How To Know When to Close.

Last Updated Jun 6, 2007 8:20 AM EDT

In past posts, I've ragged on trick closes, and gotten serious guff from hucksters who depend on them. I'm still convinced that manipulative closing is a recipe for miserable customers and that instead it's smarter to set up the conditions for a natural, painless close. Here's how.

Dr. Robert B. Cialdini, probably the world's foremost expert on the psychology of influence, has conducted extensive scientific studies of how persuasion, compliance, and negotiation actually take place in real-world business situations. As part of this process, he's identified six ways that top sales pros influence customers to actual say "yes." Note that he's not talking about manipulation, but of helping a customer - who truly wants (and needs) to buy your product - to actually have the courage to say "yes" right then and there.

Like most scientists, Cialdini can be a bit, well..., scientific, so I'm going to boil down his "six principles of influence" into six easy "yes or no" questions to ask yourself before you attempt to close. If the answer to all six questions is "yes" you've got the green light to close. If not, then maybe you're not quite ready.

Question #1. Have you already helped the customer? Cialdini observed that customer feel obligated to return a favor. So if you've already helped the customer in some way, that customer will feel obligated to say "yes" when you move to close. There are many ways to create value (and hence a sense of obligation) early in the sale. Provide a unique industry perspective. Bring your customer a referral for a potential customer for your customer's firm. Even a sincere desire to help can create a sense of obligation.

Question #2. Does the customer think your offering is unique or rare? Cialdini observed that customers peculiarly value products that are rare or difficult to get. Establish that your firm is the only viable source for what the customer actually needs, and the customer will perceive your products and services as uniquely valuable. And be sure to reveal any circumstance (like shipment schedules) that would make your product or service more difficult to obtain in the future.

Question #3. Does the customer consider you an authority? Cialdini observed that customers say "yes" more frequently when they felt that the sales rep had special knowledge or unique credibility. So, during the sales cycle, always reveal anything about your specific background or experience that might increase the customer's perception that you're an authority and that your firm is reputable. Long term, build up your standing in your industry by presenting at conferences, getting quoted in the press, and so forth.

Question #4. Would buying support the customer's stated self-image? Cialdini observed that customers are more likely to buy if buying is consistent with a prior commitment they've made in your presence - especially if that commitment defines their identity. During the sale, get the customer to define himself or herself as the type of person who truly needs what you're offering. (E.g. if you're selling medical testing equipment, get the customer to say something like: "saving lives is the real reason I got into medicine.") Tie purchasing your offering to the customer's self image and saying "no" becomes next to impossible.

Question #5. Does the customer know peers who've bought? Cialdini observed that "social proof" is a major influence on buying behavior. Customers are more likely to say "yes" when presented with evidence that their peers are also saying "yes." Always provide the customer with examples and references that match the profile of that customer. Invite prospects to meetings where they'll be exposed to happy customers who come from the same background or have had similar life and work experience.

Question #6. Does the customer like you personally? Cialdini also observed what every sales pro knows intuitively, which is that customers are more likely to say "yes" if they know and like you. Contrary to popular belief, though, likeability isn't an accident of personality. To become more "likeable," find similarities between yourself and the customer and raise them to the surface. That shouldn't be too hard, considering that you're in the same business. Find something about the customer that you truly like and respect and the customer will naturally like and respect you.

According to Cialdini, this "pre-positioning" of the sale is the most important differentiator between opportunities that result in sales and those that fall flat. While it's true that other elements, like product quality, play a role, on a level playing field, it will be the sales pro who does the best job of "pre-positioning" that will make the actual sale. As Cialdini told me when I interviewed him a couple of years ago: "Creating a receptive psychological environment for a sales request is the single most important element of closing a sale."