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Harness the Power of Surprise

Don't ask your prospects what they want--tell them what they need.

I am always amazed when mediocre salespeople engage in their miserable excuse for selling. It's like they've slipped their prospects a pill and believe they can close by putting them to sleep.

Think about it: The Willy Lomans of the world walk in to see a prospect, turn down the lights, flip on the slideshow and everyone in attendance knows they are about to be sold.

The problem is that no one wants to be sold. As soon as their sales pitch detectors start to vibrate, they begin to turn off and put up the anti-sales shield. And the Willy Loman clone is a goner--shoeshine, smile and all.

So what to do? Never appear to be selling anything. Refrain from bringing any classic sales crutches with you. No catalogues. No portfolios. No price lists. No memos. These components of the traditional sales process are damaging for several reasons. They reinforce the expectation that you are just another salesperson and activate the sales guard detector. They deflect attention from you--and from the spell you must create to turn the sales visit into an experience. Most important, they deprive you of the element of surprise. And in the vast majority of cases, that's a deal killer. Here's how you can introduce and maintain the element--the power--of surprise.

Don't start by asking prospects what their needs are. That drivel is right out of the standard-issue sales coach playbook, and it's the polar opposite of what you should do.

What you should do is to control the agenda. Once you ask a question at the outset, you actually hand the stage over to the other party. You have lost it. Instead, start by providing a brief but highly compelling overview of what makes you, your product or company different and powerful. Instead of asking questions, do all of the talking right from the outset, telling a story that is engaging enough to captivate the prospect.

Case in point: I run a marketing firm that I believe is dramatically different from the standard aesthetics-focused firm. Instead, we're driven to grow businesses and to generate return on marketing investments.

I use the first 15 minutes of every prospect meeting to clearly and forcefully make this point. I don't "sell" in the classic sense. I educate. I do it with passion and conviction. I don't ask prospects what they need or want at this point. And they like what they hear because they have been frustrated by the standard-issue marketing firm that has failed to grow their businesses.

It's the element of surprise at work.

Once you begin to engage in a two-way conversation, don't automatically agree to meet your prospects' perceived needs. Why? In many cases, what they think they need isn't in their best interests. As the expert in what it is you're offering, you have experience and expertise that you need to share with your prospects.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, prospects respect you more when you say "no" to their requests--and provide them with more creative solutions--than if you simply provide what they ask for at the outset.

Every time you demonstrate that you're a solutions provider--an expert with the strength of your convictions as opposed to being an order taker--you rise in stature. And you reinforce the element of surprise.

Mark Stevens is the CEO of MSCO, a management and marketing firm based in New York, and the author of Your Marketing Sucks and God Is a Salesman. He's a regular media commentator on business matters including marketing, management and sales. He's also the author of the marketing blog, Unconventional Thinking.

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