To me, selling feels a bit like falling off a cliff. But since you and I have big dreams for our businesses, we can’t ignore sales. Our dreams are compelling, at least to us. But success in business is not only based on good ideas and great customer service. We build businesses on a consistent campaign of selling. We must sell because people are preoccupied with their own concerns. Their days are cluttered with urgent demands. Each day, as they muddle through the clutter, they have little energy left to pay attention to us. How then will we get the attention our business deserves?
Salesmanship is limitless. Our very living is selling. We are all salespeople.
—James Cash Penney
Don’t Let Selling Limit Your Business
I am uncomfortable with interpersonal conflict. I avoid situations where I need to receive criticism or face rejection. Selling opens a door to both of these potential discomforts. But it also opens the door to success. My web development practice hit an income ceiling because I sold jobs too cheaply, and I sold too few of them. To make matters worse, I did not focus on sales when I had work. Instead, I hoped more work would come in while I completed the jobs I had already sold. This got some results when the economy was strong. But that business failed when I had to compete to make sales. I was ill-equipped for the challenge.
Selling works best if we learn our customer’s daily struggles and offer the solutions they are looking for. This starts with thoughtful questions and attentive listening. We think mostly of ourselves, but selling requires generosity. Putting ourselves aside, we must shift our focus to others. When we understand what they really need, we can offer a value proposition that serves them—a solution they need and want. This is hard to do when we see each other’s needs through glasses smudged with self-interest. But we must learn to see others clearly.
Questions are Key
Questions are powerful. Effective questions create relationships and open wallets. Using questions to sell can help us learn our customer’s struggles and find out what they want to buy.
Before you can ask those powerful questions, you must reach out and make contact. Overcome your fear, meet with someone, pick up the phone or write an email. Open with some general information about yourself and what you are creating. Then, start with this question, “What is the biggest challenge you are facing with [potential problem area]?”
For example, here is what I want to know from readers of Sidepreneur Magazine: “What is the biggest challenge you are facing with starting or running your side business?” Feel free to customize this question for your own business.
Once you’ve asked your question, let the silence hang. An answer will come. Just listen. When you have heard your customer out, propose three product ideas that solve their challenge. Ask them, “Which one of these do you prefer?” If you have understood what they need, they will respond by naming one of your product ideas. Since you want to make a sale, be brave enough to ask them, “How much money would you pay for a product like this?”
This approach to selling is not unique to me. When I can’t get past my own fear, my friends sometimes answer the questions I want to ask potential customers. This is helpful, but there can be no substitute for getting the unvarnished truth from potential customers. I am beginning to use this question selling method by email, and I’ll report back as I have results. I’m coming out of my shell, but as a friend once said, “Harvey likes to eat the elephant one bite at a time.”
Build Your Product
Asking questions helps you discover a problem you can solve for your potential customers. With that knowledge, you are ready to build a product or service tailored for them. This is exactly the opposite of what I usually do when I’m starting in business. I prefer to hide away in a cave and create a product or service that I love. When it is finished, I emerge from the cave with my product in hand. I blink at the daylight and look around for the endless lines of customers I imagined. There are none to be seen. That’s my usual approach. It doesn’t create sales for me, and it won’t work for you either. It just creates disappointment. But, your attempt to sell a product built around your customer’s real needs has a good chance of success.
Explain Your Product Clearly
When you create a product in your cave, it’s difficult to explain its merits to your customers. First of all, you don’t know them very well. Second, you don’t know what selling points they might value over others. Third, you’re still lost in your own thoughts—preoccupied with visions of grandeur. But, if you have done what I suggest, you already know what your customer wants. You even know what words they use to describe the thing they want to buy, and what that solution is worth. If you describe your product with the feedback you used to build it, your customer will be delighted. They will know what they’re getting, and they will want your product!
Make It Easy to Buy
Your sales process needs to be just as clear as your product description. The same principle applies here. Talk to your customers. Ask them for their preferred payment methods, and make those available to them. If you sell online, make the checkout process as simple as possible. A software entrepreneur I know switched to a subscription model instead of manual renewals. Before, customers had to make a decision to renew and pay over the telephone or send a check. Now they renew by default. No more work required. The customer orders once, and unless they choose to cancel the subscription they stay a customer for life.
Price Your Product Fairly
Pricing is not easy. How do you set the value of your product? Is it by the costs associated with it, or by the value it provides to the customer? I wish a fair price was an objective thing. But only one thing determines price: what your customer is willing to pay. When you make contact with your customers before building the product, they will tell you what it is worth to them. This allows you to build a product that meets their needs within the price range that they are willing to pay.
But what your customer is willing to pay is not a predetermined, fixed thing. Why, for example, do some people gladly buy from one company and ignore a cheaper alternative? One reason is that the story you tell about yourself and the product you have created influences their perception of its value. If you tell a compelling story about what you’ve created for your customer, they will pay more. If your story doesn’t connect, they will pay less.
Be Likable and Trustworthy
All things being equal, people buy from those they like. And people like others who take an interest in them, especially if they prove trustworthy. If you ask questions and listen, you’re likable. If you build what your customers asked for, you’re trustworthy. If you’re likable and trustworthy, your cash register goes Ka-ching!
If you want to build a thriving business, some selling is required. But selling isn’t what we imagine. Ethical, question-based selling builds relationships. When you take an interest in others and ask questions, you create a bond. Relationships grow with good communication and trust. And good relationships are mutually beneficial. If you build trust with your customers, you won’t need to join the other advertisers clamoring to get a few seconds of their time. They will most likely look forward to buying your next product. Why guess at what your customers want? You can build something they’ll love, and you don’t have to fall off a cliff to do it!
Discussion Question: How have you used questions to help you create and sell products? What advice do you have for others?