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Unleash Your Idea Power

Trying to increase sales? You'll close more deals if you can offer your clients a solution that meets their needs or helps them reach their goal.

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Let's talk about motivation. Why do customers buy from you? Is it because you're an overwhelmingly persuasive, silver-tongued devil? Is it because you have strong personal relationships with your clients? These attributes can't hurt, but you need more than just good looks and charm to sell a customer. You need ideas.

The main reason people buy from you is because you give them something of value. The most valuable item you can bring to clients is an idea to meet one of their needs or help them reach one of their goals. Ideas are motivators.

Now you're ready for the next step in the Creative Selling System. Step one is acquiring some basic knowledge about the client. Once you've learned about the basics of the client's business, you can develop a client goal to be reached or need to be satisfied. That's the second step. The third step is when you come up with an idea to reach that goal. I call this "ideation."

I'm careful to point out the three separate steps because one of the biggest temptations you face is coming up with an idea and immediately pitching it. But if the idea is not connected to a goal, you're going to be wrong a lot of the time. If you'll just do the first two steps-research the customer and come up with a goal-before you take the third step, you'll find that your ideas are a lot more accurate and much more attractive.

Demand Stage Selling

Wouldn't it be great if you could read your customers' minds? You know, get inside their heads and walk around a little bit? The very best salespeople seem to have that ability-it's as if they know what customers are going to say before they say it. They have a sixth sense about which objections a particular customer is most likely to raise. They know what benefits ring the prospect's bell.

Some of this clairvoyant ability comes from experience, of course. Even more of it comes from advanced listening skills. Top salespeople really listen when their prospect is talking and pick up small cues that many people miss. Many good salespeople are also students of human psychology. They make it a point to study human nature and learn a lot about their customer in the process.

One important talent top salespeople have is the ability to recognize customers' demand stages and shape their presentations accordingly. They determine if customers are getting ready to place an order or just starting to comparison shop. They can tell whether customers have already decided to buy the product and are negotiating for the best price or whether they're weighing other options. They understand that different things are important to the customer at each step in the buying process. They practice Demand Stage Selling.

Demand Stage Selling is a technique that identifies how far along in the buying process a customer has progressed. This tactic dictates that you create a presentation which appeals specifically to someone at each particular stage. Demand Stage Selling immediately helps block out irrelevant objections and tremendously improves your closing ratios.

Three Stages Of Demand

Clients go through several stages in the decision process. First, they have to recognize a need and decide to buy something to fill that need. This decision creates primary demand. You can equate this stage to that little hunger pang you get in the late afternoon. Your need is the hunger, so you make a decision to purchase something to satisfy that hunger. You're experiencing primary demand.

Customers then have to decide on a type of product or service that will fill their need, thus creating secondary demand. What are you hungry for? That's secondary demand-deciding how you're going to satisfy the primary demand. You have choices-a candy bar, a piece of fruit, or some microwave popcorn.

Finally, the customer must decide which service provider or product brand to buy. This is third-level demand. In my afternoon snack example, this is when you decide whether to buy the Snickers or the Milky Way. You make the final purchase decision. In sales, this is the stage concentrated on most heavily.

More Money = More Stages

Big-ticket purchases often require a drawn out decision-making process that involves many smaller decisions within each demand stage. Consider automobiles. First, customers have to decide to buy a car. They may vacillate between the economy of repairing their old clunker and the ego boost of driving something new. While in this stage, car buyers get estimates for repairs, do some sticker-shopping on car lots, and gather the opinions of friends and relatives.

They then have to decide what type of car they want. There are numerous choices to be made at this stage-new or used, sedan or SUV, front- or rear-wheel-drive, foreign or domestic, convertible or hard-top, etc. At this point, they collect brochures and magazine reviews, do a lot of test-driving, and generally frustrate the dealer's sales staff with their inability to give definite answers to their questions about what they're looking for.

Finally, they have to choose a specific make and model and comparison shop before making the actual purchase. This may involve several visits and negotiating sessions. Buyers may compare dealers and investigate other ways to acquire a car, such as leasing or buying over the Internet.

As a rule, the larger the price tag, the more stages the buyer will go through to reach a final decision.

Match Sales Tactic To Demand Stage

There are many different kinds of selling, each of which influences different demand stages. There's transactional selling, which focuses on filling orders efficiently. There's negotiation, which concentrates on securing the greatest share of business at the most profitable price points. Both of these occur at the third level of demand. There's also missionary selling, which aims to create new primary or secondary demand through educating customers.

Sometimes you make presentations that attempt to persuade prospective clients to choose your need-satisfying mechanism. For example, the TV network salesperson presents reasons prospects should use TV advertising instead of radio, without crowing about the network's ratings. This is a clear attempt to create secondary demand. Prospects have already made the decision to advertise (having self-identified a need), and the salesperson is trying to influence their decision on which medium to use. The grand strategy, of course, is that the salesperson will get a fair share of the buy if his or her medium is chosen.

It's easy to confuse the different types of selling and expect the tools and techniques that apply to one to apply to another. It's also easy to incorrectly identify a customer's demand stage and take the wrong approach.

Most of the time, you concentrate so hard on getting market share and securing the easy order, you forget to create new business-or you try to create primary or secondary demand using tools aimed at the third demand stage (e.g. pricing). Sometimes you concentrate so much on getting new customers that you forget to up-sell your current customers. This can lead to growth-killing customer turnover. The most common mistake is to apply a universal sales approach to all prospects regardless of their demand stage.

Idea Selling Always Applies

There is only one way to influence all three stages of the demand creation process: Sell ideas! When you sell ideas, you create primary demand by identifying the client's needs-it's part of the idea development process. You also create secondary demand by presenting an idea related to your type of need-satisfaction. You most certainly create third-level demand by selling ideas that your competitors can't offer.

One of the biggest obstacles faced by most salespeople and marketing organizations is persuading more clients to enter the market. That's why it's so hard to make cold calls. Prospects who need a missionary-type pitch, but get a third-level demand presentation, aren't likely to bite because they don't perceive a need for the product. Think of it this way: If you don't need a car (say you recently bought one), would you buy another one just because the salesman made a good pitch? Of course not.

Most salespeople aren't usually trying to create primary demand when they cold call. They're really making as many calls as possible in hopes of stumbling across a few prospects who have already made the primary demand-creating decision to buy something, but just haven't decided what to buy. Typical cold-callers then hard-sell the prospect that's already in the market, securing the sale instead of allowing a competitor to get it. In the meantime, the salesperson wastes a great deal of time and effort making the wrong type of pitch to other prospects.

Why do so many salespeople work this way? It's because persuading the prospect that they have a need is the most difficult hurdle to overcome. If I'm not hungry, it does no good to pitch me on a candy bar. But if you waved a little chocolate under my nose, it might stimulate my hunger. It's the same way with ideas. When you can show the prospect an idea, or a new way of looking at the possibilities for their business, they might recognize a need they didn't see before.

Finding Ideas

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.

Brainstorming 101

1. There's no such thing as a bad idea. Write it down even if it's impossible. Especially write it down if anyone in the room says, "We've never done that before." Reserve judgment until later.

2. See how outrageous you can be. Associate freely and write it down. The wilder the idea, the better. Crazy ideas spark more ideas-mundane ones are dead ends.

3. Fill the page-then start another one. Quantity is your goal because the more ideas you list, the better the odds of finding a good one.

4. Don't stop when you come to the "right" idea. There could well be a better one waiting to come out.

You don't need a group of people to brainstorm. You can do it by yourself if you just open your mind and let it create.

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.

No Garden Variety Idea

Let's work through the brainstorming process with the example I started in the last chapter. As you may recall, your prospect is a retail garden shop. You came up with six possible goals for the prospect. The one you're going to choose for your first proposal is:

"Raise the quality of my prospect's merchandise in the mind of the best customer."

Here's a list of possible marketing ideas you can sell the prospect that accomplish that goal:

1. Run an ad campaign stressing the name brands the store carries. National brands often denote quality to the consumer.

2. Adopt and publicize a new slogan for the store: "We Sell the Best for Less" on all ads, signage, stationary, etc.

3. Build an ad campaign around customer testimonials about the quality of plants purchased from your prospect's store.

4. Sponsor a "bountiful garden" contest where customers submit the largest vegetables they raised from seed or seedlings purchased from the prospect.

5. Place ads spoofing the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for quality, awarding the prospect's store the Good Gardener's Seal of Approval.

6. Create an animated flower character, Rose Trueheart, for a spokesperson in a series of TV commercials.

See how easy that is? This is a list of six different ideas, any one of which accomplish your goal. Rose Trueheart may not be the next Ronald McDonald, but she may be the final piece to your marketing puzzle.

The Secret of the First Call

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.

Stockpile Ideas

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.

Your Motivation

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.