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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.

By Dave Donelson

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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 personalrelationships with your clients? These attributes can't hurt,but you need more than just good looks and charm to sell acustomer. You need ideas.

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

Now you're ready for the next step in the Creative SellingSystem. Step one is acquiring some basic knowledge about theclient. Once you've learned about the basics of theclient's business, you can develop a client goal to be reachedor need to be satisfied. That's the second step. The third stepis 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 becauseone of the biggest temptations you face is coming up with an ideaand immediately pitching it. But if the idea is not connected to agoal, you're going to be wrong a lot of the time. If you'lljust do the first two steps-research the customer and come upwith a goal-before you take the third step, you'll findthat your ideas are a lot more accurate and much moreattractive.

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 littlebit? The very best salespeople seem to have thatability-it's as if they know what customers are going tosay before they say it. They have a sixth sense about whichobjections a particular customer is most likely to raise. They knowwhat benefits ring the prospect's bell.

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

One important talent top salespeople have is the ability torecognize customers' demand stages and shape theirpresentations accordingly. They determine if customers are gettingready to place an order or just starting to comparison shop. Theycan tell whether customers have already decided to buy the productand are negotiating for the best price or whether they'reweighing other options. They understand that different things areimportant to the customer at each step in the buying process. Theypractice Demand Stage Selling.

Demand Stage Selling is a technique that identifies how faralong in the buying process a customer has progressed. This tacticdictates that you create a presentation which appeals specificallyto someone at each particular stage. Demand Stage Sellingimmediately helps block out irrelevant objections and tremendouslyimproves 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 fillthat need. This decision creates primary demand. You can equatethis stage to that little hunger pang you get in the lateafternoon. Your need is the hunger, so you make a decision topurchase something to satisfy that hunger. You're experiencingprimary demand.

Customers then have to decide on a type of product or servicethat will fill their need, thus creating secondary demand. What areyou hungry for? That's secondary demand-deciding howyou're going to satisfy the primary demand. You havechoices-a candy bar, a piece of fruit, or some microwavepopcorn.

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

More Money = MoreStages
Big-ticket purchases often require a drawn out decision-makingprocess that involves many smaller decisions within each demandstage. Consider automobiles. First, customers have to decide to buya car. They may vacillate between the economy of repairing theirold clunker and the ego boost of driving something new. While inthis stage, car buyers get estimates for repairs, do somesticker-shopping on car lots, and gather the opinions of friendsand relatives.

They then have to decide what type of carthey want. There are numerous choices to be made at thisstage-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 oftest-driving, and generally frustrate the dealer's sales staffwith their inability to give definite answers to their questionsabout what they're looking for.

Finally, they have to choose a specific makeand model and comparison shop before making the actual purchase.This may involve several visits and negotiating sessions. Buyersmay 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, themore stages the buyer will go through to reach a finaldecision.

Match Sales Tactic To DemandStage
There are many different kinds of selling, each of which influencesdifferent demand stages. There's transactional selling, whichfocuses on filling orders efficiently. There's negotiation,which concentrates on securing the greatest share of business atthe most profitable price points. Both of these occur at the thirdlevel of demand. There's also missionary selling, which aims tocreate new primary or secondary demand through educatingcustomers.

Sometimes you make presentations that attempt to persuadeprospective clients to choose your need-satisfying mechanism.For example, the TV network salesperson presents reasons prospectsshould use TV advertising instead of radio, without crowing aboutthe network's ratings. This is a clear attempt to createsecondary demand. Prospects have already made the decision toadvertise (having self-identified a need), and the salesperson istrying to influence their decision on which medium to use. Thegrand strategy, of course, is that the salesperson will get a fairshare of the buy if his or her medium is chosen.

It's easy to confuse the different types of selling andexpect the tools and techniques that apply to one to apply toanother. It's also easy to incorrectly identify acustomer's demand stage and take the wrong approach.

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

Idea Selling AlwaysApplies
There is only one way to influence all three stages of the demandcreation process: Sell ideas! When you sell ideas, you createprimary demand by identifying the client's needs-it'spart of the idea development process. You also create secondarydemand by presenting an idea related to your type ofneed-satisfaction. You most certainly create third-leveldemand by selling ideas that your competitors can't offer.

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

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

Why do so many salespeople work this way? It's becausepersuading the prospect that they have a need is the most difficulthurdle to overcome. If I'm not hungry, it does no good to pitchme on a candy bar. But if you waved a little chocolate under mynose, it might stimulate my hunger. It's the same way withideas. When you can show the prospect an idea, or a new way oflooking at the possibilities for their business, they mightrecognize a need they didn't see before.

Finding Ideas

Creative sellers with an open mind have an endless market fortheir ideas. But most people don't consider themselves creativeenough to come up with good ideas. Their minds stop working whensomeone asks for an idea.

Some people actually have lots of ideas but are hesitant to usethem because they're afraid they won't be good enough. Theydon't offer their ideas, so they never get any positivefeedback, and since they don't get any feedback, they don'toffer their ideas. The loop is closed.

The problem with that kind of thinking is that it puts the onusof judgment on the wrong person. The salesperson shouldn'tjudge the merits of an idea-leave that to the prospect. Ifthe customer thinks it's good-it's good! Put the ideain front of them using the best presentation skills you have andlet 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 tothe next one. "Bad ideas" are just ideas that haven'tbeen sold yet, so keep pitching them. Like any good matchmaker,you'll eventually put the right prospect with the rightidea.

To come up with ideas to sell, you need to continually practicebrainstorming. You've probably been in brainstorming meetingswith your management and other salespeople. The techniques I'mtalking about are the same ones you use in a group meeting, only Iexplore their use on an individual level. It's great toparticipate in group sessions, but you can't rely on them togenerate all your ideas.

Here are the steps: Start by writing down your prospect'sgoal. On the page below it, make a list of possible ways yourcompany's products or services could help the prospect reachthat goal. Follow the ground rules of successful brainstormingwhile you're writing. (See Brainstorming101)

In the next step, review the ideas and combine or extend them,creating new ideas through the interplay of the elements of otherideas. Again, don't be judgmental. It's not time to throwout bad ideas. This combining and extending process should addideas 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 companiespackage their products or create bundles of services that aredesigned to meet the needs of certain categories of customers. Youcertainly don't want to ignore those. The only caution is to besure the pre-packaged offering fits your prospect's particulargoal. You may need to "tweak" the package to make itwork.

Another source is free association with nonrelated concepts.This is a fancy term for stealing an idea from someplace else. Oneof my associates monitors TV commercials and thumbs throughmagazine ads to see if there's a slogan or concept he can useto springboard his own idea. For example, he'll take acharacter like Tony the Tiger and create an animated cat namedKarla the Kitten who purrs "You'rrre grrrand" whenits 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 notexactly stealing the other person's idea, just using it tospark his own.

Another way to start this process is by examining past sales tolike customers. Don't look at the dollars and cents or the unitvolume. Look deeper and see if you can determine or surmise why thecustomer made that purchase. Talk to the salespeople. Pick theirbrains about the circumstances and events that led to the sale.Sales veterans are usually full of stories about their battles andvictories. Next time you're subjected to a war story, see ifyou can detect an idea that sparked the battle.

Brainstorming 101
1. There's no such thing as a badidea. 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 judgmentuntil later.
2. See how outrageous you canbe. Associate freely and write it down. The wilder theidea, the better. Crazy ideas spark more ideas-mundane onesare dead ends.
3. Fill the page-then start anotherone. Quantity is your goal because the more ideas youlist, 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 onewaiting to come out.
You don't need a group of people to brainstorm. You can do itby yourself if you just open your mind and let itcreate.

Choose an Idea
The third step is to choose the one idea you feel most confidentpresenting. It should open a clear and direct path to theprospect's goal. Judge the idea by its ability to achieve thedesired goal. Don't worry about non-relevant standards, likewhether it's ever been done before. All you need to beconcerned about is the idea's ability to accomplish theprospect's goal, your company's ability to execute theidea, and the idea's profitability to the prospect and yourcompany.

There is one final check to make before preparing yourpresentation. See if you can clearly express your idea in asentence or two. Try to say it aloud without taking a breath. Ifyou can't, re-examine the idea to see if it's toocomplicated. It may be too confusing for the prospect. Remember,you're preparing for a first-call presentation. Your goal is tomake a strong and favorable first impression. Overwhelming aprospect with a proposal that you can't explain in simple termsis a sure way to lose a follow-up call.

Can you use this ideation process if you sell widgets orfixtures or insurance? Why not? Don't your prospectivecustomers have related needs: growing sales, cutting costs,employee morale? Of course they do. If not, your product or servicewouldn'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 matterwhich idea you choose as long as you know your company can deliverit. You can't choose one based on your knowledge of thecustomer's likes and dislikes because you haven't met theprospect-so just pick one and pitch it.

No Garden VarietyIdea
Let's work through the brainstorming process with the example Istarted in the last chapter. As you may recall, your prospect is aretail garden shop. You came up with six possible goals for theprospect. The one you're going to choose for your firstproposal is:
"Raise the quality of my prospect's merchandise in themind of the best customer."
Here's a list of possible marketing ideas you can sell theprospect that accomplish that goal:
1. Run an ad campaign stressingthe name brands the store carries. National brands often denotequality to the consumer.
2. Adopt and publicize a newslogan for the store: "We Sell the Best for Less" on allads, signage, stationary, etc.
3. Build an ad campaign aroundcustomer testimonials about the quality of plants purchased fromyour prospect's store.
4. Sponsor a "bountifulgarden" contest where customers submit the largest vegetablesthey raised from seed or seedlings purchased from theprospect.
5. Place ads spoofing the GoodHousekeeping Seal of Approval for quality, awarding theprospect's store the Good Gardener's Seal ofApproval.
6. Create an animated flowercharacter, Rose Trueheart, for a spokesperson in a series of TVcommercials.
See how easy that is? This is a list of six different ideas, anyone of which accomplish your goal. Rose Trueheart may not be thenext Ronald McDonald, but she may be the final piece to yourmarketing puzzle.

The Secret of the FirstCall
That's when you'll learn the real secret to creativeselling. You see, your real goal on the first call is notnecessarily to sell that first idea-it's to gather asmuch accurate information about the prospect as you can sosubsequent ideas will hit the mark.

As you gather information, you're also accomplishing severalother things. You will make a strong first impression bydemonstrating a willingness to invest your time in a studyof their needs. You will establish yourself as an idearesource. If you bring them something of value in return for theirtime, they are likely to see you again. Above all, your idea willprovoke a discussion about the prospect's needs, desires, goalsand opportunities. It's through that discussion that you learnwhat they will buy from you.

Stockpile Ideas
Remember all those ideas you didn't use? Just like the unusedgoals from the needs analysis step, save them for later. Thepresentation you're preparing is just the first of manyyou'll be making to this prospect. The prospect may not buyyour idea on the first call, so you'll need another one. Evenif the sale does happen, you may want to have those ideas availablefor further development of the account through add-on sales orcontract extensions. Either way, you always need more ideas.

Another reason to keep all the unused goals and ideas on file istheir value to you in working on other prospects. The creativeselling process is very effort-intense. You'll invest a couplehours of research and ideation into each proposal. It's muchmore profitable to amortize that investment over several prospectsrather than just one. You probably have other potential customerswho are in similar, if not identical businesses. You'll findtheir needs similar. Getting the most results from the amount ofwork expended is a principle of good time management.

Many sales departments have a central file of ideas used by alltheir salespeople. The background research and needs analysis arealso available in the file. Every time an idea-based proposal iscreated, it goes into this file and the entire team can then drawon it (if it isn't bought by the first prospect). From thecompany's standpoint, such a system creates a valuable assetfor future growth. From the salesperson's perspective, itprevents duplicating efforts already made by others.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of methods for organizingand accessing this valuable resource. They can range from indexcards to databases. Even salespeople who work in relativelyisolated territories can pool their ideas through the Internet. Nomatter what form it takes, the keys to building this resource arevolume and team work. Everyone has to pitch in. If not, the majorcontributors will feel unfairly treated and keep their research andideas to themselves.

Your Motivation
Ideation has another benefit besides creating good customerrelations. It keeps your job interesting. There's an old salesadage that says when you first start out, you're 90 percententhusiasm and 10 percent knowledge. After you've sold forawhile, it changes to 90 percent knowledge and 10 percententhusiasm. The trade-off for gaining the knowledge is losing theenthusiasm.

If you're selling the same tank car load of the same solventto the same customer at the same time year after year, it'shard to get very excited about the next sale. Can you imagine thecustomer's excitement level? But if you're constantlychallenging yourself to come up with a new use for that solvent ora safer way to dispose of it, your enthusiasm for both the productand the customer will go up. In turn, so will thecustomer's.

Get out of the rut before the next truck comes along and grindsyou down deeper into it. Become an idea seller. Learn the skills ofideation and practice them. You'll never grow bored with yourjob because you'll be putting something new into it everyday.

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