Self-Taught MBA: Converting Conversations to Contracts
Better to lose a sale but remain trustworthy than have the client feel tricked
Most of us get our inspiration in the trades from the ideals of fine craft. A few of us think about success in business. Just about none come at it as inspired salesmen. Although all of us, from craftsman to contractor must sell or starve. So, despite how unappealing the notion of become a skillful salesman, nurturing your inner merchant pays off.
The first question is, what kind of salesperson are you? Probably none you’ve ever met, because all of us are unique. So, if you imagine a salesperson you don’t want to be, say the used car dealer, don’t worry, your inner sales personality is not that. It’s you. And you’ll have to develop your own approach, which can and should include values like sincerity and integrity.
Finding Your Fit
When my sons asked me for dating advice, I told them, “just be yourself, son”. The same applies to sales. Not only because it’s easier and more natural to be yourself, but also because sales, especially of long-term services like construction and remodeling, require a comfortable fit between you and your client. In other words, as in all relations, good chemistry. Just as you have friends that like you, as you are, you will find customers that do too. Others won’t. C’est la vie (that’s life).
However, manners matter. Even while being yourself, you must act with good manners, such as returning calls, saying good morning and good afternoon, showing up in a clean vehicle, groomed and without coffee breath. Greet people with as much of a smile as you can muster (without looking like a politician) and friendly, easy eye contact. Remember that the most important element of sales is listening, or ear contact. After you listen to your prospective client, they will be able to listen to you.
Lastly, you may want to understand yourself, to know where you shine in the sales cycle. In her book for corporate salespersons, Conversations That Sell, author Nancy Bleeke, outlines sales personality types, and where you belong in the sales cycle, such as:
Are you a charmer, and easily attract new clients? First contact
Are you empathetic, and make folks comfortable? Sales call
Are you a negotiator? Closer
Unfortunately, most of us where all hats, and cannot divvy up the sales cycle among several in the company. However, if you have a small staff, you will identify personality types just by watching your people interact with each other and with clients. When possible, identify the charmers that can lure new clients through the door, or on the phone, and those that make folks comfortable. Employ them in the sales process, as seasoned contractors are rarely charmers, and much better closers.
Clients have personality types, too. Knowing a little psychology never hurts. In her book, Nancy Bleeke divides typical personality types into “tribes” and describes how to approach each one. In brief, you’ll recognize them as the “achievers,” who size you up quickly and prize brevity and directness, in contrast to the “expressers” that require oodles of dialog, and will buy based on their intuition about you more than the objective facts you present. Facts and figures appeal to the “reflector” that weighs all the options carefully, conducts research and appreciates nuance. You get the idea, tailoring your sales dialog to the client’s personality type helps develop rapport and provides the client what they need to decide.
The world wide web has changed the way people behave even when not online. It used to be that the information gap gave power to the more knowledgeable. As the expert, old time salespersons arrived with all the information and guided the client toward a predetermined decision, such as, don’t paint, side your home with steel. This does not work anymore, as your prospect has likely already researched the project they want construct and the products they may want to use, and your prospective client may already know more about the options available than you do.
Don’t let this happen. Keep up on your research, by reading all the trade magazines, and doing basic internet research yourself, before you meet with a client. At the very least, know what they know. If you’re a kitchen remodeler, occasionally get online and Google, “Kitchen Remodeling” to see what comes up. Read the consumer articles, tips and competitor’s websites. Even if you’ve been around forever and you know it all, Google will quickly help you discover that you don’t. If you’ve done the same research they have done, when your customer’s comments reflect what they learned on the web, you’ll be in tune with the conversation, without sounding like you’re totally out of touch.
Your role as a construction expert today – i.e. salesperson – is to help your client sort out all the information available to develop a plan most suitable for them. Think of yourself as an honest consultant.
Be willing to offer your services, if it’s the best fit. If not, guide the client to a competitor that can meet their needs. I used to do this as a matter of policy. Nobody called my office without getting an answer. I built low cost homes, and I knew I could satisfy any client looking for my specific services. When clients called for other types of homes, I referred them to other, excellent builders in my town. After a while, those builders began to return the favor. Not only did I get new business, but I also avoided disappointing customers who would inevitably realize that would have found more satisfaction with another.
Prepare Before Call
In our industry, the sales call is the beginning of a relationship. Relationships are built on connection. The first steps with any new acquaintance is the getting-to-know-you process, where you discover connections, such as having gone to the same school, or being a fan of the same sports team. It takes time, and if you begin this process when you show up and sit down with the client, a good 45 minutes of the hour you’ve allotted may be consumed with introductory chitchat, leaving you only a few minutes for your pitch and presentation. So, get to know your prospect before you make the sales call.
Nowadays the internet makes the pre-call research easy. Find your client on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram. See if you have friends or interests in common.
If you cannot find your prospect on social media, you at least know the neighborhood they live in. Maybe you have done work in the area. If so, call one of your old clients and let them know you’ll be visiting their neighbor, and ask if they have any tips or insights. If this sounds too invasive, you still have a lot of information available, you know the school district their kids may attend, you know the local golf course, the council member that represents them. Read up on all these things, just a little, and as your prospect drops hints on their interests and community participation, you can quickly engage them in commonalities.
Plan Sales Projects
The sales process in our business rarely goes from first visit to contract. So, you must “project plan” the sales process as you would any construction – in this case, of a relationship. Set milestones, or objectives for every interaction. Evaluate the results and update the sales plan to keep it moving forward, and to learn from your efforts. For example, when you answer the phone, your objective may be to evaluate the business fit. If the caller wants a small kitchen remodel, and you’re a homebuilder, obviously, the objective is to provide this caller with a referral.
If the caller’s needs fit your service, then the objective is to set up an appointment. At that appointment, you may have a specific goal as well, such as, a followup visit to your office or a showroom to develop further the client’s ideas.
The sales process is like a ramp that you and your prospect walk up comfortably and slowly. If you present your prospect with big steps to climb, such as initial contract, and then a written proposal with a price, they can take it or leave it. Chances are, you’ll lose the deal to another, with whom they have developed a comfortable relationship.
See into how many steps you can divide the process so every positive decision represents a small effort for the client. Some folks won’t allow this, they want the price right away, and you may have to say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have enough information yet to give you an accurate bid, and I’d prefer not to guess.”
Nobody likes to be pressured. The worst thing you can do, after presenting a proposal, is call a client and ask, “did I get the job?” Or even worst, “If you don’t like the price, let’s talk about it.”
If the client were sure they wanted you to do the work, they would have already called you. So, if you have not heard from them, you’ll likely have to find a way to keep the conversation going. You must have to follow-up, but without making the potential customer uncomfortable.
One way to follow-up without pressuring the client for a yes or no, is to use survey-like questions that may help them talk to you about their ambivalence and objections. Ask, but not about their decision. Ask questions like, “did our proposal respond to the scope of the project, as you envisioned it? Was our presentation clear, and understandable? Do you have questions that remain unanswered? What about the price, does it seem fair? How does it compare with other proposals you have received?
By the end of this conversation you will have reengaged the client, or learned something about why you failed. In sales, failures are more frequent than successes, so don’t sweat it, thank the customer, and learn from it.
The most popular movement in architectural design is called the “charrette”. Pioneered by the firm DPZ, in Miami, the charrette represents a collaborative design process where all stakeholders get together in one room and with the assistance of professional architects, draftsmen and engineers, design their own development. Cities use this process to develop neighborhood plans. On a smaller scale, architects get together with the whole family, including the kids and pets, with crayons, pencils, papers and masking tape to collaboratively develop the basic outlines of a design that everyone has a stake in.
Collaborative sales use a similar approach to engage the prospective client, not as the object of a sales pitch, or even a consultation, but as the leader in a design and construction team that works together with enthusiasm to clarify and the realize the customer’s vision.
Sales is a transfer of enthusiasm from the salesperson to the potential buyer. To keep your enthusiasm up, develop a habit of learning, never have customers call and ask about those newfangled things and you don’t know anything about it. Always be reading, looking, learning, and getting informed. Act as advisor, listen to what your prospects hope to achieve, what means they have to achieve it, and advise them on the best means to achieve it. And it may not be with you. Better to lose a sale but remain trustworthy than have the client realize they bought wrong, and later feel tricked.