Overcoming Clients' Six Biggest Fears

Successful salespeople acknowledge customers' questions and worries, then use the answers to close more sales

Long ago, I sold "technical consulting services," which is a fancy way of saying I rented programmers by the day. My clients had to interview and accept each of my programmers before they could begin coding—and I could start earning commissions. I quickly learned that no matter how good my programmers' technical skills were, if they didn't sell themselves in the interview, I didn't eat. As a result, I became an expert at preparing my technical folks to pass their interviews.

My secret was to make the interview—a.k.a. the sales call—very simple. I told my programmers our clients really only had two questions: Can you do the job, and can you do the job for me?

Most of your sales calls are simple, too. Your customers have the same basic questions, which are really expressions of their fears. In my last column, I shared some common fears that salespeople have and offered ways how to overcome them and sell without fear (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/15/07, "Fear of Selling"). Now let's look at the other side of the sales conversation—customers' six biggest fears:

1. Do I need to purchase anything? It's easy to slip right past this question. However, unless it's a purely impulsive item, if your customers don't really need what you're selling, they will often back out at the last minute or have buyer's remorse after signing and wriggle out of the deal. Even if a buyer is hot to buy from you, if he can't present a genuine need for it to his accountant, manager, spouse, or other decision-maker, the deal will probably go sour.

Once you understand why your customers feel the need to make a purchase—from their point of view—you can use this information to close them. For example, if a customer tells you three reasons she needs an inventory system for her floral business, then waffles at the close, you can repeat the reasons she told you earlier.

2. Is this the right product, service, or combination to purchase? With the spread of the Internet, your customers now have more ways to solve their problems than ever before. As a result, choosing the right way to solve a problem has grown more difficult.

Take the time to really understand your customers' situation and then sell them on why your proposed solution is the best one to solve their problem. It may help to ask your customers for other possible solutions and then let them tell you why the other possibilities fall short of your proposed solution.

3. Are you the right vendor from whom to purchase the offering? Your customers could be afraid that your business might not be financially sound or that you won't fulfill their contracts with the quantity, quality, or timeliness that you promise.

Collect testimonial letters, lists of satisfied customers, and certifications from external entities like the Better Business Bureau to help you overcome this concern. Hang them on your office walls. Put copies in a binder and bring it to every sales call. It's a "silent salesman," regardless of whether your customer spends half an hour perusing it or never even opens the cover.

4. Is this the best price? It's natural for a customer to worry about cost, so don't freak out. Face it, you have the same concern when you make a purchase. Don't worry—just as you don't always buy the cheapest offering, your customer doesn't either.

Help your customers look at the return on investment from your offering. How soon will it pay for itself? Does it save money, increase revenues—or both? How else is it the best investment overall, considering its impact on a customer's image, branding, and other qualities?

5. Are these the best terms to purchase this offering given my current financial situation? Every customer's financial status is unique. For instance, your customers may be more concerned with the effect on their cash flow than the total dollar cost. Find out if they require a low monthly payment and can afford a high down payment—or if they can afford higher monthly payments but can only afford a low (or no) down payment. Perhaps your customer is quietly trying to sell the business and has to keep your purchase either off or on the balance sheet.

Discovering the best terms for a customer can be an "assumptive close." That is, if you can agree on the terms, you could naturally assume the customer is going to buy it from you. Go one step further and secure agreement on this, too, since taking this for granted can be deadly for the health of your sales career.

6. Is this the right time to purchase this offering? The timing of when to buy may matter to your customers based on their fiscal year, board meeting schedule, or another event. Early on in the sales process, ask your customer if there are any timing considerations of which you should be aware. I once had a customer who needed enough equipment to fill a warehouse before an open house. It didn't matter what his long-term needs were—he wanted to impress customers immediately.

If your customers start to slow down as you approach the close of the sale, remind them of their own reasons why this is the right time to make their final selection and complete their purchase.

Remember, the more your prospective customers answer in the affirmative, the closer you are to closing the sale. Also bear in mind that it's hard to be a customer today. If they answer any of these questions incorrectly, they can lose a promotion, some of their own customers—even their livelihood. That's why successful salespeople acknowledge customers' common questions and fears, and use them to close more sales. Happy selling!

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.