework and methods for keeping a sales call on track so that it follows the customer’s natural decision-making process.”
“So you’re telling me that price is decision number four on that list of five?” Christine asked.
“Well, yes,” Scott said defensively, “but when a customer already knows about your product and she’s looking at the same thing for less money…”
“Hold that thought, please,” Christine said. “Sorry I interrupted. Please go on. What is Action Selling, exactly?”
Scott took a deep breath. Then he pushed the laminated card to the center of the table between them. “Action Selling says that every sales call is like a drama with nine acts,” he said. “The salesperson has to serve as the director to keep the action flowing properly.” Pointing to the card, he began to outline the Action Selling system like this:
“Calling on a customer without a specific Commitment Objective in mind is unprofessional.”
Act 1: Commitment Objective. This act takes place before the sales call begins. Prior to calling on any customer, the salesperson must set a Commitment Objective — that is, a goal specifying an action the salesperson wants the customer to agree to take. The salesperson might have other objectives, such as to conduct an analysis of the customer’s needs, but a Commitment Objective is special in that it requires the customer to agree to do something that will move the sales process forward: agree to schedule a meeting with other decision makers, agree to grant preferred-vendor status to the salesperson’s company, agree to buy the product, or something similar.
Action Selling says that calling on a customer without a specific Commitment Objective in mind is unprofessional. It wastes the time of both the customer and the salesperson, because if a call doesn’t move the sales process forward in some way, what’s the point?
“No Commitment Objective, no call,” Scott said, stating a cardinal rule of Action Selling.
“No Commitment Objective, no call.”
“But this applies only to calls on prospects, not to calls on existing customers?” Christine asked.
“Oh, no, it applies to any call,” Scott said. “I’m sure I had a Commitment Objective for my call on Dr. Wright. But then Susan sandbagged me with the disinfectant thing, and I….”
“Never mind,” Christine said. “Please go on.”
So Scott continued to describe the Action Selling process.
Act 2: People Skills. Since the customer’s first major buying decision is whether to buy the sales rep, the rep’s first task is to sell himself. (“Or herself, of course,” Scott added.) In fact, the decision about whether to buy the salesperson is so important that Action Selling devotes three acts to it. In the first of these, the salesperson calls upon his interpersonal skills to demonstrate that he is likeable, friendly, and trustworthy. The salesperson must show that he is genuinely interested in the customer as a person. The salesperson does this mainly by demonstrating excellent listening skills. He asks the customer open-ended questions to get to know the customer and the customer’s company. Then he listens carefully to the answers.
“And once the salesperson has established rapport,” Christine said, “what other types of open-ended questions might he ask?”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” Scott said, smiling because he knew Christine was cueing him to move on to Act 3. He flipped the laminated card to show the “Ask the Best Questions Map” on its reverse side.
Act 3: Ask the Best Questions. Action Selling teaches that most of the “selling” that takes place in a call occurs in Act 3, before the product has even been discussed and with the customer doing most of the talking. By Asking the Best Questions, the salesperson uncovers vital information that will later allow him to present his company and his products in a manner custom-tailored to the customer’s particular needs and concerns.
The most useful needs to uncover are those in which the customer has a personal, emotional stake.
As the map shows, the Best Questions fall into categories. Some have to do with the salesperson’s position and what strategy to take for making the sale: Which of the salesperson’s competitors is the customer considering? How urgent is the buying decision? Who else in the customer’s organization will be involved in the decision? Other categories have questions designed to uncover specific needs that the salesperson believes his company or products could address effectively — needs that hopefully correspond to the strengths of his products or services.
The most useful needs to uncover are those in which the customer has a personal, emotional stake. A problem may belong to the customer’s company, but how does he himself win if the company’s problem is solved? If more than one person is involved in the buying decision, how does each of them win by solving the problem? In Action Selling, questions designed to uncover those high-yield, personal needs are called Leverage Questions.
“Remind me,” said Christine: “What’s the point of all this questioning again?”
“For one thing, it helps me ‘sell myself’ by showing that I care about the customer’s real needs,” Scott said. “But it also allows me to identify ways to be different and better when the customer makes buying decisions about my company and my product.”
“You mean that by Asking the Best Questions the salesperson learns how he could add value by selling something more than the price of a generic bottle of disinfectant?” Christine asked.
Scott shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Well, yeah, but…”
“Sorry again for interrupting,” Christine said. “You’re doing great. Please continue.”
Act 4: Agree on Need. When the salesperson feels he has uncovered at least three high-yield needs that his products or services could address effectively, he confirms his understanding with the customer. “As I understand it,” the salesperson says, “you’re looking for something that will do X, Y, and Z. Is that correct?”
This accomplishes three things. First, it demonstrates again that the salesperson cares about the customer’s needs and has listened carefully to the description of them. Trust is built while the salesperson demonstrates sincere interest in the customer. Second, it cements and clarifies those needs in the customer’s own mind. Third, it sets the agenda for the rest of the call because the salesperson now can gear his presentation to problems and opportunities that the customer already has agreed are important.
“That sounds like a critical step,” said Christine.
- Shows you care
- Cements the needs
- Sets the call agenda
“It’s huge. And it’s one of the things I didn’t do before I learned about Action Selling,” Scott admitted.
Act 5: Sell the Company. Up to this point, the salesperson has been “selling himself” — and doing so, ironically, by letting the customer do most of the talking. Now the salesperson takes center stage to address the customer’s second major buying decision by describing his company and its capabilities. Instead of launching into a canned presentation, however, the salesperson is now able to customize his description of the company in succinct terms that correspond to the specific needs the customer has already agreed upon. What can the salesperson’s company do to solve this customer’s problems that its competitors are unable or unlikely to do just as well?
You understand Action Selling just fine, Scott, Christine was starting to think. Your problem is that you aren’t applying what you know to situations with your current accounts. We might be able to fix this.
Act 6: Sell the Product. Still focusing on the needs agreed upon in Act 4, the salesperson presents his products or services in a way that demonstrates how they would address the needs of this particular customer. Instead of the classic “data dump” presentation including many product details that may be irrelevant to the customer, the salesperson targets the product presentation.
Instead of a “data dump,” you target the product presentation.
“So you tie everything you present back to a need you agreed upon in Act 4, right?” Christine pointed to the appropriate spot on the colorful card.
“That’s right,” Scott said. “Now, this next act is my favorite.”
Act 7: Ask for Commitment. In Act 1, the salesperson established a Commitment Objective, a plan for an action to which the customer should agree. If the salesperson wants the customer’s commitment, however, he must ask for it. (“I was stunned in the Action Selling training program when I realized how often I’d been failing to do that,” Scott added.) If the commitment he wants is a buying decision, the salesperson quickly summarizes the product features that appealed to the customer, quotes the price and asks, “How does that sound?” If the customer agrees that it sounds good, the salesperson says, “Would you like to go ahead with it?”
“I realized how often I’d been failing to Ask for Commitment.”
“If I run into stalls or objections, Action Selling has great ways to deal with them,” Scott said. “Want to hear about those?”
“Not right now,” Christine said. “Please go ahead.”
Act 8: Confirm the Sale. After the customer has agreed to buy, the salesperson insures against buyer’s remorse by doing three things: Assure the customer that he has made the right decision. Thank the customer and tell him that you appreciate the business. And schedule a future event that the customer can anticipate to take his mind off the money he just spent.
“Okay, that’s the sales call,” Scott said. “After the call, we analyze what happened.”
Act 9: Replay the Call. According to Action Selling, every time true professional salespeople complete a call they conduct a mental review of the drama to determine what they did well and what they could have done better. Were there additional questions they should have asked in Act 3? Could their product presentation in Act 6 have been more succinct and better targeted to the customer’s agreed upon needs? Pros replay every call, looking for ways to improve their performance. They never stop honing their skills.
Every time true professional salespeople complete a call they conduct a mental review.
“That’s it,” Scott said, “the Reader’s Digest version of Action Selling.”
“Well, you certainly seem to understand the system,” Christine said. “And you say you’ve found it helpful in calls on new clients?”
“‘Helpful’ doesn’t begin to describe it,” Scott said. “It’s fantastic. I never felt so confident or so much in control of my sales calls as I do now.”
“But you don’t quite see how Action Selling can help you fight price competition and protect your margins when you call on your established customers. For example, when a dentist’s office manager finds a cheaper price on disinfectant, you don’t know what to do except match the price. And you think you need something other than the Action Selling system — a training course in negotiation skills — to help you with that problem. Do I have that right?” Christine asked.
“I have a feeling you think I’ve been missing something,” Scott said.
“Let’s see if we can figure out what it might be,” Christine replied. “I have a feeling that you’re going to kick yourself pretty soon. But I also have a feeling that you’re going to leave this office a lot happier than you were when you walked in.”