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Still Touting Your Product’s Features and Benefits? No Wonder Sales Are Tough to Come By

Sales techniques, like fashions, go in and out of style quickly. Once upon a time, salespeople found some measure of success simply by plugging their product or service and telling sales prospects about all the special features that made it (or them) different than the competition.

That process simply doesn’t work anymore. "Prospects are suffering from message overload, and they will tune you out if your sales pitch consists of a recitation of the benefits of buying from you," says Jeff Callahan, who leadsa team of sales force developemnt experts at Sandler Training New Jersey. "A far more effective approach involves showing prospects how you or your product can solve their problems. Remember, selling is never about you or your product, it is all about your prospective customer."

Callahan goes on to state,"Your prospect needs a compelling, emotional & personal reason to do business with you – and this is what we call 'PAIN.' The challenge here, of course, is effectively uncovering your prospects’ most pressing problems and more importantly how they affect your prospect personally. In order to understand what might move them to take decisive action — that is, buying from you — you have to understand what I call their pain."

For our purposes, we define pain as the gap between where a prospect is and where he or she wants to be. If you’re a computer consultant, perhaps your prospective client is spending huge amounts of time dealing with a system that is constantly crashing, thereby crippling his ability to get work projects completed on time. What he wants is a system that is functioning smoothly, without the time delays, hassles and headaches these delays cause him to experience.

Savvy salespeople know that prospects buy when they can do something to reduce their “pain,” and that many times, people make a decision to buy something emotionally and justify it intellectually later. As a sales person, you are an agent of change; you must find an emotionally compelling reason to get a prospect to act or change.

Don’t think of pain as simply something that is negative in a prospect’s environment, but rather as an emotionally compelling reason to change or act. Perhaps you can help a prospect solve, eliminate or avoid a problem; but on a more positive note, maybe you can help him or her achieve a specific goal or dream. Can your products or services help your prospect do something she really wants to do (e.g., expand the business, reduce factory down time)? If your answer is yes, you’ve found a personal motive for the prospect to change.

So how do you begin to uncover a prospect’s pain? First you need to understand the three elements of pain.

First there’s the problem: what is or isn’t happening in your prospect’s business. Typically, this is on the surface and is fairly easy to get to. Your prospect’s business may not be growing as fast as he or she would like because sales are stagnant.

Second, you need to uncover the reasons for the problem – the “why” behind the “what.” This is usually associated with business pain and has a specific cost associated to it. The initial problem a prospect brings you is almost never the real problem. You have to dig for the underlying problems that contribute to the surface pains, which requires specific questioning skills.

An example from my own business: As a sales development expert, I find that some of my prospects are concerned with low closing ratios and/or long selling cycles. I often discover the real problem isn’t in the techniques they use to close deals, it’s the poor job they’re doing qualifying prospects. They’re attempting to close unqualified leads (they shouldn’t waste their valuable time on these). This is a contributing reason for their surface problem, the “why” behind the “what.” Prospects need to understand the consequences of this problem, or the negative impact of living with it, and how it affects your them on a direct and personal level. One of the most important things you can do to uncover a prospect’s pain is to have a systematic approach to asking questions that will allow you to move from surface to business to personal pain.

What questions should you ask when trying to find a prospect’s pain? In our practice we use a systematic sequence of questions as a guideline. By following the process (and it takes considerable practice), we can often help a prospect move from being purely intellectual about business issues to being emotionally involved, acknowledging the personal consequences of the situation. Some of the typical questions in our process may include:

Can you be a bit more specific about the problems your business faces? Can you give me an example? Asking prospects to provide examples or specifics of their issues helps you define the problem.

How long has this been a problem? Dealing with a problem that has been around a long time tells you that this may not be a qualified prospect unless you can develop some sense of urgency. If a business is successfully functioning with the problem, there may be no pressing need to change things from their perspective.

What have you done to try to fix the problem? How did that work for you? Finding out what a prospect has already done helps you avoid the trap of suggesting something that has already been tried. Suggesting solutions that have already failed destroys your credibility and immediately blocks you from moving forward with this prospect.

How much is it costing you? This is a tricky question because it has many dimensions. You want to try to get prospects to quantify what not fixing the problem is costing them, not just today but in the future. Having them do the math on this helps drive home the impact. This is also the first step in enabling you to detail what their return on investment would be if they worked with you. If clients can’t put a dollar number on their cost, think twice about investing too much of your own time in selling to them; again, they may not have an urgent need to make a change.

How does it make you feel? On a personal level, what does all this mean to you? This is probably the most important phase of the questioning process, and may help you learn more about how problem affect them personally. Are they having to come in to the office on weekends frequently? Are they worried they won’t hit their own personal performance targets? Is their credibility taking a hit? Are they in danger of being replaced?

Have you given up trying to fix the problem? This question allows you to qualify them as a prospect you can help. If they say no, that they haven’t given up, you should then ask them, “What were you hoping that I might be able to do for you?” Each question is important. The sequence is defined and should be followed, as it moves the prospect to an emotional connection to his or her problem.

Be careful not to move through the questioning too quickly. Actively listen to your prospects, with a sense of genuine curiosity. Your success as a sales professional is directly related to your ability to listen and gather pertinent information. Asking the right questions in the early stages of the process enables you to gather this information and look at the world through your prospect’s eyes. There is always time later to provide relevant information to prospects, but for now you need to think about your prospect’s perspective.

It is important to note that just because you may have found a prospect’s pain, it does not automatically mean you will get a sale. Pain is complex and has many layers, and the prospect’s real problem may not even be something you can solve. Even more important is that the prospect must be willing to recognize, acknowledge and deal with the problem. But the “discover the pain” process allows you to stop selling in the conventional manner.

When you really want (or desperately need) business, it’s all too easy to drop into a “convincing mode,” using features and benefits to justify, convince, persuade and coerce someone making an investment. If this is the case, you’re talking too much and actually decreasing the chances of making a sale. If you sound like the stereotypical salesperson, do not be surprised if you get treated like one. Extraordinary sales professionals lead much happier lives.

©2009 Sandler Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.

About Jeff Callahan / Sandler Training New Jersey: We develop customized and comprehensive sales training and performance improvement solutions for sales, sales management, and customer service professionals that integrate with an organization’s business strategy, sales challenges, and overall vision to improve sales skills, increase performance, and drive results. Our dedication to changing the behaviors of sales professionals and innovation has made Sandler Training one of the largest, most respected global sales training and performance improvement providers today. Clients around the world choose Sandler Training for our “go beyond” approach and broad platform of customizable sales training and technology solutions. We deliver a comprehensive, end-to-end training platform that includes: online diagnostics, fully customized live and online training programs, continuous coaching processes, reinforcement tools and techniques, and performance support applications. Sandler Training continues to be on the front line of sales training innovation in the development of leading-edge solutions that help clients generate revenue faster and more cost-effectively than ever before.

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About the Author

Jeff Callahan, Sandler Training New Jersey
Freehold, NJ 07728

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