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Top-Rung Selling: Getting to the Top
By John R. Graham

Every salesperson knows that the goal is to get the order. But there's more to successful selling than just wanting to close a deal or wanting to be successful. There's a difference between a very good salesperson and one who gets to the top rung.

What separates the star performer has little to do with selling technique, product or company, or status, even though each plays a role. The top-rung salesperson possesses an incredible ability to qualify a customer - to focus total attention on the customer and instantly identify with what the customer wants to accomplish. It's as if the salesperson has joined the customer's team, with both salesperson and customer sitting on the same side of the table working together to come up with the best possible solution.

 Here are the 10 elements of top-rung selling:

1. Demonstrate your expertise.
While thorough knowledge of a product is expected, it alone isn't enough to achieve selling excellence today. The customer is most comfortable when the salesperson possesses both business knowledge and competence in the customer's industry. This is important because it communicates the heart of the sales message. In effect, the salesperson is saying to the customer, "What I am recommending fits in terms of both your business and the competitive environment in which you are operating." It's this unique perspective that makes the difference.

2. Take your cues from the customer's page.
Most salespeople fail because they come to the prospect with a predetermined agenda. They know what they want to sell and spend the time with the customer figuring out how to get the order signed. Only incompetent salespeople attempt to manipulate the customer today. When attention is riveted on the customer, valuable discoveries take place. How does the customer feel about the business? What are the problems? What is the motivation for wanting to make a change?

3. Don't rush the customer.
There's a difference between being perceived as concerned and thorough and trying to rush the customer into buying. The former ends in making a sale and the latter in making an enemy. The goal is to help the customer come to a buying decision that is natural - one with which the customer is comfortable. The major mistake is assuming when the customer should buy. Each situation is different. Even if a customer doesn't return your calls or cancels a meeting, you shouldn't assume that he or she isn't interested. Customers have their own schedules today.

4. Help the customer succeed.
Few salespeople seem to comprehend the value of helping customers become more successful. Yet, no one is in a better position to be helpful, because salespeople operate from the unique perspective of seeing first-hand the way in which many businesses operate.

Just selling the right product or service isn't enough. From the salesperson's reservoir of experience developed over time by working with countless customers and staying current on business and specific industry issues, he or she is in a position to offer ideas and suggestions that can benefit a customer's business. Finding information that can help the customer, even if it's unrelated to what you sell, is a rare opportunity to show that your goal is not just making the sale, but helping the customer succeed.

5. Manage leads and customers effectively.
Competent and swift account management separates the average salesperson from the superior professional. Using a computer, preferably a laptop, a salesperson can ensure accurate and timely follow-up, monitor pending proposals and stay in touch with existing customers. This kind of hands-on treatment allows a salesperson to manage his or her business and to implement new strategies. Because the salesperson is in control, there is never a feeling of being overwhelmed or always trying to play catch-up. Just as important, it overcomes the problem of "falling through the cracks" that is so emotionally draining and demoralizing.

6. Cultivate prospects continuously.
The average salesperson tries to control the buying process by deciding when the prospect stops being a prospect and goes to the "dead file." If the prospect hasn't bought in a certain length of time, the salesperson tears up the lead. This may be the single biggest mistake in selling today. While not every prospect buys, every salesperson has a long list of customers who eventually bought from someone else. It's no accident; it didn't just happen. It occurred because a salesperson stopped cultivating the customer. This indicates how wrong it is to dismiss prospects. Just staying in touch periodically can keep alive the possibility of getting the order.

7. Intensify relationships.
While cultivating prospects needs to be continuous, finding new ways to intensify customer relationships is equally important. The insurance agent recognizes the need to be the customer's total insurance resource including homeowners, auto, life, vacation home, boat and business insurance, a task that involves using an effective cross-selling strategy. For another company, it may mean identifying those customers who provide 50 to 80 percent of sales and developing programs to market services or products they are not currently buying, as well as showing appreciation for them as customers. The objective is to create closer ties with the customer in as many ways as possible.

8. Stay on track - be relentless.
Average salespeople are easily distracted, jumping from one prospect to the next hoping to make a sale. Top salespeople stay with the plan. They aren't always looking around for the latest gimmick or spending valuable time trying to find a "silver bullet." They are totally directional. This doesn't mean they are closed to new ideas. Rather, they evaluate every suggestion by a rigid standard: Will it help me get closer to the customer?

9. Make the sale a solution.
The superior salesperson knows that what the customer buys will soon be judged as either valuable or a mistake. This is why time is spent framing the sale in a larger context, one that helps the customer appreciate the value not just of buying a product, but rather buying a solution.

For instance, is it just a color printer, or is it a way to present proposals that grab attention? Is it just financial software, or is it a way to generate more information with less effort to improve the management of the business? If it will save time and money, you're selling a solution. And if you've matched the customer's need with the capability you're selling, you've found the right solution.

10. Get the customer to want to do business with you.
For today's top-rung salespeople, the primary objective is making the customer want to do business with them and their company. But these salespeople aren't naive; it's neither schmoozing nor tickets to a sports event that builds the bond. Those superficial techniques may have won business in the past, but not today. Customers value salespeople who are a business resource they can count on. With organizations downsizing and running lean, competent salespeople recognize the role they can play for their customers by becoming part of their team. This is what has value today.

Top-rung sales
These 10 personal marketing tactics offer a strategy to become a top-rung salesperson. They are not techniques to be learned; they are activities to be put into practice in every sales situation. They have less to do with figuring out how to make a sale and more with how to satisfy customer needs. When these needs are met, the average salesperson heads for the top rung.


John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications and author of 203 Ways To Be Supremely Successful in the New World of Selling (Macmillan Spectrum 1996).

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