There’s more than one way to start a sales approach. The method you use will depend on the specific selling situation, the specific customer, and on you. If you want the approach to feel natural, the best way to do this is to be yourself. The following examples offer some approach options, but of course the specific approach you use will be a reflection of your style and may include a combination of these approaches.
The Question Approach
When you are making small talk with an acquaintance and you want to show them that you are interested in getting to know them, what do you do? You ask questions, right? “When you ask the right questions in the right way, you can end up getting your prospects to do all the selling for you. At the very least, you’ll learn a lot about what the prospect wants from your product, which means you can laser-focus your presentation on just those points that will sell most effectively.” (Connick, 2019, para 2). Can I ask you about your business or tell me about your business are great opening questions. Here’s an example.
You: Hi, my name is James Dotson, and I’m with Infinity Document Reproduction Services. I noticed that your office is currently using the 2004 model of company Techmax copy and fax machines, and I wanted to ask you a few questions about your satisfaction with the machines’ performance. Would that be all right?
Customer: We don’t really have any problems with our current equipment right now, but we’re always looking for something better, so sure.
Notice that the first question simply asks for permission. This is a question you should ask no matter what sales approach you are using. Once you establish permission, you could ask a closed question (one with a yes or no answer) like “Are you happy with your current copy machines?” but then you risk ending the conversation quickly if your prospect says “yes.” You could ask an open-ended question like “How well do your copiers work?” but this is broad question, and there’s a good chance that you will get a vague answer. Instead, it’s better to ask a leading question that demonstrates you know something about the problems your customer might be facing with their current products.
You: On average, how many paper jams would you say you have to deal with each week?
Customer: Paper jams, now there’s an area we could definitely use some help with. It seems like we have paper jams quite frequently—about two or three a week.
You: So your copiers are jamming about every other day?
Customer: At least.
You: And how long does it take you to get a machine back on line once it jams?
Customer: It depends on who is at the copy machine. If it’s someone like me, I have to call someone to help. But it’s usually only a few minutes for someone with experience. Sometimes, if a new employee has tried fixing the machine it can take longer, or we have to wait until the end of the day when we’re less busy.
You: Paper jams are usually a problem, and they cause downtime, not to mention frustration. That’s why Infinity just developed a new model called Jam-Free. It’s guaranteed to experience fewer paper jams than any other copies on the market today and it has been designed with simple interiors that allow you to get back online easily do you think this is something that would help your office run more efficiently?
A line of questioning like this builds credibility as you try and work together to solve problems and works well when you have done your research, but what about sales situations where the customer approaches you? In these instances, you won’t have specific research to go on but there are some good starter questions for this situation: (Connick, 2019)
- What prompted you to meet with me today?
- What qualities do you look for in a [product type]?
- Which quality is most important to you?
- Why would you like to have a [product type]?
- What is your timeline for buying a [product type]?
- What is your budget?
- Who else is involved in the purchasing decision?
As you begin to ask diagnostic questions, you are building credibility and trust by demonstrating that you are genuinely interested in learning what your customer needs. You want to be seen as a valuable resource helping to build trust.
The Product Approach
When John Koss of Koss Corp. approaches prospects at the Consumer Electronics Show, he has his product booth, complete with visual displays and over forty headphone models, to catch their attention. Koss takes advantage of the noisy, chaotic showroom floor to showcase his noise cancellation headphones: a large banner over his booth announces, “Welcome to the Quiet Zone,” and he invites buyers to sit down, try the headphones on, and experience the instant silence (Greco, 1995). Opening the sales call with a product demonstration can be an effective method of capturing a customer’s attention. For instance, a textiles vendor might bring fabric samples to a sales call. After introducing themselves and the purpose of their call, they might hand a sample to the buyer and say, “I think you might like this new fabric. It’s especially popular for scarves this season. Can you tell whether or not it’s silk?” (Weitz, Castleberry, and Tanner, 2013). The product approach is especially appealing to people who are visual or hands-on learners because it allows them to look and touch.
The Referral Approach
You already know that establishing trust is a critical part of relationship selling. What is one way to instantly earn a new customer’s trust? Mention someone your prospect already knows with whom you have an existing customer relationship: trust already exists between you and your referral source and between your referral source and your prospect, so the referral allows you to use that mutual relationship as a bridge to build trust with your prospect. As you build your client list, getting referrals will become easier but be sure to ask your referral source before mentioning their name to your prospect. Also, it’s always a good idea to thank your customer when they give you a good referral.
The Customer Benefit Approach
If you are in a sales situation where you have carefully researched your prospect and you already have a good sense of their needs before your first meeting, you might open your sales call with a customer benefit approach. The benefit approach goes beyond the general benefit statement to focus on a specific product benefit. This opening is only effective if the benefit you describe is of real interest to your prospect (Weitz, Castleberry, & Tanner, 2003).
You: Mr. Ling, our awnings can cut your energy costs by at least 20 percent. The savings are often even higher for businesses like yours that get a lot of direct sunlight because of a south-facing storefront.
Mr. Ling: Yes, sunlight is a problem for us as it fades the merchandise we display in our front window. Do you have something that can really reduce the impact of the sun on our front windows?
By quickly identifying the benefits of your product, you are letting your customer know what they have to gain from doing business with you. This will not only capture their interest, but it will also establish credibility because it shows that you have taken the trouble to prepare and learn about their specific concerns. Think FAB! (features, advantages and benefits.)
The Survey Approach
The survey approach is one that works best in sales that require a complex solution or in sales where the solution is often specifically tailored to customer needs, and the approach ranges in levels of formality depending on the selling situation. For instance, if you go to an upscale spa to have a facial, you might be given a brief, informal survey about your specific skin-care needs before you discuss service packages with the aesthetician. Or if you are in the market for a new home, the real estate agent will most likely ask you questions about your preferences and lifestyle before they even begins to show you listings: “How many bedrooms are you looking for?” “Which neighborhood do you want to live in?” “Is outdoor space important to you?” “How many cars do you have?”
On the other hand, in B2B situations or in otherwise more complex B2C sales, the survey process might be more formalized. If you want to purchase an insurance plan, the agent may guide you through a detailed, computer-based survey to find out about your medical or driving history, your family members, your vehicles, or other details that are very specific to you as an individual customer. In another B2B situation (e.g., your firm needs to purchase an integrated software suite with diverse capabilities like timekeeping, payroll, and benefits), the salesperson might give you a detailed questionnaire that will identify your specific needs and ask you to complete it before scheduling a sales presentation.
The survey approach has the advantage of being a nonthreatening way to establish your initial contact with the prospect, as you are only asking for information and not discussing services or costs. It allows you to gather information and create a sales presentation that will address the customer’s specific needs and be prepared with the appropriate information or ask other people in the company to attend the sales call. In addition, the survey helps your customer feel like they are receiving special treatment because you are using the information you gather to tailor-make a solution that matches their needs (Manning & Reece, 2004).
The Agenda Approach
You already know the goals of your sales call and the points you will address before going into a meeting, so why not share this information with your customer? The agenda approach, in which you lead off the sales call by giving your customer an overview of your meeting agenda, is particularly appealing to busy executives because it gets straight down to business and lets your customer know you won’t be wasting their time. Here is an example of something you might say:
You: I usually cover three things in my first meeting with a customer. First, I like to find out about the specific event you are planning and what you are looking for in a catering service, next I bring out several products for customers to sample, and finally, if you decide you are interested in our services, I schedule a follow-up meeting where we will go over your customized menu and discuss the service contract. This first meeting should only take fifteen minutes of your time.
Customer: Great. Let’s get started.
The agenda approach outlines your meeting objectives and lets the customer know how long the meeting will last. If you know your customer is someone who likes to get right down to business, leading off with an agenda approach is often a good idea.
The Premium Approach
Free is always appealing. The premium approach, in which you offer your prospects free product samples or other giveaway items, helps build enthusiasm about your brand or products, attracting customers who might not otherwise express interest. Once you’ve gotten your prospect’s attention with the giveaway, they will be more inclined to listen to a sales presentation or at least give you a moment of their time. The premium approach is common in retail situations such as cosmetics, wine retail, or specialty food stores where sampling a product can often influence a customer’s decision to buy. In other cases, like trade shows, sales representatives might give out inexpensive promotional items or samples as a way to initiate contact with prospects.
For instance, if you were working at a booksellers’ convention, your publishing house might be giving away bookmarks or even free copies of a new best-selling novel. You could use the premium as a way to talk to someone who comes to your booth using the following approach:
You: Our house publishes some of the best-selling mystery authors on the market. You might be interested in taking this copy of the number one best seller, One Moment in Time by Jacque Rolique.
Customer: I would really like a copy of the book. I’ve been meaning to read it. Thank you.
You: I’m Sasha Conti from New World Publishing. What’s your name?
Customer: My name is Ramsey Jackson from Books and Nooks. We have fifty-five stores in the Northeast along with an e-commerce Web site.
You: It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ramsey. Thank you for stopping by our booth. I’m familiar with Books and Nooks, and it’s a really special store. Would you also like to see a booklist featuring our newest releases? We have so many new titles that haven’t even hit the shelves yet. With this list, you can see what’s new and bring the hottest titles to your customers sooner. What kinds of titles are important to your customers?
The Combination Approach
Effective relationship selling is adaptive. Even if you prepare a script beforehand, you won’t follow it word for word; instead, you will modify it based on the feedback you get from the customer during your interaction. Real-world, adaptive selling rarely fits neatly into textbook models. Often, an experienced salesperson will shift fluidly from one type of sales approach to another. For instance, they might start off by offering a product demonstration and mentioning a customer benefit almost simultaneously:
Salesperson: Here. Try lifting this ultralight graphite bicycle frame. How much would you guess it weighs?
Customer: Wow! That’s amazing. Really light. I’d guess it only weighs about four pounds?
Salesperson: Close. It’s actually even less than that: only 2.9 pounds. Technocycle specializes in engineering cutting-edge bicycle components like that frame you’re holding. Our products fit the needs of the serious cyclists like your customers because using Technocycles’s components ensures that you will always be offering the best, most competitive technology on the market.
So what approach should you use in your selling situation? Plan one that best showcases your company or product, that fits your style, and that matches what you know about your prospect. But when you make that first contact with the prospect, let flexibility be your guide.