Creative sellers with an open mind have an endless market for their ideas. But most people don't consider themselves creative enough to come up with good ideas. Their minds stop working when someone asks for an idea.
Some people actually have lots of ideas but are hesitant to use them because they're afraid they won't be good enough. They don't offer their ideas, so they never get any positive feedback, and since they don't get any feedback, they don't offer their ideas. The loop is closed.
The problem with that kind of thinking is that it puts the onus of judgment on the wrong person. The salesperson shouldn't judge the merits of an idea-leave that to the prospect. If the customer thinks it's good-it's good! Put the idea in front of them using the best presentation skills you have and let the prospect make the final judgment.
Stop worrying about being wrong and start taking a few chances. If one prospect doesn't like the idea, take the same idea to the next one. "Bad ideas" are just ideas that haven't been sold yet, so keep pitching them. Like any good matchmaker, you'll eventually put the right prospect with the right idea.
To come up with ideas to sell, you need to continually practice brainstorming. You've probably been in brainstorming meetings with your management and other salespeople. The techniques I'm talking about are the same ones you use in a group meeting, only I explore their use on an individual level. It's great to participate in group sessions, but you can't rely on them to generate all your ideas.
Here are the steps: Start by writing down your prospect's goal. On the page below it, make a list of possible ways your company's products or services could help the prospect reach that goal. Follow the ground rules of successful brainstorming while you're writing. (See Brainstorming 101)
In the next step, review the ideas and combine or extend them, creating new ideas through the interplay of the elements of other ideas. Again, don't be judgmental. It's not time to throw out bad ideas. This combining and extending process should add ideas to your list of possibilities, not remove them.
There are several ways to stimulate your brainstorm production. Look inside the company for internal solutions. Many companies package their products or create bundles of services that are designed to meet the needs of certain categories of customers. You certainly don't want to ignore those. The only caution is to be sure the pre-packaged offering fits your prospect's particular goal. You may need to "tweak" the package to make it work.
Another source is free association with nonrelated concepts. This is a fancy term for stealing an idea from someplace else. One of my associates monitors TV commercials and thumbs through magazine ads to see if there's a slogan or concept he can use to springboard his own idea. For example, he'll take a character like Tony the Tiger and create an animated cat named Karla the Kitten who purrs "You'rrre grrrand" when its owner feeds it Brand X. Or he'll take a slogan like "You're in good hands with Allstate" and come up with "You're in good form with Diet Rite." He's not exactly stealing the other person's idea, just using it to spark his own.
Another way to start this process is by examining past sales to like customers. Don't look at the dollars and cents or the unit volume. Look deeper and see if you can determine or surmise why the customer made that purchase. Talk to the salespeople. Pick their brains about the circumstances and events that led to the sale. Sales veterans are usually full of stories about their battles and victories. Next time you're subjected to a war story, see if you can detect an idea that sparked the battle.
Choose an Idea
The third step is to choose the one idea you feel most confident presenting. It should open a clear and direct path to the prospect's goal. Judge the idea by its ability to achieve the desired goal. Don't worry about non-relevant standards, like whether it's ever been done before. All you need to be concerned about is the idea's ability to accomplish the prospect's goal, your company's ability to execute the idea, and the idea's profitability to the prospect and your company.
There is one final check to make before preparing your presentation. See if you can clearly express your idea in a sentence or two. Try to say it aloud without taking a breath. If you can't, re-examine the idea to see if it's too complicated. It may be too confusing for the prospect. Remember, you're preparing for a first-call presentation. Your goal is to make a strong and favorable first impression. Overwhelming a prospect with a proposal that you can't explain in simple terms is a sure way to lose a follow-up call.
Can you use this ideation process if you sell widgets or fixtures or insurance? Why not? Don't your prospective customers have related needs: growing sales, cutting costs, employee morale? Of course they do. If not, your product or service wouldn't exist. Open your mind to the possibilities.
You've come up with the ideas, now pick one and pitch it. That's right. Pick one-any one. It doesn't matter which idea you choose as long as you know your company can deliver it. You can't choose one based on your knowledge of the customer's likes and dislikes because you haven't met the prospect-so just pick one and pitch it.
The Secret of the First
That's when you'll learn the real secret to creative selling. You see, your real goal on the first call is not necessarily to sell that first idea-it's to gather as much accurate information about the prospect as you can so subsequent ideas will hit the mark.
As you gather information, you're also accomplishing several other things. You will make a strong first impression by demonstrating a willingness to invest your time in a study of their needs. You will establish yourself as an idea resource. If you bring them something of value in return for their time, they are likely to see you again. Above all, your idea will provoke a discussion about the prospect's needs, desires, goals and opportunities. It's through that discussion that you learn what they will buy from you.
Remember all those ideas you didn't use? Just like the unused goals from the needs analysis step, save them for later. The presentation you're preparing is just the first of many you'll be making to this prospect. The prospect may not buy your idea on the first call, so you'll need another one. Even if the sale does happen, you may want to have those ideas available for further development of the account through add-on sales or contract extensions. Either way, you always need more ideas.
Another reason to keep all the unused goals and ideas on file is their value to you in working on other prospects. The creative selling process is very effort-intense. You'll invest a couple hours of research and ideation into each proposal. It's much more profitable to amortize that investment over several prospects rather than just one. You probably have other potential customers who are in similar, if not identical businesses. You'll find their needs similar. Getting the most results from the amount of work expended is a principle of good time management.
Many sales departments have a central file of ideas used by all their salespeople. The background research and needs analysis are also available in the file. Every time an idea-based proposal is created, it goes into this file and the entire team can then draw on it (if it isn't bought by the first prospect). From the company's standpoint, such a system creates a valuable asset for future growth. From the salesperson's perspective, it prevents duplicating efforts already made by others.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of methods for organizing and accessing this valuable resource. They can range from index cards to databases. Even salespeople who work in relatively isolated territories can pool their ideas through the Internet. No matter what form it takes, the keys to building this resource are volume and team work. Everyone has to pitch in. If not, the major contributors will feel unfairly treated and keep their research and ideas to themselves.
Ideation has another benefit besides creating good customer relations. It keeps your job interesting. There's an old sales adage that says when you first start out, you're 90 percent enthusiasm and 10 percent knowledge. After you've sold for awhile, it changes to 90 percent knowledge and 10 percent enthusiasm. The trade-off for gaining the knowledge is losing the enthusiasm.
If you're selling the same tank car load of the same solvent to the same customer at the same time year after year, it's hard to get very excited about the next sale. Can you imagine the customer's excitement level? But if you're constantly challenging yourself to come up with a new use for that solvent or a safer way to dispose of it, your enthusiasm for both the product and the customer will go up. In turn, so will the customer's.
Get out of the rut before the next truck comes along and grinds you down deeper into it. Become an idea seller. Learn the skills of ideation and practice them. You'll never grow bored with your job because you'll be putting something new into it every day.