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How To Hone 5 Strategic Sales Skills

Some sales skills are tactical, like how to close a deal. However, there are at least five sales skills that are strategic, in the sense that they don't have an immediate payoff, but instead create the conditions for long-term success.

This post provides simple, step-by-step processes to improve your ability to execute these five skills:

The time you spend developing these strategic skills is at least as important as the time you spend developing tactical sales skills. Because of this, I recommend that you bookmark this page, and work through these skills, one by one. It will be time well spent.

Click the green NEXT button to see the first skill.

READERS: Any contributions that you might have on ANY of these skills would be greatly appreciated. Ideally, I'd like to "build out" this post to create a more useful resource!

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Sales Skill #1: Researching Prospects
If you know about the prospect, you can craft your approach so that it resonates with that prospect's individual needs and concerns. Without this skill, every cold cold call (and indeed every first contact) becomes an uphill battle to create credibility. Here's how to hone this skill:
  • STEP #1: Decide what's really important to know. There's a wealth of information out there about every company and every person, so make have an idea of what's going to be useful before you start digging. In most cases, it will be information that either relates to the prospect's use of your product or potential points of rapport or interest between you and various contacts inside the prospect.
  • STEP #2: Learn whatever tools are available. Your company may have access to online programs that help you research. If so, learn them and use them. Your company not supporting you in this way? Not to worry. You can "do it yourself" by following the subsequent steps below.
  • STEP #3: Go to Hoovers.com and do a search on the prospect's corporate name. Unless the company is very small or very closely held, you'll likely get a summary of the company and its business model, the basic financials, and the names of a few top executives, even if you don't have a subscription. Cut and paste the most important parts into a newly-created document.
  • STEP #4: Check their public filings. Go to www.sec.gov, click on "Search for Company Filings," then "Companies and Other Filings." Enter the corporate name and find the most recent 10K or 10Q report. Scan the financial tables, the list of executives, the descriptions of the prospect's business model, and the "issues and uncertainties." Cut and paste the most important parts into the document.
  • STEP #5: Examine the prospect's website. Examine what the company has to say about itself, then examine recent press releases. Cut and paste anything that look interesting. Check to see what kind of person they're hiring. That gives you a good idea of how and where they're planning to expand and where they're short of resources, all of which might be valuable to know.
  • STEP #6: Check out the social network. Based upon the names you've found in previous steps, look at the online resumes of any potential contact. Take note of anything, like references to a personal life or conference speaking engagements, that might offer a "hook" for rapport building. Cut and paste whatever looks interesting.
  • STEP #7: With Step #1 in mind, review your findings. In most cases, you'll find that your summary document gives you a better understanding of the prospect's firm than most of the employees who actually work there.
Sales Skill #2. Listening Actively
Listening carefully and with all your attention doesn't just provide you with good information. It also allows you to better sense the customer's true attitude and mood. Connecting with the customer in this fundamental way is the key element of turning a sales call into something more valuabe. Here's how to hone this skill:
  • STEP #1: Know what to listen for. Selling is about the customer's needs, not about what you have to sell. If you can't find out those needs, you've got nothing to sell. So you need to be aware of the kind of things that prospect say which indicate they might be potential customer for you.
  • STEP #2: Ask strategic questions. Rather than open ended questions that are obvious (e.g. "What are your needs when it comes to widgets?"), ask strategic questions that invite the prospect to expound upon a situation. (E.g. "Tell me about how your company uses widgets--").
  • STEP #3: Don't pounce. Customers are wary of sales reps who immediately start selling the minute there's an opening. Actively listening means getting the entire story, thinking about what was said, and then taking the conversation to a deeper level.
  • STEP #4: Listen more than you talk. 'Nuff said.
  • STEP #5: Pace the conversation. The average customer can listen to only three sentences before becoming overloaded. If you become an information fire hose, the customer will simply shut down and say "I'll think it over" at the end of the presentation.
  • STEP #6: Sell to your customers the way you'd like to be sold to yourself. The golden rule, in other words... Listening carefully also allows you to better sense the customer's true attitude and mood. Connecting with the customer in this fundamental way is the key element of turning a sales call into a sale.
Sales Skill #3. Prioritizing Opportunities
According to a recent research study, it takes an average of 12 contacts to BEGIN to develop a major account. if you end up calling on marginal prospects that either can't buy, won't buy, or won't buy enough. You lose; they lose. Time is precious, so you'd best spend it wisely. Here's how to hone this skill:
  • STEP #1: Prepare to let some prospects founder. If you're going to focus on the best opportunities, you won't have time to spend on the "maybe"s and the "wish they would"s. Even if you've forecasted them in your pipeline, it's time to stop fooling yourself.
  • STEP #2: Eliminate all prospects who don't have money to buy. This seems obvious, but many times sales reps don't bother to find out if the customer has the financial wherewithal to buy. Rule of thumb: Are they actively hiring? Then they've got money to spend.
  • STEP #3: Find out which prospects would benefit the most. With any product there is a natural buyer who is the most likely to benefit from it, and most likely to buy it. Increase the amount of time you spend on opportunities that fit the profile.
  • STEP #4: Learn the prospect's buying process. Knowing how decisions are made, how agreements are reach, and how purchases work through the system allows you to spend your time helping the customer through the inevitable bottlenecks.
  • STEP #5: Leverage trigger events. Spend more time on accounts that experience circumstances that make it more likely that they'll buy. For example, if you sell management consulting, a trigger event might be a customer announcement of a management change.
Sales Skill #4. Creating Long-Term Relationships
It's your long-term relationships that bring the highest level of success in good times, and which protect you in bad times. Without this skill, you'll be constantly building up new business from scratch -- a process that's expensive, time-consuming and chancy. Here's how to hone this skill:
  • STEP #1: Believe that relationships are important. I don't want to go all crunchy-granola on you, but the truth is that people can tell if you're really serious about building relationships or just going through the motions. If you don't really want to have a relationship, don't bother pretending, 'cause it won't work.
  • STEP #2: Get curious about people. It is simple human nature that people are drawn to those who show a true interest in them. And curiosity gives you the opportunity to learn new things and make new connections. Seriously, it's more fun than, say, watching TV. Always something new and surprising.
  • STEP #3: Act in a consistent manner. A customer's ability to trust you (and thus be willing to share a relationship) is dependent upon showing the customer that your behavior is consistent and persistent over time. When a customer can predict your behavior, that customer is more likely to invest you with trust.
  • STEP #4: Treat every meeting as relationship-building opportunity. When it comes to relationships, the messenger (who you are) is much more important than the message (what you have to say.) Plan on coming out of the meeting knowing more about the customer and understanding how you can better be of service... even if it means backing off.
  • STEP #5: Seek the truth. Find out if you really have something that can help the customer. Discover the real areas where the two of you can work together. Don't be afraid to admit to your firm's weaknesses, when appropriate. Make it about helping the customer, not about making a buck.
  • STEP #6: Keep an open mind. Walk into a customer meeting absolutely convinced that the customer needs your offering, and the customer will sense you're close-minded... and become close-minded in return. Be open to the idea that the customer might be better served elsewhere, customers will sense that you've got their best interests at heart and listen to what you have to say.
  • STEP #7: Have real dialogs. A customer meeting should be a conversation, not a sales pitch. However, the dialog should be about real business issues, not office patter or sports chit-chat. Later, maybe, when you're pals, you can do the small talk. But when it's business, talking business is not just appropriate, it's interesting and fun.
Sales Skill #5. Getting Referrals
When a customer refers a prospect to you, you've already won some of the new prospect's trust. Without this skill, because you'll be dependent upon traditional lead generation, yYou'll end up working harder to get fewer sales. Here's how to hone this skill:
  • STEP #1: Aim for unsolicited referrals. Rather than badgering your customers for leads (either when you close or afterwards), set up situations where your customers will recommend you to prospects, who then give you call... because your existing customer gave you a good recommendation.
  • STEP #2: Provide incredible service. Be certain that you and your company, provides the absolutely highest level of service in your industry. Anticipate what they're likely to want and arrange ahead of time to have it taken care of.
  • STEP #3: Provide extra value. Find something that you can do for the customer that's outside of the expected products and services. Best of all, give referrals to your customers. Show your customers where they might be able to get new business and they'll return the favor.
  • STEP #4: Socialize with your customers. Find opportunities to meet with your customers socially, at business networking events, on the golf course, at informal lunches, or anything else that's not strictly business. The more often you meet outside of a sales situation, the more likely they are to refer people to you.
  • STEP #5: Make it easy for customers to spread the word. Don't bother with overused 'spifs" like coffee mugs. Instead, give the customer a personalized gift that will become an office conversational item. For example, if a customer is a big baseball fan, you might take a baseball, have everybody on your team autograph it, and then present it to the customer.
NOTE: Similar tips and techniques are contained in my soon-to-be-published book How to Say It: Business to Business Selling, now available for pre-sale here.
    All pre-sale royalties are donated to Wide Horizons for Children, an organization that facilitates foreign adoptions and orphanages.

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