Do you twitch when someone mentions sales? What’s your first thought? Sleazy second-hand car dealers? Dodgy double-glazing salesmen? Stealing lollipops from small children?
Most people have a real hang-up about sales in general, particularly if it’s not their main role. They think its purpose is to get customers to do something they don’t want to do. But that’s not how I see sales at all.
Many of our clients struggle to generate enough net new customers on a monthly or quarterly basis. To overcome this, we coach them on how to influence customers to buy. My inspiration comes from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book ‘The Coaching Habit’. His message is simple – say less and ask for more. It’s great advice for any business leader who wants to increase their impact.
This is all about persuasion. Not necessarily increasing your sales opportunities, but maximising your conversion rate. So that when you do have a sales meeting, you have a tried and test formula that predictably leads the customer to sign with you.
It’s a formula that works. I use it all the time and my close rate is now 90%. In fact, just this week, I received a testimonial from one of my clients, Etch UK, saying, ‘Dom’s seven steps sales process aligns with anyone that wants to break the conventions of traditional sales and stand out. It’s a process we have now adopted with numerous client wins to evidence its success’. I love hearing this feedback!
So what is this winning formula? Sit back and allow me to teach you how to coach prospects to buy (and you can stop twitching now!)
Setting the context at the beginning of a sales meeting starts with building rapport. In a non-Covid world, you’d turn up, shake hands, talk about the journey or the weather (or whatever else you sense would get the conversation moving). If you’re on Zoom now, make sure you’re looking straight into the camera rather than the screen to ensure that all-important eye contact.
Then get straight to the point. Ask them for the business. In my case, I would say ‘Thanks for agreeing to meet me. My understanding is you want to hire me as a business coach. Is that right?’ If you take nothing else away from this blog, then this is the point to focus on. Set the context and make it crystal clear that you both agree that the potential outcome of the meeting is that they buy from you.
If they say yes, you’ve made the sale right there. There’s something in human psychology that suggests that, if a person agrees to something, they’ll behave in a manner consistent with what they’ve said. The rest of the meeting is making sure you don’t f*ck it up.
If they say no, then why are you meeting them? Far too many salespeople are unsure of the other party’s desires. They get dragged into an endless cycle of producing proposals that go nowhere. A ‘no’ is as good as a ‘yes’ at this point because it will save you time. And if they say maybe? Then you agree between you that, if the meeting goes well, they’ll hire you. Don’t be afraid of being honest and upfront.
Don’t send an agenda in advance. Create it when you turn up and you’re sitting in front of the customer. Check how much time you have together (you don’t want them to leave halfway because they have an important call). Then ask Michael Bungay-Stanier’s number 1 question, ‘What’s on your mind?’ You want to maximise the value of your time together by discussing the most important things. They’ll say something. You write it down. Look at them and stay quiet until they say something else. You write this down too. And you carry on until there’s a natural pause.
Now, this is when, in a normal sales meeting, the salesperson clicks into full throttle sales mode because they’re desperate to speak. Resist the urge! The first couple of points the customer makes are never the reason why they’ll buy from you. You’ll have to go way deeper to find this.
Keep asking, ‘And what else?’ Wait until you think they’ve truly finished. You may even sense some irritation. But it’s worth the persistence. We coached a client through this a few years ago, and they told us they’d handled a sales meeting where 16 things had been raised by the potential customer. And the 17th? A £1 million contract that hadn’t been in the original mix. You have to take the client on a journey to unpick why they’re really here, sitting in front of you. Otherwise, they haven’t set their own context for buying.
At this point, the customer will be expecting you to speak. Typically, this is when your average salesperson vomits 20 PowerPoint presentation slides all over them. But not here. Prepare a short, pithy statement that positions the customer as your bullseye client.
Take my approach as an example. I coach CEOs and senior leadership teams of fast-growing tech businesses. If I was pitching to a £20 million t/o company in Swindon, I would position myself as a coach who works with £10m – £50m tech businesses in Wiltshire. At another pitch, I might adapt this to something slightly different. It’s important that the customer sitting in front of you sees you as the perfect fit for their business and starts to relax.
Having positioned yourself, steer the conversation back to the customer again. This is all about them, not you. Ask them, ‘What’s the real challenge here?’ Sometimes I’ll lead them to tell me why they started the company. And get them to give me some background. Ideally, you want them to start to feel some emotion. Nobody buys logically. It’s emotion that sells. Keep taking them deeper. You want to get them to the point where they stop, look you in the eye and ask you a pivotal question. What’s that? The magic words, ‘Can you help?’
By taking them deeper, it’s likely that they’ll start thinking about things in a different way. You may have helped them to organise their thoughts, leading to the natural conclusion that they need your help.
If you’ve got to the stage where they ask for help, it’s simple. You may only need one word for your pitch – ‘yes’. If you need to explain further, I suggest co-creating a picture with the client. Ditch the acres of PowerPoint and produce something bespoke based on what you’ve just heard.
One of our clients, Wirehive, does a great job of this. They came up with their ‘wheel of fortune’ that articulates their proposed solution to the client. It lays out where they suggest running their design sprints and which bits of digital transformation they’ll do in what order – all in concentric circles. Rather than just focusing on the first year, they take the client through Years 1, 2 and 3. By co-creating it, there’s a joint sense of ownership which is incredibly valuable. And the customer is likely to commit to the full three years in one go. Bingo!
After you’ve finished creating your drawing, you shut the f*ck up. Salespeople are terrified of silence. But you can use this pause to your advantage. Let the customer process the image you’ve created and, if they’re still sold, they will ask you, ‘What happens next?’
Time to agree on some actions. A useful question at this stage is to ask the customer, ‘If you’re saying ‘yes’ to this, what are you also saying ‘no’ to?’ You want to inoculate yourself against buyer’s remorse. If there’s likely to be a hurdle after the meeting, get it out in the open now. And agree on a course of action.
If you need to meet again, get the date in the diary there and then. If they ask you for a proposal, say ‘No, we don’t produce proposals. But I can send you an order form or a statement of work?’ This is important. Asking for a proposal is a fob off. If they’re not sold now, either accept that and move on (remembering a ‘no’ is as good as a ‘yes’ at this point). Or try and push them back up the ladder to see where you can add value for them.
Most salespeople seem to think that you win a client by doing them favours. In fact, I think the reverse is true. You need to get your prospect to be doing something for you before your next meeting. Whether it’s sending you their financials, reviewing some t’s and c’s or sharing some data – get them to commit as well as you. Then you’ve created some open loops and there’s a tension to get these things done.
Ultimately, you need to go into this type of sales meeting without an emotional connection to the outcome. Don’t go in needing a win. Instead, believe that you’re a great fit. And know that if this customer buys your service, they’ll be materially better off than if they choose your competitor.
This is what I mean when I call this ‘ethical sales’ – it’s completely right that you employ whatever tools and techniques to maximise your influence on the prospect. And taking this approach will set you and your company apart from everyone else. Good luck!
Dominic has spent 14 years working in sales, marketing and business management within the IT sector. He has held executive positions at Peer 1 Hosting, IT Lab and Rackspace. At Peer 1 he built the UK business to £30m run rate in 5 years. He won many awards for creating a great place to work. At Rackspace Dominic built the UK company from four to 150 staff, and increased annual revenues from £595,000 to £25 million in just four years. Under his management, Rackspace was recognised as one of the most outstanding workplaces in Europe, and won several service awards for its Fanatical Support TM. Dominic has a BSc in Agricultural and Food Marketing from Newcastle and a MBA from Sheffield Business School. Dominic is also a regular public speaker on creating great places to work and achieving continuous client satisfaction and an assessor on the Sunday Times Customer Experience Awards.