When it comes to sales, "The day of the canned presentation is over."
"If you really know your customers and have listened to them, and found out all about them, you're more likely to be able to provide them with what they want and need, and to keep them coming back," added Lee Richardson, a professor of marketing at the University of Baltimore.
But questioning a prospect is an art that requires subtlety and skill.
For example, when Rush Burkhardt pitches his sales training seminars to local business people, he steers clear of Wimp Junction.
That's the point where a client wrests control of a sales call from the salesperson, often by getting him to talk at length about his product.
"Whenever [a client] asks me a question and I answer it with information, he becomes less likely to buy from me, and more likely to go off and make an intellectual decision," which is bad news for any salesman, said Mr. Burkhardt of The Burkhardt Group, a sales training organization that is affiliated with the Baltimore-based Sandler Sales Institute.
To avoid falling into that trap, Mr. Burkhardt turns the tables on sales prospects, drawing out information from them rather than answering inquiries.
Only after learning why they are interested in his product and what they are hoping to gain from it does Mr. Burkhardt sketch the prospects an outline of his seminars.
Apart from helping the salesperson maintain control, asking questions can cut down on wasted time, said Mr. Burkhardt, who trains local salespeople to use this technique. If you realize after a few answers that the prospect doesn't need what you're selling, you'll be able to end an unprofitable interview quickly.
Mr. Burkhardt isn't the only person who's discovered the value of listening. The stereotypical image of the salesperson as a fast-talking loudmouth is fading as more and more sellers learn the value of the open ear.
Coming on too strong might scare away your prospect. Inquire about his needs in a soft, non-threatening manner.
If he starts to try to pry information from you before you're ready, respond by saying something like, "That's a good question, can you tell me why you're asking me that now?"
Mr. Burkhardt also recommended trying to stir up emotion in clients by focusing on whatever problem is prompting him to consider your product.
"As long as I can keep going into your personal problem, the more likely it is that you will develop an emotional attachment to ++ that problem," Mr. Burkhardt said. "And the more attached you are to that problem, the more likely it is that I can sell you my product."
The technique has worked for Matthew Kolb, a stockbroker with Alex. Brown & Sons. After questioning a prospect, for example, Mr. Kolb might discover the client's biggest fear is of losing money -- and subsequently looking foolish in front of others. From there, it's easy to make the case to him that by keeping his money in the bank, he's often risking that it will be eaten away by inflation, and could do much better by investing in stocks.
"If I can make them understand that by leaving their money alone, they're losing it, that's playing into their emotional fear," Mr. Kolb said.
Once he's reached that point with a client, Mr. Kolb can begin to talk about specific securities that will suit him.
"Once you get to the stage of getting the client or prospect to describe his problem, it's easy to get him to agree that you have the answer that fits that prob- lem."
Other pointers for improving sales include the following:
* Find group support. Low morale is common among those who sell for a living, particularly in these difficult economic times when rejection is almost constant.
So it's important for salespeople to find a forum where they can express their negative emotions, as well as discuss ways to improve their techniques.
Training companies, such as Mr. Burkhardt's, offer support groups for salespeople. But it's also possible to provide such a service within your business.
Every day at 4:30 p.m., for example, the eight-person sales staff of Premier Design Systems Inc. gathers for a special session.
Each salesperson with the Owings Mills-based company, which sells automated, computer-aided design systems, brings a customer problem to the session. The entire group brainstorms on ways to solve the problems, which might range from how to create a sense of urgency within a customer to how to offer products as a cost-reduction tool during recessionary times.
Apart from helping the salespeople sharpen their strategies,the sessions also function as pep rallies, said Bob Bernstein, sales manager.
"If I have one person who's had a successful day, it motivates the rest of the people," Mr. Bernstein said. "Everyone wants to participate, to come, and to be successful, so it's elevated the quality of the group."