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In the first of a new series of dealer-centric sales articles, Jeff Gardner outlines the importance of acquiring new customers using the referrals of existing ones

Humans are good. Deep down we want to help one another. As a salesperson, the best way you can help a customer is to listen to the professional problems that they are experiencing, uncover hidden needs that are magnifying known problems, and present solutions to the problems.

If you successfully navigate through the first three steps in selling, you will ultimately help the bottom line of your customer, your company and yourself. Everyone wins.

So how do I get started on the path to success? Listening to a customer, uncovering hidden needs and presenting solutions to problems are simple actions, yet many salespeople don’t do them because they don’t have new customers to work with. You must seek new customers if you hope to gain the opportunity to sell; in other words, you must prospect.

I train thousands of office products salespeople every year, and I have learned that most salespeople cold call in order to gain new customers. To speak in general terms (I know this does not apply to every salesperson), salespeople think that cold calling is the be-all and end-all of growing a customer base. Wrong! Your most valuable source for growing sales is your existing customers.

If you have truly helped your customers and followed up with them after the sale, then they will probably trust you to help the people they know.

For example, you’ve just helped your customer, Bob, of Acme Products, to increase productivity within his company by presenting him with the solution of anti-glare screens for computer monitors. Customer service representatives had been leaving work early due to headaches and painful eyestrain. Productivity was down, and customers of Acme Products were dissatisfied with the level of service they were receiving. With your help, Bob convinced his boss that the anti-glare screens would help reduce the amount of work missed by customer service representatives and increase the company’s customer satisfaction and profit margin.

Bob’s decision earned him a raise, all because you followed the sales steps! But, you didn’t stop when you made your sale. You followed up with Bob to make sure he was satisfied with his product, and you continued to look for ways to provide value. After a while, Bob began calling you to ask for suggestions to solve problems. Acme Products became one of your most profitable customers.

Customer referrals

Congratulations on your success with Acme Products. Another satisfied customer. So now what? Is it back to the world of cold calls? It could be, if that’s the kind of thing you enjoy, but in my research this is where salespeople falter and fail to move ahead in the sales world. What is a sales rep to do?

The answer is easy – customer referrals. Referrals are warm calls. Having a trusting relationship with a customer is a warm feeling, so why not start off on the right foot with a warm call? Top performers agree that referrals are the best opportunity to grow a customer base, yet very few salespeople use referrals.

To earn a referral, you must prove that you are worth your customer’s word. No one wants to refer a product or service to a friend without trusting 100 per cent that the outcome will help that friend. Therefore, you must continue to serve your customers after the sale. Too often, salespeople will get into a comfort zone. To earn a referral you have to be seen by the customer as someone that goes beyond the normal transactional role of providing office products at competitive prices. Position yourself as a solution provider that continues to provide value for the customer and the company and you might just be able to say goodbye to cold calling forever!

The toughest part of this process is getting in front of the prospect in the first place. The more first appointments salespeople have, the more new customers they will gain. It becomes an equation. Even salespeople who are new or unskilled at selling will grow their business if they make enough first appointments. As the old saying goes: "Even a blind squirrel will find a few nuts."

I was speaking to a group of about 300 office products dealers the other month and I asked them: "How many of you have salespeople who no longer prospect for new customers- Virtually everyone in the group raised their hand.

Skill set

Why don’t salespeople prospect? Lack of prospecting skills? No time? Many salespeople have never had to cold call because they took over an established territory or inherited customers from a salesperson who left the company. Those salespeople take over a customer base but they don’t build one.

Any salesperson that has made a sale has some degree of skill. Closing a deal is tough, no matter how you slice it. Even inherited customers can walk away from a sale. In fact, inherited customers are the most difficult to keep because they had a good relationship with your predecessor, and they expect you to maintain a specific level of service.

As for not having enough time, a salesperson with a large customer base has far more time for prospecting than a new salesperson. Existing customers are the best way to prospect, because a salesperson can use the time to follow up on an existing customer and, in the same phone call, ask that loyal customer for a referral. Again, say goodbye to cold calling forever!

Top sellers agree that the most effective and efficient method of prospecting is through referrals. A referral gives you a better chance of getting an appointment with a decision maker. A referred prospect has a higher level of perceived trust towards you and your company than a cold call prospect does. Referrals also have a higher closing ratio.

Asking for one, like asking for a sale, is a skill that must be practiced. The topic of one of my previous articles was gaining commitment and sales follow-up. Asking for a referral is a version of gaining commitment.

While selling your company’s product or service, you are also selling yourself as a trustworthy salesperson. Gaining commitment is about moving a sale forward to the next logical step. Similarly, asking for a referral is about growing your customer base using the most logical means: existing customers.

Let’s look at it this way: asking for a referral is about getting your customer to commit to helping you achieve sales success. Now get out there and start the help chain!