Imagine you wanted to sell a new digital camera to your teenage sister. How would you convince them to buy? You might start by thinking of the things that matter to teenagers—specifically your sister. Maybe you’d say, “It’s small and lightweight so you can fit it in your purse and take it with you when you go out with your friends. It has a new sleek design, and you can customize it by ordering it in one of six different colors.” You’ve considered things your sister might need (a camera she can take on a night out), and you’ve identified an opportunity that might appeal to a teenaged girl (a combination of appearance, style, and functionality).

Now what if you were selling the same product to your grandmother? She might be more concerned with reliability than appearance, and she might also be intimidated about using a digital camera if it’s a technology she hasn’t tried before. “This camera doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles,” you could say. “It’s straightforward and easy to use and makes an excellent choice for a first digital camera purchase. It’s perfect for taking pictures of the grandkids. It has also been highly rated as a reliable and high-quality product.” You’ve addressed her problem (intimidation about using a new technology), and you’ve helped her discover opportunities (taking photos of the grandkids).

Even though you’re selling the same product to both people, you’re using a very different approach. Ultimately, what you’re selling is not a product but a solution based on your customer’s specific needs. This is the heart of the preapproach. There are three simple steps you can follow to turn your products and services into customer-specific solutions: A needs an opportunity analysis, brainstorm, and benefit statements.

Step 1: Complete a Needs and Opportunity Analysis

Great salespeople don’t sell, they solve. As you research your prospect, you should be able to identify problems that are specific to that person or organization: Do they need to reduce costs? Do they need to increase sales? Do they need to drive traffic to a Web site or generate leads for their new service? In the case of individual consumers, the problem might be very different: Does she want to have the latest in fashion without couture prices? Do they want the latest technology “toys” as soon as they are available? Do they want a car that is a dependable form of transportation and friendly to the environment? Sometimes people are forthcoming about their problems, but many times it’s up to you to ask the right questions; the ones that will uncover what your prospect needs or where opportunities exist.  This can be included in your pre-call planning worksheet.

Step 2: Brainstorm Solutions and Generate Ideas

Once you’ve identified your customer’s problems, take the time—either with a team or on your own—to brainstorm solutions and opportunities that address your prospect’s specific needs. Sometimes solving your prospect’s problem is a straightforward task, but often with larger sales, particularly B2B sales, coming up with a solution that is tailored to your customer’s needs requires time and thought.  Brainstorming—the process of generating ideas—is a crucial part of the selling process. When you go into a brainstorming session, there are several techniques that will help you generate effective results.

  • Know your problem or opportunity. If you’ve already completed your needs analysis, you’re off to a good start. According to James Feldman, a Chicago-based idea-generation consultant, “Most people do not identify their problem correctly” going into the brainstorming session. Once you have a clear idea of the problem or opportunity, set it out in specific terms to guide your brainstorm. Just make sure you don’t define the problem so narrowly that you’ll limit your results. Start the session by stating the objective. What problem do you want to solve? It also helps to frame the question in positive terms. For example, rather than asking “How will this company’s new computer system change the way they do business?” you could ask “How can this company get the most out of their new computer system?” (Wellner, 2003).
  • Generate; don’t evaluate. Brainstorming is not about coming up with the best, most carefully polished solutions.  It’s about quantity –generate the most ideas and then once you’ve exhausted your resources, you can worry about sorting out the stronger ideas from the weaker ones. This will ensure a greater change of producing a radical and effective solution (Morrison, 2016). Keep pushing for new ideas as that is often when the best ideas come out—when you think you are out of ideas!
  • Seek strategic stimuli. Sometimes you have to disrupt your normal routine to get the ideas flowing. Putting yourself in a new environment or doing something with your hands—molding clay, for instance—can often be a surprising way to unlock ideas in your subconscious that your rational mind might otherwise block off.

Brainstorming, as an idea-generation tool, is a proven and powerful part of creative development. However, keep in mind that some of the ideas you come up with in the brainstorming process will be stronger than others. A great idea has two important elements: it solves your customer’s problems and, in B2B sales, it reinforces your customer’s brand.

If you are working out of your home and you don’t have a group of people with which to brainstorm, it’s not a problem. Get your colleagues in other areas involved by having a brainstorming conference call. Or have a virtual brainstorming session through your professional social network by using the discussion feature on LinkedIn, getting ideas from your followers on Twitter, or creating a wiki where people can share ideas at any time and see the ideas that others have created. The bottom line is that selling is all about selling your brand (remember from Chapter 1 that a brand is unique, consistent, and relevant and has an emotional connection with its customers.

Step 3: Identify General and Specific Benefit Statements

Once you have brainstormed a customer-specific solution, you want to find a way to showcase your solution in the best light. How will you present this idea to your prospect so that they can immediately see its relevance to their situation?  As part of your preapproach, you should identify both a general and a specific statement to highlight the benefits of your solution or opportunity. When you deliver value to your prospect, you earn the opportunity to be a business partner, not just someone who is trying to sell something. Imagine you work for a dairy products distributor that sells wholesale to restaurants. You’ve researched one of your prospects, a downtown deli, and have identified one of its major problems: the company is losing business to the sandwich place across the street. Your prospect may not yet realize the source of the trouble, but you have an idea. It seems that the prospect’s competitor has cheaper sandwiches, and you know for a fact that part of the problem lies in the cost of the ingredients. Your prospect currently pays 10 percent more for the cheese it gets from its current vendor than you would charge for the same product. If the deli started buying cheese from you, it would be able to lower the cost of its sandwiches to a more competitive price and draw some of the sales that are going to its competitor. You have also brainstormed how the deli can create a “signature sandwich”: a unique combination of meat and cheeses that only it offers. The sandwich provides a point of difference for the deli and a reason for previous deli customers to come back. In other words, you are helping to build your prospect’s brand and business with a great idea. This is a good solution, but you can’t walk into the deli and tell your prospect, “I want to sell you some cheese.” Your prospect doesn’t need cheese; they need to increase their sales, and they will probably tell you to go away because they already have s a dairy products vendor. It is your job to frame the solution in such a way that your customer can easily see its relevance to their problem; you want to answer the “What’s in it for me?” question early on in the sales call (Natenberg, 2020). Begin by drafting a general benefit statement, a statement that gives the big picture of how your solution will meet your prospect’s need. For instance, you might say, “I have an idea for a way to increase your sandwich sales by 15 percent.” Your statement showcases a solution rather than a product.

General benefit statements, as opposed to specific benefit statements, are broad enough that they would be important to most people (Gerber, 2005). They might address things like improving company visibility, expanding the business, increasing profits, or cutting costs. See Table 8.1 for examples.

Table 8.1: Benefit Statement Examples
General Benefit Statement Specific Benefit Statement
I have an idea that can help you lower your labor costs. Is that something you might be interested in? If I can prove that I can help you reduce your labor costs by 10 percent, would you be willing to make a commitment?
I have some ideas about how to increase traffic to your Web site. Is that something that is of interest to you? If I can show you how our social networking tool can drive 15 percent more traffic to your Web site during key seasonal periods, would you be willing to consider it?
I have some ideas about how to decrease your transaction time and take care of more customers every hour. Is that something you are interested in? If I can show you how our product can decrease your transaction time for each customer by at least one minute, would you be interested in looking at the proposal?

3. Identify Precall Objectives: Getting Smart about Your Sales Call

Identifying your prospect’s need is only part of your preapproach research. There is still more research and planning for you to do before you meet with or speak to the customer.

Determine Your Objectives

If you haven’t determined what you hope to achieve before going into your sales call, it will be difficult to figure out what to say once you arrive or once you have your prospect on the phone. Setting precall objectives is a strategically important step.  Customers will appreciate your organization and will be more likely to trust your judgment if you come prepared. You also don’t want to waste your time or your company’s time as the average sales call today costs more than $250! (Christie, 2013).  The bottom line is to think about what outcome you are looking for and that doesn’t always mean closing the sale. In some situations, you will experience a one-call close, but with larger sales, particularly in B2B sales, the sales cycle, or the length of time it takes to go from the first contact with the customer to closing the sale, is generally longer—sometimes even taking up to a year or longer. Consider Telegraph Hill Robes, a San Francisco-based company that sells bathrobes to upscale hotels with spas. Buying enough bathrobes to stock a hotel spa is a large investment, one that most customers have to carefully consider. The sale has to clear with two contacts at every company: the general manager and the head of housekeeping. As a result, when Telegraph Hill first started selling its product in 1996, its average sales cycle was two years! (Greco, 2007). If you know that you are facing a longer sales cycle, the goal of your initial call might be gathering and conveying specific information to move forward in the sales process or further qualify your prospect. You should also consider your prospect’s objectives: what outcome are they hoping for from this call?

Make Your Objectives SMART

So, it’s early in the process of a complex sale, and you are setting your goals for your next meeting with your customer. You know it will primarily be an information-gathering session because you need to know more before you can propose a workable, specific solution. However, if you go into the meeting with a vague plan like “I want to find out more about my prospect’s business,” you won’t accomplish

Much (Skills connection, 2008).  Instead, you might come up with a goal similar to the one mentioned earlier: “By the end of this meeting, I want to know who my prospect’s current vendors are, what issues or challenges they face  with this vendor’s services, and what three priorities they have for future purchases.” This objective, like all effective precall objectives, is SMART. That is, the goal is Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound (Bjerke & Renger, 2017).

  •  Specific. The goal should clearly define which actions you want your customer to take, what information you hope to convey, and/or what information you hope to learn from your sales call.
  • Measurable. You want to be able to measure the results of your efforts so that you’ll know at the end of your sales call how close you came to achieving what you set out to do. This will help you strategize about which actions to take next.
  • Actionable. If a goal is actionable or attainable, it’s something you can actually do. It might involve asking questions, explaining something, or suggesting something. Whatever the case, it should be something on which you have the ability to act. In some instances, the actionable goal might be as simple as closing the sale: “By the end of the meeting, I plan to convince my prospect to sign a contract.”
  • Realistic. If you set your goal too high or try to move your sales process along too quickly, you will only be setting yourself up for disappointment and failure. Ask yourself, “What can I reasonably hope to accomplish given the current situation with my prospect?” If you decide you want to get appointments with ten top people in the organization during your first contact with the company, or if you intend to close a major account by your first call, you will probably not be able to achieve what you set out to do.
  • Time-bound. Not only should you know what you hope to achieve, but you should also know when you hope to have it accomplished. In the example objective, your time frame is “by the end of the sales call.” Other times, you might set a specific date—for example, “Get the prospect to agree to schedule a face-to-face meeting by the 15th.”
Figure 8.2 SMART Objectives

SMART objectives give you the power to sell strategically by setting goals you can achieve.

smart goals description
Figure 8.3 Examples of SMART Objectives
how to use smart objectives

4. Prepare Your Presentation

Once you’ve done your research, brainstormed your solution, and set your SMART objectives, you’ve got a good foundation to move forward. The only homework left to do is planning your sales presentation. Even if you have a stellar solution to offer, and even though your objectives may be clearly defined, you can’t make your sales pitch hoping to just “wing it.” A well-planned presentation can often be the thing that makes or breaks a sale. If your customer sees you as well prepared (i.e., if you have thoughtfully tailored your style, presentation materials, and agenda to match what you know about your contact and their company culture), you will go far in establishing a strong rapport with your customer and earning their trust and respect.

Four Ps of Presentation Preparation

Preparing your sales presentation can seem like an overwhelming task. How long should you speak, and how much time should you allow for questions?  Should you use demonstrations or examples? How formal should you be? What points should you address first? Here are four general guidelines to keep in mind as you begin the planning process.

presentation preparation
Image: Source: Hubspot

Prioritize Your Agenda

Your presentation should be well organized. Think about how you want to lead in, when you will introduce key information in your presentation, and when you will use product demonstrations. When Tom Szaky, CEO of the garden products company TerraCycle, gives a sales presentation, he prepares by drawing up an agenda that prioritizes the information he wants to convey and arranging it in a strategic order. For example, Szaky knows that if he presents his product near the beginning of the presentation, his customers will make their buying decision before they know what makes TerraCycle unique, so he starts off all of his presentations by talking about the features that set his company apart (Clifford, 2007).  Not only will prioritizing your agenda give you a strategic edge, but it will also help your customer to see that you are organized.

Personalize It

At this phase in the preapproach you should have some knowledge about your contacts in the company, and you should understand the company’s particular culture and priorities. As you plan your presentation, you can use this knowledge to tailor your approach to your prospect. Think about social styles (from Chapter 5) and how you can customize your presentation. Is your prospect a “fun” company that would respond well to humor or interactive opportunities during the presentation? Are you presenting to a group of busy executives who would value an efficient, no-nonsense approach? Think about the level of formality your customers will expect. This will dictate how you dress, how you speak, and how you design your visual aids and demonstrations.

When Tom Szaky gives a presentation to buyers from Wal-Mart (one of his biggest customers), he dresses casually, perhaps wearing a corduroy jacket, a John Deere cap, and frayed shoes.  Wal-Mart presents itself as a no-frills company, and this attitude carries over into its corporate culture. Understanding this aspect of the company and the contacts with whom he’s working—representatives from the garden department—Szaky adapts his approach to match.

Prepare Illustrations

People respond best to things they can see and experience for themselves. Your sales presentation won’t be complete without product demonstrations and visual aids to inspire your customers and help them see the value of your product firsthand. As you develop this aspect of your presentation, consider slides or handouts that will reinforce key points. Consider the things that will best help this particular customer visualize your solution as a winning one. For example, in one presentation to Wal-Mart buyers, Szaky displayed a binder full of newspaper clippings in which TerraCycle had helped Wal-Mart generate positive publicity. He also used a short video and brought in a live plant grown with his potting mix. In addition, because his contact at the company had asked to see what the product might look like on the sales floor, Szaky brought in a merchandizing mockup to help his buyers visualize TerraCycle’s potting mix in their stores (Clifford, 2007).


Finally, once you’ve created your presentation, practice it. You want the presentation to come off smoothly, but you also want it to seem natural.


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The Power of Selling Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Michelle Clement is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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