It takes smart, highly competent salespeople to meet the challenges presented by today’s informed and savvy customers.

Even so, there are many in sales who believe that success depends on a friendly smile, a gift for small talk and a large dose of enthusiasm and optimism. Others might toss in a passion for selling, listening, the ability to close and coming across as sincere.

Yet, possessing a great attitude and excellent sales skills doesn’t guarantee success. Many salespeople who “do everything right” underperform. With so much focus on personal qualities and skills, the sales process doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

However, it’s the process — the sales experience — that makes a huge difference to customers. More and more, it’s the process that engages them in ways that lead to closing sales. Here are elements of a customer-oriented sales process:

1) Play detective. Too many salespeople set themselves up for failure from the start. They try to go from, “good to see you” to, “thanks for the order” with as little interference or distractions as possible. Keep it simple is their motto. It sounds good, really good. If only it were so easy.

When a customer asks, “What can you do for us?” too many salespeople instantly launch into a presentation about their company and how it solves problems for its customers. And that’s their mistake. “Right now, I don’t know, but I intend to explore your situation and determine the best way we can help” are the words that make the most sense to customers.

They know that answers come from digging and finding what the customer may have missed or failed to recognize because they’re too close to the situation or are being pulled in other directions.

Today’s customers are skeptics. They’ve learned from experience that many solutions are often overly simplistic, miss the mark, or are poorly conceived and fail to deliver on their promises.

Customers recognize that the right solutions result from proper investigation. And that takes detective work.

Also see: "The little stuff that drives customers away."

2) Figure it out. Digging and gathering information is worthless unless it’s analyzed so that the problem — the pain, if you will — emerges with clarity. Rarely, are instant insights accurate or complete, let alone correct. It takes struggling to figure how the pieces fit together, and takes time and thought so a proposed solution makes sense to the customer.

It’s exciting when salespeople get their arms around a problem. It can be something like an “ah-ha” experience. There’s a rush — an ‘I was born to sell’ feeling.

The tendency is to assume that once the problem is figured out, it’s the time to tell the story to the customer. Since salespeople rely on their verbal skills to carry them through the selling process, they’re eager to share the good news with the customer. But, slow down. We’re not there yet. Something important is missing.

3) Write it down. What’s missing is the answer to the crucial question, “What do I need to do to make the solution compelling to the customer?” And this is where it’s easy to drop the ball. In your mind, you see yourself going across the goal line. And, while enthusiasm is essential, it takes more to close sales.

And here’s where the dreaded words “write it down” enter the process. Writing is tormenting, frustrating and agonizing. It’s hard work, which is why it’s easier and more fun to talk than write. Yet, as a professor at the University of Wyoming told his students, “If you can’t write it, you don’t know it.” These are strong words and easy to ignore, but absolutely correct.

It’s the writing that clarifies ideas, hones arguments, exposes weaknesses, spots inconsistencies, and, most of all, makes clear what’s missing. It’s only then that you know what you’re talking about, and when you’re sure you will make sense to customers.

Also see: "7 sales mindsets that harm business."

4) Win ‘em over.It’s now do-or-die. You’ve done your homework and built a solid case for getting the order. While all this is necessary, you’re still not ready to get in front of the customer to capture the order. To do so now would be like handing the sale to the competition.

In other words, it’s time to win ‘em over. It’s when a salesperson puts the power of the process into play. It’s based on investing in the customer — on committing your knowledge, experience and creativity (and that of a sales team) on uncovering the need and developing the right solution.

All of this focuses on one result: the customer saying, “This makes sense.” The customer sees beyond the proposed solution. It’s your investment that’s persuasive, that makes the difference.

Winning is not simply providing all the right information and facts, or impressing a customer with the wonders of your product or service, the importance of your company, or even your impressive track record. It’s a matter of making the right investment that gives salespeople the extra edge.

5) Stick with it.Waiting to hear from a customer about your proposal can be so frustrating that it’s easy to blow the sale. Making the wrong move can put your efforts in jeopardy. Being too aggressive by following up too soon, too often, or asking when a decision will be made will undermine all your good work. It sends the message that underneath your professional demeanor, you’re just one of those salespeople no one wants around.

Being patient is tough and most salespeople have trouble with it. It creates horrible anxiety. Selling is about making something happen. But let the competitors make the wrong move. Let customers know you’ll wait for their decision and you won’t bug them. Patience shows you’re confident and that you trust the customer.

In selling, cutting corners is best left to the amateurs and those who think they can talk or manipulate their way to success. It takes the entire sales process for consistent positive results.

Graham, of GrahamComm, is a marketing and sales strategist-consultant and business writer. He publishes a free monthly eBulletin, “No Nonsense Marketing & Sales.” Reach him at jgraham@grahamcomm.com, (617) 774-9759 or johnrgraham.com.

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