Improving sales skills

Learn how to develop your sales skills, including building trust, identifying customers' needs, selecting and presenting products for customers, handling questions and objections, and closing sales.

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Sales: the basics

Businesses succeed or fail based on revenue from selling products or services, and how effectively customers can be persuaded to buy them.

The final sale may be the goal, but getting customers to buy a product, service or experience is just one step in what can sometimes be a long process.

You can achieve great product sales by mastering selling skills that focus on:

  • projecting confidence
  • building relationships
  • knowing your products and services—including features and benefits
  • listening
  • identifying customers' wants and needs
  • persuading
  • negotiating
  • working towards sales targets.

The best salespeople create good and lasting first impressions, know and understand their customers, listen well, and are able to convert customer needs into action.

Creating good first impressions

Making a positive and lasting impression helps you develop customer relationships and make sales. From the moment you approach a customer, your behaviour, attitude and personal presentation influence your customer's decision to buy.

Use these ideas to help you create a good first impression.

It takes 3 seconds for your customer to form their first impression of you. In the 3 seconds after that, they confirm or change that impression.

This first impression influences their decision about how much time to give you. It's based on your appearance, body language and mannerisms, tone of voice and facial expressions, words, and demeanour.

Tips for creating a good first impression

  • In a retail 'browsing' environment allow 1 minute to pass before you greet your customer.
  • In a fast-paced, counter service environment greet your customer immediately.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Give a nice, genuine, warm smile.
  • Open with a sincere, friendly greeting.
  • Pay attention to the customer—not to the product, your stock or a colleague.
  • Greet the customer and ask a useful opening question. For example, 'Good afternoon. Can I help you find something you are looking for?'
  • Never ignore the customer.
  • Show the customer that they have your undivided attention.
  • Don't portray to the customer your need to reach sales targets (i.e. sell to their needs, not your targets.)

Your appearance shows your customer that you respect them, your business and your products and services. Here are some useful personal presentation tips.

  • Aim for a straight, confident and relaxed posture.
  • Don't distract your customer with personal fidgeting and adjustments or by handling stock while you're talking to them.
  • Dress to impress—take care with your choice of clothing, and tailor your wardrobe and appearance to appeal to your customer base.
  • Dress for the situation. Are you serving in a café, a retail shop, or presenting at a formal business meeting?
  • Make sure your hair and nails are well-groomed.
  • Align your presentation to the style of business you represent and the customer demographics you aim to sell products and services to.

Your attitude affects the way you approach people and events in business. Choosing to approach potential customers positively, confidently, enthusiastically and with a helpful attitude—even when you're tired, stressed or frustrated—will help improve your sales performance and grow your sales.

Every business exists to meet customers' wants, needs and expectations. If you believe your job is to understand and solve the customer's problems, then you will show a natural, helpful confidence.

Customers should never be an interruption or distraction from getting your tasks completed. Customers are the reason any business survives.

Verbal communication skills for selling

Your communication skills determine your chances of making a sale—from your opening pitch to your closing statements.

Developing your questioning, vocal and conversational skills will help you build on a strong first impression by gaining trust and establishing credibility.

Asking questions

The more you find out about a customer's needs, wants, expectations, interests and situation, the easier it is to reach win-win or mutually beneficial outcomes.

Learn about your customer by asking them the right questions and taking the time to listen to their answers. Customers may also respond well when they feel you are genuinely interested in their opinion. Their responses will help you to provide the best solution or a positive outcome, while also making them feel valued.

Types of questions

Closed questions require a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer.

For example: 'Are you looking to buy a television today?'

Closed questions are used to:

  • find out facts
  • limit or guide discussion
  • gather specific information from the customer that you can use to generate an open question.

Open questions ask a customer to explain or elaborate which helps to build rapport with the customer and encourages them to open up about the product or service they are looking to buy.

For example: 'What type of product are you looking for?'

Open questions are used to:

  • encourage your customer to provide more detail on the specific product or service so you can determine your customer's wants and needs
  • build relationships with customers so they are comfortable dealing with you.

Probing questions are about a specific topic to uncover more information.

For example: 'What type of television do you think would fit best in your living room?'

Probing questions are used to:

  • get more specific information to fully understand your customer's needs
  • uncover and clarify your customer's perceptions and opinions.

Confirming questions are designed to check that your customer understands what you've said.

For example: 'Which of these features would benefit you most?'

Confirming questions are used to check that you've successfully communicated information to your customer and that they understand it.

Summary confirmation questions are designed to check that you understand what your customer has told you and that you are successfully aligning your products or services to their wants, needs and expectations.

For example: 'Are you saying you'd prefer to order the next model up in our range?'

Summary confirmation questions are used to:

  • check that you understand your customer's needs
  • check that the benefits you've outlined meet their needs.

Vocal skills

What you say is often less important than the way you say it.

Use your voice to make an impact by:

  • adjusting your pitch to suit the conversation
  • adjusting your volume for clarity, and to suit your customer's comfort and hearing needs
  • speaking in a steady tone of voice to show you're calm and confident
  • slowing the speed of your speech so it is calm and clear
  • varying the inflection in your voice to suit your message—to show enthusiasm, common sense, interest, and gravity
  • pronouncing your words clearly
  • varying the quality and intensity of your voice to hold interest
  • conveying meaning using the sound of your voice to reinforce your messages.

Tips for good conversational skills

Good salespeople look for a way to connect with their customer, and build a conversation based on trust and understanding.

Conversation skills include:

  • asking non-confronting questions to show you really care about your customer's needs
  • talking knowledgeably about your product or service
  • displaying interest and warmth
  • avoiding bias or stereotyping
  • adjusting to your customer's verbal style
  • being honest without being abrupt or brash
  • offering observations that show you understand
  • accepting and acknowledging your customer's opinions
  • refraining from interrupting or correcting unnecessarily
  • watching for and responding to signs of discomfort or boredom
  • being diplomatic
  • making small talk—when it's called for and to an appropriate degree
  • finding a common interest between yourself and the customer—for example, you might be a camping enthusiast and they have come to purchase camping gear from your store.

People from different cultures or ethnic backgrounds may speak softly or much faster in conversation, so it is important to genuinely listen to ensure you hear the information they are sharing.

Non-verbal communication skills for selling

When selling to customers, your non-verbal communication skills—such as active listening and interpreting non-verbal cues—are just as important as what you say.

Developing these skills helps you to understand what your customers want, so you can offer them the most suitable products and services.

Listening to your customer to discover their needs helps you suggest appropriate products or services to meet those needs.

Active listening is the process of confirming what you think your customer has said, and meant, by observing their verbal and non-verbal cues.

To be a good active listener:

  • focus your full attention on your customer
  • briefly summarise your understanding of what your customer has said
  • take notes (if necessary)
  • use appropriate non-verbal cues such as nodding your head, inclining your body forward and maintaining eye contact
  • note your customer's non-verbal cues—are they eager, reluctant, impatient?
  • use appropriate, well-timed probing questions and summary confirmation questions.

Interpreting your customer's non-verbal signals and behaviours allows you to read their attitude and better understand their needs. Projecting the right non-verbal cues yourself can help your customer feel at ease.

Here are some positive and negative examples of non-verbal cues:

Facial expressions

  • bad – wrinkling the nose, furrowing the brow or rolling the eyes
  • good – smiling, raised eyebrows, relaxed mouth

Eye contact

  • bad – avoiding your customer or looking outside your sales space
  • good – looking back to your customer's face and at your products

Smile

  • bad – closed, firm or expressionless mouth
  • good – smiling or relaxed mouth

Hands

  • bad – hands folded to the chest or near the face
  • good – hands moving freely, relaxed, touching the product

Gestures

  • bad – closed arms, dismissive hand gestures
  • good – open arms, nodding the head

Posture

  • bad – slouching, shoulders turned away
  • good – standing upright, inclining the body forward

Position

  • bad – moving too close, facing away
  • good – observing personal space accommodating cultural differences.

Good customer service makes sales

Businesses that prioritise excellent customer service have a greater chance of capturing and keeping loyal customers. By doing this, your business can generate higher profits and achieve a greater market share.

Establishing a successful customer service program in your business requires commitment from you and your staff. To plan, develop, implement and sustain your customer service involves training and feedback. It may also include establishing a customer loyalty program.

Becoming a customer-focused business, by identifying and understanding your customers, can help you create exceptional products and services that keep them coming back.

Collecting and storing customer information has privacy guidelines to adhere to.

Customer complaints and how you manage them can also have a lasting impact on your business.

Improving customer service can help you retain existing customers and gain new ones.

Selling complex or high value products

For fields such as real estate, business-to-business, or high value items, the sales process can provide greater challenges.

These transactions typically involve:

  • steps to a sale
  • customer relationships
  • expert knowledge of products and services
  • negotiation.

Steps to a sale

Sales for high value items generally rely on careful research and planning, authentic communication and tactical skills in persuasion and closing a sale.

You can develop a successful sales process for your business using these 10 steps to selling. Depending on the size and type of sale, multiple steps can be done at the same time or in a different order.

  • Review information you have gathered about your customers and their needs—make sure it is up to date.
  • Consider what products, services or experiences you have that meet their needs.
  • Be clear about your purpose. Are you making contact to convey information, arrange a time to meet or hand over your business card?
  • Approach your prospective customer in a way that reassures them and builds their trust in you by using friendly and courteous body language, facial expressions, and manners.
  • Listen to their needs.
  • Use an anecdote or relevant fact to establish their interest. For example, describe a recent customer who received the kind of benefits they are looking for.
  • Where suitable, use humour. Be open and genuine.
  • Don't take up more time than you need. Get to the point quickly.
  • Make an observation about something your customers have, or say, that relates to your products.
  • Read more about how to build customer relationships when selling below.
  • Confirm an individual customer's needs by listening to their requirements.
  • Ask questions that are relevant to your customer's needs and your products. Questions can be
    • open-ended: 'How does it feel to drive this car?'
    • direct: 'Is your current vehicle fun to drive?'
    • for clarification: 'So, you're really looking for a reliable vehicle that is fun to drive that has great pickup from traffic lights. Is that right?'
  • Consider your product range and choose the product, service or experience that best meets the needs of the customer.
  • If you have several options to choose from, pick one and focus on it.
  • Read knowing your products and services below.
  • Present your product's features but focus on its benefits and link these to your customer's requirements.
  • Be enthusiastic and show your conviction.
  • Explain what makes your product different from the others.
  • Anticipate likely questions or reactions and be prepared to respond to them.
  • Use examples of your product's success.
  • Use up-selling or cross-selling techniques to introduce your customer to related products.
  • If using a presentation, ensure it is up to date and tailored to your customer.
  • Be open in your presentation.
  • Be prepared for what customers will say and be ready to respond.
    For example:
    • Objection: 'Sorry, I don't have the time today.'
    • Response: 'No problem. Could I book you a short 10-minute test run another afternoon this week? Our complimentary offer is worth your time.'
  • Recognise your customer's comments by acknowledging their views and then responding with solutions.
    For example: 'It seems like you don’t want to waste your time on a product that you're not sure will meet your needs. Would you invest a few minutes in a product that does?’
  • Ask questions about their views to find ways to address them.
  • Restate the customer's objection. By saying it aloud, you can reduce its impact.
  • Look for signals that indicate the client is ready to make a purchase (e.g. they ask specific questions about availability or warranties).
  • Stop talking—give your customer a chance to fill the silence and say yes.
  • Offer a choice that assumes their purchase (e.g. 'Would you prefer Blu Tiffany or Rosso Portofino?').
  • Address the customer's minor questions or decisions about the product to eliminate all of their obstacles.
  • Offer after-sales service and deliver on whatever you've committed to during the sales process.
  • If you were unable to close the sale, follow up with additional opportunities to maintain the relationship.
  • Update your sales matrix and/or customer relationship management tool.
  • Check in with your customer after the sale to see if they are happy with the product.
  • Look for the next selling opportunity by drawing the customer's attention to related products or upcoming specials.
  • Build on your rapport to establish a relationship over the longer term.
  • Gather information about the sales performance and product popularity for your business.
  • Do some customer research. If appropriate, consider using customer feedback forms to evaluate customer satisfaction.
  • Look for issues in product performance and take-up to identify where your sales tactics are most and least effective.
  • Consider what you have learned and make relevant changes to your sales plan.

How to build customer relationships when selling

You or your sales team's ability to interpret customer needs and behaviour and build strong relationships can be a competitive advantage for your business.

Build rapport

Building rapport with your customer is the first step towards building the relationship.

Getting your customers to trust you is fundamental to building relationships and building rapport—or making a connection with your customer—is one of the most effective ways to build trust.

The easiest way to connect with your customer is to find something you have in common or of common interest, which you can do by listening to your customer and guiding the conversation by asking questions.

Building a rapport means taking the time to understand who your customer is, what they value and how you can help them achieve the things that are important to them, even if these things are not important or valuable to you.

When you put yourself in your customer's shoes, you can interpret and think about what your customer expects from you and tailor your approach to moving through the selling steps in a way that meets those expectations.

Know your products and services

For high value sales, product knowledge is key. An intimate understanding or your products' features allows you to tailor your language and approach to meet the values and expectations of your customer.

Customers respond to a salesperson who knows the product they are selling and can present the key features that meet each customer's particular requirements.

Customers are more likely to trust salespeople who show confidence in themselves and confidence in the products or services they are selling.

You can build this credibility and confidence by increasing your knowledge of your products or services.

Use conventional and creative sources of information to learn about your products or services, including:

  • your own experiences using the products
  • product literature such as brochures and catalogues
  • online forums
  • feedback from customers
  • trade and industry publications
  • internal sales records
  • your more experienced team members
  • visits to manufacturers and suppliers
  • sales training programs
  • competitor information.

If your product or service has some limitations in certain situations, acknowledge them with your customers.

Let them know early on if you don’t think your product or service is right for them and they will be more inclined to trust you when they need something in the future.

As you engage customers, use your knowledge to lead your customer through the steps to a sale, and make their experience enjoyable so they won’t hesitate to revisit.

Successful salespeople know their products' features well and skilfully turn features into benefits for their customers.

To practice this skill, list your main product's features, and potential benefits for your customers. Consider these ideas for communicating benefits.

Product featuresPossible benefits for your customer
Its purpose This product delivers a productivity increase to your business.
How it works It is easy to use. You won't be frustrated by complicated features.
How it is developed or manufactured This product has been manufactured locally. Your purchase supports local industry and helps the environment.
How it is checked for quality This product has been quality-assured prior to release. You can feel confident this product will function as the designers intended.
How it is delivered You don't have to worry about picking up the product—we can organise delivery.
How it is maintained and serviced You can be assured that if it needs maintenance, we will take care of it.
How long it is likely to last (including any warranties) In the unlikely event of a fault, we will fix or replace this product under warranty which should give you confidence in the quality.
Its price The price reflects the engineering and care that has gone into the design and manufacture. This is appreciated by discerning customers such as yourself.
How it compares to similar products the business offers You can base your decision on the excellent reputation our business has earned for selling this and other highly regarded products.
How it compares to competitors' products This is an unrivalled product. While there are others like it, this one meets a quality specification with features that enable you to improve the speed and efficiency of your operation.
Its strengths and limitations (the capability of the product to deliver benefits to clients) You are buying a product that is well-matched to your particular needs.
Other products that might complement it Buying this companion product will allow you to meet the needs of your team.

Negotiating successfully

To achieve sales, you and your team may need to use negotiation skills with your customers. This may be particularly relevant when selling high value items or selling to other businesses.

Strong negotiators master written, verbal and non-verbal communication. They adopt a conscious, assertive approach to their communication.

Good negotiators are:

  • flexible
  • creative
  • aware of themselves and others
  • good planners
  • honest
  • win-win oriented
  • good communicators.

Understanding the other party's interests and tactics is integral to good negotiating. Choosing a strategy that best responds to their interests and tactics will help you achieve the best outcome.

Some of the different strategies for negotiation include:

  • problem solving—both parties committing to examining and discussing issues closely when entering into long-term agreements that warrant careful scrutiny
  • contending—persuading your negotiating party to concede to your outcome if you're bargaining in one-off negotiations or over major 'wins'
  • yielding—conceding a point that is not vital to you but is important to the other party; valuable in ongoing negotiations
  • compromising—both parties forgoing their ideal outcomes, settling for an outcome that is moderately satisfactory to each participant
  • inaction—buying time to think about the proposal, gather more information or decide your next tactics.

Your chosen strategy will depend on who you are negotiating with, the potential value of the sale, and the type of relationship you have with them.

For example, what level of cooperation and common interest exists between you, and how will each party behave during the negotiation? It will also depend on what you are negotiating, and the time frame and setting you are negotiating in.

As well as choosing a strategy, you may wish to consider your approach to the issue being negotiated.

There are 3 key approaches to negotiations: hard, soft and principled negotiation.

Many experts consider the third option—principled negotiation—to be best practice:

  1. The hard approach involves contending by using extremely competitive bargaining.
  2. The soft approach involves yielding, where one party tries hard to meet the interests of the other party and forgoes aspects of their own short-term interests in return for long-term benefits.
  3. The principled negotiation approach focuses on achieving a lasting, win-win outcome by:
    • separating the people from the problem
    • focusing on interests and not positions
    • generating a variety of options before settling on an agreement
    • basing the agreement on objective criteria.

The negotiation process

Every time you negotiate, you have to make choices that affect whether you achieve a successful outcome for your business. This can mean walking away from unprofitable sales in some circumstances.

To get the best outcomes, understand the steps involved in the negotiation process.

While many negotiations are straightforward, some will be among the hardest challenges you face and success will depend on planning and preparation.

Wherever possible, approach negotiations with a clear set of strategies, messages and tactics that can guide you from planning to closing.

No amount of preparation is too much in approaching complex or high-stakes or high dollar value negotiations. Plan both your approach to the subject under negotiation, and your tone and communication style.

In approaching the subject of your negotiations:

  • set your objectives clearly in your own mind (including your minimum acceptable outcome, your anticipated outcome and your ideal outcome)
  • determine what you'll do if the negotiation, or a particular outcome, fails
  • determine your needs, the needs of the other party and the reasons behind them
  • list, rank and value your issues and then consider concessions you might make
  • analyse the other party including their objectives and the information they need
  • conduct research and consult with colleagues and partners
  • rehearse the negotiation
  • write an agenda—discussion topics, participants, location and schedule.

In deciding your communication style, familiarise yourself with successful negotiating strategies. Arm yourself with a calm, confident tone and a set of considered responses and strategies to the tactics you anticipate.

  • Introduce yourself and run through the agenda. Demonstrate calm confidence.
  • Seek the first offer from your counterpart. You should rarely accept the first offer. It signals the start of the negotiation.
  • Ask how they arrived at this offer and seek to understand what is important to them and any emotion behind why it might be important.
  • Check your understanding of the other party’s proposal.
  • Remember your objectives.
  • Provide a counter-offer and a reason why the offer meets their objectives and any emotion you might have uncovered.
  • Listen to the feedback and explore the concepts and ideas your counterpart puts forward.
  • Keep the conversation open, friendly and paraphrase what your counterpart is saying to demonstrate that you have listened to, and understood, what they have said.
  • Consider making further proposals and listen to offered suggestions.
  • Look for non-monetary elements that may tip the balance in your favour.
  • To close the deal, consider an appropriate compromise, then make and seek concessions.
  • Be prepared to walk away in a friendly way—recognise that this may not be the final negotiation and that it may resolve as both parties consider what was discussed in their own time.

During a negotiation, you may choose to use a passive, or assertive communication style or a combination of both.

Passive communicators are inclined to use ambiguous language, adopt submissive body language, and agree to demands. Using only this approach can often put customers off from dealing with them or result in a low-margin or unprofitable sale.

Assertive communicators are not confrontational. They speak and interact in ways that respect the rights and opinions of the other party, while also putting forward a position that acknowledges their own needs.

In any negotiation, both parties hold the key to the outcome.

Confident and considerate communicators are more likely to keep discussions going to facilitate mutually beneficial outcomes.

A clear, steady tone of voice, and a focus on the needs of both parties, provides a way to proceed that reduces the potential for intense conversation.

Learn more about communicating effectively for business.

Take a moment to revisit your objectives for the negotiation.

Once you feel you are approaching an outcome that is acceptable to you:

  • look for closing signals; for example
    • fading counter-arguments from the customer
    • tired body language from the other party
    • negotiating positions converging
  • articulate agreements and concessions already made
  • make 'closing' statements yourself, and look for closing statement signs from your customer
    For example:
    • 'That suggestion might work.'
    • 'Right. Where do I sign?'
  • get agreements in writing as soon as you can
  • follow up promptly on any commitments you have made.

Even with the best preparation, you may not always be able to negotiate a successful outcome.

Planning alternative solutions can help you to:

  • avoid unnecessary stress
  • reduce your own internal pressures, particularly during the negotiation
  • minimise your chances of accepting an offer that is not in your best business interests
  • set realistic goals and expectations.

Preparing an alternative plan

When it comes to negotiating, there's always more than one positive solution for your business.

Take pressure off yourself by identifying several other options or alternatives to the outcome you are seeking.

  1. Brainstorm all available alternatives to the process you are negotiating.
  2. Choose the most promising ideas and expand them into practicable alternatives.
  3. Keep the best alternative in reserve as a fallback.

Take a firm and assertive stance when proposing ideas or drawing definite lines in your negotiation. Being willing to walk away is a powerful tool.

Clearly determine the worst possible outcome you are prepared to accept in the negotiation.

Tips for effective negotiation

Don't:

  • confuse negotiation with confrontation—you should remain calm, professional and patient
  • become emotional—remember to stick to the issue, don't make it personal, and avoid becoming angry, hostile or frustrated
  • blame the other party if you can't achieve your desired outcome.

Do:

  • be clear about what you are offering and what you need from the other party
  • be prepared—think about what the other party needs from the deal, and take a comprehensive view of the situation
  • be consistent with how you present your goals, expectations and objectives
  • set guidelines for the discussion and ensure that you and the other party stick to them throughout the entire process
  • use effective communication skills including positive body language
  • prepare for compromise (but plan in advance where you can give discounts, and where you can't)
  • strive for mutually beneficial solutions
  • consider whether you should seek legal advice
  • ask plenty of questions
  • pay attention to detail
  • put things in writing.

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