Professional Selling: Rarely Accidental, Widely Misunderstood

Originally published September 1, 2013 at the Shanghai Business Review

ALL OF US, in one way or another, are practicing salespeople. Daily interaction with everyone, from spouses to business associates, involves some form of selling when it comes to fulfilling specific objectives. But what many do not realise is that the business of selling involves skills and techniques that can be taught, learned and practiced.

A sale, in a business environment, is seldom made by accident. It involves deliberate actions by the salesperson that can be implemented systematically every time - actions that can ultimately deliver the results you are seeking consistently. But how do you get better at these skills?

It is estimated that only 10-20 per cent of salespeople can be referred to as "natural salespeople". Irrespective of the industry, product or locale, these salespeople can sell to any customer. Whether it is an innately superior grasp of the ins and outs of social interaction or an inherent understanding of the basics of selling, these "naturally born" sales professionals can simply just sell. But for the rest of us, the other 80 per cent, we must learn how to sell. There are opening and closing techniques, ways to pick up on customer signals, and methods of preparation prior to entering a sales call. All of these, as well as numerous other skills and techniques, are well-documented and can be learned. So let's look at some of the most important techniques a salesperson must master and how to go about practicing these skills.

Understanding the sequence

Key skills sales personnel must be proficient in the full sequence of the selling process. To begin, preparation for a sales call must be in a written format, not simply a mental exercise. One must ask oneself what is the objective of the call - what he or she wants to "get" from the customer. This could be information, an order, or approval to talk to other members of the customer's team, and of course by which date. As always in sales, the more you can quantify, the more concrete is your possibility of an eventual sale.

Secondly, What flow do you want to follow during the call? What brochures do you want to use? Write it all out and try to follow what you planned. Lastly for this step, think like the customer and list potential objections and questions. Then determine the most appropriate answers and write them out to use during the call.

The remaining steps all follow each other logically, if each is done correctly:

Opening the call - The salesperson must grab the attention of the customer and set the stage/parameters of the sales call. Objectives for the call must be stated and clearly understood by both parties. An atmosphere of information-sharing starts with a good opening.

Presentation/Discussion - Are you progressing the call based on a plan, or are you simply talking off the cuff? Does your presentation or discussion provide value to the customer? Make sure to listen - to truly listen - to your customer's comments. Do you address or confirm your customer's needs, while providing key selling points of your company's products? How do you explain your products -with brochures, an iPad, tablet or other mobile device? All these issues need to be professionally addressed during the sales call by the salesperson.

Handling Objections - The hardest of selling skills, this involves the ability to manage objections and convince the customer that your product will solve a problem or meet a specific need. Objection handling usually revolves around an uncomfortable issue, e.g.the price being too high, an unacceptable delivery time, the product's quality being inferior to the competitor's, etc. You, as the salesperson, must have already done the appropriate preparation to anticipate and address all possible objections and professionally counter them in the most effective manner.

Closing - Salespeople need to accomplish a "close"on all calls, which relates to a future action. There are certain actions, such as asking the customer to purchase a number of units, to accept a specific delivery date or to acknowledge the understanding a program,which can be used during a close. The salesperson must be proficient enough in closing techniques and ask for a closing action at every call. Note that in many cases, you may be closing on getting a conversation with the decision-maker, rather than on the deal itself.

Role-play training

Finally, there is also one indispensable note that needs to be addressed, and which is a key methodology for acquiring selling skills. This key method I recommend is the use of Role-Play exercises. Role-play can be the most useful and practical method in developing and acquiring new sales skills.

Ironically, role-playing is also one of the most rejected and despised activities for a salesperson. Why? Because most salespeople have a belief, since they have been selling for a period of time, that they do not need to practice new product explanations or specific selling skills in which they may be weak. As a result, role-playing is not used enough as a training tool. Why do athletes who have reached the top of their chosen profession still practice basic skills on a daily basis? Basketball players practice free throws, soccer players practice dribbling and penalty kicks, and tennis players practice their serves. Sales role-plays, whether dealing with prices or quantities, should be used to determine objections or to practice answers to questions that could be raised.

Role-playing provides opportunities to practice terminologies and discussion flows that are most likely to occur in customer situations. By using role-play training sessions, the salesperson becomes familiar with what needs to take place at the customer call in order to elicit the most successful outcome. Face-time with the prospect should not be the first time to experience such situations. This is why practicing is so important.

Demystifying sales

As mentioned above, there are concrete skills involved in selling. Most sales do not happen "accidentally". The sales process is only moved along by the salesperson's application of these techniques. Unfortunately, most salespeople do not recognise that skills are a part of selling. Hence, they do not professionally and consistently engage in using these techniques before, during or after the call.

Contrary to time-honoured beliefs that sales is all about personality or having the "gift of the gab", selling skills can indeed be identified. These can also be taught, learned and practiced. Preparing for a call is essential for performance, even if the role-playing or research seems tedious. As mentioned above, role-playing enables one to both anticipate objections and to retain composure when objections are voiced by the prospect, and role-play exercises need to be structured and can even be videotaped for self-evaluation. The ability to state points clearly, and to provide only the most relevant information to the prospect, are also essential, especially as consumers these days have less time than ever before.

In the world of professional selling, there are skills and techniques that must be initially recognised and acknowledged for their intrinsic value and then practiced continuously. It all sounds so fundamental, and it is, but too many sales organisations tend to neglect the basics, failing to realise the importance of team member development. It is never too early to take a look at one's own sales team to see if they are learning new techniques and also keeping their skills sharp.