The ABCs of Selling

As I patiently sit in a doctor’s office waiting room, trying not to get lulled into a trance by the neutral but not quite antiseptic tones of the olive tan walls, I’m reflecting on what I’m doing.  I’m not here because I’m sick, but rather I’m making a sales call on a doctor who should be in his office today. I’m not reflecting on “what am I doing” in the “what am I doing with my life” sense, not today, but more wondering what payoff sitting in this waiting room is going to proffer as it pertains to hitting my sales numbers.  This should come as no surprise to any of you with sales experience, but those sales numbers I need to hit are big numbers.  Four months into a new job, I find myself at a point where I’m getting really busy.  I’ve put in a lot of time and effort getting trained, learning my products, trying to figure out the market, my competition, and trying to figure out who the decision makers are. I’ve been fastidiously sewing seeds like a busy farmer.  I’ve been making phone calls, sending emails, visiting with customers and prospects and now my seeds are sprouting.  I like this part of the game, but ultimately I’m going to be judged based on sales numbers and not activities.  

So what is this sales call, which looks more and more likely to not happen at all, contributing to my goal of selling my products?  I was taught early on in my career that the ABCs of selling are Always Be Closing.  So what do i do now?  The doctor is busy with patients, and can’t see me.  I’ll leave some information, and make my way to my next appointment.  I’m not exactly following the ABCs so far today. Maybe I should consult my kindergartner who has had a firm grasp of the ABCs for some time now.

Some sales have always been more transactional than others.  Selling a car is fairly straightforward when it comes to closing the sale.  The customer comes to the lot and either buys or doesn’t.  In today’s modern world, they probably end up buying more often than not as they’ve already done all their research online and found a blue book quote, comparable deals on, and read countless reviews.  Many people already have the price, financing terms and service plan ironed out in advance of their visit. All this due diligence was executed with a few keystrokes on a laptop computer as The Big Bang theory plays on an iPad in the non typing hand.  This exemplifies a big wrinkle that has entered the modern sales process.  The age of information has created an extremely educated and knowledgeable customer.  I was trained to be a consultative sales person early on in my career.  The idea behind consultative sales is to be an expert in your field so that the customer values you as a partner in the buying process.  I think it was SPIN Selling by Neil Rackman that championed how you should effectively probe to uncover the true needs of the customer in order to successfully close sales.  I think Neil went as far as to say that if you did a good enough job probing, the customer would basically close them self. That sounds good to me.  In practice I found a couple downsides to this approach.  First, probing quickly annoys customers. Nobody likes to be grilled on something, especially by a salesperson.  Second, putting the time in working with the customer to identify all their needs and detail out what exactly they want requires a leap of faith that the customer won’t  just take advantage of your time and effort to spec their purchase and then turn around and go with a lower bidder. This happened to me in my job selling office equipment.  I spent hours with a manufacturing company touring the facility, opening up copiers and printers to take meter readings, which I recorded over several visits to determine monthly print volumes. I spent time interviewing users to identify feature requirements and collecting samples of various documents to understand needs and processes within the company.  After crafting my proposal, the customer took my specs and put the whole deal out to bid on an online bidding site.  Lesson learned.  I was doing the work upfront hoping that I would garner some kind of loyalty from the customer but in the end lost the sale to the low bidder.  Maybe I could have gotten a contract up front for the work I was doing, or a more firm commitment from the customer, but in the end I was trying to differentiate myself in a competitive environment by providing value, which ultimately the customer didn’t see a significant enough payoff from to buy from me at a higher price. It’s the same kind of challenge brick and mortar retailers face. Let’s say you sell athletic footwear. Customers can walk into your store, spend time with your sales rep, find the perfect running shoe, then go buy it on Amazon for the cheapest price.  You do all the work and some online wholesaler in Croatia gets the business which they can afford to deliver at a lower price because they don’t have the overhead costs incurred by inventory, staff, rent, utilities and the like.  So is uncovering needs and providing value still a feasible strategy to close sales?

Another challenge I face in my Medical Sales role is that our products are often sold through distributors. That means I’m not the one taking the order.  And, believe me, I’m not complaining. One thing I don’t miss in copier sales was running credit applications and chasing down checks for Accounts Payable so my commissions wouldn’t get taken back.  But, when I was in that role, one of my favorite closing techniques was writing up the lease or sales order with the customer.  After I presented a proposal, I’d write up the order, verify that everything was accurately detailed out, and present it to the customer to sign off.  Sometimes they would go ahead, and more often there was another level of approval that was required and I’d have to wait.  Now, you may say I didn’t do my job by not getting in front of the real decision maker. That may be true, but if you’re being honest, and actually sell for a living, you weren’t always having coffee with the CEO of the company as you presented your copier, payroll system, telecom service, or other widget either.

In medical sales, I think the goal is to get the health care provider to think about a specific condition or set of conditions they can use the product for, and then associate that condition with your product. An advantage that those of us working for manufacturers have over the shoe store is that whoever the provider chooses to purchase the product from, generally we will get credit for the sale.  That makes our  job to simply make sure the provider uses our product instead of the competition.  So that narrows things down in our favor a bit vs. the copier scenario where I was selling against several competitors who were offering the exact same products.  One closing technique that I find useful is to present the product’s features first, and then ask the provider how they think they can use it in their practice.  This is a little backward from traditional sales training which would tell you to probe for their needs first. In the busy health care field, too much time asking open ended questions can be time consuming for the rep and off putting to the customer, being perceived by a busy health care provider as being grilled.  If the provider responds that they can’t think think of anyone specific, or are vague in their answer, I would detail an example of how another provider successfully used the product.  The goal would be to eventually get the provider to identify a patient they can use the product on. Of course, I would never ask for specifics on the patient’s identity, or otherwise violate HIPAA regulations, but keep the conversation focused on a disease state or condition.   Next I would find out from the provider when that patient would be seen next.  If they didn’t know, which is rare, I would ask permission to find out from the office staff when the patient’s next visit was scheduled so I could arrive with the appropriate samples on the day they were coming in for their next treatment.  

Seems easy, right?  Of course you have to get in front of the provider first.  Then, if they do buy into using your product, you have to make sure they can get it.  Hospital contracts and Insurance Coverage can kill your sale before you’ve even walk in the door.  Unfortunately this is the case more and more and these challenges are difficult to overcome.

So what are the best closing techniques for today’s environment?  In various sales training programs over the years I’ve learned several methods.  Many of these methods seem more like gimmicks, and I’ve used most of them with mixed success.  The Ben Franklin close, the Assumptive close, the Columbo close, the Puppy Dog close, and the Standing Room Only close are a few that come to mind.  There has got to be a better way.  Everything seems to have a hack today whether it be a hack to get free Hulu on Apple TV, a Paleo Diet to give you the physique of a caveman, or becoming a modern day Casanova by mastering Pick Up.  Is there a hack for closing Sales?  More importantly, is there one that actually works?  Is there some weird Neurolinguistic Programming  strategy geared towards hacking the sales process?  I’m sure I’m not the first one to think of this, but I’m not sure where to look.  My quick Google search didn’t yield the results I wanted, so my modern attention span says it’s time to give up. As I reflect on why it is I expect maximum results in life with minimal effort,  I welcome your ideas or questions in the comments section.  I’ll try to do some more research on my end as well and post the results in another blog, which will probably be written next time I’m stuck in a waiting room with a big quota on my mind.  See you soon.  

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