The art of conversation is perhaps the single most important skill set that a sales professional has at his or her disposal. And yet, sales training and professional development programs spend astoundingly little time teaching, practicing and developing the art of conversation within the sales profession.
Perhaps this is why most salespeople learn by default that a ‘conversation’ with the prospect involves the salesperson talking and the prospect listening (or just biding his or her time) until the result is a signed contract or an agreement to purchase.
But the bottom line reality remains: If you want a conversation with your prospect to result in a conversion of that prospect into a customer, you need to actually do just that: have a conversation.
Here are five keys you can use to effectively prepare for and guide your sales conversations to success:
1. Know the goal of the conversation.
It is certainly true that the goal of every sales cycle is for the customer to make a purchase decision, but it is not necessarily the case that the goal of every sales conversation is to close a sale. Early in the sales process, your goal is to qualify the prospect in the first place – and to get to know them while you begin shaping your strategy for aligning the product or service you offer with the prospect’s expressed and implied needs.
Toward the middle of the sales cycle, the goal of a conversation may be to strengthen trust and enhance your relationship, or elicit a better understanding of internal issues at the prospect’s company, or identify new factors that may play into the decision cycle. Later in the sales cycle, the goal of a conversation may be to help the prospect organize her or his evaluation process and prioritize final steps to a decision (which will hopefully involve selecting you as the vendor of choice).
Remember, at every stage you need to choreograph the conversation so that it matches where both you and the prospect are in this process, together.
2. Prepare for the questions (and answers).
Questions are the key to success in many conversations, because they hold the power to solve three problems at once. First, they help you gain valuable information and insights as you become more familiar with your prospect. Second, they enable you to bring points to the prospect’s attention that he or she may not have thought of before. And third, they empower you to demonstrate confidence and credibility.
Of course, in most sales training programs the emphasis is all on answers — the answers you should have ‘at the ready’ to shoot out, the moment the prospect asks a question. But we’re talking primarily about the questions *you* ask the prospect, not the other way around. And when we say to prepare for the answers, we mean to prepare for the kinds of answers the prospect might give to your questions.
Use strategic questions to educate the prospect while you also educate yourself about the prospect as well. If your questions are well formulated, you’ll both come out of the conversation with a clearer understanding about how the next step in the process should unfold.
3. Script the start, the end, and the next step.
A powerful conversation is like an airline flight – the core part of the journey should be smooth and consistent as you both move forward, but the real challenges come at the takeoff (“How should we begin?”) and the landing (“Okay, what’s next?”).
That’s why you need to prepare for how these to critical stages should unfold. The person who takes the lead in setting the tone — but who knows how to do this without dominating the dialogue as a whole – displays confidence and comfort that can make the other participant in the conversation feel at ease. Suggest a series of steps in the dialogue and how they would benefit both parties, and try to keep the benefits balanced between you and the prospect. In addition, make sure to set up the plan for the post-conversation next step at the outset, and confirm it again at the end.
Use “we” instead of “you” or “I” so that the tone clarifies your mutual agreement as to what the next steps will be: “Okay, so after this call we will share key information with one another including your top five decision criteria and our list of optional product add-on packages, and then we will come back together to review them and confirm that your outstanding questions have been addressed during our follow-up call next Tuesday.”
The tone here is firm, focused, confident and at the same time comfortable and collaborative. Remember, the conversation is intended to bring value to both of you. Setting this concept up at the beginning reminds the prospect that your time is as valuable as hers – and sets the stage for a shared awareness that the process should be ‘fair and balanced’ to both of you.
4. Set expectations and confirm them.
One key to a successful conversation, especially at the beginning and the end, is to set clear expectations and then confirm them. For example, you can suggest that you will be happy to walk through the key features of your product or service, but first you want to ask the prospect a series of questions so that you can tailor your presentation to their needs and objectives.
Then, confirm after both of those steps are completed that the prospect does indeed feel that her answers to your questions were accurate representations of the situation she faces, and that your discussion of the product or service features and benefits did clearly relate to those priorities. The more you perform reasonable ‘check-in’ steps throughout the dialogue, the more effective you will be in catching points of confusion or situations in which your comments are not aligning clearly in the prospect’s mind.
At the end of the day, the number one reason that a prospect won’t choose your product or service is because he doesn’t clearly understand it. And the second reason why he might not choose your product or service is because he can’t keep the differences between you and your competitors straight in his own mind. Both challenges are best addressed through clear and effective efforts to guide your conversation as you set and follow through on each expectation.
5. Always be open to options.
In professional sales, we walk a thin line between being friendly and flexible with the prospect, and acquiescing to an interminable series of increasingly unreasonable demands. No one likes to be made a fool of or have their time wasted.
But if you insist that the prospect adhere too rigidly to your process, you might be missing a serious problem or a real opportunity to build trust that leads to a deal. That’s why you need to be open to options – during and after each sales conversation.
If the prospect has some in-depth technical questions you can’t answer, take the time to set up a follow-up conversation with a technical expert on your team. But, also ask the prospect to provide a list of key concerns or questions in writing ahead of the call or meeting, so your expert can prepare (and so you can confirm during and after that discussion that the questions were suitably addressed).
If the prospect needs to suddenly involve a new colleague in the decision process or revisit the budget, prepare a few options and ask the prospect to choose a path from among the options you set. For example, if he is going to involve a colleague, ask the prospect to clarify the level of involvement the person will have in the decision, and request that he take the time to introduce you to the new person in a favorable manner up-front, so you can develop rapport quickly with the new person.
If the budget is suddenly in flux, ask the prospect to go through the exercise of rating or prioritizing features and benefits that are currently included in the solution as presently configured, or consider phasing their investment over two separate budget cycles, for example.
In each of these examples, we are taking a legitimate ‘wild card’ factor (and in business as in life, plenty of wild cards arise all of the time) and we’re managing them into a process, rather than letting them block or derail the process that is already underway.
What we can see across all five of these keys is that it takes a great deal of effort to prepare for and execute effective sales conversations. But remember, the conversation is what separates you from your competition, and it is why you are a sales professional in the first place.
Take the time to practice, sharpen and deliberately master your sales conversation skills, and watch your conversion rate soar.
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two stories in a series on preparing for sales success. Read the prior story on Three Steps That Smart Salespeople Take to Prepare for Success.