The Basics: Four Sales Tips

Successful sales people use active listening skills to build trust with prospective customers

I recently heard about a young car salesman who had no prior experience in the automobile industry. After his second week, his manager sent him to a three-day training course where he learned a technique billed as "active listening." Essentially, it involves listening and responding to a customer to build a rapport with that person instead of simply focusing on quickly making a sale. The thinking goes that since people are more likely to buy from people they know and trust, the sales will naturally follow.

When the salesman returned to work, he sold four cars in five days, a far higher rate than average. I sat down with the salesman's trainer, Steuart Martens, to uncover his secrets. Martens, whose family has been in the car business for decades, is a regional training instructor for Sonic Automotive (SAH), which owns dealerships across the U.S. He outlined the strategy he teaches to people in the automobile industry and discussed how entrepreneurs in any industry can employ them.

The first goal is to get in the right mindset. "You sell the person first, the car second," Martens told me. Establishing a rapport with your customer is critical. Look for cues to help the conversation, says Martens. For example, notice the prospective customer's car, the stickers on it, the baby seat in the back. Even clothing can provide a clue. If a customer walks in wearing a fly-fishing hat, talk about your last fishing trip (assuming you fish, of course), and you may move the relationship beyond customer and salesperson. The rest of the process involves listening to the customer's needs. Here are four steps that can help you make a sale. While they may sound basic, you might be surprised how many of your employees will benefit from hearing—and practicing—these basics.

1. Paraphrase your customer. Repeating what you hear lets the customer know that she has been heard. It also minimizes mistakes, which is important in any service industry where a customer has a list of tasks to accomplish. When done correctly, paraphrasing saves you and customers a lot of aggravation, says Martens, citing numerous mishaps avoided at the service counter.

2. Ask discovery questions. Martens teaches his trainees to ask questions to help identify the customers' real needs and wants. In the automobile industry, it is not uncommon for people to drive away with a different car than they had originally wanted. For example, a woman who had just moved from Washington to California wanted to buy a convertible to enjoy the sun. Emotionally, it made sense. But when the sales associate asked her a series of questions—including what she would use the car for—he soon learned the woman was a CPR trainer and had not considered the fact that she would have to carry around five mannequins. The sales associate provided educated feedback; the woman drove away in a small SUV instead. "When asking discovery questions, it's important to start with 'low-trust' questions before moving to 'high-trust' " cautions Martens. An example of a low-trust question is, "What brings you in today?" A high-trust question is "What do you do for a living?" For the conversation to work, the seller must earn the right to move the relationship forward.

3. Observe body language. Martens advises sellers to pay attention to what a customer's body language is communicating. In one example he recounted, a prospect was anxious and seemed hurried. By asking discovery questions, the sales associate learned she had only limited time before she had to pick up her kids from day care. By learning this, the salesperson could plan to give her a condensed explanation and schedule a follow-up appointment.

4. Jot down notes. Finally, Martens urges attendees at his courses to take extensive notes to facilitate the next conversation. Customers are communicating a lot of information about their preferences with each conversation. Keep tabs on it. For example, you might learn that a particular customer is more concerned about safety than power. In the next conversation, come armed with information, statistics, and stories about the product's safety and dependability.

According to Martens, most people hear customers, but the most successful sales professionals will listen. Engage in these techniques to improve the odds of making your next sale. Good luck!

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