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How to stand the heat

This article was printed in the Winning Edge Magazine, November/December 2012.

Is selling an art or a science? People who are perceived as being good at selling are seen to have strong inter-personal skills and be ‘a natural’– therefore implying it’s an art. On the other hand, it’s possible to conceptualise the process and see the science behind selling – from territory management, market research and all the data and technical aspects to making sure you know your potential customer targets.

Either way, selling must be treated as a skill. As such, it can be improved, taught and transferred. Research has shown that whether you are learning mental or physical skills, the main two determinants of progress are repetition and specificity. Both are required; one without the other doesn’t work.

Selling is really about understanding the buying process. People need to have a clear understanding about what, exactly, this involves – providing clarity around the specific nature of the skill and how it can be acquired.

Here are seven steps to acquiring the right skills for effective selling:

  1. Have a guiding principle. Don’t concentrate on your own performance; focus on the fact that the decision to buy is actually made within the customer’s mind. The guiding principle should make sense of the sales process. It is your potential customer’s perception of the product or service that is important, not yours. The basic knowledge underpinning sales skills should involve what goes on in the customer’s mind rather than your own.
  2. 2 A salesperson needs an overall framework or structure that breaks the decision-making process down into a few manageable ‘chunks’. Each chunk needs to represent the different stages that a customer goes through in their mind before committing to a product or service. These chunks can be described as ‘guiding concepts’. They are useful because they initiate our thoughts and actions without getting us bogged down in unhelpful detail.
  3. Within the general framework, it is necessary to have practical detail about how to actually go about interacting with the customer at each stage. A successful methodology ensures there is an overall framework that has a guiding principle, some organising concepts and some practical detail. All of these levels are very important. Often, approaches to selling are weak because they lack one of these components. For example, without an organising conceptual overview, the salesperson is left only with a series of questions or techniques, but little assistance in making sense of the responses. Alternatively, they might have the overview, but lack the specific detail about what to actually ask or say, undermining the practical nature of what is required in making a sale.
  4. The more pressured a task, the more structure it needs to have in place to support the process. Salespeople need help to keep on track when the pressure hits – and not revert back to old habits. Under stress, being able to perform requires clarity of process. When under pressure, we easily revert to what we are familiar with and if that is an inadequate process, performance levels will consequently be poor. In contrast, having a reliable framework in our minds allows us to follow an established procedure with confidence.
  5. Breaking down an overall task – such as achieving a sale – into (a) the component parts, and (b) the connections between them, gives salespeople a framework to increase the likelihood of the successful completion of that task. Having the right structures in place intensifies the focus and keeps salespeople on track. Good frameworks provide all the stages or steps required for the task to be completed, as well as the practical detail about how to go about completing each step. In other words, a good framework has both the overview and the detail. One without the other weakens its practicality.
  6. Visualise the framework. Those that can be drawn as a diagram are practical because they are easy to recall, particularly under pressure, such as a visual prompt in the middle of a sales interaction. Salespeople don’t need to memorise thick manuals. One-page maps are an extremely efficient way of illustrating a seemingly complex process in a practical and simple way.
  7. Practice makes perfect. As mentioned earlier, research shows that the two key factors behind successfully acquiring new skills are repetition and specificity. The first six tips give you an insight into defining a successful sales process. But once the specifics and structures are established with the help of visual prompts, the key is repeating them over and over again, until they have been ‘over-learned’.

Martin Fairn is founding partner and CEO of Gazing Performance Systems, which specialises in ‘performance under pressure’ methods and programmes. Visit: www.gazing.com

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