Before you can sell anything to anyone, you must first understand what it is they need. Here are some ways to do that:

Do your homework
Prior to your meeting with the customer, do your homework to find out as much as you can about his business. Read relevant trade journals, do a periodicals search for articles about his product or industry at the library, read the Wall Street Journal. Find out who your customer's competitors are, what changes are coming in his business and what his chief concerns are likely to be. But always keep in mind that you will gain the most valuable information and insight into your customer's business concerns by talking directly with him.

Open your mind, not your sample case
Don't walk into a customer meeting with a pre-conceived idea of what you're going to sell them and how you will sell it. You'll sell more in the long run by finding out what aspect of the transaction matters most to your customer. For example, even if you and your competitors are each selling the same widget at the same price, your customer may be most concerned about payment terms, another might be focused on the reliability of shipments, while yet another may care most about product warranties. If you walk in and flip open your widget case before you find any of this out, you'll have missed an opportunity to distinguish yourself from your competitors.

Listen closely
When you're on a sales call, you're there to gather at least as much information as you communicate. This means asking questions and then keeping quiet until your customer has finished with his answers. Don't start answering objections before your prospect has finished talking. The more you can get your customers to talk, the better you will understand what matters to them. Once you know that, you can make sure your presentation addresses their concerns -- and eventually get their business.

Ask questions that provoke dialogue
Avoid asking closed ended questions that will get you "yes" or "no" answers. Such questions typically start with words like "Is," "Do," "Are". Instead, try to ask questions that begin "what" "when" "where" "how" "tell me" and "why," because they almost force the person to elaborate. You will get replies that start conversations. For example, "Do you have problems with vendors?" won't get you as far as "Tell me what you would like your vendors to do better." Your goal is to get your prospect talking about his problems and concerns so that you can determine ways your business can solve them.

Beware of questions that will slam the door shut
Instead, ask questions that will solicit key information. If you ask a customer "Can I give you a proposal on that project?" you'll get a "yes" or "no" answer and that's that. But if you start the process by saying "Tell me the criteria you look for in a proposal..." you are learning critical information instead of ending the discussion.

Survey your customers and prospects
Use written questionnaires or telephone surveys to learn more about your customers and prospects. Solicit comments from current customers about their level of satisfaction with your product or service. Or you might design a survey that will educate you about your prospects' business needs. When a customer or a prospect takes the trouble to complete a questionnaire, you've achieved something more than just learning from the responses. The fact that he's made even the minimal effort tells you something about his level of interest in your product or service. You now have a qualified lead to follow up.

The views and opinions contained herein are not necessarily those of American Express and are intended as a reference and for informational purposes only. Please contact your attorney, accountant or other business professional for advice specific to your business.

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