Learning Your Prospects' Needs

Here's how to find out what they really want before you make your pitch.

Before you can sell anything to anyone, you must firstunderstand 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 findout as much as you can about his business. Read relevant tradejournals, do a periodicals search for articles about his product orindustry at the library, read the Wall Street Journal. Find out whoyour customer's competitors are, what changes are coming in hisbusiness and what his chief concerns are likely to be. But alwayskeep in mind that you will gain the most valuable information andinsight into your customer's business concerns by talkingdirectly with him.

Open your mind, not your sample case
Don't walk into a customer meeting with a pre-conceived idea ofwhat 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 ofthe transaction matters most to your customer. For example, even ifyou and your competitors are each selling the same widget at thesame price, your customer may be most concerned about paymentterms, another might be focused on the reliability of shipments,while yet another may care most about product warranties. If youwalk in and flip open your widget case before you find any of thisout, you'll have missed an opportunity to distinguish yourselffrom your competitors.

Listen closely
When you're on a sales call, you're there to gather atleast as much information as you communicate. This means askingquestions and then keeping quiet until your customer has finishedwith his answers. Don't start answering objections before yourprospect has finished talking. The more you can get your customersto talk, the better you will understand what matters to them. Onceyou know that, you can make sure your presentation addresses theirconcerns -- 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 typicallystart with words like "Is," "Do,""Are". Instead, try to ask questions that begin"what" "when" "where" "how""tell me" and "why," because they almost forcethe person to elaborate. You will get replies that startconversations. For example, "Do you have problems withvendors?" won't get you as far as "Tell me what youwould like your vendors to do better." Your goal is to getyour prospect talking about his problems and concerns so that youcan 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 youask a customer "Can I give you a proposal on thatproject?" 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..." youare learning critical information instead of ending thediscussion.

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

The viewsand opinions contained herein are not necessarily those of AmericanExpress and are intended as a reference and for informationalpurposes only. Please contact your attorney, accountant or otherbusiness professional for advice specific to yourbusiness.

Copyright © 2002 American Express Company. All RightsReserved

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