Imagine visiting a chiropodist because the arch of your foot is causing pain. You begin to explain the problem to the chiropodist who seems to listen for a short while and then begins to take his shoes off. “I had that sort of problem once,” he says, “and then I got these shoes. They’re really great. Here try them on. You can keep them. I’ve got a couple more pairs exactly the same at home.”
Dubiously you try the shoes on. They quite simply do not fit. “I don’t think these will help,” you say. “Try walking in them, give them a go,” replies the chiropodist. You do. They are simply no use whatsoever. The pain in the arch is reduced due to the increased discomfort everywhere else. “This is simply not the solution,” you say. “Think positively,” replies the chiropodist. “They positively aren’t going to help,” you find yourself saying.
You hand the shoes back to the chiropodist and decide to leave. As you are walking out of the door you hear the chiropodist mumbling about clients who won’t listen and who don’t know what’s really good for them.
I guess you would not have very much faith in an ‘expert’ who behaved in such a way. That chiropodist would not have very many patients. Yet it is this sort of behaviour which professionals demonstrate time and time again when they are given the opportunity to engage in a selling meeting. We have observed this countless times in both real life and in role play.
Quite clearly the professional needs to fully understand the prospective client, his business, the business environment, the plans the business has for the future, how it plans to achieve its future objectives and the risks, opportunities and issues it faces in going forward before coming up with services and solutions which are meant to ‘help’ the client organisation.
Our observations are corroborated by other notable writers in the field of selling professional services. Richard K Carlson in his book Personal Selling Strategies for Consultants and Professionals states the following.
“The most common and the most damaging consultant behaviour that I have observed is the tendency to jump at any opportunity to offer a solution: When you offer a premature solution:
You have a good chance of being wrong
You may not get the opportunity to come up with another solution.”
So why is it that professionals so often make such a fundamental error in their selling approach? After all ‘what to do’ is extremely simple. It requires no great intellectual capability to understand – the ‘exploration’ comes before the ‘explanation’. This suggests that we ascertain the client’s situation and requirements before we explore and explain a suitable way forward. First understand the problem in detail then devise a solution. Don’t try to come up with solutions before we understand the problem.
Why it ‘Goes Wrong’
Professionals themselves have provided the answers to us. Amongst the explanations we have heard are:
“In a selling meeting we are expected to sell.” When asked the question, “Who expects you to sell?” we get differing replies. These vary from:
a) “Our organisation – we have new business development objectives to hit and we need to take every opportunity to sell our services.”
b) “The client – the client wants to hear what you have got and what you can do to help.”
c) “Me – if I see an opportunity I’m not going to let it go by.”
The common thread amongst all these replies is that there is a misunderstanding about what selling is. These professionals believe that selling is about talking. Talking is a part of selling but talking about the wrong things is a sure way to turn a prospective client into a client for one of our competitors.
Remember the chiropodist – perhaps he thought that his job was to sell.
Another commonly heard explanation goes as follows: “When you hear a client talk about a problem you can help them with, you naturally tell them then and there. You can’t just sit and nod.”
In a well tested simulation of a first meeting a conversation went like this:
Client: One of the things I want to get underway is our CDQ – Customer Driven Quality – programme. This has not been driven forward in the UK and we can make big improvements if we get it going.
Professional: Well we can probably help you there. We have experts in this field and we have supported many of our clients helping them to gain ISO9000 accreditation. I am sure we could also help you.
Client: No, we already have ISO9000. CDQ is an internal process. It’s really about making the company totally client focused.
Professional: Again we have expertise in this. We have worked with many major manufacturers like your company and helped them to devise and institute customer service programmes.
Client: Well it’s really a bit more than a Customer Service programme. It begins by firstly developing the internal processes, ensuring that they are robust and are fully aligned with delivering ultimate customer satisfaction.
Professional: Oh, so it involves re-engineering some of your processes.
Client: I guess you could call it that.
Professional: Well we definitely can help. In addition to our expertise in ISO9000 and Customer Service development we do a lot of work in Business Process Re-engineering. Would you like to talk with one of our specialists in this area? I’m sure he could give you a lot of ideas.
Client: Well possibly he could – but my first priority is to recruit someone to take charge of the CDQ programme.
Professional: Do you have someone in mind?
Client: No I’m going to have to go outside for this appointment.
Professional: We have an executive recruitment arm that could do this for you. They have an excellent track record in finding top people and I know they have recruited individuals in the service and quality fields.
Client: I’ve already got our personnel people working on this one. They are very good and I always use internal resource first time round when I’m looking to recruit. I’ve only ever used recruitment consultants when we’ve drawn a blank ourselves and I have to say my experiences then weren’t very favourable.
At this stage if the client begins to complain about his foot and his painful arch we can be fairly certain that the professional will begin to untie his shoelaces.
As Carlson says:
“… professionals – who may begin a sales interview by asking questions intended to uncover needs – often become side tracked. As soon as the prospect mentions something for which they have a solution, they snap at the bait and begin describing what they can do, usually in terms of, ‘Here’s what we’ve done in situations similar to yours’. Not only do these people present a solution prematurely, but they deter the prospect from telling them more about their needs.”
A third reason given by some professionals being totally honest about first meetings, goes something along the following lines: “When we’re talking about his business there are many times when I’m on shaky ground. I like it when I can get the conversation onto something that I know about.”
A very honest explanation – but one which clearly has nothing to do with good selling practice. We may be very interested in a particular area of expertise. We may be very knowledgeable in our subject. However if it has no apparent relevance to the prospective client then it is of little value.
Most professionals we have ever worked with tell us that they do not want to be trained to become ‘high pressure salesmen’. Yet the epitome of a high pressure salesman is the person who talks about his product and tries to sell his product to an unwilling customer. Unwittingly the untrained professional can demonstrate the very behaviours he or she would most seek to avoid.
The worst outcome from this type of behaviour results when the prospect reacts badly to being sold to. The prospect may start to raise objection after objection, he may even become personally objectionable. After the initial meeting he may become strangely unobtainable. The untrained professional can then draw the conclusion that ‘selling’ does not suit the professional arena and future ‘selling’ meetings can develop into an apparently aimless and unstructured ‘chat’ where the main aim of the professional appears to be to do everything possible to avoid being seen to ‘sell’.
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