The slick, fast-talking salesman is a thing of the past. He has taken his place on the shelf right alongside the slide rule, the telegram, and the VHS movie tape. Customers are smarter, more sophisticated, and more worldly than they were in the 1930s; therefore the sales techniques that worked well back then no longer stand a chance in today's world. The salesperson of the 21st century needs to adapt to today's customer, who is a quite different animal altogether than his great-grandfather was.
As a division manager of a robust self-storage facility, I deal with customers on a daily basis. My ongoing challenge is to keep my current client base strong and secure, while at the same time continually seeking to establish new client relationships. Early on in my career I quickly learned to say good riddance to all of the old paradigms associated with the ubiquitous salesman stereotype that stuck in my mind; you know, the guy who tries to overwhelm his customer with a lot of talk about his product. Instead, what I found was a way to sell that involves a lot less talking and a lot more listening. And when I do talk, the words that come out of my mouth are mostly questions, not statements. Since implementing my new strategy, I have not only improved rapport with my present customers, but have located many new ones. My sales approach can be summarized in three phases:
- Participation: A salesperson in today's world needs to come across as a counselor rather than a demagogue. The first step is to use a combination of listening and questioning to make the client feel like she is a full participant in the interview, not just a listener.
- Discovery: Next we need to find some clues about what motivates the client and what he might need. The most effective form of discovery is when the customer articulates his own desires by doing the talking and hears the words come out of his own mouth. Very often the client himself is at first fuzzy and vague about what he wants but learns it himself as he speaks. The right types of questions will get him to do this.
- Realization: This is when the customer realizes his obstacles and begins to understand what needs to happen in order to solve his problems. It is not until this phase that I become my client's rescuer. My final series of questions will be designed to elicit a mental image in his mind of how much better his life will become once my product is part of it.
In order to gently navigate my client through these three phases, I use an approach consisting of an astute strategy of questioning (30 percent) mixed with a heavy dose of listening (70 percent). The types of questions I ask fall into three general categories:
- Unfolding questions: These are questions which invite the client to do a lot of the talking. As such, we want them to be open-ended and to call for an answer much more elaborate than a simple yes or no. This type of question is valuable throughout the interview. By doing most of the talking, the customer becomes a full participant in the discussion. In addition, he lets you know what motivates him and provides some good insight on how he sees his problem.
- Illumination questions: This type of question is designed to clarify what the customer said; for example "Did I understand you correctly that this is what you mean?" The value of this type of question is twofold: it insures that both of you are on the same page, and it demonstrates to the customer that you are not only listening to her, but are sincerely interested in understanding exactly what she is trying to say.
- Affinity questions: An outstanding questioning tactic is to ask a question which repeats (maybe in slightly different wording) something the customer herself just said. As a form of reinforcement, this type of questioning establishes a bond between salesman and customer and makes your customer feel like you see things the way she does and that you sympathize with her. By judicious use of affinity questions, I can usually guide my client past the discovery phase and all the way through to realization.
Of course, the most important thing to remember is to do a lot of listening and very little talking! Listening is the key. Remember that the longer the customer talks, the more he feels like a participant, the more he thinks you care about him and his problems. And thats when you will find the fit between your customer and your product.
This was a guest post from Art Gould. Gould is a division manager with Self Storage Company, which operates a group of websites, including a West Palm Beach self-storage locator. Though busy, Art enjoys meeting new people and clients when traveling to sites, like Lakewood or the Miami self storage center.