The first sales conversation is the moment when your company can convince or alienate a potential customer. Already then errors may appear that reduce the likelihood of acquiring this customer, sometimes to zero. Therefore, it is worth paying attention to the mistakes that we most often observe in salesmen, whose work I look at for our clients. If you’re wondering whether your sales conversation (or the conversations of your salespeople) are carried out correctly, it’s possible that in the next paragraphs you will find some shortcomings that you need to pay attention to.

For a dozen months of working closely with B2B companies, we studied the way of talking to clients mainly in two forms:

  • mystery shopper test (the salesman doesn’t know that he’s being tested),
  • test sales conversation (the exercise is official and the salesman knows about it).

Conclusions about how to conduct a conversation with a potential customer also appear when we’re thinking about what can be done to win a specific sales opportunity — then it becomes obvious what elements of the conversation have been neglected.

What does a mystery shopper test look like in practice?

At the beginning, we develop a legend of the lead, who we will pretend to talk with the salesman, so the conversation is as close to a real one conducted by sellers on a daily basis as possible. Then the scenario is consulted with the supervisor of the tested person in order to check whether the story will be unmasked for some reason (e.g. we made a wrong assumption about the kind of questions a client might ask).  The story and lead must be refined in every detail, because salespeople can analyze the behavior of a potential customer from the very first visit on site.

The first evaluated element is the time that passes from sending a request via the contact form to the response from the salesman. At this stage we also pay attention to the way in which the salesperson encourages further conversation and how he plans the next steps. We verify whether the process is customer-friendly and the content of messages or conversations understandable.

Then we come to the most important moment of the test, i.e. the sales conversation itself, during which we simulate the behavior, questions and problems of real customers. We check how the salesman recognizes the client’s needs, whether he really tries to understand the problems and challenges of the other party. We assess if the salesman understands the client’s decision-making process and qualifies the lead.

It is also important how he communicates the product or service he sells, whether he talks about the features of the product or about the solution that the customer is looking for. Other than that, we want to make sure that the salesperson knows how to respond to customer’s doubts and if there are any elements in the conversation that could hinder the purchase decision. A test carried out in this way allows us to arrive at the following conclusions.

Superficial investigation of the problem

Most of the companies we work with try to investigate their leads’ problems, but the question “how is a specific problem being solved now?” Is often overlooked. This question is particularly important because sticking to the current way of solving the problem involves specific costs, e.g. a company that is thinking about buying a new invoicing program can make up for the current shortcomings by employees who work overtime on issuing and administering invoices.

With this information, it is much easier to justify that investing in new software will allow the same employees to work more efficiently, have free afternoons and reduce their frustration than when we perceive the problem as “we can’t deal with large amounts of invoices”.

Ignoring the cost of no change

The vast majority of sales talks lack an analysis of the cost of no change. Often a potential client feels that he has a problem, but he’s not aware of all its consequences or their actual value at the monetary level. For example, assuming that a company “fails to deal with a large number of invoices”, the consequences of this situation are reflected in, for example:

  • more overtime that must be paid to employees,
  • a larger turnover of employees frustrated with overtime, and hence a larger amount of funds that must be spent on recruitment and onboarding ,
  • losses resulting from the fact that when a valuable but overworked employee leaves, the company loses part of the hard-earned know-how,
  • extra time you need to spend checking “what happened with invoice X”,
  • the cost of errors caused by overwork or messy invoices,
  • undercapitalization resulting from slower cash circulation in the company

Comparing this type of costs with the price of a product means that although it can be a big expense in the short term, it will translate into savings in the long run.

Lack of knowledge about the decision-making process

It is usually assumed that the higher the contract value, the more complex the decision-making process. The person who participates in the conversation with the salesman has to consult the decision afterwards with several people — supervisor, president, CFO and lawyers. Each of them have specific goals and problems that must be solved on a daily basis.

The success of the solution that will be implemented will improve their situation. If it doesn’t work, some of them will be held responsible. Lack of knowledge of what the customer’s decision-making process looks like means that the sales representative only participates in a small portion of events that will affect whether his offer will be accepted — so his influence on the decision is small.

Meanwhile, his role should be to support a contact person in selling the solution within the company — equipping him or her with the appropriate materials and participation in selected meetings. Therefore, during a sales conversation, you need to ask who will be involved in making decisions and try to understand what criteria they might have. Too often, examining the decision-making process boils down to “can I call you in a few days to ask about the decision?”.

Lack of the budget question

After getting to know the needs of a potential customer, you need to analyze them and propose your solution, which often requires consulting the details with a dedicated specialist from the implementation team. All this costs the work time of the people involved. A potential customer after receiving the offer can state “PLN 5,000 for a month of cooperation?! I assumed it wouldn’t cost more than PLN 1,000… ”

As a result, there will be no cooperation, or you will have to prepare the offer again investing more hours of highly paid specialists. This time can be reduced by examining the budget he wants to spend on cooperation during the first conversation — this will allow you to verify for which leads it is worth preparing an offer, better match it to budget options and reduce valuable time invested in the offer. Unfortunately, the question about the budget was not a fixed point of all sales talks that I analyzed.

Talking about features instead of benefits

Feature: “Our hammer is sturdy”

Advantage:  “Our hammer allows you to handle nails”

Benefit: “I understand from what you’re saying, that you lose too much time hammering nails, because every time you need to hang a picture on the wall, it turns out that the hammer breaks quickly and you have to go to the store for a new one. Or postpone hanging the picture to another month, look at the hole in the wall and listen to complaints in the meantime. Therefore, if you don’t want hanging pictures to cost you extra time and patience, it is worth using the X hammer, which our clients change on average once every 15 years. “

People who talk to your company do it not because they want to have the best product in the world, but they have a problem big enough that it motivated them to come to you. A sales conversation’s goal is not to impress the customer with the product’s features, but to determine the consequences of the problem and indicate what needs to be done to make reality look better than it is today.

With time, the company becomes a specialist in its industry, so when I analyze the way of conducting a sales conversation, I pay attention to how often the salesman talks about the features (which everyone can name after a basic training), and how often, e.g., makes the client aware of the consequences of his the problem and what costs he would avoid if it was solved (which only specialists can articulate).

The problem with explaining “what differentiates you from the competition?”

During conversations, which I had the opportunity to analyze problems with bouncing objections appeared relatively rarely, unless you had to answer the question “how is your company different from the competition?”. Then there were arguments that:

a) were very general,

b) might as well be used by competitors.

Therefore, arguments such as “our priority are our clients’ problems”, “we focus on quality” or “we are transparent during cooperation” won’t help your company stand out from the competition. If no differences can be identified, then there is a high risk that you will be compared only through the prism of price or another very subjective factor.

Not using social proof

One of the questions your potential customer is asking is “will company X really be able to deliver, or is it just promising?” Over the past several months, it has turned out that some companies didn’t mention that in the past they were able to solve a problem similar to the one that the lead has or they worked with a very similar company. Not talking about adequate case studies and testimonials is an unnecessary increase in the risk that the customer won’t trust your company.

Lack of clear summaries and next steps

The ending is not the same as the summary. Often, salespeople try to summarize the conversation, but in practice the summary is not very clear and lacks a specific next step. The purpose of these two things is not “a nice end to the conversation” but:

  • confirmation that each party understood their expectations correctly,
  • underlining information that we want the potential client to pay special attention to,
  • avoiding the situation in which the next step on the part of the interlocutor (making a decision, sharing thoughts about the offer, providing materials needed for the valuation) will take place in an indefinite “sometime”.

Not encouraging questions

The most dangerous doubt to the fate of possible cooperation is the one that hasn’t been articulated. If the salesperson doesn’t ask “do you have any questions?” or “what would you like to ask?” during the conversation (1 — 2 times, depending on its length), there is an unnecessary risk that the client assumes something incorrectly that could have been easily explained during the conversation.

Each of these errors means deliberately giving up good cards and more effort that needs to be put into acquiring customers. Success in sales is not determined by unnecessary heroism and shortcomings must be eliminated by systematically taking into account the elements described above in practice and greater awareness of how your service/product affects the customer’s business.