When Joe finished his drawing and turned it around, Matt saw a big question mark divided into five sections. These, Joe explained, are the five buying decisions every customer makes in the course of any major purchase.

“The critical thing to understand,” he said, “is that these decisions are made in a predetermined order.”

Action Selling ®, Joe explained, is a process that follows the same sequence by which the buyer ultimately decides to do business with you. This allows customers to make commitments in a manner that is most natural and comfortable for them, thereby increasing the salesperson’s effectiveness.

Here is how Joe described the progression:

First the buyer makes a decision about the salesperson. The verdict hinges on questions such as: Do I like you? Do I trust you? Are you honest, credible, and knowledgeable?

Second, the buyer considers the salesperson’s company: Is your company a good match for mine? Is it known for the kinds of things I expect from a supplier? Are your policies acceptable?

The third decision is about the product: Which of my problems will it solve? Will it create any new opportunities? Does it match my needs? How does its quality stack up against the competition?

Fourth, the buyer considers price: Is it a good value compared with competitive offerings? What must I invest—in terms of money, time, training, and hassle—to gain the benefits I want from the product? Is it worth the investment?

The fifth and final decision concerns the time to buy: How soon do I need to make up my mind? When do I need the results that the product will deliver? Should I stall?


“Burn this in your memory,” Joe said. “All five of those decisions take place in the course of any major purchase. They are always made in the same sequence. And your job as a sales professional is to help the buyer make them in the proper sequence. If you get out of sync with the customer’s natural decision-making process, as you did with Bob Howell when you leapfrogged straight to the product decision, you’ll probably lose the sale.”

Joe waved away Matt’s look of chagrin. “I’m not trying to flog you about it,” he said. “Maybe you can recover with Howell, maybe not. But that was a classic example, so remember it.

“Now,” Joe said, moving on, “what do you notice about the size of the segments in that question mark?”

“The part devoted to the first buying decision, about the salesperson, is bigger than the rest,” Matt answered.

“Right,” Joe said. “The decision about the salesperson is crucial because it lays the groundwork for everything that follows. Three entire acts of the Action Selling ® process are devoted to the customer’s first buying decision—which is whether to buy you.”

  • All Five Buying Decisions take place in a major purchase.
  • They are made in sequence.
  • Your presentation must match the sequence of the Buyer’s Decision.

With that, Joe picked up the laminated page he had pulled from his briefcase, revealing a diagram that modeled the Action Selling ® process. It showed how the “nine acts of a sale” correspond to the customer’s five buying decisions.

Matt studied the model. “What I really failed to do with Howell was to ‘Agree on Need,’ right?” he asked. “I see that comes in Act 4. I skipped straight to Acts 5 and 6 by starting my pitch about the company and the product. That’s where I went wrong?”

“Yes and no,” Joe replied. “Yes, Act 4 is hugely important. The moment when you agree on the client’s need is the first major climax of this drama; in the early going, that’s what the action is building toward. But no, you didn’t skip only Act 4. Because you can’t get to Act 4 unless you work skillfully through Acts 2 and 3.”

Matt didn’t quite roll his eyes, but glancing at the titles of those two acts, he allowed a bit of impatience to show. Sure, he thought, every salesperson needs ‘people skills,’ and since you have to ask some questions to uncover the customer’s needs, I guess you might as well ask the ‘best’ ones. But I already know that. I may have screwed up with Howell, but that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot.

“Disregard Acts 2 and 3 at your peril,” Joe warned, as if anticipating Matt’s objection. “When you ‘agree on need’ with a customer, what you’re really doing is confirming that both you and the customer understand his actual needs—the problems the client actually has and wants to solve. Sometimes you can be an enormous help to a customer just by helping him talk through the situation and clarify the problem in his own mind.

“But, Matt, you flatly cannot do any of that unless you ‘Ask the Best Questions’ in Act 3. And the customer won’t let you Ask the Best Questions unless you establish rapport in Act 2—which is where ‘people skills’ first come into play,” Joe concluded.

“All right,” Matt said, “tell me about people skills.”

So Joe did.

“Think of the challenge as one of developing a ‘sales relationship,’” he began. “It is extremely difficult to gain a commitment from a customer that is greater than the size of the relationship you have established. Action Selling ® teaches that if you’re after a $50,000 commitment, you’d better have created a
$50,000 relationship with the customer. Action Selling ® also says that whenever the size of the commitment you want from the buyer becomes greater than the size of the relationship you’ve developed, that’s the point where you’ll begin to see resistance from the customer.


“A client will almost never come right out and tell a salesperson, ‘I’m not going to buy from you because I don’t like you or I don’t trust you,’” Joe said. “But it happens all the time with major sales. If you’re asking me to spend thousands of dollars, or maybe to risk my reputation by bringing in your products or services, you simply cannot be someone I don’t like or trust. Before you can sell me your product, I have to be sold on you.

“You’ve heard about all the research showing that customers tend to buy based on their emotions and then sort of back up mentally to justify their decisions based on logic or reason?” Joe asked.

Matt had.

That research has it right, Joe assured him. Psychological studies also demonstrate that buyers are more easily influenced by people they like—and that first impressions are important. “So the question is, what can you do to be liked?”

Here Matt was on more familiar ground. “A lot of books and training programs on sales and interpersonal skills have that part down pretty well, I think,” he answered, eager to score a few points. “Boiled down, their advice makes sense: Show a positive attitude. Be cheerful and friendly. Smile. Remember people’s names. Compliment the customer and look for ways to make him feel important. Show a genuine interest in him. Be a good listener.”

Joe nodded along with Matt’s list. “All good tips,” he agreed. “If you singled out one of those things as the most important, which would you say it was?”

Matt thought about it. “Positive attitude, maybe,” he said. “That’s awfully important in sales, to keep from becoming discouraged.”

“A fair answer,” said Joe. “But Action Selling ® would disagree, and so would I. I think the No. 1 ‘people skill’ for a salesperson is being a good listener. Maybe I’m prejudiced, though, because I’m kind of fond of the idea that there’s a point to everything that happens in this drama. And the point at this early stage is to reach agreement about the customer’s needs—to get to Act 4. It’s listening that allows you to do that.”

“Okay,” Matt smiled. “I’m all ears.”

Joe smiled back. “The best listener I ever knew,” he began, “was a salesperson named Christine.”

Christine, it seemed, had worked for Joe at a computer-services company called Currentech. He had accompanied her on some client calls. Her secret was to ask open-ended questions and listen carefully to the answers, taking notes.

“Open-ended questions are some of the best tools a salesperson has,” Joe said. That is, questions that call for the customer to explain and elaborate, as opposed to close-ended questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no.

“I remember an initial call Christine made to a client named Carol, who was a buyer for a wholesale-distribution company,” Joe said.

In 10 minutes, he insisted, Christine learned more about Carol and her company than most salespeople would find out in three or four visits. How? Open-ended questions: How long had Carol been with the organization? (12 years.) What had changed most about the business in 12 years? How did Carol develop her personal knowledge of the industry? What were the most exciting opportunities her company faced right now? Who were its main competitors? How did her company differentiate itself from the competition? What were her department’s current goals? What obstacles did she see in the way of reaching those goals?

“And here’s the great thing,” Joe said: “Christine refuses to be rushed into presenting Currentech’s products and services until she has learned enough to know how to present them to this particular buyer. After they’ve talked a little while, building rapport, Carol says, ‘Why don’t you tell me a little about your company, Christine?’

“But Christine knows it’s too early to present her company or her products. Action Selling ® has told her that if she does, she’ll be out of sync with the buying decisions that Carol actually is going to make. And she’s prepared. So what does she do?”

“She dodges the question somehow?” Matt guessed.

“Nope. She grabs the opportunity to start a more detailed needs analysis. When Carol says, ‘Why don’t you tell me about your company?’ Christine’s response goes something like this: ‘We have a lot of experience handling the situation you seem to be facing. It would probably be best to pick up where we left off when we set up this meeting. Okay?’

“Well, sure, that’s fine with Carol,” Joe said. “So Christine says, ‘You mentioned that you were interested in ways to improve your inventory tracking and your order-processing function. Tell me about that.’


“And that,” Joe said, “is the open-ended question that lets Christine begin to uncover the specific problems Carol wants to solve. Carol is looking for a way to streamline her order processing so she can reduce errors. She wants to manage her inventories better, get accurate reporting, and assure that she always has the right products in stock. She’s also looking for guidance in how to select the best software.

“Since Christine has been taking careful notes, she’s able to repeat all of this back to Carol to check her understanding. Carol is impressed. She actually comes out and says, ‘You listen well, Christine.’”

“In other words,” Matt interjected, “Action Selling ® would say that Carol has ‘bought’ the salesperson, and she’s now more likely to buy the product. Right?”

“Exactly,” Joe said. “But there’s more. What do you suppose was Christine’s Commitment Objective for this call?”

“To get Carol to agree to another meeting where Christine would present a formal proposal?”

“Right,” Joe said. “But the proposal that Christine presents to Carol isn’t going to be a generic shotgun blast, just like her last dozen proposals, is it? She has found specific bulls-eyes to shoot at, so she’ll go into that proposal meeting with a target rifle. Do you think she might avoid some of the difficulties you experience after your proposal meetings? The objections you didn’t anticipate? The stalling? And the part you didn’t mention, where you find out after it’s too late that what they really wanted was ‘X,’ which you could have presented but, gee, nobody told you that—because you didn’t ask—so instead you spent most of your time pitching ‘Y’?”

Matt sat quietly, shaken by thoughts of proposals that had gone nowhere—and fearing for his future with the company. His biggest successes, he knew, had indeed come in situations when he understood the specifics of the client’s situation and where the customer’s precise pain was coming from.

“I know this,” he finally said to Joe. “Believe it or not, I sometimes do conduct a real needs analysis with a client. So why don’t I always do it? Why didn’t I do it this morning with Bob Howell? I don’t have a good answer. In too big a hurry to present the product and make the sale, I guess. But I see what you’re saying: Hurrying early can mean stalling out later.”

Joe regarded Matt with a friendlier expression, seeming to feel that now they were getting somewhere. “You must sell yourself before you can sell the product,” he repeated. “The reason you’ve been doing that only sometimes instead of all the time is because you’ve been flying by the seat of your pants. You’ve had no
system. You didn’t know that the sequence of the customer’s buying decisions is practically cast in stone, and that you must follow that sequence even when the customer invites you to jump ahead. Now you’re learning. Like I said before: When you learn Action Selling ®, you’re going to make a lot of money.”

In other words, Matt thought, maybe I can keep my job after all. He grabbed both of their coffee cups and rose to go refill them. “Time to move on to Act 3?” he asked.

“Time for Act 3,” Joe agreed. Once again he reached for his pad and began to draw.