Why salespeople fail to make major sales

Written by Huthwaite International

Are your salespeople working within some or all of the situations listed in the selling profile outlined below?

Profile of a major sale

  • High value sales
  • Need to influence a range of people
  • Decisions taken at senior level
  • Highly competitive market
  • Long selling cycle from contact to contract
  • Complex products or services being sold
  • Product/service being offered may involve client organisation/department in significant change

If so, do they fully understand what goes on during that sales process?

Have they the skills necessary to manage such sales successfully?

Most traditional beliefs about selling and selling methods are found wanting when put to the test in the type of selling situation outlined above.  Why?  Because they fail to focus on the buyer and the complex decision making process which is taking place.  Traditional selling methods and the training that promotes them focus on a narrow range of skills that are no match for the complex and highly competitive selling situation that many salespeople have to face today.  They fall into the trap of considering the whole interaction from the seller's viewpoint with the result that many salespeople have a highly product-centred approach to selling.  To be successful in this situation requires understanding of the buyer's decision making process, and the skills needed to influence it at each critical step.  In short, the sales process needs to be buyer centred.

Let's examine the buyer's decision making process

Any sale, simple or complex, begins with the buyer perceiving a need.  At this early stage the buyer is faced with a number of questions:

  • Is the problem big enough to warrant action?
  • Has this supplier the capability to help?
  • Does the size of the problem warrant the cost of the solution?
  • Does the return on the investment justify this expenditure?

Sadly, many salespeople fall at this first hurdle because they push their product before they have explored and developed the customer's needs.  Even though many training programmes stress the importance of needs, few teach skills which really do build powerful client needs.  Research shows that successful sellers use skills that differ markedly from those taught on many training programmes.  This is not surprising since many programmes were developed for selling in simple selling situations that are worlds away from the complex situations many salespeople face today.

However, in complex sales, success at this stage is only the first hurdle that must be cleared if the sale is to proceed.

Developing needs is only the first step

Being satisfied that there is a need, and that the seller has the capability to help, the buyer's next step in most complex sales is to check out who else has the capability to help.  When making a major purchase involving large sums of money, it's natural for most buyers to shop around, indeed they would be considered irresponsible not to.  In short, no matter how skilfully the seller has handled the first step, it's likely the buyer will invite competitors to submit proposals.  This brings the buyer to a second decision making point.

Who should I select?

Buyers are faced with evaluating the options open to them and selecting a supplier.

How many salespeople understand or try to influence the basis on which this is being done?  All too often they submit a proposal and hope for the best.  When they know there is competition around they may trim their price and hope they have submitted the lowest bid.

Thousands of salespeople and sales managers in the UK are convinced that price is the deciding factor when faced with competitive bidding situations.  Of course, in the absence of any other criteria which the buyer is asked to consider, it may well be!

The seller's task at this stage is to ensure that their proposal survives the 'cull' that inevitably takes place as the buyer narrows down the options available.  With skill the seller may be able to influence the buyer's decision making criteria.  However, at this stage, there is often a further problem.  Decisions in complex sales are rarely taken when sellers are present and frequently involve groups of people at senior level whom the sellers may not have met.  The salesperson can try to influence their in-company contact to put forward a case on their behalf if they have the skill, but sellers are still faced with the task of influencing a group of people they have not met, and using someone else to do it for them!

Developing sales opportunities  Learn how high performance sellers handle common scenarios. Discover the  tactics effective sellers adopt to convert more business.  Download whitepaper

In presentations, 'what you say is as important as how you say it'

In many sales the seller may be invited to make a presentation to the decision making group as part of this evaluation process.  This usually happens after the initial 'cull' has taken place.  Sellers invited to make presentations have usually cleared the first hurdle and are among the serious contenders.  This presentation is another critical hurdle to be overcome since it often represents the only time the seller will get an opportunity to influence all the decision-makers face-to-face.  The seller is often faced with putting forward a persuasive case, on a complex topic, in a limited time, to a senior group.

A lot of attention is given to training salespeople in presentation skills; unfortunately, a lot of it is misdirected.  Most training focuses on public speaking skills, and how to use visual aids.  This certainly helps sellers to put on a competent, professional presentation, and will, of course, have some impact on the buyer.  However, what's really important is not how well the presentation is made but how persuasive the case is that's being put forward.

It's not how you say it but what you say that counts.  Too many presentations focus on sellers, their products and organisations, and not buyers, their needs and how they can be satisfied.

Having reduced the options, the buyer may be left with just one or possibly two final contenders, and at this stage may well wish to enter a negotiation about the final price, terms, and conditions under which to make the buying decision.

Handling the negotiation

Negotiation involves a complex set of skills that few sellers are taught.  As a result, they make concessions to win business that may not be necessary.  Research into the way in which successful negotiators plan for and conduct their negotiations has revealed a number of planning and face-to-face behavioural skills that can be developed in others.  This is an area of skill development that can produce remarkable results in organisations repeatedly taking business on low margins.  Many organisations try to overcome their sellers' lack of negotiating ability by introducing senior managers to handle this final stage.  All too often these managers 'win the business' by making the very concessions their salespeople aren't allowed to.

Buyers don't respond to pressure

The buyer now approaches the last step in the decision making process.  It is at this final stage that another factor comes into play that is all too obviously not understood by salespeople or by many trainers.

The buyer is faced with making a big decision; a decision which will involve considerable change and upheaval, and which could have adverse consequences for the organisation if it goes wrong.

Consider the question that goes through anyone's mind when faced with a similar important decision, for example, when deciding to buy a house or to change their job.

"Am I doing the right thing?"

Most people consider the risk involved in what they are about to do.  They worry about taking that final decision.

Closing doesn't work

It's the same for buyers; they may have similar concerns about the step they are about to take.  What do traditional selling methods and programmes advocate at this stage?  Close that sale!  In other words, put pressure on the buyers to make the decision at the psychological moment when they are most worried about it.  What do you do when people do that to you?  Most people back off and what's more, they resent the pressure.  Huthwaite research studies have repeatedly found that heavy use of pressure-closing techniques does not work where buyers are faced with significant buying decisions.

At the end of the day, the seller does of course want the buyer to make the decision to buy, and must ask for a commitment.  But that decision comes as a result of painstaking work at each stage of the buying cycle, not through the use of closing techniques.

To be successful at this stage the seller needs skills to help buyers resolve their concerns.  They need to recognise that only the buyers can resolve their own concerns, and the seller's task is to help that process

Successful sellers plan implementation early

Part of the buyer's concerns may be about the implementation process that begins after the contract has been signed.  Successful salespeople ease those fears by planning implementation early, and by involving the client in the planning process.

In sales involving complex products or services, several weeks or even months may elapse before full implementation is complete.  The success of this stage will obviously have a bearing on future sales initiatives.  Sellers need skills not only to handle and resolve implementation problems that may arise with the customer, but with their own organisation's personnel who may be involved in the installation work.

It is at this stage of the sale that the seller has an opportunity to gain a deeper insight into the client's business, which may reveal further business opportunities.  The identification of such potential customer needs signals the start of a new sales cycle.

Unfortunately, it may also lead the unwary seller into a final trap.  Many salespeople having completed a successful sale rush to offer solutions to the new needs they have identified.  They fail to realise that trying to short circuit the buyer's decision making process by offering solutions before they have developed the buyer's own perception of needs, has a high failure rate.

There are no short cuts to success

To succeed in today's complex selling situation requires a broad range of skills and strategies and the understanding of when to use them.  Many of the skills required are complex by nature, difficult to master, and need to be used with finesse.  Developing them requires a series of initiatives, each focusing on a specific group of skills and providing sufficient practice and feedback for real skill development to take place.

It's an unfortunate fact that sales training all too often consists of large doses of product training followed by a few days of skills training.  Worse than that, the latter is likely to address, in a superficial way, the skills that are really needed. 

Developing sales opportunities  Learn how high performance sellers handle common scenarios. Discover the  tactics effective sellers adopt to convert more business.  Download whitepaper

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