Sales techniques: the difference between responding to needs and influencing

Every sales rep must decide between responding to needs and influencing when addressing a client’s request. And the sales rep must make this decision before preparing the sales presentation, because the sales techniques are not the same. They depend on the goal of the sales presentation: the sales rep must clarify what he or she wants from the client at the end of the sales presentation. Should the rep:

  • Focus on the task at hand, meet the needs, be the sensible, well-behaved, obedient sales rep, or
  • Influence; influence the needs so they are a better fit for the product offered, influence the client’s perception of the rep’s company or product line, and risk confrontation.

Well, that depends! I don’t want to be the standard consultant who uses this phrase to avoid answering the question, so I’m going to clearly answer the questions “What does it depend on?” and “How do I make the right decision?” But first, we need to look at the two different cases, one by one.

Sales techniques GPSFirst, we need to determine which sales situation we are in, so we can decide which direction to take. Sales reps need a sales situation GPS! The first thing we need to determine is whether the sales presentation is for a buying decision that has been predetermined, or one that has not yet occurred to the client. Because we won’t use the same sales techniques. Let’s look at what that means:

  • CASE 1: non-predetermined buying decision: This is what happens with clients who feel they need to ask specialists for advice and recommendations, and who are prepared to follow the advice they get. In the extreme case, there are people who, like Madoff’s clients, say: “I want results. I don’t know anything about this. Tell me what the best solution is.”
    Of course, in this case, the client has little or no idea of what the solution is, and expresses needs that are more related to the problem. Here, the sales rep’s role can only be to influence the client. And this influence is easy to exert, because the client is asking for advice, and the advice it is essentially required, given the incomplete expression of needs and a request for an as-yet undefined solution. It involves showing the client aspects of the problem he hasn’t seen, getting him to envisage the various solutions, and influencing him in the direction of our product, for the mutual benefit of both the client and ourselves. And I do mean mutual benefit, to both the client (whose problem is solved) and the sales rep (who sells the product); any approach that benefits the sales rep to the detriment of the client would qualify as manipulation, not a sales technique. The goals will be things like: “obtain information on the problem and the needs,” “get the client to agree that we have a good grasp of the needs,” and “get the client to agree that our product or service fits the need.”
  • CASE 2: Predetermined buying decision: This is an increasingly common case. Today, particularly with the rise of the internet, many clients arrive with a predetermined idea of what they want. Access to information has never been so easy. It enables a growing number of clients to identify, on their own, the best solution to their problem (or so they believe), the suppliers and even the price they are willing to pay.
    This then gives rise to two very different situations:

    • CASE 2A: the client has predetermined in favor of us, and of our product.
      Here, the sales rep’s role is primarily to meet the client’s need, and influence plays a lesser role: There is no point in overselling, as the client has already decided to buy our product.
      We could exert a little influence to tailor the product or do some cross-selling or up-selling. Computers and online selling sites typically do this type of selling very well, such as suggesting another book purchased by other people who bought the book you just ordered, or suggesting accessories for the camera you just ordered. Sales people don’t like to hear it, but computers are much better than we are at this type of selling; they have a much better memory for past purchases than sales people do, they analyze the data faster to make recommendations, and they don’t stop on the pretext that “the sale is good enough already.” In short, if we keep on asking sales reps to do this type of selling, they should at least get to use a computer for logistical support. For this case, the goals would be things like: “obtain an additional order.”
    • CASE 2B: the client has pretermined in the competition’s favor: this would qualify as an unfavorable selling situation! Here, the sales rep’s role can only be to influence, to make the client change his or her mind before we lose out! And this influence is difficult to exert, because the client has chosen another supplier and is therefore not inclined to pay particular attention to us. Like a tennis game where the player is driven to the back of the court, this calls for an offensive style of play.  Rather than using the word offensive in a sales context, however, we prefer to talk about “assertive selling,” to avoid misinterpretation. The primary goals in this case are things like: “get the client to grant us some time,” “get the client to agree that he has only identified part of the problem,” “get the client to agree that his solution does not address the problem” and “get the client to agree that his predetermined solution won’t solve the problem.”

We can only start building a sales presentation that achieves our objectives once we have determined which case we are dealing with, and hence what our objectives are.

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