The state of the art of selling hasn't changed much from the Industrial Revolution to the 1970s. But it has changed dramatically since then.
The first step from art to science in selling was made by a consultant named Neil Rackham, in his book Spin Selling (McGraw-Hill). After observing thousands of sales calls, he came to an interesting and unexpected conclusion: the best salespeople were not necessarily the best talkers - they were the best listeners. They listened first and talked second; they discovered the need before presenting a solution. This was the birth of consultative selling.
This approach is quite natural for consultants selling intangible solutions - and quite difficult for product salespeople, especially those who are offering product superiority and are eager to talk about it. Rackham found that the best salespeople had a much higher listen-to-talk ratio and that they used the classic journalist queries - who, how, what, why, when and where - to keep the client talking.
A talker, however, feels that he or she can simply explain a long list of features of a product and eventually hit upon something the client likes. Here it comes . . . feature, feature, feature . . . "Stop me if you see something you like". But these are features in search of problems. It's called "dashing to the demo", "shotgun selling" or "spray and pray".
In some cases, the cause of this tactic is pride in product functionality; in others, technical salespeople believe that if they just show how smart they are, customers will buy - whether they need the product or not. Linking the features to the benefits and the benefits to the business problem is left to the buyer.
If the product is simple enough, then people aren't needed - sell the product over the Web. But often the benefits of high-ticket solutions that touch multiple departments with a multitude of technical capabilities of differing priorities aren't easily discernible to the buying organisation. If you don't help make the links to the client's business problems, then your competitor might - and you'll be outsold.
Many evaluations are effectively over before the presentation begins. The reason? One integrator has either established preference from a previous sale or has been effective in the needs-assessment phase of this sale. Even if you know what the client's problem is (called "selling to anticipated needs"), it doesn't matter.
Admitting that there's a problem helps buyers open up and makes them more receptive to suggestions.
In a single sales call, this means probing and listening before you present. In formal presentations, this means conducting a needs analysis or survey before a presentation. Again, the process is quite natural to consultants, where the solution is defined by the problem.
Product-driven resellers and integrators invariably get into trouble when the superiority of their particular vendor partners is no longer apparent, and competitors achieve "demo parity". Sales tend to tumble along with the vendor's stock price because salespeople have used product superiority as a crutch.
The discovery or needs-assessment process provides three essential benefits:
1) It helps you determine whether you have a fit before you ever present a solution.
2) It prevents presumptive selling - ie, "How dare you present a solu-tion? You don't even understand my problem!"
3) It builds a better rapport between seller and buyer, because it compels you to listen. The result: a presentation that's usually shorter yet more effective, because it's focused on the needs of the individuals and the organisation. Moreover, you are no longer presenting to strangers. You speak the customers' language about their issues because you "outcared" your competitors by "outlistening" them.
Rick Page is CEO and founder of The Complex Sale, a sales consulting firm in the US