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First, Best, or Different

Niche Marketing Matters
By John Bradley Jackson

Common Characteristics of Excellent Sales People

July 31st, 2007

Having managed sales people for many years while being a peddler myself, I have observed how sales people behave, both good and not so good. Sales people that are truly excellent behave the same way, more or less. Said another way, successful sales people tend to exhibit some common behavioral characteristics.

Here are a few things that I have observed about truly excellent sales people:

– Always prepared, successful sales reps spend a lot time preparing for sales calls; they gather information about their customers so they can better understand the key issues and needs.
– This “pre-flight” planning keeps them from wasting the customer’s time at the meeting. This preparation gives the rep confidence along with an air of professionalism.
– Sales professionals become the industry experts or, as I like to call them, “knowledge brokers”. They read trade journals and often attend networking/industry trade shows to learn even more. They set themselves apart by the knowledge they are able to bring to the customer that is over and above what any of their competitors can offer.
– They have only face to face meetings with qualified customers. Their time is valuable so they don’t waste it on unqualified prospects. They ask the tough questions before the face to face meeting.
– Great sales people show up early for meetings. This punctuality demonstrates their commitment and helps build trust.
– If the customer wants small talk at the beginning of the meeting, great reps comply. If the customer just wants to get down to business and avoid small talk, great reps sense this and get down to business.
– They are never loud or overly talkative, instead they tend to be pleasant and sincere and maybe even a little reserved. Great sales people allow the customer to set the tone of the meeting.
– They are comfortable with silence in the meeting and will allow the customer time to think.
– Excellent sales people check their egos at the door. The focus of the meeting is on the customer and not on the solution.
– Successful sales people respond to objections before they happen. Their preparation allows them to anticipate objections ahead of time and allows them to minimize customer concerns.
– Objections are welcomed in the meeting and great reps make it easy for the customer to say “no”. Objections help the great rep understand the customer’s concerns and help the rep get to “yes”.
– They are relaxed and attentive in the call. They never interrupt the buyer.
– If they have action items, great reps always follow up. You can always count on them to perform.
– Truly great reps seldom are hard closers. Instead, their skillful handing of the objections encourages the customer to close the deal themselves.
– They always tell the truth. No deal is worth compromising their ethics.
– They always say thank you; certainly verbally and often with a written note.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

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Objections: An Enabling Sales Technology

July 26th, 2007

Objections. You have heard them all before: “I have no budget”, “I have no need”, “I am not interested” or “We are happy with our existing supplier”. My favorite objection is “Maybe later”. All are the customer’s way of saying “no”.

Classical sales training tells us that you have to hear “no” before you can hear “yes”. What this really means is that customers must purge themselves of all concerns, hesitations, and questions before they can buy. And if they don’t get these things out their system they won’t be able to go forward. These concerns manifest themselves as objections in the sales process. The astute sales person is on the lookout for these and welcomes them.

Let the customer know that sharing these objections is the right thing to do and that they are smart to do so. This may seem opposite of what you might first think; many inexperienced sales people run away or avoid objections. Often objections are challenging and can end the sales process if handled poorly. Yet, closing your eyes and hoping they go away won’t work.

Some say that an objection is a request for more information and a request for help. Expect to hear no. Better yet, plan on it. Respond by being understanding while probing for more information. “No” is an enabling sales technology.

Let the customer know that “No” is an acceptable outcome because you are here for the long run and want to build a long term relationship. This takes the pressure out of the sales process and allows the customer to explain more specifically his/her issues. This allows you the chance to provide a better solution.

Sometimes, you can ignore an objection. This can be a bit cocky because if the customer says it, then it needs to be handled sooner or later. I have found that this strategy works when someone hurls a volley of multiple objections at you. With this objection-handling strategy, you let him/her repeat the important objections and then you can address the important issues.

Some customers object on price because they feel that they have to; often this customer is a poor or inexperienced negotiator and feels that objecting once on price is enough or is an expected part of the process. Ignoring this objection can pay off with this type of buyer.

Most sales training suggests you turn around objections by restating them and taking the offensive. For example, the customer says the price is too high. You respond, “If the price wasn’t too high could you agree to proceed with the service?” This seems a bit deliberate to me.

My thoughts are that objections are a part of a healthy sales process and are to be expected, if not desired, if you want the order. Greet them calmly and respond with calming words like “I understand how you feel” or “I see” or “Others have felt the same way”.

Next, probe more information with questions like:
– “How so?”
– “Tell me more?”
– “What else?”
– “Tell me about it”

Offer an explanation or more information to help the customer understand your offering’s benefits. Then say:

– “Have I answered your question?”
– “Does that help?”
– “Does that sound better?”

Sometimes, the customer will continue to object. This means that they still need more information. Give them more. Then verify again that you have properly responded to the objection. If so, it can be appropriate to say, “Thanks for asking me that (i.e. you are so smart)” or “That was a great question (i.e. you are so smart) or simply, “Thanks”.

Objections help you find the way to yes, so welcome them. It is the customer’s way of asking for help because “No” is an enabling sales technology.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

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Jumbo Squid Invade California

July 25th, 2007

Run for the hills! We are being invaded by monstrous sea creatures! All is lost! This is an actual headline from the Associated Press on 7/25/2007, which describes the increased sightings of seven foot squid off the coast of California. Yet, if you take the headline literally, Armageddon has come. This is the power of a provocative headline.

The editor at the Associated Press decided to spice up this dull fishing story and pique the interest of the readership. Nothing works better than a sensational headline. It got my attention, but I felt that the headline misled or teased me too much.

When writing press releases or copy for brochures, good headlines are essential. The purpose of the headline is first to get the attention of the reader by summarizing the copy or content below it. The headline must be interesting, but not mislead the reader.

Here are some recommendations for writing better headlines:

– Use strong verbs like “NY Yankees Spank the Boston Red Sox”.
– Uses numbers such as “8.0 Earthquake Hits LA”.
– More punctuation is better such commas and semi-colons: “Bush, Cheney Agree: Stay in Iraq”.
– Beware of double meanings like “Sharks Attack LA”; is this a hockey or a fish story?
– Don’t exaggerate or lie or mislead; it will just irritate the reader. “Jumbo Squid Invade California” seems a bit overdone to me. There are no jumbo squid in my driveway today (as of yet).
– Don’t use a silly headline unless it is a silly story. “Hearts Ache for Help” is an inappropriate headline when the story is about heart disease.
– Don’t start a headline with a verb; instead say who or what. For example, “Slaughtered in the Thousands” begs the question who or what was slaughtered? Mosquitoes? Rats? Bloggers?
– Beware of abbreviations. Your reader might misunderstand. “Flood Waters Rise in LA” could mean Los Angeles or Louisiana.

Well written headlines are powerful. They are a call to action to read more. So be sure that you headline delivers the write message.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

P.S. You can read the actual Jumbo Squid article at:


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Selling to Difficult Customers

July 23rd, 2007

“He would make a lovely corpse.” – Charles Dickens

Eventually, we all have to call on difficult customers. You know who they are. They are grumpy, angry, confrontational, cheap, lazy, critical, and picky. No matter how hard you try, it is hard to meet their expectations. Just picking up the phone to talk with them is a chore, so you avoid calling them whenever possible.

Most of the time, you find yourself “clicking” with the majority of your customers; it is as if they speak your language. You might have something in common like a hobby or passion for a sports team; whatever it is makes doing a business a pleasure.

Occasionally, you find yourself on the other side of the table with customers who seemingly have come from another planet. No matter what you say or no matter how hard you try, you struggle to get along with them, let alone sell them anything. The good news in this situation is that you are aware that something is wrong; the hard part is doing something to improve the relationship, if that is possible. Remember, you don’t have to be best friends to do business.

When selling to difficult customers preparation can help make things go smoother. Ask yourself what is important to them? What do they desire most out of a relationship with you? What do they value? What do they least desire? What do they want to get accomplished? Push aside your needs and put the focus on them.

For example, if they don’t want to do small talk at the beginning of the meeting, don’t do it. Sure, it may be your nature to talk about the weather or family, but if they want to get to business immediately don’t try to slow them down. If they don’t want to shake hands, don’t offer your handshake.

Acknowledge that people may be different than you and that it is OK. You may be very “amiable” and relationship-focused, which is a terrific behavioral profile to have as a sales person, but your customers may not be that way. While you are eager to show pictures of your kids or your last family vacation, some customers might find this photo sharing an incredible waste of time.

Some people are very “analytical” and prefer to look at spreadsheets and don’t care about getting to know you. That is just the way they are. They want to calculate ratios and evaluate trend lines. They are plodding in their decision making but absolutely resolute once they make up their mind. They don’t say much, but you should listen carefully when they speak because they have been rehearsing this speech for a long time. They are seldom wrong or speak out of turn. More often than not, they are right.

Other customers may be “drivers” who want to get things done quickly; they likely will have a strong task orientation and have little need for relationships and small talk. They want to get down to business. Their office might be void of family photos and their desk might have a yellow pad of paper with a meeting checklist in front of them. They are ready for battle and know exactly what they want to get done.

Other customers might be very “expressive” and will need lots of talk time; they will have an intense need to let you know how they feel. In fact, they will feel so compelled to talk about the problem that nothing will get done until they get it out of their system. For example, if your expressive customer is angry, ask them why? Shut up and listen. Make good eye contact. Take a few notes. When they are done with their rant try summarizing what they said and let them confirm that you “got it right”.

Often this purging of the problem is all that they really needed. By letting them blow off some steam, you can then get on with the meeting. But, if they have been holding on to this anger for a long time, they might need to repeat themselves a few times. Stay cool and let them finish. If you have some repair work to do, tell them what you will do and when you will do it. I suggest you put that in writing and then deliver exactly as you said you would.

More often than not, difficult customers are not being difficult just to spite you. Instead, they just do things differently than you. It is up to you to accommodate them and be flexible.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

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Why Customers Buy

July 19th, 2007

“Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.”

– Marshall Thurber, entrepreneur

I like this quote because it sums up my thinking about how customers will buy an offering because of its differences and not because it is similar to another offering. This is true even if the offering is a commodity or is nearly the same as the competition. Ultimately, the customer buys because of the product’s differences not because of its similarities.

Think about it. When a buyer is deciding between two seemingly identical products, the buyer instinctively looks for differences in price, quality, or delivery. With some perception of a difference, the buyer chooses one offering over another. The operative word in that sentence is perception.

Thus, customers will inventory the differences between your offering and that of the competition. But, below that lies the real reasons why customers buy. The reasons are more basic.

It is my contention that buyers buy for the following underlying reasons:

• “Needs” are things that you must have to survive and to function; this includes shelter, food, clothing, and medicine. These purchases are easily justified and are basic motivations for a buyer.
• “Wants” are things that are desired, but not necessary such as wanting an iPod. Wants are tougher for the buyer to justify, but people will buy them because of an innate ability to rationalize almost any purchase. If I buy an iPod I will be happier and more popular.
• “Desires” are wishes or dreams, which can be powerful motivators. You can desire to be famous and this can motivate you take to action or not to take action. Desires can motivate people to change or modify their behavior. If you lose weight, you will be more attractive and this can help make you famous.
• “Fear” can motivate the buyer to take action or not to take action. Fear can create barriers to success by holding people back from taking a promotion. Or, fear can also keep people safe by keeping them from taking unnecessary risks.

With these underlying reasons driving them, customers then seek to justify their decisions with their perception of the differences in the offerings available.

The essence of niche marketing is presenting your product as different while fulfilling the buyer’s underlying reason for buying the offering in the first place.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

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Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

July 18th, 2007

Ever wonder what that expression really means? A current interpretation might be that it is impolite to receive a gift and then question the value of that gift. Long ago when we all rode horses it had something to do with a horse’s age and its teeth, or “So a wise man told me”.

The above equine expression is a metaphor. Metaphors are used as a way to better describe something. More specifically, metaphors are comparisons that show how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in one important way. Secondly, this particular metaphor about the gift horse is a dead metaphor, since it has lost its original meaning or context. When metaphors are overused they become clichés and they can have little or no meaning at all and might actually confuse the listener.

Sales people use metaphors all the time to better communicate what they mean. In particular, sales people use metaphors to help customers understand an offering’s benefits and they also help the sales people to be remembered, “For better or for worse”. While it is true that metaphors can help sales people communicate better, poorly chosen metaphors can have the opposite effect much like “Pissing in the wind” or “Never squat with your spurs on”.

Here are a few tips on metaphor usage:

– Use as few words as possible. Long metaphors can put customers to sleep or confuse them.
– Avoid clichés. It can be like “The blind leading the blind”.
– Selling is not Shakespeare. He said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances…” I still don’t know what that means and neither will your customers.
– Don’t overdo them; say what you mean. Too many metaphors will make you look like you are “Not the sharpest knife in the drawer” or “The light’s on and nobody is home” or “One card short of a full deck” (you might look stupid).
– Use appropriate metaphors for your audience. “Let dead dogs lie” may be offensive to someone who just lost their favorite dog.
– Avoid mixing metaphors such “As much fun as shooting monkeys in a barrel”.

Finally, make an effort to either use more original metaphors, or simply choose a straightforward description.

“If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch”.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

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Legal Issues and Selling

July 17th, 2007

Sales people talk or send e-mails to customers and prospects all day long. They make sales presentations, handle objections, quote price and delivery, write proposals, and close orders. After a while it almost becomes automatic or second nature since this is what sales people do. Yet, sales people probably don’t think of themselves as acting as a legal agent of the company.

Sales people are legal agents for the companies that they represent. A sales person has the legal authority to obligate the company to an agreement or commitment. Furthermore, the obligation does not have to be in writing. Yep, you can even talk your way into trouble by saying the wrong things. Put the wrong thing in writing and you may set your company up for a legal battle. The sad fact is that most sales people freely make agreements without the blessing of management or legal counsel; even worse many sales people don’t understand the authority that they have as a legal agent of the firm. After all, they are “just” sales people.

The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) is a set of laws governing commercial transactions. The purpose of the UCC was to establish a uniform set of rules to govern commercial transactions, which are often conducted across state lines. The goal of the UCC law is to create a body of rules that would realistically and fairly solve the common problems occurring in everyday commercial transactions. The UCC states the following:

– A sales presentation is an invitation to negotiate.
– Sales people are agents when they have the authority to make offers.
– An offer happens when the agent (salesperson) quotes specific terms to the customer.
– A sale is defined as the transfer of title to goods by the seller to the buyer for consideration which is price.
– An order happens when the offer is put in writing and both parties agree. However, it does not always have to be in writing to be binding.

Sales people do these things all the time. OK, I am not an attorney, but the UCC tells us that the work done by sales people is serious stuff and not to be taking lightly. Yet, few sales people look at their work with an attorney’s perspective.

Agents have responsibilities. They need to tell the truth. Exaggerating a product’s capabilities or omitting a serious drawback may seem like simple “puffery” but it can be legally viewed as statements of fact or warranties. In other words, an over zealous sales person who misrepresents the facts to a customer can get in big trouble quickly. The salesperson is the public persona of a company and as such must be held accountable at the highest standards.

Selling is a serious business, so be careful about what you say and do when dealing with your customers.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

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How Customers View Ethical Selling

July 16th, 2007

Let’s turn the table and look at selling and ethics from the customers’ perspective. Trust me, buyers know unethical behavior when they see it and they keep score.

What does unethical selling look like if you are the buyer?

• Misrepresenting the product’s specifications, warranty, or capabilities.
• Bashing the competition (warranted or not).
• Not listening to the needs or interests of the customer.
• Answering questions with BS (not knowing the answer but trying to fake it).
• Selling services or products that are not really needed by the customer.
• Lying by omission.
• Not following the chain of command for purchasing.
• Not accepting responsibility for problems; always offering excuses while blaming others for the problems.
• Not following through on commitments.
• General slippery behavior.

Conversely, what does ethical selling look like from the perspective of the buyer?

• Accurately describing the products specifications.
• Not speaking on behalf of the competition or trashing the competition.
• Listening carefully to the customer to determine exact wants and needs; after this is complete, the sales person can offer the right solution.
• If the sales person does not know the answer to a question, he or she will admit it and then go find the answer. No BS allowed.
• Selling only what the customer truly needs and no more.
• Telling the whole story.
• Taking proactive responsibility for mistakes or errors right away and telling the customer when mistakes or errors happen.
• Always following through on promises.

Customers know when you are ethical or not.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

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More on Ethical Selling

July 10th, 2007

I received a flood of responses about my recent blog on “Ethical Selling”. Most were private e-mails from sales people who have had to defend their ethics.

For many, the most frequently confronted issue was the company’s need for more sales versus the code of ethics of the individual sales person. Others wrote about the day-to-day challenge of doing the ethical thing. It seems that the lines can blur when commission dollars are on the line. They asked how to tell if you are crossing the line.

Having given it more thought, please consider this list of questions to ask yourself when confronted with an ethical choice:

– Would you feel bad if this behavior was published tomorrow in the New York Times and you were specifically named in the article?
– Would you be uncomfortable talking about it during a performance review?
– Would your customer be worse off if you went forward with this decision?
– Would you be upset if someone did this to you?
– Would you fear being caught if you went forward with this decision?
– Would your mother or father disapprove of your behavior?
– Have others been reprimanded for this practice?
– Have you been spending a lot of time worrying about this issue?
– If you practice a formal religion, is the decision in keeping with the teachings?
– Would you be proud of yourself and the decision/behavior, even during private musings?

Candidly, if the answer is yes to any of these questions (except the last one), the behavior is probably unethical. Do the right thing and don’t do it.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

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Does Your Customer Trust You?

July 9th, 2007

Long term customer relationships are built on trust. Trust is the single most important ingredient in a successful long-term selling relationship.

Trust is the belief that you will do your part, that you will deliver what you promise and that you will fulfill your obligations in the relationship. These commitments can be in writing, verbal, or inferred. They are your responsibility.

Sometimes, trust can be almost mammalian: we immediately trust some people because of their role, the way they look or act, or because of a referral. For example, a fireman shows up at your burning house to help you and your family; I would guess that you will immediately trust him even though you don’t know him.

But, most of the time, trust is earned over time. Instinctively we keep score on other people about how they fulfill their obligations to us. This is especially true for your customers; they are keeping tabs on you and your trustworthiness at all times.

The basic elements of trust include:

Dependability- This is the customer’s perception that you are accountable. Referrals can make you appear dependable. Punctuality for appointments is a factor; being repeatedly late makes you look undependable. Being late also infers that you don’t value the customer’s time.

Competence- This is the customer belief that you know what you speak the truth. Customers will often test sales people with questions to test their knowledge of the industry or their products. Some of these questions might trap you into revealing what you don’t know, so don’t BS. If you BS, you will get caught and this will break down whatever trust you’ve built thus far. Looking stupid or unknowledgeable is one of the biggest fears of sales people, yet making it up as you go along will only hurt you. If you don’t know the answer, this is when the old standby of “I am not certain; may I research that and get back to you?” can be very effective.

Customer Empathy- Understanding your customers’ needs and how they feel is critical to building trust. If a salesperson is only focused on the sale itself and the potential commissions, this will look selfish and not empathetic. This will slow the development of trust.

Telling the Truth- If you tell the truth, you will sleep at night without worry. Also, you won’t have to remember anything, because the truth is always the same. Additionally, how you tell the truth is important. You must be sincere and tell the truth with reliability. If you get caught in a lie, you may never be trusted again.

Rapport or Being Liked- You know what I mean. Some people are just more likeable and they are trusted from the beginning. But, a likeable sales person who is not dependable or who does not tell the truth will lose this advantage quickly.

You can trust me on this one.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

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