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Selling 101 Don't let the sales process intimidate you. This thorough how-to will teach you how to focus on benefits, develop a USP, and deliver a killer sales presentation.

Editor's note: This article was excerpted from Successful Sales & Marketing.

OK, so you love your product. You have been around this market for a while, and--quite honestly--you have never seen a product so useful, so inexpensive, so long-lived and so visually attractive. Unfortunately, you are suffering from a condition that affects many businesspeople. Its principal symptom is a blinding lack of objectivity. If left untreated, it can result in the disappearance of entire, staff and product, which fade till they become mere ghosts in the annals of business history.

Your customers remain proudly self-centered. They don't appreciate the glories of your product's reputation, the immense practicality of its design or the cleverness of its name. No, they're focused on their personal need. Maybe it's a car that's leaking oil. Or a child's sweater that needs mending. Or a bookkeeping system gone haywire. Or an old coffee pot that's died and gone to Colombia. What do they want? A solution to their problem, not a product. They want to be able to drive without dripping oil; they want something to keep their child warm; and they want an accurate financial report and a cup of java. You've got to present your product as the satisfaction to the need--the scratch to their itch. That, they can buy.

Features Vs. Benefits: The Key to Marketing
In the marketing "Hall of Big Ideas," the distinction between product features and benefits sits on a raised marble pedestal in the center room under a ring of spotlights. This distinction separates marketers and everyone else in the business world just as sharply as the Berlin Wall divided Berlin into East and West. Many entrepreneurs talk about their product in terms of its features: its capacity, color, strength, durability and other technical capabilities. Marketers (that's you) are different. They speak of the product, often as dramatically as possible, in terms of how it will benefit the customer. They describe the need the product will immediately fulfill, offering a vision of the wonderfully satisfied customer living his or her suddenly carefree life. Marketers make a living by wish fulfillment (or sometimes, so I've heard, by just the appearance of wish fulfillment).

Some companies think "benefit talk" is beneath them: "That's for retail types," they say. High-tech businesses, generally selling to technically sophisticated customers, sometimes feel a full-voiced recitation of cutting-edge product features is enough to make the sale. Not so. Every person responds most immediately to what they understand most easily--in this case, what the benefits of the features are. If you spell out the benefits to technical people, they don't have to calculate them themselves. Why make them work? You don't have to talk in baby talk. But be as obvious as you can. State your key competitive advantages as clearly as possible.

Some service businesses are also reluctant to think in terms of benefits--to their eventual calamity. Manufacturers at least have the physical product to talk about. Service providers don't, and they sometimes feel a deep-seated discomfort with the airy nature of what they offer. They often create esoteric jargon to glorify their "product" and make it appear more mysterious and complicated than it is. There's nothing wrong with this, except that when the jargon becomes too murky, it obscures the genuine value. As long as the jargon is benefit-oriented, no one suffers.

Benefits are the satisfaction of a need or desire. Let's take the example of a coffeemaker and study the difference between features and benefits.

What you're doing is translating from a very accurate product description to the words your customer wants to hear. You're quite literally translating from one language to another. A parched Parisian won't respond to "Want some water?" but you'll get his or her attention with "Voulez-vous de l'eau?" It's the same thing when you market a product: Customers may see you talking, but they won't become interested in what you're saying until you speak their language.

Study your product or service with this in mind, and then train your entire organization to appreciate the sometimes subtle difference in perception. The hydraulics engineer will boast of how many gallons of water a western dam holds, but regional residents will only focus on self-serving goodies like cheaper water, more electricity, fewer floods and more opportunities to take the boat out for a spin. Whenever you list a product's benefits, you're answering the age-old question: "What's in it for me?"

Once you master this distinction, you are halfway to becoming a marketing guru.

Compiling a Key Benefit Inventory
What are your products' key benefits? You must first develop an exhaustive list of every feature for each of your products. Grill your product people until you've got everything. Now sit down with your sales manager (of course, this might be just you and a legal pad) and translate, one by one, each feature into a very short benefit statement. Some may not translate. If one isn't "benefitable" after reasonable effort, just cross it off. But experience shows that 90 percent of product features can deliver benefits to some market.

Does each benefit apply equally to every market for a product? Lightweight all-weather jackets might pack an enormous appeal to a serious backpacker, but brilliant colors might clinch the sale to suburban teens. Categorize the benefits by the markets they appeal to most powerfully. Then rank them by importance within each market.

Once you have solidified this listing for each product by market, you have created the most powerful tool your sales force can carry. In every customer contact, your salespeople should deliver the full key benefit message. This works for retail sales just as well as business-to-business. Each carefully crafted benefit will appeal to various clients unequally--that's life. Price may mean everything to one customer, while availability might be the deal-breaker to another. You often can't know which issue might be driving a customer's decision. That's why it's critical to deliver the entire key benefit inventory at every sales opportunity--in sales presentations, in company literature, in displays. If you can't fit them all in (small ad, tight schedule or other reason), use the benefits by rank for the particular market you're addressing.

Key Appeal, Market by Market
Once you have your features translated into benefits, you've got to make sure that you know how important given benefits are to each type of customer. There are some things for which almost all of us are customers: restaurants, clothing, vehicles, watches and so on. Sometimes these items can be mass marketed: The manufacturer can apply the same appeal across a large number of people and be reasonably assured of the results. But more often, you're selling to several different people at once, and you must adjust your product's presentation to appeal to each of these differentiated markets.

Many times, entrepreneurs have trouble understanding that the exact same product has different appeals, depending on the type of customer you are selling to. Small advertising agencies and freelance writers often get instructions when creating a brochure to make it speak to two audiences, such as to both doctor and patient, when promoting a given medical device. Though both doctor and patient are looking for the same final result, their perspectives are unique. You must appeal to them differently, using different language.

What's Your USP?

When you market your product, you must not only appeal to the customer (and to each type of customer separately), but you must distinguish yourself from the competition. In fact, most products that compete directly against each other share many of the same benefits. No brand of ice cream tastes "unpleasant." No infrared spectrometer talks about its "inaccuracy." All the products in a given category are likely to make a large number of similar benefits claims. So why would a customer choose one over another? There can be many reasons, of course, especially convenience (it's right in front of them). But often it's the USP, the unique selling proposition. It's the compelling benefit that one else is like me!

What's unique about your product? What makes it stand out from the competition? What gives the customer a good and irresistible reason to select your product rather than those other fine products? If you're making ice cream, you can't base your whole appeal to the customer by simply saying "it tastes better"--unless you have some credible objective documentation that this is so. Perhaps you can claim your ingredients are uniquely fresh, or that the ice cream is handmade in some particular way, which makes it taste "better" or at least different than other ice creams. Look at Ben & Jerry's: They don't just market their ice cream; they market the structure of the company itself and its commitment to making charitable donations. This helps give them a unique profile in a crowded market.

Many companies base their selling pitch on what's unique about them. For years, Ivory Soap based all its advertising on its claim of being 99 44/ 100 percent pure it floats! Domino's and its two-for-the-price-of-one pizzas. The unique Volkswagen look, which, thinking small again, has returned.

Once you've established your product's range of benefits and distinguished it from the competition, can you sum all this up in one phrase or brief sentence? Such as "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight," "Nothing runs like a Deere," "Better living through chemistry" or "Legendary engineering"?

If you can, then you are ready to take your case to the public. It's time to persuade them to buy.

Selling to the Public: The Four Pillars of Marketing
An old marketing adage says that nothing happens until someone buys something--in short, sales drive every aspect of business. In every company, the salespeople are the front-line troops. In the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace, the slickest manufacturing processes, the shrewdest marketing, the brightest corporate reputations won't make the sale without the face-to-face (at least usually) meeting of seller and buyer.

This is personal selling, and it's the most important and direct aspect of the marketing process, but it is not the only way you appeal to the public and persuade them to buy. While marketing in the large sense involves every aspect of your company, the sales side of marketing is made up primarily of these four aspects:

  • Personal selling is face-to-face salesmanship, when you have the prospect in front of you. It includes retail sales, much professional service selling and a healthy percentage of business-to-business sales.
  • Advertising is paying for media space or time in which to sell your product at a distance.
  • Promotion is a short-term activity, directed at either the distributor or the purchaser, to boost sales for a limited time through special pricing or other offers. Of course, you hope the short-term increase also leads to an incremental gain. It can include advertising and personal selling.
  • Public relations is the unpaid (but, alas, not cost-free) marketing effort you undertake to expose your product to potential customers and other interested parties through the press, trade media and special media-related events.

Personal selling, advertising and most promotion efforts are direct activities: In a straightforward manner, you're saying "Buy me!" Public relations is the soft sell, in which you take a visible role in the community and increase the public's general awareness of you.

B-to-B: Giving an Effective Sales Presentation

Business-to-business sales usually involves giving a prearranged presentation, whether in person or on paper, of your product or service. This differs from retail sales to the general public, which is usually spontaneous and immediate.

In business-to-business environments, the selling and buying process is often not simple. Many times you'll never meet the person who will ultimately use your product, the person who'll authorize the purchase of your product, or the person who signs the check. If you're dealing directly with the buyer, consider yourself fortunate. You have to convince only one person of your product's suitability and of its superiority over competing products. If you've pulled together your product benefits properly, if you're talking to a buyer in a market that genuinely needs your product, and if you've positioned yourself appropriately against the competition, you should be in good shape.

However, you may be presenting a proposal to a selection committee of a large corporation. Several of the people present may have competing agendas you don't know about, or you may discover after making your pitch that no one in the room has the authority to say yes. You may be speaking to a purchasing agent who makes the decision based on agreed-upon objective criteria. In that case, all you can do is prepare the best proposal you can, all the while focusing on making the description of your product and your company match as closely as possible the demands of the proposal request.

Despite these difficulties, the bottom line is the same: Personal sales makes commerce happen. And if you are the one making the sales pitch--or if you supervise those who do--fine-tuning your presentation techniques can pump up your bottom line. If you have a meeting with a company, you know that, at the very least, you're being taken seriously and that you have a reasonable chance of coming away with the order. So what should you do? Here's a handful of tips from the experts.

Get informed: know the buyer. Are you presenting to a company that can conceivably use or afford your product or service? Just as a real estate agent must qualify prospects, so salespeople must maximize their time by prequalifying potential clients and eliminating those that don't have the financial resources, that have proved themselves bad credit risks, that have a business that doesn't match up well with the strengths of your product and so on. Focus on prospective buyers whom you have a reasonable chance of winning...and who are worth winning.

Then, once you're at the stage where you're making an oral or written presentation, ask yourself whether the person you're presenting to has the ability to say yes. If the person doesn't, you may be better off trying to work around that person and presenting to someone who can give you the go-ahead. Once you've set up a serious meeting with customers who have purchasing authority, ask your contact who's going to be there and what their stake in the decision is. Get your hands on an organizational chart so you have a feel for the hierarchy. What are the people in the meeting likely to be most interested in? For instance, if the finance person is there, direct your comments on financial payback and return on investment to him or her.

We're talking business politics here, but that doesn't surprise you, does it? You've got to scope out the terrain of the sales battle before you can give it your best shot, and you'll have more success in the major meetings--with significant dollars on the line--when you understand the situation you're confronting.

In addition to knowing whom you are presenting to, give some thought to why you are presenting. What is the company looking for? What is the current situation that's driving their request for your presentation? Is there anyone else who works with you in your office who might have an insight into this company and why they are having you make a presentation? Are you presenting along with other potential suppliers, or is it you or nothing? Are there other noncompetitive suppliers who might give you some information on what's happening inside your target company? If you are able to ask clarifying questions before the actual presentation (this is common in governmental work), don't miss the opportunity to come up with some questions to ask...just to establish a working relationship.

If presenting is something you do several times a week, you may not need to do much research or rehearsing. Let's face it, after a few months of presentations, you'll have your pitch down pat, and you'll have a good feel for the terrain of most sales situations.

Rehearse your pitch. If presentations are not something you do regularly, then you need to rehearse what you're going to say and how you're going to say it. Work with someone in the office, a good friend or your spouse to smooth out the flow of information and make yourself as concise as possible.

Most of us have been in presentations when the presenter was out of touch with his or her audience, rambling on long after any audience interest had left the room in despair. Think in bullet points and headlines. You want the attendees to come out of your presentation with just a handful of clear benefit statements about your product. Don't drown your competitive advantages in a lot of chatter about your company, your history or your golf game.

If you use equipment to make your presentation (flip charts, computer printouts, PowerPoint on a laptop), bulletproof your equipment and carry spares of essential parts like disks, bulbs and power cords. People tend to understand when you have a little technical trouble, but they do expect you to fix it. They're hiring you because of the resourcefulness of you and your products, right?

Get some sleep and eat your Wheaties. No matter how tireless your personality type, you've got to be your best when you're on stage. That means being well-rested, well-fed and relaxed. Get a good night's sleep beforehand, and eat breakfast. Get any materials prepared in advance, and proofread them carefully. Get near the presentation site early, relax with a cup of coffee or juice, and review your notes and your plan of action.

Once the meeting begins, you're expected to be the focus of attention. When people listen to a presentation, they're in a "receptive" mode--they expect to be informed and even entertained. You have to deliver the goods with style and high spirits. You're the driver...make this vehicle go where you want it to. Don't come out of the meeting wondering if you were too low-key.

Sell the benefits, not the features. We've been talking benefits for a while, and now's the time to put them to work. Key your entire presentation on the need your product satisfies, not on your superior technology, not on your well-trained staff, not on your wonderful reputation. What's in it for the people in the room? How will their company come out ahead if they choose to do business with you? What existing problem is this company wrestling with? This should lead your presentation. Your product is the answer.

Also, don't forget that the people you're presenting to also have a personal involvement in the sale. If they hire you or buy your product, will it be a feather in their cap? If they're at risk for choosing you over a better-known competitor, how can you reduce their exposure--extend a warranty, offer additional case histories, provide documentation to pass up the chain of command? Fine-tune your presentation to appeal to the individuals in the room as well as to the company they represent.

Invite a dialogue. When you start your presentation, outline how you plan to organize the meeting--and make sure your audience understands that they have a role beyond merely listening. You expect them to ask any questions they have, raise any objections they feel, outline special applications they may have for your product, and explain how they'd like the product integrated into their operation. By inviting and encouraging their participation, you enlist their help in figuring out all the ways your product or service can benefit them.

Be prepared for any objections. Sales objections give salespeople, especially new ones, the greatest difficulty. You're really rolling in your pitch. You think you're definitely receiving good vibes from the right side of the table. You're well ahead of schedule for your allotted presentation time. Then the mild-mannered fellow in the camel-hair suit scrapes his chair, raises his hand and with fixed eye says: "I just don't see how this will work for us. The specs seem in the ballpark, but you're a new company, unproven, and this piece of equipment is too important to us. We've got to go with a proven provider, even if we give away a bit in capacity. It's just too risky."

The smoke from the explosion clears. Maybe some of the other people at the table climb on board and reveal similar feelings. Maybe you draw some sympathy. Maybe the meeting freezes, with no one set on how to proceed.

If you can't handle high-inside-fastball objections, you're never going to be successful selling. The sales experts counsel a calm approach:

  • Hear the objection out. Don't interrupt. Don't cut it short. Focus your attention on what's being said, taking some notes (without cutting eye contact for more than a brief period) so you capture all the details.
  • Don't panic. People who object are at least taking you seriously. When you get in a presentation where everyone smiles at everything you are saying, you're in trouble. When people object, they're looking for more information, or they want you to clarify their perception of your product or service. You should be prepared for every objection with a killer response.
  • Find something in the objection to validate. No matter whether it is well-founded or ridiculous, the objection must be taken seriously. You want to credit the questioner for mounting the objection. Acknowledge that you're a new and essentially unproven company, for example. In fact, you'd have the exact same objections if you were sitting where they are. If you need a few moments to gather your thoughts, respond to the objection with a clarifying question: "What kind of experience have you had with your existing equipment regarding downtime?" or "What's a doomsday scenario in your production? Let me see if I can address it." This technique will also help you zero in on the true nature of the objection.
  • You've already developed a script with answers to every objection, right? Now's the time to pull that script up to the top of your mind and satisfy the objection-raiser. Go through it calmly, getting your inquirer's assent at every step of the way. When you're done addressing the objection, make sure the individual feels comfortable with how you handled it.

Talk money and ask for the business. You shouldn't end the meeting without addressing directly the issue of cost and terms. Some presenters hate to talk money, preferring to dance around the subject while focusing on the product and its benefits. I don't think that's effective. People want to know price, regardless of how little importance you try to attach to it. If your product is more expensive than the competition, make it a point to explain why, emphasizing the greater value the prospective customer will get from your product. If your product is less expensive than the competition, you should hammer away on that benefit, emphasizing how you're able to deliver top quality without charging a high price. Don't apologize for your price, either high or low.

Finally, you have to ask for the business. How does the sale happen? You can make the order form a part of your presentation kit and ask them to fill it out then and there. You can ask about which particular model they want to order. You can inquire as to which delivery timeline they're working with. Make what's called the "presumptive close," by which you presume you've been successful and are simply making arrangements for delivery. This can push some buyers over the edge into making an immediate decision.

Overcoming Buying Objections

At the top of this article, you assembled a list detailing each of your product's benefits. That was the fun part. Now you have to look at the other side. What objections might you face in a sales call? Salespeople are like baseball players: Generally, their failures at the plate outnumber their successes. But like good hitters, salespeople raise their average by examining their failures and adjusting the next time they come to bat. Always ask yourself why a particular sale didn't happen. What kinds of remarks have you heard from prospective buyers that kept them from going with your product? These are the objections you weren't able to overcome in your sales effort.

You should be able to put together a list of the six to 10 most common objections that pop up during sales presentations. When you have that list, write down your best responses to each of those objections. Some responses may involve several different elements. Some objections may be hard to respond to in a positive way. You've just got to do your best in formulating your answers.

For instance, if the objection is that a piece of equipment is too slow, maybe you can focus attention on other strong points that more than make up for this: perhaps less downtime, lower error rate, greater ease of operation and therefore less training required, and so on. Until you come up with an adequate response, that objection will continue to kill sales.

Once you've developed your list of responses, you must be ready to use them on the spot. You can't call prospects back in four days to tell them, "You know, I was thinking about that bad reaction you had to the high failure rate of our pumps, and I think you're overemphasizing its importance." You have to have all that sales ammunition with you in the room when you're making the presentation.

Never forget that your job is not just selling the equipment or service. In the minds of the prospective buyers, you're the company, and they're judging the company by your performance. Respond smoothly to an objection, and they'll be impressed with your professionalism (and that of your company). But if you get flustered by an objection, or leave without giving an adequate response, you will create the opposite impression.

If you see the same couple of objections arising time and time again, make the smart move: Eliminate that objection before it arises. Build a preemptive strike against that objection right into the core of your presentation, so your prospects won't be distracted by the thought of an apparent weakness in your product or service. As you're able to refine your presentation based on experience, you'll be able to eliminate a good percentage of the common objections you run into. Only then will your sales effort really begin to take off.

Getting to the Dotted Line
Getting someone to say yes is not always easy. And, as anyone with any sales experience knows, everything can be cordial and positive during the presentation. But once it's time for a decision, once someone has to write a check, things can turn dark.

If you see some reluctance to say yes, get involved in helping them make the decision. An effective way to wrap the sale up--without appearing overly aggressive--is to recap why you're there, the need that the company recognizes, and how your product satisfies that need in all its aspects. If you've done your homework well and made a skilled and informative presentation, you should have left them right at the door of making the decision. Respectfully ask them what's keeping them from making the decision right now: Are there senior people who have to approve the decision? Do they have to evaluate a competitor who's yet to present? Is there something about your product/service that they're unsure of? By the process of elimination, you should be able to trim away the possible reasons for delay.

Of course, many business decisions based on a presentation take some time. More often than not, you simply can't force the decision while you're there. If you're told that's the case, learn when you can expect a decision. Then tell them that you're looking forward to the possibility of working with them, and immediately send them a recap of your presentation with some new material--whatever you can pull together to show that your desire to provide them service is still on your mind.

Some salespeople have had success unlocking a sale with the direct question: "Do you want to purchase this service?" Follow it with silence, and let the prospect take over the conversation.

If you sense a negative decision in the making, suggest that you'll send them a recap of the meeting with your final best offer in a day or two. This will buy you some time to come up with a "Plan B."

Finally, let's assume for a moment that you don't make the sale. Your immediate course of action should be to call your contact, acknowledge the inevitable, and then ask if he or she can help you understand why the contract went to another company. This provides you with a real learning opportunity, in many ways more valuable than (although not, unfortunately, as financially rewarding as) winning the sale. Make it clear you're not disputing the decision or trying gamely to alter it. Mention how you put some work into the presentation, and you'd appreciate the chance to use your loss to improve the way you make the next presentation. Was it price? Was it product issues? Was it a superior presentation by a competitor? Probe to get specifics, which you should write up in a call report for later analysis. If you learn why people don't buy, then take steps to remedy either your presentation or the product itself.

If you do get the contract, your job is just starting in two ways. First, you've got to make arrangements to have the product or service actually delivered. Second, you now have a relationship to tend, new people to learn about and perhaps a new application in which to test your product or service. Congratulations.

Fill Out a Call Report
All salespeople hate to fill out call reports. They often feel they are being checked up on, that no one back at the office has to know the details of how the meeting went. Even sole proprietors hate call reports, and they have no one to report to. There's just something so archival and so seemingly unproductive about them.

In fact, call reports are prime marketing ore for future efforts. Think for a moment of the value you can glean from 200 call reports of recent sales presentations:

  • Which companies have been approached, when and by whom
  • What products they were exposed to
  • Who attended the sales meeting--and who is responsible for purchasing your product
  • Why they did or didn't decide on your company (assuming your salesperson followed up properly on a negative decision)

What can you do with this market intelligence?

  • Study the successes to see what types of companies you're having better luck with. You can then intensify your efforts to make presentations to more of those companies.
  • Study the failures to see what you can do to make your product more appealing to those types of companies. With good, concrete follow-up, you can--over time--enhance your product and alter your presentations for greater success.
  • Use the unsuccessful presentations as a source for possible future sales activities. If you lost the ABC account pitch because your trucking firm didn't have enough experienced drivers, you can repitch the account when you get a little bigger.
  • You know the people who hold key purchasing authority for your product. Keep them on a low-level direct-mail effort, to keep them informed of what's happening at your company.

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