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We're forgetting how to sell

I’ve just returned from a conference in Rome where I listened to a procession of impassioned CRM managers from car companies telling an audience of CRM managers about their latest marketing initiative to increase sales and keep customers loyal. All made good sense. All faced similar challenges – legacy IT; recalcitrant dealers; experimentation in new media channels; no money; harsh market conditions (ie no-one’s buying cars these days). But many of them missed arguably the single most important factor which will affect their figures – Selling!

Marketing people, and increasingly their sales colleagues along with top management, believe that it’s all about giving the customer what they want, when they want it. Seems logical and sensible. But it‘s only half the story. Sure every business has to do that, and better than their competitors. Sure we need to make the processes involved in attracting prospects, responding to any interest they express, and achieving a happy sale for both parties as comfortable as possible. But by leaving the decision making at every step down to the customer alone, without attempting to coerce them into making a decision, we’re turning businesses into little more than order takers. Not much better than websites. Businesses need to be proactive as well as competently reactive. They need to rediscover the art and science of Selling and not leave the sales process down to crossing fingers and hoping they’ve done enough to encourage people to buy their products.

The job of a salesman (and woman of course) is to Qualify the Customer; Counter Objections; and Close the Sale. Every sales course in the world teaches salesmen the techniques involved in each of these steps. But I didn’t hear one speaker at this CRM conference mention putting the prospect (ie not a customer yet) under any pressure to buy. It was all about making them feel good about the brand. Giving them everything they needed to make a decision. Trying to predict their needs and offering them inducements. But always leaving the buying decisions entirely down to the prospect. ‘Don’t upset the customer’ was the mantra. Of course you mustn’t upset them, but there’s nothing in the rule book of business that says you shouldn’t put them under pressure. Are marketing people these days getting soft? Are they afraid of asking for business? Are social networks, for example, making everyone scared of being branded ‘pushy’?

The hardest thing in the world is to liberate Pounds, Euros and Dollars from people’s bank accounts – especially these days. If somebody doesn’t really need to buy something, particularly something as expensive as a car, they will procrastinate and delay the painful decision to release their hard earned money for as long as the sensible side of their brain prevails. Because in the final analysis, we probably don’t really need to buy all those things we do buy. We can get by, usually, on what we’ve already got or on something cheaper. But human nature seeks pleasure. And owning something new or better is a pleasure. Like the old adage about boats: The two happiest days of your life, the day you buy it, and the day you sell it! So the indulgent side of our brains needs to be stimulated – which is where good salesmanship has to play its part. It’s not hard to persuade someone that buying a new car is going to give pleasure. The problem is that we naturally resist temptations, especially expensive ones, so it’s the job of the salesman to maximise desire (through careful Qualification) whilst helping the buyer to overcome their natural resistance (by Countering Objections), and coercing them into signing the order (Closing the Sale). Each of those steps needs encouragement for the process to happen at all… and for it to happen as fast as possible.

The US and the UK are sometimes regarded as a sophisticated markets for car sales in comparison with most other European countries. One of the reasons for this is that the average period in the UK and US before a customer changes a car is around 3 years. In most European markets it’s 6 or even 10 years. Clearly there’s little difference between markets in the appeal of a new car. They all use broadly the same marketing techniques, and finance schemes are now universal. My view is that one of the key differences between those markets is an appetite for selling. Proactive hard work by skilled salesmen and women (indeed women typically outsell their male colleagues in the same dealership) will make a huge difference. Not letting a prospect off the hook is clearly key.

A question my company 10ACT is often asked after presentations of our TrackBack product (which measures the speed of lead follow-up by phone) is “Aren’t you putting pressure on the customer?”. Damn right we are. If you leave it up to them, and them alone to make that buying decision, they’ll either not bother or will make it when they get around to prioritising it. Worse still, they might be persuaded by a hungrier competitor. A call from a salesman will not only move the buying decision to the front of their mind, if handled efficiently it might actually result in a visit to a showroom and a sale. So don’t leave it all to the customer and cross your fingers. Make selling a high priority through better training, incentives and measurement – because you can’t improve what you can’t measure.

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