The Art of the Sale

In today's economy, bright ideas are what it takes to land a sale. So we went to the source--to salespeople at super-successful companies--to provide you with surefire tips for selling.

Customers aren't buying. Sales cycles are longer and more complex. Welcome to the world of sales in 2003. For you and your sales team, selling isn't as easy-or as fun-as it was just three years ago. In fact, for many salespeople, selling has become an exercise in pain tolerance.

"The demands on salespeople today are greater than ever before," says Joe Galvin, vice president and research director of CRM strategies for Gartner Inc. "The bar has risen. It's not just a more competitive environment, it's an environment that requires greater skill."

When you wake up at 3 a.m., anxious about a morning sales call that will make or break you for the quarter, you might wonder how the great salespeople not only make but also consistently exceed their numbers. Well, we sought out top salespeople navigating the trenches at well-known companies to find out how they sell. What goes through their minds as they make a sale? What's their process? How do they land customers? Whether you're selling wholesale, retail, B2B or technology, you'll see the sales process through their eyes-and get their top tips for generating more sales.

Selling Retail

It's a tough market out there, but not for Kathy Williams, a top salesperson in Charlotte, North Carolina, for women's clothing store Chico's, which has about 400 stores nationwide. "On a good day, I might make three big sales," says Williams, 47. This may mean an $1,100 sale, a $900 sale and a $600 sale all in one morning. "A lot of customers look at me and say 'I just came in for a belt, and I'm leaving with a bag full,'" she says. Here are her tips for bagging the sale:

1. Beat a cold greeting. Many retail salespeople struggle with the "I'm just browsing" rebuff. Williams asks "Have you shopped with us before?" as an opportunity to reveal her knowledge of Chico's product line. Williams wants to know why a shopper came into the store. "If a customer says 'I'm just looking,' well, what is she looking for?" Williams says. "You're just trying to trigger what's of interest to her."

2. Think for the customer. Once Williams triggers an interest, she starts a dressing room and selects an outfit based on that one item. Chico's doesn't put mirrors in its dressing rooms, which puts Williams front and center with the customer. "I don't consider myself a salesclerk. I'm a wardrobe consultant," she says. "I take the thinking out of it for them." Williams takes notes on each customer after a sale, then follows up with a call or a handwritten note.

3. Attack the sack. Williams sees opportunity in returns, a philosophy she calls "attacking the sack." She finds out what didn't work for the customer and finds a solution, which could be another color, another size or another look. "Nine times out of 10, if they bought once, they'll buy again," she says. "A lot of times, they end up buying more merchandise. They may return $300 [worth] and buy $500."

Selling B2B

Michael Minelli is a New York City-based media and entertainment business manager for SAS Institute Inc., the world's largest privately held software company with sales of $1.8 billion in 2002. In his five years at SAS, Minelli has consistently surpassed his quotas, averaging $2.5 million in annual sales and winning clients like Sony and Time Inc.

1. Remember, it's about someone else's job. In B2B, a bad multimillion-dollar decision can be a career killer for the ambitious manager who's making the purchase, and this fear colors the buying process. "One of the key challenges is the implication to someone's career. They're so emotionally attached [to the purchase], it's a hard sell," Minelli says. "If you can't show how you'll increase revenue and decrease operating costs, you're out of the game. You have to pull [buyers] into the process so they can articulate how this will add value."

2. Focus on first quarter. "With B2B, you're asking the customer at every step for a 'go' or 'no-go' decision, and sales cycles are much longer-months on end," Minelli says. "First and second quarter are the magic months. You have to make it happen then if you're going to close lengthy sales cycles within a fiscal year."

3. Don't sell a need; sell a vision. Minelli asks a lot of questions: How does this potential customer generate revenue? What is important to them, and where does our solution fit? "Customers don't care if you make your quota," he says. "They're concerned about their side of the equation. You have to find compelling reasons why this is good for their company."

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Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the August 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Art of the Sale.

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