The Sales Process: Best Communication Practices for Every Stage
Sales communications are notorious for being overly scripted, sales-y, and features-focused. If these are the qualities of your current sales messaging efforts, tear up your script. It’s hard enough to attract attention with videos, flashy graphics, and attractive models. Aggressive sales calls and spammy-sounding emails won’t cut it. However, you can cut through the noise by using communication strategies mined from sales experts who’ve carefully perfected their craft over decades.
After a lead expresses interest in your product or service, you need to qualify them as a prospect — a potential customer that matches your customer model. To that end, you need a communication strategy that gets your foot in the door, but one devoid of aggressive tactics and sales-y tones. These move people to hang up, mark your emails as spam, or just leave the conversation annoyed.
Remember: Prospecting isn’t about selling your product or service at all — it’s about gathering information. Before you sell, you first have to determine whether a lead matches your ideal customer. Just because they’ve visited your company’s website, subscribed to your email list, or dropped a business card into a jar doesn’t mean you should bring them into your sales process or that their interest hasn’t already waned. More information is needed and that means outreach via calls and emails.
Craig Jamieson has some pro sales tips that draw on his “old school” approach to prospecting. Jamieson is the Managing Member at Adaptive Business Services where he uses a simple, direct communication strategy for prospecting.
“I like to keep things short and to the point. On a phone call, I usually say something like: ‘We’ve worked with quite a few companies like yours and right now I think, but I don’t know for sure, that we could be of assistance to you. Would you be willing to meet with me for 15 minutes in order for both of us to determine that?’ It’s not fancy, but it works for me.”
Jamieson’s communication strategy works because it’s short and direct, focuses on information gathering, and expresses an honest appraisal of expectations (“I think, but I don’t know”). Its honesty helps lower the guard of the lead through its low-pressure appeal, essentially saying, “If this doesn’t work out, no biggie.”
While prospecting, you’re likely to run into a gatekeeper, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a critical part of your prospecting efforts. If you want to talk with a decision maker, you’d better respect the gatekeeper’s position and view them less as a hurdle and more as an ally. “When communicating with gatekeepers,” Jamieson suggests, “keep your messaging respectful. Even though they’re not the ones writing the check, gatekeepers may be important influencers in your future communications. It’s certainly better to have an inside ally than a pissed off gatekeeper.”
A little flattery never hurts either. When communicating with gatekeepers, Jamieson employs an approach that’s charmingly simple and effective. “I’ll ask the gatekeeper, ‘I want to speak to the person who’s in charge of this department. Would that be you?’ They will be flattered and more willing to assist,” he notes.
Jamieson’s short introduction elicits an immediate emotional reaction (pride at the suggestion they’re in charge), creates a positive first impression, and builds an association between his name and positive feelings — a trifecta of key wins for any prospecting effort.
If you were able to make it past the gatekeeper, you’re now ready to take the info and approach the decision maker: the owner, manager, department head, etc. Robert Terson, the author of Selling Fearlessly, believes you should highlight the strength and confidence of your communication. Terson is a seasoned salesman, and in the chapter entitled “The Approach,” the author lays out how a sense of strength, expectation, and appealing to a person’s sense of fair play and curiosity can help you get further down the sales funnel. Here’s Terson’s “Joe Smith” example:
“Mr. Jones, my name is Joe Smith, and my company is XYZ Marketing. We do business with, oh, two to three thousand insurance agencies around the country and practically to a business they’ve told us we’ve increased their profits tremendously … Let me ask you this: If at the end of 10, 12 minutes, I was showing you something you didn’t agree with, I’m sure you wouldn’t hesitate to ask me to stop—true?”
“I’ll turn that around; if I could show you something good, profitable, something you liked, is there anyone besides yourself—wife, partner, business associate—who should also see it, or are you the sole decision maker for the company?”
“No, I make the decisions around here.”
Notice how Terson’s dialogue exhibits strength and confidence. He asks questions that anticipate objections before they’re brought up (“I’m sure you wouldn’t hesitate to ask me to stop—true?”) and gets the lead comfortable with saying “yes” to him right up front. Terson continues:
“Okay, what’s the best time for you?”
“What’s this all about?”
“It’s a marketing program I want to show you; our clients—“
“—I’m not interested; I’ve got all the advertising I need.”
“Tell me something, your advertising, are you pleased with all of it?”
“Let me ask you this then: If I could show you something you yourself really thought would work far more effectively than what you’re not happy with now, would you at least be open-minded enough to spend 10, 12 minutes to take a quick look at it?”
Notice how Terson uses his questions to establish a sense of fairness between he and the lead (“Would you at least be open-minded enough…?”). “You’re appealing to his or her sense of curiousness and fair play,” he explains. “You’re appealing to their better self, but it’s also the strength of the dialogue that makes it work.”
He continues by overcoming one of the most common objections: money:
“I’m not interested in spending any more money right now, things are tight.”
“You just gave me the reason why I should show you the program; good marketing doesn’t cost money, good marketing makes money. If you’ll look at it with an open mind, I think you’ll be glad you did, and if at any point I don’t make sense to you, I’ll shut up and shake your hand; is that fair enough?”
“—I can be free at 8:00 A.M. or right after lunch; which do you prefer?”
“Morning’s best for me….”
Along with exhibiting strength and appealing to the lead’s better self, Terson also believes asking someone to be open-minded works regardless of the product or service your selling. It’s this mixture of fair play and confidence that makes Terson’s communication style effective during the approach.
Now that you’ve got the stakeholder’s ear, it’s time to further qualify them as a good lead. Just as with prospecting, you’re looking to see if they’re a good fit. This requires a shift to a more targeted approach and doing some fact-finding. It’s one thing to know the ideal customer and another to understand the individual needs of the one sitting in front of you. Fact-finding is a sort of stakeholder qualification step, where you answer the question: “How specifically can I help them solve their most pressing pain points?” Asking the right questions will reveal the best angle for your pitch.
Although you’re looking for specifics, ask more open-ended questions that give the prospect room to explain. You’ll be surprised at what information comes up. Specific questions only put pressure on your prospect to give specific answers, which he or she may not know at the moment or may not want to divulge. An example of a closed question might be, “Are you using your current service because it’s the most affordable option?” A more open-ended version might be, “Where does affordability fall on your list of priorities when choosing a service like this?” With the first question, you’ll probably get a “yes” or “no” answer with little explanation. Ask a specific question, and you’ll get a specific answer. But the more open-ended question will leave room for explanation, and that’s where the best clues for your pitch will come from.
Since open-ended questions tend to result in longer answers, it’s crucial to not interrupt the flow of the conversation. The prospect should be doing the bulk of the talking. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to force yourself into the conversation needlessly. Don’t feel like you’re wasting their time. If they’re doing all of the talking, they won’t blame you if the meeting goes over time. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t “own” the conversation — you most certainly should. You’re in control. You have the ability to direct the topic, especially if you think it’s getting off track or if you want to probe deeper into a specific topic. The art of qualifying is knowing when to speak up and when to remain silent. The more information you get, the better you’ll know where to lead the conversation.
During the qualifying step, keep your comments focused on the gatekeeper and the company’s needs. The tone of your emails and your voice should be relaxed and friendly, not sales-y and aggressive. The conversation should be natural and organic, not scripted and rote. Remember: You’re not selling your product at this stage, you’re selling yourself. And you’re prospecting the needs and pain points of your potential client, so keep the conversation laser-focused on the prospect. Constantly communicate the idea that you’re on the same side. Say something like, “I’m glad I got the chance to learn more about your business and for you to learn more about our services. Together, I think we can solve some of these problems.”
Although pitching seems the perfect time for a sales-y speech, throw that assumption out the window. During the pitching phase, it’s more important than ever to tailor your communication to be client-centric. Deb Calvert of People First Productivity Solutions explains: “You make it all about the buyer. Strip out as much information about you and your products as possible. Your proposals, pitch decks and presentations should be about the buyer, not about you.”
Calvert also uses communication that positions her solutions within the “context of the buyer’s needs.” Ultimately, everything you say should be in relation to those specific needs you’ve already identified. That goes for your product or service features as well.
“Make the statement of those needs as specific and personalized as possible,” she states. “Even using the buyer’s own words. Make the recitation of your features an appendix or a response to a stated need. Leave out the ones that are irrelevant for the buyer.”
When it comes to actually constructing your emails, decks, and presentations to include effective communication, Calvert has some specific strategies that will have you pitching like a pro. “Put the buyer’s logo, not yours, on the title page or slide. Eliminate generic phrases and jargon. Consider how the buyer(s) reviewing this information wants to see it — facts and figures or narrative, for example. Write and present human-to-human, not seller-to-buyer. Make the presentation as interactive as possible, taking questions and facilitating two-way dialogue. Most of all, involve the buyer in crafting the solution — you can’t get more tailored, relevant, meaningful, specific or personal than that!”
To keep the focus on the potential client, also avoid using “we” statements such as, “Through our proven marketing strategies, we can grow your online traffic by 25 percent YOY.” Instead, use “you” statements to communicate the same idea — “With a better marketing strategy, you’ll be able to grow your online traffic by 25 percent YOY.”
Include all of your best ideas in your sales pitch but don’t execute an epic-length proposal. Keep the entire presentation as short as possible and in a logical order that focuses on the key problems you identified in the prospecting and approaching stages.
Rarely does a sales pitch or presentation result in a “Well, we’re sold! Where do we sign?” Your ability to overcome objections often determines whether you get the sale or not. Successful salespeople search for the root of every objection so they effectively communicate a counter-argument that’s aggressive in its tactics, yet easy-going in its tone. To get at the bottom of each objection, Jamieson suggests following the “3 C’s”:
- Cushion – Provide a reason for what you are about to say or ask. For example: “I want to make sure that I understand your question.” or “I would like to ask you a few questions about your business so that I will be better able to determine if we can be of help. Would that be ok?”
- Clarify – Make sure that you are heading in the right direction and/or that you understood the client’s question or objection. Remember: all objections are questions.
- Confirm – Did you answer the question correctly? Did you deliver your information in a manner that was understood by the client? Is what you said even important to them?
When prospects present objections, it can be a good time to switch strategies and make a hard push of your product or service’s features. Two standard objections you can overcome by highlighting features is “We don’t have the budget” and the old standby “I need to think about it.”
For budget objections, Deb suggests focusing on how solving their problem will offset the cost of your product or service or pointing out “hidden costs of not addressing the problem.”
Budgetary objections often originate from timing and trust issues, which can be met by providing specific examples of how your product solved the problem of real customers. Reinforce trust by pointing out return policies and guarantees, double down on your product’s ability to solve their problems, and communicate your product’s value.
When a qualified lead objects with an email that says “We’re happy with what we have,” overcome the objection with a real-life example or link to a case study that explains how competitors who’ve already switched to your product or service are now benefiting. Appeal to their sense of pride, competitiveness, and fear of missing out.
If all goes well from prospecting to pitching, then closing the sale should be fairly straightforward. Jamieson describes the closing process as “entirely overrated” and sees the close as “the natural culmination to a sale that has been executed properly.” But even if you’ve overcome every objection during a pitch, actually closing the sale can take weeks or months depending on the product or service. During this time, shift your sales process to adapt to the lead’s buying process. Whether you’re waiting until the next week or next quarter to follow up, plan the content and frequency of your messaging appropriately.
Get contact information for as many decision-makers as you can. It will be easier for them to reach consensus if everyone has already communicated with you. They will all be working from the same information. To keep communication efficient, send one email to your main point of contact and copy the other stakeholders. The email chain will keep your messaging streamlined and head off any confusion.
To close effectively, Calvert uses deadlines to communicate a sense of urgency in her emails — an approach that “minimizes the number of continuances and keeps things flowing,” she explains. Calvert suggests using boilerplate language like: “Prices and deliverables are good through ___ and proposal may be subject to different terms after this deadline,” to build a sense of urgency that can put you over the top.
Effective closing communication also enlists the stakeholder’s own imagination in appealing to their pride. During the closing phase, keep your messaging focused on the company’s future. Try and get stakeholders to imagine their company with your service. At the point of decision, they should be disappointed with the present — their company without your service. When they compare the two, they’re more likely to see your service as the key to getting to the future they’ve imagined.
Language that is future-looking could include follow-up emails with reminders of “increased market share”, “more efficient workflows”, “better brand recognition”, or other “success” metrics. And continue to remind them that their competitors are using similar services. They should be asking themselves: “Will saying no make it harder to compete?”
A good way to drum up new business is asking your existing clients for referrals. But the timing of the ask is key, and your messaging needs to reflect the situation. The worst approach is an aggressive request right after landing a sale. Your new client may feel a bit used or, more likely, they won’t feel like they have enough experience with your product or service to make an honest recommendation.
A similar outcome is likely if you contact an older client out of the blue with a referral request. While you may be going for a friendly message (“Hey, friend. How’s it going?”), the request may come off as desperate and exploitative (“Remember me? I need a favor”). Instead, choose an authentic moment to reach out and use messaging that emphasizes connections.
Calvert suggests being direct and asking for new introductions, not new business. “Instead of asking vaguely, be very specific,” she explains. “Rather than asking ‘Do you know anyone who could use my services?’, ask for a specific introduction like ‘I see on LinkedIn that you know ___, and I would like to meet him. Would you please introduce us?’”
Sales professionals who rake in the referrals think about their clients first. “I live off of referrals, and I never ask for them — I earn them,” Jamieson states. “Before asking a client for a referral, you should first ask yourself, ‘What can I do for the client? Sure, I made a great sale, but what did I do during the process or afterward? Did I go the extra mile? Have I ever referred them to anyone?’”
A major theme running throughout all of these professional sales tips is to keep your messaging focused on the potential client, their company, their problems, and your solutions. But before you send that initial email or make that first call, you have to understand what makes your product or service stand out and how it can uniquely solve the most pressing pain points for your potential client. That takes good research. If you’re not 100 percent sure whether your service can even help them, how are you going to effectively communicate during the sales process? Even the best salesman can’t overcome the objections of a plain-old bad fit.