The Perfect Sales Call
Scott Downey was recently asked to describe the perfect sales call.
After 15 years of selling and sales management and 20 years teaching those subjects at Purdue, the associate director of the Center for Food and Agricultural Business said describing the perfect sales call is a challenge—likely because true perfection doesn’t exist.
But that shouldn’t stop sellers from trying.
“In most organizations, a perfect call would mean one that generated revenue,” Downey said. “But in thinking about it, I realized that transactions might not—perhaps should not—be the only measure of sales success.”
That attitude is newer in the world of sales. Most have defined success based on a process commonly known as AIDA—getting customer attention, generating interest in products, building customer desire to purchase, and inspiring customer action. Success of a sales call, however, has to be defined by the type and objectives of each interaction.
According to Downey, a sales call that focuses primarily on the exchange of product for money is transactional selling. The perfect transactional sale would come from the type of call that effectively leads a discussion about what products satisfy customer needs at the best price.
Another type of selling, industrial selling, is primarily business to business and the AIDA process is spread over many calls. The perfect sales call in this environment would be completely different than that of transactional selling.
“The vast majority of industrial sales calls are not completed with a transaction as the direct conclusion,” Downey said. “Industrial selling is generally more relationship focused and the transaction is the conclusion of a long process. We usually refer to this type of selling as relationship selling.”
What makes the perfect relationship sales call depends on the type of call, but most are focused on listening. Success is defined by the quality of listening over time and multiple interactions, and how well what’s learned is used to shape discussions about value.
But listening, Downey said, isn’t limited to just what the customer says out loud.
“Our ability to listen effectively comes from how we pay attention to what the customer says and what the customer doesn’t say,” he said. “Some of what a customer says comes as a result of what we ask. All of what customers say is filtered by what they want to tell us. This is why trust is so important.”
Perfect vs. effective
If selling is a process and sales calls are the individual events that lead to effective selling, are perfect and effective sales calls the same thing?
“Sales call perfection comes from the ability of a salesperson to select which type of sales call to use, and to execute it very well,” Downey said.
The common components of a perfect sales call, he said, are planning, asking good questions, listening effectively, communicating value and requesting specific action—all of which requires forethought, preparation, note taking and post-call reflection.
Forethought is all about having a specific objective for the call, including measurable action from the buyer. The desired action will drive call type. For example, if the desired outcome is the customer wanting to talk with the seller again, a prospecting call is appropriate. If the goal is to have the customer agree to recommend or use a product, it’s best to go with a pitch or presentation call.
Having a measurable objective doesn’t automatically translate to money—even though that is the easiest to measure, Downey said.
“It’s great when we have that simple of a measurement, but for most calls, we look at observable customer behavior metrics,” he said. “A perfect objective looks at an observable behavior, such as a customer providing a key piece of information or a customer calling with a question afterward.”
Objectives like “gaining trust” or “deepening a relationship” are poor because they can’t be measured.
Sellers also have to approach sales calls from the customer perspective—why or how they benefit and what’s in it for them. It’s not enough to suggest that the benefit to the customer is that the call will “help me help them.” The perfect call, Downey said, has a clear benefit to the customer from the call, according to the customer’s goals—not the promise of the possibility of a benefit.
This is just as true for the transaction.
“If you can’t answer why the customer should act, then accomplishing the objective will require pushing the customer to do something that doesn’t benefit them,” Downey said. “At best, that damages the relationship and diminishes trust. At worst, it’s unethical.”
It all connects. The customer benefits for the sales call are included in the sales call objective, which sets the stage to a formal appointment and an agenda that includes benefits for the customer and progress toward the transaction for the salesperson.
“Remember that the point of asking questions, listening and delivering value is to get the customer to act,” Downey said.
If those three steps have been done well, then asking for action is not difficult. Often, it’s as simple as just directly asking for it. Sometimes the customer response will even exceed expectations.
“On the perfect sales call, the salesperson is prepared for surpassing their goals, but also prepared for obstacles,” Downey said.
Obstacles don’t automatically translate to call failure. There is a lot to learn from calls that don’t accomplish the original objective. With that said, the objective is important and on the perfect call, a seller has to strive for the objective in spite of obstacles.
According to Downey, the most likely obstacle is customer questions or resistance to action, which can be addressed with four steps:
1. Be sure you understand the question—typically by restating it.
2. Acknowledge the value of the question or concern and find common ground.
3. Address the concern or step back in the process because there is likely something left unasked earlier that was important to the buyer.
4. Confirm that the question or concern was addressed.
Thorough listening offers benefits beyond the initial sales call because it sparks planning for the next interaction. Executing a follow-up strategy is extremely important.
“Lack of follow up and poor responsiveness are the main places relationships are lost,” Downey said. “A salesperson can work to build trust and then lose it all by not doing what was said or implied as a promise. The perfect sales call doesn’t end until those things are done.”
The truth is, Downey said, the perfect sales call probably doesn’t exist. But considering the components of what it might look like is helpful for planning sales call strategy.
“Creating a mental or physical checklist of what the perfect sales call might look like, and tracking performance against it, is a great way to improve as a salesperson,” he said.
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