In my opinion, one of the greatest myths in selling is the so-called difference between selling a tangible product and an intangible service.
How many times have you heard someone say, "It's a lot easier to sell something tangible that you can feel, touch and show than it is something intangible like an idea, investments, insurance, etc."?
Regardless of what you're selling, whether it's a tangible product like an automobile or an intangible service such as an investment, what people buy are the intangible aspects of that product, idea or service. Just visualize a sign on the customer's forehead that reads, "What will it do for me?"
I want to share with you how another friend and fellow sales professional from Southern California failed to use "The Million Dollar Question."
Some time ago my friend and sales professional was in a New York City meeting with marketing executives from a large media company's top-rated cable television shows. It was the result of a cold call. At the time she was the director of new business for a Los Angeles-based interactive media agency specializing in online entertainment for youth. It was a pretty heady experience. Spectacular views of the New York skyline surrounded the high-rise conference room. Emmy, Grammy and Clio awards adorned the walls. An eclectic band of smart, hip marketing executives were seated at attention around an imposing walnut table fully engaged in the presentation, ready to buy her company's interactive marketing services. Or so she thought.
She had spent more than a month laying the groundwork for the meeting. Hours of research, pages of e-mail exchanges and conference call notes had all been dutifully recorded and reviewed in her database. Her PowerPoint slides and cool Flash application were fully baked. She was sure she'd thoroughly qualified this prospect, and since they'd agreed it was time to meet face to face at their New York headquarters, she fully committed herself and her company's resources to this watershed event.
The meeting was magic. She spoke passionately and persuasively, repeating her key selling points that were met with unanimous nods of approvals. Insightful questions were asked and answered with confidence and conviction. After 50 minutes of presentation and dialogue, it was time for the close. She thought, "This is totally in the bag. At this point they can't NOT buy."
Was she in for a surprise.
Just as she began to make her closing statement to complete the sale, a soft-spoken executive in the group (whom she had no idea was the final decision-maker, another fatal flaw) delivered a death knell to her "done deal" presentation.
"This all seems wonderful Ashley, but your company just can't beat all we're getting from our current agency. We really love what they're doing for us and they're right here in the city."
At this point many salespeople would say, "Now's when the selling starts, because a good salesperson doesn't earn his/her keep until the prospect says no."
And to that I would say, nonsense.
Because despite all the groundwork and prospect qualification Ashley had done the month before, she had failed to advance beyond the "tipping point" stage for every sale: the agreement on need.
This may sound sophomoric, but the reality is that no matter how good a salesperson you are, even the world's best rainmakers are occasionally prone to avoiding those direct qualifying questions that we sometimes fear might kill the momentum of rapport-building or trust with a big prospect.
She repeatedly tried to circle back in the sales cycle to re-qualify the opportunity. The more she did, the more she realized this situation was far from qualified. The meeting was a bust. Though the group was highly complimentary of her research and presentation and left the door open for "a new opportunity," the sale never happened. It also cost her company thousands of dollars that could have been invested with more qualified prospects.
I can't stress this enough: No matter how expert a salesperson you may be, you must get a clear agreement on need before proceeding to the latter stages of the sales cycle.
Agreement on need is the tipping point, the point at which you commit the full resources of your time, energy and company assets to close the sale and win a new customer. Not even the most compelling data, profound intuition or breaking news can replace a verbal statement or e-mail stating the agreement on need. Anything else is purely conjecture about the prospect's authentic need.
Think about those two key words in this all-important stage: agreement and need. The dictionary definition for the word agreement is "harmony of need." The definition for the word need is equally telling: "a lack of something wanted or deemed necessary."
Back to the media company illustration, if Ashley had gone through the mental exercise of asking herself, "Do the prospect and I have the same opinion that this company currently lacks services necessary and wanted that I'm offering right now?", she wouldn't have been surprised by the outcome of that meeting. Nor would she have invested so heavily and so prematurely.
The take-away here is simple: You cannot advance the sales process by skipping steps.
You must take each step at a time - in most cases in the same sequence - before closing the sale. The minute you discover you missed a step, you must go back and complete the one you missed.
Ashley should have asked more qualifying questions over the phone. "What is it you like best about the agency you're using now ... if there were areas where they could improve, what would they be?" And so on.
If you've established rapport, built trust and gathered essential information, you've earned the right to ask what I call "The Million Dollar Question," the one which must be asked to advance to the next step in the sales process.
That question is made up of just three simple words, and it will bring you closer to cementing the sale than anything else you can do in a presentation.
Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.