May 122011

 Sell Almost Anything

Sell: May, 10 2011 – 4:14 pm, Susan Adams, in Forbes


This 1988 book by a British behavioral psychologist recommends listening over pitching.

My colleague Fred Allen recently went to a Best Buy store in Manhattan intending to pick up an iPad. No sooner had he located the device than an eager salesperson approached and tried to persuade him to buy an extra gadget that would give him perpetual 4G Internet access, with a monthly data plan. The staffer asked no questions and exhibited no curiosity about how Fred was planning to use the device. “I got out of there as quickly as I could,” Fred says. “I went to the Apple store, where no one would bother me and I could make up my own mind.”

People who buy hot Apple products like iPads and iPhones need very little from salespeople, observes John Golden, chief executive of Huthwaite, a sales coaching firm based in Arlington, Va., with 10 offices worldwide, including in Brazil, Australia and Singapore. The company, a division of Informa, the publicly traded Swiss publishing and events company, trains sales teams in a method developed 30 years ago by Neil Rackham, an English behavioral psychologist. Rackham studied more than 35,000 sales calls in 40 countries and tried to figure out what strategies were most effective, says Golden. Rackham’s 1988 book, SPIN Selling, describes the approach. SPIN stands for Situation, Problem, Implication, Need, Payoff. Though that string of words may sound a bit tortured, the book remains in print.

The nub of Rackham’s approach: Instead of jumping in with a sales spiel about your product or service, start with a line of inquiry about the buyer, and then present your wares as a way to meet the buyer’s needs. “You need to uncover the issues or challenges the organization you’re selling to faces,” Golden explains. “Show you can find a solution for their issues or opportunities.”  In its most effective form, Rackham’s method consists of asking and understanding, Golden says, and it lures the buyer to your product without your doing any direct selling. “You lead the buyer to draw his own conclusions.”

In the case of an iPad, there often isn’t much the salesperson needs to know about the buyer. “Those are rare products that almost sell themselves,” Golden notes. In other words, with them the seller must realize that less is more.

In most other cases, questions are better than answers, Golden says. Example: A customer walks into a car dealership. The seller should not accost her and mouth off about the latest fabulous models and low prices, but rather should try to understand the customer’s needs. Does she want a commuter car, a vehicle to schlep kids to sporting events, or both? Glean why the buyer is shopping for a car and what functions she’s hoping it will perform. Isn’t that just common sense? Perhaps, but salespeople often ignore it, Golden says. “A lot of salespeople are so anxious to get the sale, they pitch the product as soon as anyone expresses some kind of interest.”

Huthwaite usually trains sales teams that have more complex tasks. The bulk of its business is in medical devices, biotechnology, pharmacology, banking and informational technology. In those fields it’s important to research the client before starting your line of inquiry. Often the buyer assigns a group to make the purchasing decision. It pays to find out what role each group member plays. Who is most affected by the decision to buy the product? Who will have to implement what’s bought after the purchase? “Those people have to be identified and approached differently,” explains Golden. “Then you establish what the decision-making criteria are for the purchase.”


Huthwaite CEO John Golden

“It’s not just selling,” he adds. “It’s like peeling back the onion and asking good, insightful, searching questions.” The best salespeople come across as business consultants rather than sellers.

One Huthwaite-trained medical device salesman was asked by a hospital group to submit a sales proposal for some big machines like MRIs and X-ray devices that go for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was told that the group had already made up its mind to buy from a different vendor that had submitted a convincing request for proposal, so the project was a long shot. But with a little digging, the salesman learned that a committee of six people was making the purchasing decision. He reached out to each committee member and asked for their criteria. The salesman discovered that the supposedly winning RFP didn’t meet all the committee members’ needs. After many more questions, he pitched his product according to each of the team members’ stated goals. He made the sale, and it came to $30 million more than the company had ever brought in at one go, says Golden.

Another example from the medical device world, on a smaller scale: A Huthwaite-trained salesman set out to sell back braces to a doctor who was opposed to the use of braces. Instead of singing the praises of the brace, the salesman asked questions including whether, if a spine failed to heal properly post-surgery, that would be considered a successful operation. What if the patient wound up in pain, or with complications?  The salesman “opened the eyes of the doctor,” Golden. says He made the sale.

“The conventional wisdom is that your best salespeople are big personalities, gregarious,“ Golden notes. “The truth is the best sellers can ask good questions, analyze the answers, and identify nuggets within the answers that they can develop and explore further with more follow-up.” In other words, let the customer do the talking. Allow him to make up his own mind that he needs your product.

In Pictures: How To Sell Almost Anything


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sell, McDonald Sales and Marketing, LLC