A System for Sales
By Mark Brock
Given our perspectives on healthcare today, it’s difficult to imagine a time when people feared anesthesia more than they did surgery. The terror of “going under” that was common some decades ago was in fact well founded. Studies of anesthesia mortality during the 1950s documented one death for every 10,000 anesthesia cases.
The situation today has changed dramatically with anesthesia deaths falling to six per one million anesthesia cases. As a result, malpractice premiums paid by anesthesiologists are close to the range paid by family practice doctors. What happened to cause this tectonic shift?
Improvements in anesthesia drugs have played a major role along with advanced technology that allows physicians and nurses to monitor a patient’s every breath as surgery proceeds, taking action at the first signs of trouble. Along with advances in drugs and technology, anesthesiologists collaborated through their professional and educational organizations to create a systematic approach to the practice of anesthesia. Rather than having doctors put patients under based on their own individual practices, the profession promulgated a systematic approach to anesthesia – an anesthesia cookbook of sorts – that has resulted in greatly enhanced patient safety.
Systematic Approaches Applied to Specialty Retail
You may be asking what anesthesia has to do with specialty retailers in patio, hearth, and barbecue markets? While some customers may give you the impression that their purchase is a life-or-death decision, we’re not aware of anyone having passed away because they selected the wrong patio chair or outdoor fireplace.
The anesthesia case history is an excellent example of how systematic approaches to virtually any human activity can result in better and more predictable results. Take, for example, James Holzhauer whose winnings on the game show Jeopardy exceeded $2 million. No doubt he’s a pretty smart guy with an amazing grasp of trivia, but Holzhauer also developed a systematic approach to the game of “Jeopardy”. He developed a practice routine for becoming lightning fast at hitting the answer buzzer, and he formulated a model for predicting where the next Daily Double will appear on the board.
But, again, how does anesthesia and game shows relate to specialty retailers. The connection is related to selling, specifically systematic approaches to selling. Research studies have shown that sales professionals who follow a systematic approach close 90% of the time. Sales professionals who make it up as they go along, who approach every day as a brand new day, close only about 40% of the time. So there is a documented case for a consistent step-by-step approach for each new customer when selling outdoor living products.
Advocates Advance Systematic Selling
One of the many advocates for a systematic approach to selling is Bill Foster, who invented his own systematic approach out of pure necessity. A former prison chaplain, Foster and his wife purchased a retractable awning franchise in New England and soon experienced dismal results. With two daughters soon headed to college, Foster knew he had to do better. Based on his early sales failures, Foster developed a seven-part system that resulted in his being named “Rookie of the Year” by his franchise company, and subsequently achieving consistently growing and profitable sales.
“It was pretty obvious early on that we had to do better, and we used our failures to help us find a better way,” said Foster, whose career has also included sales positions with a national distribution company and technical textiles manufacturers. “We took a hard look at what we were doing, the types of things that were working and those that didn’t. Out of this review, we identified principles that became our selling system.”
Foster’s systematic approach to selling retractable awnings was as clever as it was effective. When calling on a homeowner, he would use a compass to determine the angle of the sun on an outdoor space, which gave his approach a scientific feel. He would also write up a purchase order on each sales call, assuring the potential customer that it was just a formality and not a commitment until signed. Then, he would step outside again to check his compass settings. By the time he stepped back inside, homeowners were often ready to sign the purchase order.
Systematic Selling Defined
Systematic selling approaches, such as the one created by Foster, are based on consistently following a step-by-step process. While the approach is systematic, there are numerous decision points along the way that require judgment and experience by sales professionals, owners, and managers. A systematic approach to selling doesn’t discount or discourage each person’s natural ability, drive, and motivation. Systematic selling is simply a way to channel a person’s strengths so that success is much more likely.
A leading proponent of a systematic approach to selling is Dave Mattson, president and CEO of Sandler Training, a global sales training organization. Mattson’s company trains thousands of sales professionals globally each year in a systematic selling approach.
“When you follow a systematic approach to selling you always know where you are in the sales process and where you need to progress to next,” he said. “Without a system, you are trying to listen to the customer while also having to think about what to do next, which can be really difficult. When you’re selling a high-end product, you need a system so you always know where you are in navigating through the sales process.”
While many people like to think of selling as an art form, Mattson maintains it should also be scientific in its approach. Like other scientific endeavors, sales should be similarly systematic.
“I want my surgeon and my accountant to follow a systematic approach, and we want people in manufacturing to be systematic,” he said. “Every aspect of business is expected to have a systematic approach except selling.”
One of the pitfalls of selling that a systematic approach can help to avoid is making a product sales presentation too early in working with a customer. Through a systematic approach, a sales person will learn about the customer’s needs, the economics, and the timing of their potential purchase before moving into presentation mode.
“Doctors always begin working with a patient by asking questions – where does it hurt, how long have you been like this, what have you done for yourself? They don’t start by talking about all of the different things they can do for you. Selling is a similar situation. Don’t jump into a presentation until you know about the customer’s needs, economics, and timing. That’s a mistake that sales people not following a system can fall into.”
The greatest hurdle for organizations in adopting a systematic approach to selling is resistance to accountability, Mattson said.
“With a systematic selling approach, sales people are accountable for the system every time they work with a customer,” he said. “They are required to follow the system, and if they don’t follow the system and don’t get the sale, they’re held accountable.”
Retailers May Not Call it a System, But . . . .
Many experienced sales professionals at specialty retail base their success on well-proven approaches even though they may not call it a systematic selling system. An excellent example is Jessica Salisbury, CEO and Creative director for Village Green Home & Garden of Rockford, Illinois, who sees sales success as based on a person’s ability to connect with others, combined with patience and a love for the rush that comes with closing a deal.
“There are people who are great order takers and can cover the floor, but not everyone masters the art of selling,” she said. “The most important part of selling is being able to engage with a customer through conversation. Once you have engaged with a customer, then you are on your way to building a relationship. You can learn about why they came into the store and about their needs.”
With new sales associates, Salisbury focuses initially on product education, but product knowledge is only the beginning.
“You can teach people about products, but if they can’t hold a conversation with a customer and if they don’t have enough patience then they won’t be successful,” she said. “Patience is definitely required because you’re not always going to hit a home run with a customer right away.”
While they may not call it systematic selling, Village Green Home & Garden does follow a well-established, consistent approach to sales. Product knowledge is first, followed by experience with customer engagement, all the while demonstrating patience. Of course, there’s no substitute for a person’s innate ability to be empathetic and connect with others.
“If you have someone who is a green sales associate, once they start closing sales, their confidence builds and as their confidence builds they are energized by sales, and that’s where the magic happens,” she said.
Jamie Ruscigno, Sales manager for Outside In Style of Austin and San Antonio, Texas, also follows many elements of a systematic approach to selling, but with many years of experience she’s not likely to use those sorts of terms in describing her approach to customers.
“My number one priority is to make a connection with every customer,” she said. “I believe that nowadays with so much Internet shopping, it’s more important than ever to make an emotional connection with your customers.”
With Outside In Style as a destination shopping location, Ruscigno considers every person who walks in the door a qualified prospect. It’s up to her to work with each customer on their own terms, applying her deep product knowledge and her insights into human nature.
“I am a chameleon and can be whatever a customer needs me to be – a product expert, patio planner, engineer, friend – whatever they need to help them make a purchase,” she said. “My goal is to find out what they need and to help them appreciate the value of what we sell, all without being pushy or using high pressure. I invest in my customers for the long-term. I want them to come back again and again.”
For Great Gatherings, with five locations in Virginia and Maryland, the application of a systematic approach to sales is a standard part of how the company operates, says Shannon Danforth, store director for the Gainesville, Virginia location.
“I believe going into a sales opportunity is similar to a sporting event where you have a game plan and you execute on that plan,” he said. “Every time I step into a sales opportunity I know how I want to see the process run and I make it go my way.”
Great Gatherings has a well-established sales itinerary that each sales professional follows.
“Our sales approach starts with greeting the customer, telling them about Great Gatherings, and then it goes into asking how they heard about our store, whether through the media, a referral, or a walk-by,” he said. “From there we begin the discovery process, finding out about the customer’s wants and needs, whether it’s seating or dining, and from that point, we start the sales process until we wrap up the sale.”
Danforth has been a believer in using an established sales approach throughout his career.
“Our approach at Great Gatherings is a very approachable system where we lead the customer to a solution in a nonthreatening manner,” he said. “We act more like consultants than sales people and our customers respond well. Shopping on the Internet is such a cold place that we believe it’s important for us to establish a human connection as a consultant in the buying process.”
Systematic Selling – An Example
Bill Foster’s approach to systematic selling reinforces the experiences and observations of seasoned specialty retailers. A methodical approach for the sales process is encompassed within seven essential components – committing to a systematic sales approach, qualifying your prospects, investing in qualified prospects, positioning yourself and your company, selling value, adjusting your selling persona, and closing the sale naturally. Elements of the approach are adaptable to virtually any market segment.
“A systematic approach reflects a natural progression of activities and gives sales professionals, owners, and managers a road map,” Foster said. “As with any activity, whether it’s sports, medicine, or game shows, people get better at what they’re doing when they consistently follow proven steps in a process. It’s essential in a systematic approach that the elements are effective, that they are executed consistently, and that there are opportunites for each individual to apply their own unique abilities and insights.”
The first step in success with a systematic approach to selling is making the commitment. The company’s sales system should be documented in writing, and owners, managers, and sales professionals should be trained on the process and committed to making it work. It’s essential that everyone commit to the approach and adopt it in their daily sales activities. The systematic sales approach should be closely integrated with marketing and merchandising programs, and monitored to assure its consistent and successful application.
A qualified prospect is one who has a need and desire for your products, the authority to make a purchase decision, and the financial resources to buy. Sales professionals can qualify prospects by engaging them in conversation, learning about whether they own or rent a home, the characteristics of their outdoor space, what they do for a living, and their reaction to showroom merchandising.
Sales professionals should never come across as being overly intrusive by asking pointed questions. This caveat means that it takes skill and a bit of time to qualify a prospect because, with casual attire common today, clothes are no longer a reliable barometer for qualifying a prospect. It’s a fine balance in taking time to determine if a prospect is qualified, without wasting time with tire kickers. Qualifying a prospect is more of a mindset for sales professionals as they work with each new customer in the showroom.
Investing in potential customers begins with marketing programs that educate, inform, and entice customers into the showroom. Marketing programs, including well-designed websites, can help educate potential customers so that when they come into the showroom they are ready for a meaningful conversation, and they appreciate the quality and price points they’ll experience.
Specialty retailers have many opportunities for investing in their qualified customers, including the use of design software to illustrate how their products fit into potential outdoor living spaces along with fabric sampling. When working with a prospect who is able to make a four- or five-figure purchase, an investment by specialty retailers can prove to be time and money well spent. A detailed discovery process is essential in learning about a customer’s needs so that a tailored solution can be offered, all of which require investments in time, energy, and other resources.
Positioning is a step closely aligned with branding and comes across in many different ways, ranging from the storefront and showroom merchandising, to professionalism of the sales and service teams. Positioning for the sales professional reflects their personal brand based on product knowledge, design expertise, motivation, patience, and ability to exceed customer expectations.
For store owners and managers, brand positioning encompasses how staff members are recruited and trained, the range and quality of product offerings, store merchandising and marketing, customer service, delivery and set-up, and service after the sale. Positioning is especially important for specialty retailers in separating themselves from Big Box stores and online merchants. Bill Foster, as mentioned earlier, used an azimuth to determine the sun’s angle for retractable awnings, which helped to position him as an expert on solar protection.
In broad strokes, selling falls into two categories – commodity products and value products. Commodity products are those with undifferentiated features in which sales are based on the lowest price. Selling value, which is the focus of specialty retailers, is offering products and services that offer not only outstanding features but also a broad range of tangible and intangible benefits, including prestige brands that are the envy of the neighbors.
Selling value is central to specialty retailers as they compete with mass merchants and Internet websites. Selling value means not only focusing on product features, but also a discussion of product benefits and, most importantly, the intangible – an amazing outdoor experience making memories with family and friends.
One of the most important aspects of a systematic approach to selling is the ability of sales professionals to adjust their selling personas. The goal is to work with each prospect in the manner in which they want to be served. One size absolutely does not fit all, and if a sales professional has a personality clash with a prospect, the likelihood of a sale is greatly diminished.
There has been considerable research over the years concerning sales personas. By way of example, four broad categories of prospects are described below, including their likely behaviors when it comes to making major purchase decisions, and how sales professionals can adjust with each personality type. There are certainly more than four types, and not everyone falls neatly into one category, but these examples show why sales professionals should become like chameleons, continually changing to match each individual prospect.
These prospects are intense and focused on results, wanting to move through research and the decision process fairly quickly and efficiently. Small talk is not a priority for this personality type, which is best illustrated by the Steve Jobs archetype. When working with a results-focused prospect, the sales professional should get down to business quickly and expect a relatively fast decision when options are laid out in a factual and organized manner.
Talk as a result
Unlike a results-oriented prospect, some customers view conversation as an essential part of the process with no urgency to close the deal. Think Oprah Winfrey. With talkers, a sales professional will want to listen more than they talk, take notes along the way, and gently nudge the conversation to keep things on track. Patience is essential when working with a talker, along with the ability to mask any frustration on the time expended. It’s essential to support the conversation process, which for a talker is just as important as the result.
Just the facts, please
Another prospect type encompasses those who are methodical and focused on gathering and analyzing all the facts before making a decision. A good example would be Bill Gates. When working with an analytical type, a sales professional should provide solid technical details, serving as teacher and mentor, and not be threatened by a deep dive into analysis. This type of prospect can be ideal for a specialty retailer who is offering products with superior performance features and strong back stories.
Who is in control here
A fourth type of prospect is one who is focused on being in control of the process, from start to finish. A good example of a controller is Donald Trump. A controlling prospect will want to set the agenda for the sales process, and the sales professional is well advised to follow the leader. The biggest mistake in working with a controlling personality is to challenge their authority, creating a potential no-win confrontation. A positive for this personality is that, if they remain in charge, they can sell themselves.
In a systematic approach to selling, sales professionals approach each prospect with their own personalities in neutral while they evaluate the persona of their potential customer. There are many telltale signs of personality types, ranging from dress and hand gestures to speech cadence. It’s not an easy skill to master, but can be powerful within a systematic approach.
The ultimate goal of a systematic approach to selling is to close the sale naturally. If you are working with a qualified prospect whom you have invested in, if you position yourself and your company as selling value, if you adjust your sales persona to the personality of your customer, then closing will be a natural consequence of the process. Closing will just seem like what should happen next.
“A systematic approach to selling is really a gratifying experience,” Foster said. “Your customers are securing products or services that they really want and need, and sales professionals are not only meeting financial goals, but also building relationships that lead to repeat business and referrals. It’s the ultimate win-win proposition.”