I was working with a manufacturer of medical instruments that use lasers to measure blood flow. The products cost upwards of $50,000 and are sold primarily to medical research facilities.
With a niche product like this, the pool of potential customers is small, so you have to make the most of every opportunity. Unfortunately, the closing percentages for this company were low. That’s why they’d brought us in.
We looked at the sales process. Typically, it would start with an e-mail from a prospect, asking a question about price, availability or some product feature.
The sales team was jumping on these opportunities, firing back an answer to the prospect’s question –often within minutes — and then following up with a phone call. But these opportunities seemed to disappear as quickly as they appeared. Additional follow-up calls and emails mostly went ignored.
Understandably, the sales team was frustrated. Surely the prospect’s first interaction with them had been all positive. The team couldn’t have been more responsive or helpful. So why weren’t prospects willing to take their calls afterwards?
The salespeople were right: They’d been unbelievably helpful. And that was the problem.
The prospects had gotten what they wanted, which meant they now had no reason to talk to a salesperson.
Time is your most precious asset in sales. Use it wisely.
So it makes sense that salespeople should make full use of all the time-saving tools available in business today, right? You want to move things along as quickly as you can before prospects get distracted, lose interest or find another vendor. Besides, buyers are busy, so you’ll get bonus points for your responsiveness, right?
Well, not necessarily.
The problem with the sales force is that they were too focused on efficiency. They thought they were doing the buyer – and themselves – a favor by trying to move the sale forward quickly.
But for big-ticket complex sales, efficient translates into superficial. Buying a $50,000 piece of specialized medical equipment is a big decision. Even if buyers are only in the “just looking” phase, there’s a lot you need to understand before you can start to create value for the buyer. So why dash off a quick response without knowing anything about the buyer or the problem he or she is trying to solve?
Sales is like cooking. You can serve fast food at fast-food prices, but it’s a tough way to make a living. If you want to serve a gourmet meal, however, it takes time to prepare it right.
With all the time-saving tools available to us – and all the pressure to close sales faster – the temptation to hurry through the sales process is almost irresistible. E-mail is so fast. And so seductive. You get an inquiry. You think about picking up the phone, but that takes time, and you might not get them. The Reply button is sitting right there in front of you. The customer is waiting to hear from you. What could be easier?
Make them wait
You’re not Google. You’re not in the business of dispensing free information to anyone who asks. Make buyers earn the right to the information they want from you. The price: a conversation. In other words, do not give new inbound prospects the information they ask for until you’ve had a chance to talk to them, one to one.
“But,” you may object, “if I don’t give it to them, someone else will!”
Maybe so. But remember, if the information the prospect wants is that easy to get, they wouldn’t be contacting you in the first place. If they really need it, they’ll talk to you. If they don’t, well, they’re just price shopper and tire kickers, and you shouldn’t be wasting your time with them until they’re serious about buying.
That’s the approach I recommended to my client. The salespeople were understandably wary. But they were willing to give it a try. They agreed that from now on, they would respond to these inquiries with a reply, thanking them for their interest and asking to schedule a conversation to better understand their needs and what they were trying to accomplish, and thereby make a suitable recommendation.
Guess what? In the vast majority of cases, the prospects readily agreed to a phone conversation.
The phone call basically went like this:
“Thanks for your interest. So tell me about what’s prompting your inquiry.”
Inevitably, the prospect would describe their current research project and what they were hoping to do.
The salespeople would ask follow-up questions to get the prospect talking more: “Tell me more about this research. Tell me what instruments you’re using now and why you’re considering something else. If you were to acquire our system, what would you use it for. How would it help your project?
These conversations were easy. They were giving scientists and medical professionals a chance to go on and on about their programs and projects. For many prospects, the project was their baby. It was something they were very proud of. If successful, it would give them exposure, get them published, help patients. If it failed, it would be a blow to them and their institutions.
Once they got prospects talking, the salespeople could easily learn everything they needed to know to properly qualify the buyer and begin to craft a solution. They’d learn the buyer’s timeline, where the funding would come from, who would be involved in the decision and any other needs the buyer might have.
By insisting on these conversations, the company more than doubled its sales. They were much more effective at identifying high-potential leads and weeding out tire kickers. Perhaps most surprising, by slowing down the process they actually shortened their sales cycle, because they acquired so much information in that very first call.
The lesson for Ultimate Sales Professionals: Don’t try to hurry along a sale. And don’t give prospects a reason not to talk to you. Seek every opportunity to engage in in-depth conversations with buyers. That’s absolutely the best use of your limited time.
Paul Cherry is the author of THE ULTIMATE SALES PRO: What the Best Salespeople Do Differently (HarperCollins Leadership, August, 2018). He is also the founder of the sales and sales leadership training firm, Performance Based Results.