Successful Sales: Uncovering the Real Needs

May 8, 2003 - 10:12

Part five in an eight-part series about sales strategies that improve profit.

By following the sequence and method of the sales process
outlined thus far, you have effectively sold yourself and earned the right to
ask your customers the ever more important questions. Your conversational
questions have been able to steer the discussion in the direction of the
important benefits you can provide. You have struggled to understand your
customer's important needs, and your customer places a high degree of
importance on the fact that you do understand these expressed needs.

Open questions with your customer should continue until you
have heard numerous specific needs you can meet. It is very important that you
take notes during the "Ask Great Questions" phase because your notes
will be critical in the "Presentation" phase. Taking good notes also
serves as a good record of future needs, as well as reinforcing your sincere
interest in capturing what is important to your customer.

You are now at the point of the sales call where it is very
enticing to roll out your presentation based on the strong benefits that you
have developed. Resist the urge! Presenting your benefits too early may
actually harm the forward progress of the sale thus far.

As an example, let's say you are very enthusiastic about the
new point-of-purchase signs for your 4-inch specialty annual program. You
present this to the customer without identifying the clear need. He states that
he has no ability to install this signage and asks what the reduced price is
without the signs. Any chance for top margins has now been eliminated.

Verbalize Needs

It is important to have your customer specifically talk
about (actually verbalize) their needs. This allows for a clear understanding
between you and the customer and allows you to reference these clearly stated
needs when you present your benefits. This is also the point in the process
where you can put a spotlight on the customer's needs by getting them to talk
about the disadvantages of not having the benefit that you can offer. Let's
look again at the above dead-end example.

The key benefit you have developed is an eye-catching,
consumer-based tagging and sign program for your 4-inch specialty annuals. You
developed the program with this specific retail customer in mind and expected
that they would be very interested in having the program appear only in their
stores. The idea behind this exclusive program was that the retailer could
avoid price comparison-shopping at competitors because the program would not be
available at any of their competitors.

You may ask the retail buyer questions such as:

* "What
are your thoughts on plant promotional programs that both you and your
competitors carry?"

* "What
are your options to attract consumers to your offering, of the same item, over
your competitors?"

* "Can
you describe your interest level in a well-packaged, visual program of
specialty annuals that is available exclusively at your store?"

These questions allow you to clarify your customer's
specific needs and to make these needs part of a memorable dialogue. This
approach also establishes the best possible situation for when you present your
program's details and customer benefits.

I can recall a conversation with a grower who was dealing
with a home improvement store buyer. The discussion led to the store's
"grower cart" policy and approach. The grower was interested in
making this high-volume sale; however, he was prepared to walk away from it if
he was held to the same requirement as all other growers -- drop the carts and
retrieve them later. This grower had taken a detailed look at his costs and
knew what the going price was on the item he was trying to sell. When he factored
in the true cost of lost and damaged carts, he could not make money on the

The grower asked all the right questions about the current
policy to gain an understanding. During this description, the grower asked
about the "negative aspects" of the current policy. This gave the
buyer the chance to think about (more importantly, to talk about) the aspects
of the cart program that do not work well. The buyer reflected on the aspects
of the buildup of carts full of fresh product and trying to get those
positioned for selling. He also recalled the situations where the empty carts
blocked delivery access areas and were generally cluttering an area with high
volume turns.

The outcome of this sales interaction was a complete change
in cart policy, for all growers. The solutions presented by this grower were a
true benefit for the retailer, and it had a lasting impression on this buyer.

Don't Forget

* Establish
the need using thoughtfully planned questions.

* Discuss
only those needs you can address with the benefits of your products or

* The
needs you want to uncover are those that differentiate you, your company and
your products.

* Uncover
a number of needs during your questioning.

* Take
notes on what you hear regarding this customer's specific needs.

* Have
the customer verbalize their needs.

* Attempt
to have the customer discuss the negative situations of not having the benefits
that you can provide.

You are now ready for an important and exciting part of the
sales process -- the presentation of your benefits that are directly in line
with the needs the customer identified.

About The Author

Joe Fox is marketing director and Gerry Giorgio is creative director with MasterTag, Montague, Mich. If you have questions about this article or about sales in general, they can be reached by phone at (231) 894-1712 or E-mail at

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