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Five Characteristics of Peak Sales Performers
Kerry Johnson, MBA, Ph.D.

Are you a peak sales performer? It seems as though every sales pro thinks they are the best. Nobody else can sell like them, or close like them. Yet when I press them on exactly what it is that makes up a peak sales producer, they usually say, "a strong positive mental attitude, goals and aspirations." It's shocking to see what little knowledge most salespeople have of what it takes to be a top producer.

The Xerox Corporation recently conducted a study to learn what makes a top performer. This study outlined the behavioral differences among salespeople in over twenty-four different industries. They studied over five hundred sales calls. They looked at not only top producing sales performers, but also mediocre and marginal producers as well. They found five different behavior patterns that seemed to characterize the crème from the half and half. 

Connecting With Customers

Xerox researchers found that peak sales producers first establish a very balanced dialogue with their prospects and interact like friends. They seem to have an uncanny ability to get their prospects involved as well as help them discover why their product or service would be of value in helping solve their problems. Top producers also realize that proving why the product will be valuable is much better than simply telling the prospect about it. Your prospect will never buy because of what you present. She instead buys from what she convinces herself of. This means that even if you are selling a watch, telling your prospect you will cure his ignorance of time will not be enough. Your prospect will literally talk to himself to discover that this watch will indeed keep him from running late. He will not listen to you, he will only listen to himself.

A short time ago I bought a BMW 535 sports car. I had been looking at cars for three months until I came upon one I really liked. This 535 was so powerful, as the salesman said, that it could blow the doors off a 911 Porsche. Well, I didn't believe this nor did the comments even evoke a smile from me. But the salesman put me into the car. In Manhattan Beach, California, I took this five speed BMW through its paces. As soon as I shifted out of first to second gear, my wife screamed at me and said she was getting whiplash. I suddenly realized how accurate that salesman actually was. I bought it one hour later.

Perfect Probing

The second characteristic of peak performing salespeople is their ability to probe skillfully. These top sales producers are so good at asking questions that they almost always uncover their prospects needs first, before mentioning anything about the product. I'm sure you have found, if you present product benefits or especially the price too soon, the prospect often disqualifies you by giving an objection. But top producers acknowledge and support the prospects comments much better than mediocre performers. They have an uncanny way of using "counseling techniques" to ferret out the prospect's true needs. These top performers ask twenty-five percent more open-ended questions than the low performers. Have you ever been contacted by a hard closer? The reason they are pushy is an inability to establish rapport with you. They have not listened to enough of your needs before prescribing a solution. Top salespeople, are so good at probing that they make you think that they know your problem inside and out before they ever recommend a solution.

I recently called a mortgage-banking executive. I wanted to speak at his conference. Spring boarding off of a very strong referral, I probed him for a few minutes. He told me three times in the first four minutes that they already had a sales psychologist on board who was filling their needs quite well. Undaunted, I simply facilitated the manager's comments and listened through the balance of the interview. Finally, I said that I wanted to be involved in speaking at their next conference if he thought I might be a contribution. Just before the conversation ended, this executive said, "The reason I didn't blow you off the telephone in the first few minutes is because you are such a good listener. I couldn't help but think that if somebody listens that well to our needs they can certainly help us solve our problems."

Matching Needs

The third characteristic of peak sales performers is skill at matching product features to needs. They have learned to uncover real needs and show how the product or service can satisfy it. These peak performers are so good at uncovering needs, they often uncover many. In fact, research has now shown that when two or more needs were uncovered, a sale occurred. Many of us in the sales business have a tendency to present benefits that may not relate to needs. Unfortunately, if you talk your product benefits and features that do not match up to the needs of your prospect, you are inviting objections.

A short time ago, I talked to a prospect over the telephone who told me he wanted a training package on ideas that would help him close more effectively. I discussed an audiotape program entitled, "How To Read Your Client's Mind". I went on to say it would help him listen more effectively and aid him in being more persuasive. I offered this in addition to the information regarding how it will help him close. He promptly gave me an objection and said, "Gee, I'm not sure I need more information on listening, I think I'm a pretty good listener already." He was in effect saying that I presented a benefit to him that did not relate to his needs. I probed him effectively and understood what he wanted but didn't match up my product benefits to his needs well enough.

Turning Around Negative Customers

These peak sales performers have a fourth characteristic. They have a highly developed talent at turning a prospect's negative attitude around. These top sales producers have developed an interesting technique of being able to counter objections and a prospect's rejection properly and directly. Do you think that you receive objections when you sell? This is a fairly obvious question. It's like asking if fish can swim. But in studies it was shown that successful sales interactions contain fifty percent more objections than those appointments that resulted in no sale. This indicates people who buy will produce more objections than those who will not. It seems obvious then it's not the prospect who is giving up by saying, "I don't want to." It's more likely you are giving up on the customer. You quit often before the prospect does. There are actually three ways to answer objections; before it's asked, when it's asked and after it's asked. You obviously know that some prospective customers will give you objections nearly every time you present a product. Knowing when those objections may come will undoubtedly give you a key concept in avoiding those objections by addressing them in the beginning. "Mr. Prospect, some people have even said that this typewriter ribbon does not last as long as other ribbons on the market, but we have found that the high quality of this ribbon allows it to be reused, rather than last longer." If you answer the objection before it is asked, you will cut out a source of problems.

The obvious time to answer an objection is when it's asked. The only time you would ignore an objection is if the prospect is being frivolous or flamboyant. I once received an objection from a company vice president who said "We are firing all of our salespeople next week. We are then replacing them with new salespeople. So I will not need your services!" This was a foolish and flamboyant objection. The exec basically was saying that his current sales people were so poorly trained and so poorly motivated, he would love to get new people. This is not reality. The same thing that happened to his past salespeople will also happen to the new ones.

A good time to answer an objection is after it is asked. Undoubtedly, you have received objections in which a prospect said something like, "Well, how much does this cost anyway?" Or, "This is way too expensive, I can't afford it." The objection may come at a point where you have not been able to fully give the prospect a sense of value for what he's buying. You might simply say, "I'll get to that on how I can justify the cost in a few minutes.

I once heard a computer sales person in the mid 1980's get an objection from a prospect in the middle of the presentation and said, "I haven't got an air conditioning unit that can support a computer this big in my office." The salesperson promptly said, "I understand your concern and in just a couple of seconds, I will show you why that won't really be a problem." So rather than let that prospect distract him he was able to circumvent the objection and address it at a later time when it would fit into the presentation more nicely, making more sense.

Do You Know How To Post Close?

The fifth and last characteristic of peak sales performers is one of knowing how to post close. These top producers have learned to summarize benefits and propose a concise and succinct plan of action when they close. There is a difference between the peak performers and the marginal ones. The poor performers tends to make the sale and lose touch with the customer. This leaves the customer with the sense that he is high and dry with no one to turn to in case something goes wrong. The top performer actually lays a plan of action in helping the prospect understand exactly what will happen in implementing his product or service and the relationship that will start after the purchase. They in effect are saying, "Mr. Prospect, upon buying this product, our relationship is just starting, not ending." This is where long term sales and profits are made.

The Xerox study also showed that when this kind of proposed line of action close was used, seventy-five percent of the prospects ending up buying. Your prospect not only wants your product, but he wants to know that the relationship comes with the purchase. Your prospect first buys trust and the rapport. They buy the product benefits second. Now this may change in certain situations. If you are buying a product over the Internet or through direct mail, the relationship may not be as high. But when a prospect says to you, "I want to buy your product," he is basically also saying, "I trust you, I think a lot of you, I want to spend time with you afterwards. Please support and keep that relationship strong after I buy this product."

Here are some other key items from the Xerox research:

 1) The age, sex and experience level of the salesperson do not significantly affect whether the prospect will buy or not. Whether that salesperson was eighteen or eighty, male or female, the prospect was as likely to buy because of these five characteristics as whether that person was thirty, male with ten years experience.

2) The study showed that the ability of the salesperson to recognize cues and buying signals, as well as use skillful techniques in controlling the call, were much more beneficial than having the best product.

3) In studying poor producing sales people, it was shown that these marginal performers tend to over structure the call. The biggest mistake they make is to think of a sales call as one in which their prospect only cares about the product. The top performers seem to move smoothly into establishing a dialogue and rapport, thereby maintaining their relationship and controlling the call.

When Joy first joined my office, I found that she talked to my potential customers basically about what I could offer as a speaker at their conference. As I listened to one of her phone calls, I learned she was totally ignoring the relationship and dealing only with the service. I told her to spend at least a few moments talking about the location of the program, the academy awards, football, baseball and even tennis, for at least a few moments before they jumped into what she was selling -- me. The relationship is always more important than the product. If that were not true then airliners could be sold through direct mail. It was also found that the average sales people tend to pay too little attention to prospect's needs. They often are taught to ask questions but apparently don't listen well enough to the answers or utilize the information received. They concentrate too hard on asking the right questions instead of listening to the responses.

And lastly, the top performing sales people were able to establish a dialogue very easily while subtly controlling the dialogue. They were very alert to buying signals throughout the interview. Often you'll find your prospect showing signals such as leaning forward in their chair, putting a hand on their knee and forearm on their thigh, as well as pupils dilating. On the telephone, buying signals are such as voice modulating up in saying words like, "Really...", "Sounds good to me...", or "Great." These top performing sales people are very attuned to buying signals knowing that they've said enough, it's time to close.

I hope these characteristics have given you a better concept of how to sell and how important the relationship of the sale is. It's not enough to just present your ideas, you have to be a psychologist of sorts in knowing how to read the prospect, especially in the first few minutes.

The successful sales call lasts an average of thirty-three minutes. The successful sales person asks the average of 13.6 questions, describes an average of 6.4 product benefits, and lists over 7.7 product features. As you can see that there's a lot more listening done in a sale than presenting the product. The customer on the other hand, usually tells the salesperson about 2.2 different needs, raises 1.4 objections and makes 2.8 statements of acceptance while himself asking 7.7 questions. Yes, you will get objections. But if you find out needs, he will buy and you will sell

When I was on the pro tennis tour, I never went to a match without having a friend of mine list the number of unforced errors I hit, my first serve percentage, and the number of my backhands and forehands winners. This allowed me to analyze my performance and work on the parts of my game which were the weakest.

If you could analyze the parts of your sales process that are the strongest and weakest, and shore those weaknesses up, selling for you will be as natural as a duck paddling on top of water. You'll be absolutely surprised when someone says, "no." Use these techniques and you will make more sales than you have in a long time.



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