The Essential Element of Your Sales Process You’re Likely Avoiding.

by Michelle Hunter

Want to hone your sales skills? You need to practice. Here’s how.

Building Skill in the sales process

Humans are creatures who build skills through habit. We master new skills through building habits… we create comfort and efficiency with routines (habits) that guide our engagement with the world. Our lives are guided by the habits we turn to daily, almost without thinking.

Want to hone your sales skills? Want to master the sales process? You need to build habits of thinking and engagement. You need to create physical and emotional “muscle memory.” The best way to do this is to practice. Did you die a little inside? Just keep reading.

A long, long time ago (approaching two decades, if I’m honest), I began my career in corporate B2B sales. I had an interest and natural aptitude, but my skills were amateur level at best. Still, the corporate recruiter saw potential in me and decided to take a chance. I was ecstatic…until I heard about the planned sales training I would be attending almost immediately.

My new employer believed in the power of practice and role play in honing sales skills. They believed so highly in the value of repetition in learning that they sent every new account representative in the United States to a sales bootcamp held quarterly. I was shipped off to a location in another region of the US to participate in five of the most intense, embarrassing, and stunningly effective days of my adult life.

We all lived in the same long-stay hotel. We began at 7 am and we ended at 8 pm. We were together and working nearly every minute of that time. We prepared prior to the event by learning basic sales and product information and then we traveled from all over the country to be refined by intentional practice sessions: role play.

During that week I practiced cold calls by phone and in person. I presented sales options, overcame objections, and worked through complex customer situations that required equal parts creativity and humility. My emotions ranged from frustration to dread to humiliation. But, I also experienced joy and satisfaction as I slowly mastered sales techniques and found my rhythm.

In front of a group of my peers, I refined my sales approach. I mastered conversations that felt awkward at first and I realized that I actually enjoyed talking to people about needs and finding a way to help them find solutions.

Now, let’s be clear. I’m not suggesting you look for a similar type of intense event or workshop you can attend. That’s a bit more than is required for most of us. But, I am encouraging you to practice your sales technique- particularly those critical conversations and situations that are both (a) anxiety-inducing and awkward and (b) vital to your success.

Why do I suggest practice? Because it will ultimately build your confidence, increase your close percentages, and improve your business’ bottom line.

Practice refines your listening skills.

Spoiler alert – – > Sales is actually more about listening than talking. So is effective communication, but that’s a topic for another article. Yet, without practice, most of us will come to a sales or marketing conversation with our mouths open and our ears closed. Rather than creating engaging dialogue, we become that person at the party who drones on and on in a self-centered way.

Through practice and role-play, I learned the importance of listening to my prospect (potential customer) with a goal of noticing four specific aspects of the conversation.

  • What was actually said. Seems like conversation 101, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to miss the details of what another person is saying unless you are intentional about focusing on what you hear rather than how you will respond.
  • How it was said. This is the tone of voice/non-verbal component of speech such as body language, inflection, and emotional content of the sound itself. This indicates how the person is feeling in the moment.
  • What is not said. Ever notice how a politician or thought leader can respond to a question with a non-answer that subtly shifts the dialogue? Regular people do this too and you can gain a lot of insight by noticing what is left out or avoided.
  • Where speech falls silent or the other person disengages. Lengthening pauses or simple silence is an indication of a lack of engagement and can be a sign of disagreement or disinterest.

During my sales training, I was given a simple card with these categories on it and asked to make notes after a conversation to share what I heard. It only took a few sparsely completed cards to help me listen more intentionally.

Practice refines your questioning skills.

Questions have incredible conversational power. Our brains are problem-solving machines, and we automatically begin answering questions as soon as we hear them. This means a skilled conversationalist can steer the dialogue just by controlling the questions he or she asks. This might feel manipulative at first glance, but it’s actually a natural process we practice all the time in our normal lives.

As a teen, my son often asked what I planned to make for dinner. His question was one part honest curiosity and two parts subtle manipulation. He wanted to make sure dinner preparation was on my mental radar. When my husband asks me about our weekend plans, he is actually quite often beginning a conversation in which he will share his desires for the next few days so I can align my plans with his.

We guide conversations quite naturally with questions… so why not practice using questions to move the prospect closer to the point of making a buying decision? Consider questions like these:

  • Why are you considering this project/product/service? By asking directly, you allow the prospect to share the factors the most important factors in the decision from his or her perspective.
  • Why now? What’s changed? Guide the prospect to talk about urgency and about any recent shifts which are a factor in the decision.
  • What will this mean to you? Questions like these get to the heart of motivation. I like to ask this one multiple times to uncover motivations in multiple areas such as professional, personal, and financial.
  • What if you don’t do this? Your goal with this question is to uncover any alternative solutions for the prospect as well as the costs of inaction.

Notice that I’m sharing open-ended questions here. An open-ended question is one that requires more than a simple one- or two-word answer. Questions like these are designed to spark deeper conversation and more engagement. You want more than a simple YES or NO. You want dialogue… so ask in a way that encourages it.

Practice refines your ability to overcome objections.

There comes a moment in every sales-type conversation when things get awkward and the energy shifts. That moment is typically the one where the prospect raises the first objection to your product/service. An objection sounds a bit like a NO, but nothing could be further from the truth. Raising objections means a person is actually carefully considering the offer and is an important part of the sales process.

Objections are a sign that you’re getting close to a buying decision.

Here’s a real-life example to illustrate my point. I follow a whole-food, plant-based diet. That means I avoid processed foods if possible as well as any animal products including meat, fish, and dairy. When I travel, I have to be careful in order to follow my preferred diet in settings that might be less than ideal. This means I scan many a menu.

As I read through the menu, I quickly eliminate the options I either know immediately won’t fit or that I don’t enjoy. There’s no point in considering them. When I have identified a few items that interest me, I dig a little deeper. I look into the details and I might ask the server to clarify an ingredient or cooking method. These are objections…and they are an indication that the menu option has made it on my shortlist.

Sales objections are exactly the same as my questions about the menu. They are requests for more information so the prospect can purchase with confidence. Objections can sound like questions or negative statements, but they are actually just something for you to address.

  • “This seems a bit expensive” actually means “I don’t understand the value here.”
  • “Do you include X?” is just a request for more information or clarification.
  • “I’m not sure when I’ll be ready” is often an expression of fear or overwhelm.

So, how do you overcome objections during the course of a sales conversation? Here’s the method I learned at that sales boot camp. Quite honestly, it works so well I can’t improve on it.

Identify the true objection. Notice above that I interpreted the examples for you? This comes from lots of practice getting to the true issue. My favorite way to do this is to ask WHY in some form. My favorite is just a simple “Why?” but I also use “Why do you say that?” and “Why is that a concern?” when appropriate.

Isolate the objection. Before you address the issue raised, make sure you understand all the objections and issues between your prospect and a buying decision. I do this by acknowledging the issue and then asking if there are any others. My goal is to identify any concerns in the mind of the other person before I get to involved in addressing them.

This is an important step, even though it can feel awkward at first, because of human behavior. In order to be polite, we will often share minor issues openly but keep more deeply felt concerns to ourselves. Isolating the objection and digging for others bypasses this tendency and creates conversational space to consider multiple issues freely.

Overcome the objection. Move through each objection one at a time and address it honestly. In some cases, you can clarify a misunderstanding or share additional information to remove the concern. In other cases, the concern is valid and you may only be able to offer an alternative or a compromise. Some objections might be outside your ability to overcome.

Imagine, for example, that I’m buying a pair of jeans and I have three objections – the price seems high to me, I need 100% cotton, and I can’t find the right length.

  • My concern about price may be overcome by helping me understand the product warranty or a design feature that justifies the pricing.  (Clarification)
  • My need for 100% cotton may be overcome by directing me to a selection with that material makeup. (Alternative)
  • Typically I need a tall size but the product isn’t sold in that style. (Outside ability to overcome)

Addressing objections moves a prospect closer to a buying decision, even if that decision is ultimately NO. This is a good thing, regardless of the outcome because it allows everyone to move forward in clarity and understanding. By the way, when you guide a prospect to an honest NO you build credibility and increase trust. This means you’ll likely eventually get a YES when your products and services better fit the person’s needs.

How to include practice as a part of your sales process.

Unless you’re attending a sales boot camp like I did, adding practice to your sales process will require a bit of creativity on your part. My suggestion? Make it a game you play in a variety of contexts and settings. Your goal is to hone your skills… you don’t need a true sales context to do that effectively.

Practice listening carefully to family and friends at dinner or in a social setting. Then challenge yourself to make notes just like I did on those little cards years ago. You’ll be surprised at how good you’ll get at noticing things you typically miss right now.

Become an intentional question-asking person. I love to ask questions of sales clerks or customer service people. I ask why a restaurant added a dish to their menu or why my grocery has started stocking more of a brand I enjoy. I ask colleagues how shifts they are considering will impact them or what concerns them about a situation they mention.

I especially enjoy overcoming objections with my children and grandchildren. This is great fun and they often feel truly heard and understood- never realizing I am practicing sales techniques as a part of our conversation.

Of course, the most effective form of practice is role-play.

Terrifying as it can seem, role play can actually be fun in the right circumstance. The key is to not take yourself too seriously and to role-play with someone skilled who is invested in helping you improve through kind, candid feedback. This is the type of sales training I include as a part of my work with clients… and it’s incredibly effective for improving your results.

Want to build your sales and marketing skills? We won’t start with role-play, but we really should talk.

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