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Sales as a Spectator Sport

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Sales People are the Easiest People to Sell to

Actually this is not entirely true. Sales people are the easiest sale if you are good at selling, and the hardest sale if you are bad at it. This is because they know how it is done.

We need to buy things every day, and a good sales person makes that process as simple and painless as possible. We all have stories of bad sales people: the pushy ones; the ones without knowledge; the ones who are just plain incompetent. The reason that most people don't have stories about good sales people, is that most people do not know how selling is done. Watching a good salesman at work is every bit as impressive as watching a masterful juggler or stand-up comedian, and the antics of really bad salesmen are even more entertaining in their own way.

In order to appreciate a good sales person at work you have to know enough about selling to understand what is going on; and it also helps if you are not the one being sold to. It is cheaper that way too.

But first, a story:

Some years ago I bought a car. I had a clear list of criteria for this car, and I asked my erstwhile husband to help me find one. We ended up in a small local garage in a village where there was a car which met all my important criteria. My ex fulfilled his stereotypical role and kicked the tyres and looked at the engine, and I fulfilled mine and fiddled with the radio, checked out the paintwork, and did the test-drive.

The guy who owned the garage told us the history of the car when we asked about it. We chatted about how long the garage had been in the village, and about how diesel engines work, and about maintaining cars. He started filling out the paperwork, and we sat around drinking tea and generally hanging out.

When we drove off, my ex and I both turned round and said to each other, 'What a great Assumptive Close!1' We were both more impressed with the absolute skill of the guy who never actually said 'so do you want the car, or not?' than by anything else that day.

The car, incidentally, is still excellent.

Bad Sales Days

Weak sales people give the whole profession a bad name.

Say 'sales person' to someone and simple word-association brings responses like 'pushy', 'annoying' and 'uninformed'.

But someone who has mastered selling so that it is part of who they are and not something that they do will just be someone who is open, friendly, interested, and relaxed. They are a nice person to talk to about whatever it is you are interested in at the time.

If you ever think of the person as a sales person, then they are not a good sales person. Simple as that.

Silence is Golden

One thing which people who don't know much about sales usually miss when watching a sale in progress is the silences. Silence is by definition easy not to notice. Nothing seems to be going on.

But what is actually going on is that the buyer is thinking. The sales person has found out what the buyer needs to know, and has told them, so the buyer is thinking about the answer. Or else the sales person has asked a question which requires a decision. Either way, the buyer is thinking hard.

A bad sales person, a pushy one, fills those silences. The person who is buying is busy thinking during the silences and doesn't notice them.

Only the sales person themselves, or a knowledgeable spectator, will notice the silences at all. But noticing how a sales person creates and uses silences is one of the key joys of selling as a spectator sport.

You Lead, I Follow

Another thing to watch out for, and this is very subtle and easy to miss, is who is actually leading the conversation.

The sales person should be leading it, but it should be imperceptible. In fact they are opening doors, and letting the buyer decide which door to go through. This is an act of seduction. The sales person invites, and the buyer accepts or declines.

When you are watching this, take careful note of when the subject changes, and how it has been changed. And likewise, take note of when the sales person makes an opening which is not actually followed up on.

But What Do You Really Want?

A good sales person makes no assumptions2. A bad one will pre-judge a situation, and they all to often get it wrong. But a good one will take the time to find out what the customer is looking for, and more importantly, the emotional reason they want it.

A jeweller once told me a story about a scruffily dressed young guy who walked into his shop and asked to look at some diamonds and settings.

He brought out a box of half carat beauties and talked to the guy for about twenty minutes about polish, cuts, inclusions, brilliance and stuff. The guy asked him how much they cost. He told him. 'Got anything a bit bigger?' said the young guy. So the box went away, and the jeweller brought out some bigger ones.

To cut a long story short, this bloke was a scrap dealer. He was getting married, and he wanted a ring. He had been round every jeweller's shop in the town holding a Tesco's carrier bag in his hand containing £30,000 in cash, and he wanted to spend it, and nobody took the trouble to find out what he was looking for.

The jewellers he had already trailed around took one look at his clothing and the plastic bag, and assumed that he was a timewaster or a hopelessly aspirational browser, so he was ignored. So they all let a £30,000 sale walk right out of the shop.

Questions are the Answer

Every sales person is taught to use open questions. These are questions which cannot be answered with a yes or a no, and they help open up the sale.

But the sales person will need to ask a closed question in order to close the sale, unless they are a master of the Assumptive Close, like the guy who sold the car in the first story.

So if you are watching a sales person, pay close attention to what kind of questions they ask. They need to get the buyer used to saying yes, and the only way they can help the buyer is to find out what the buyer wants. So the chit-chat time will be fairly light, and it will include questions which are easy to answer with a yes. 'Isn't it good to have such lovely weather at the weekend?' And so on.

If the buyer says something positive about what they are buying: 'I really love that colour', a good sales person will flip it back with a reflexive question: 'Isn't it great?'

You have to be quick to spot the difference between 'Isn't it great?' and 'So do I' in this context, and to notice which one the sales person uses. Both take less than 0.25 of a second to say.

Naming of Parts

The Yes-set - this is setting the scene so that the customer is comfortable saying 'yes', starting off with something everyone can agree with. Done badly, this is the pushiest technique of all. Done well, and interspersed with silences and open questions, it is imperceptible to the customer.

The Close - as has already been mentioned, is the final part of the sale, the final question which leads to the final yes. The rest of the sale leads up to this question. But there are mini closes along the way, and the more yeses the sales person receives the closer they are to the final close.

The Porcupine - this is just answering a tricky question with a question. 'I really love that colour' - 'Isn't it great?' is not a porcupine. 'Do you have striped paint?' - 'What do you want to paint in stripes?' is a porcupine. This technique gets its label from what you would naturally do if someone tossed a porcupine into your lap. You give it right back to them.

A Sharp-angled Close - this lays a condition on accepting terms. It is often a Porcupine with added point. 'Can you do me another 5% discount?' 'If we do that, I will have to complete the paperwork today... shall we go ahead on that basis?' is a Sharp-angled Porcupine.

The Alternative Advance - this is when the sales person offers two or more choices both of which lead the sale forward. 'Would you like to take up the interest-free credit, or would you prefer to settle in full?'

The Saturday Game

Watching sales is fun. It is almost as much fun as buying stuff, and makes shopping with someone an enjoyable way of spending your time while they spend their money.

The best place to find good sales people is in a commission-based environment where the sales people are taught how to sell and where they have a reasonable degree of maturity. In retail, the US is a wonderful place for Sales as a Spectator Sport, because retailers are properly trained there.

British estate agents are shockingly bad at selling. In fact, when you have learned to enjoy good sales as a spectator sport, buying a property in Britain enables you to watch and appreciate bad sales in a way you never did before. It can in fact become highly enjoyable in a rather bizarre and painful way. But do not go and play with estate-agents, or any commission-based sales person, for fun. Time wasting is not fair, and since you are not buying they will not actually be selling, so there is no point anyway.

Some British car salespeople are surprisingly good. And, as you will see, you can find good sales people in what you assume to be quiet little un-commercial backwaters. In fact this is the only possible explanation for how some of the smaller shops survive.

So next time anyone has some shopping to do, go with them. You can find wonderful examples of selling in the most unexpected places.

The following story shows the right questions being asked at the right time, followed by the right silences. It is a perfect example of a sale which a bad sales person would have blown through being too pushy at the wrong moment, or would have missed by accepting the first 'no' from the customer.

I once watched the guy behind the counter in a small and, to be honest, rather shabby electrical retailer sell an extra power tool to someone simply by getting the timing right.

The customer was buying a rechargeable torch, and half way through the purchase he saw the power tool, and asked a question about it. The answer was not exactly what he wanted, so the two of them went back to talking about the torch.

When the customer had chosen the torch he wanted and was getting out his wallet the sales man said 'would you like the power tool too?' and waited for the answer.

The customer was standing there with his plastic in his hand, and a choice between buying something there and then which was almost ok, or having to go into another shop and maybe yet another in search of the perfect thing.

He said 'yes, I might as well have it'.

The sales person went off to get one in a box from the shelf and the customer turned round to me and said: 'Sales people are the easiest people to sell to'.

Further Reading

Three exceptionally good sales trainers are:

  • Tom Hopkins who is based in Scottsdale, Arizona and who regularly tours the US.

  • Zig Ziglar who is another American whose tours and tapes include motivational as well as technical material.

  • ...and Robin Fielder who is a Briton who provides trainings and tapes in the UK about sales, negotiation, and other aspects of business.

1A Close is a question or series of questions which results in a sale; an Assumptive Close is when the sales person assumes, rightly, that the sale is in fact closed and goes ahead without asking the final closing question.2Unless they are performing the Assumptive Close, of course.

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