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Sales Coaching
Listen Your Way Into Better Selling
By Helen Berman

Once we apply patience and insight to the sales process, however, we'll find soon enough that we won't have to chase our clients. Eventually, they'll come to us.

I don't know much about marriage counseling, but I do know the following scenario isn't ever likely to take place.

A couple walks in for a first session. The husband tells his problem, the wife tells her problem. The therapist looks at the two of them, stands up, shakes their hands and says, "Well, after hearing what you've told me, it's quite clear that you shouldn't be together. Thanks for coming. My secretary will refer you to a good divorce lawyer."

Ridiculous, right? Here's why: Everyone, on some level, needs to go through their own discovery process to explore possible solutions and make changes. It's a standard psychological truism that you can't tell someone to change their behavior. You have to allow them to convince themselves that a change is in their best interest.

It's the same in sales. If you want to see a poor sales person in action, picture someone from Magazine A saying to a prospect, "Why do you run your ad in Magazine B? Everybody thinks it's trash." Or - more subtly, but just as disastrous - "I see your company has a new widget on the market. Our magazine is perfect for it." Or: "Our magazine just won the coveted Most Incredible Magazine of the Year Award. We can start your ad in the next issue!"

None of that works because the sales person is simply telling the prospect what to do. It may be perfectly obvious to the sales rep that Magazine B is trash, and that the prospect's widget is best served by his own magazine. But there's only one way the salesperson can get the prospect to believe that view. That's to let the prospect reach his/her own conclusion.

A psychologist friend of mine calls this "insight therapy." In counseling, a patient would first need to work through all the emotional and intellectual steps necessary to reach a full understanding of his or her problem or idea. It's not enough for a patient to get feedback or advice. What's needed is the patient's own discovery process, followed by the conviction of the need to change.

Of course, when you're a therapist, it can take months or years to take a patient through such a process. Fortunately, when you're in magazine sales, there's a whole lot less at stake. We're not trying to mend marriages here; all we really want is for our prospects change their buying behavior. But the insight technique still applies: We need to take our clients through the emotional and intellectual steps they need to understand the value of advertising to their business.

Fortunately, too, we don't need a master's degree to practice a little insight therapy in sales. All we really need is our common sense. Here are three easy ways to do it:
1 ) Listen.

If you've ever been in therapy, you know that you're the one who does most of the talking. As my friend points out, good psychologists listen. They don't interrupt, they don't yell "aha!" and they let their patients to wind through their stories - however long and convoluted - without judgment. A good counselor enables patients to really "hear" their own stories, and thereby discover their own wants and needs. That process, in turn, helps them root out the answers to their problems.

The sales lesson: Okay, I'm with you. We're generally in the sales business because we like to talk, take control and be in charge. Those who know us probably don't always feel "listening" is our strong suit.

But try this on your next sales call: Keep your mouth shut and your ears open. Let Client Y tell you all about the time he invented squeegee mops in his garage back in 1956. Pay attention, and you might hear him say how he couldn't get any customers to sample his product back then, or how he had to rely on word of mouth to get the mop into stores. If you're smart, you can now step in and engage Client Y in a discussion about the responsiveness of your own magazine audience.

Remember: We can never know what to sell unless we know what the client wants. Listen closely enough, and he'll tell you. And here's another benefit: Listening makes your client feel interesting, intelligent and understood. What better way to establish the rapport you need for a sale?

2 ) Probe gently.

You'll never hear a good counselor tell a patient: "Boy, you have really low self-esteem." Or, "Your mother is an idiot. Why don't you tell her to go fly a kite?" Tough comments and questions - no matter how accurate or well-meaning - simply put people on the defensive. And once people have their back against a wall, there's no place for them to go, particularly not in the direction you'd like them to go.

The sales lesson:
As salespeople, it's often crystal clear to us why Client Y should be in our magazine. That's why we spend so much time and energy trying to get him on the phone, schedule meetings and draw up impressive charts and presentation packets.  

But put yourself in Client Y's shoes. From his point of view, all that's really happening is that someone is trying to get him to spend money he doesn't want to spend on something he thinks he can do perfectly well without. How different it would seem to him, though, if a salesperson began the sales call by asking thoughtful questions like, "What do you like about your current advertising plan? What don't you like?" Or, "Are you reaching everyone in the market you'd like to reach? What's your ideal customer like?"

By engaging in gentle probing, any salesperson can engage a client's interest, rather than set off his defenses. Say you're in a department store looking for a jacket. Which would you rather encounter: A sales clerk who sticks his face into yours and says, "May I help you?" Or a sales clerk who walks past you, smiles and says, "That's a great scarf you're wearing?" The second clerk is the one who's probing you gently, establishing your taste and style, engaging you in a non-threatening way. You know she'll find out your needs a lot more quickly than the first clerk.

3 ) Know your client.

Let's say a counselor greets his patient with the following: "Hi, Mary. Did your husband Joe get that job? Oh, wait, I'm sorry, your husband is Edgar ... No, no, you're right, you're the patient who's single..."

Clearly, here's a therapist who won't be long on the job. Counseling demands intimacy between parties: People expect their "helpers" to know them better than they know themselves. Once a counselor betrays ignorance or disinterest in a patient, trust goes out the window and the game is lost.

The sales lesson: To a large degree, sales demands intimacy also. Our clients expect a lot of us before they'll trust us as their marketing "partners." They need to know that we not only know their company, product and reputation, but their competitors and market as well.

Look at the best salespeople in your company. These, no doubt, are the ones who can gossip for hours about who's doing what in the industry, who just got promoted, which companies just went public, which company wants to launch what new gizmo. These salespeople aren't just interested in commissions. They're interested in their clients. They themselves have become sought-after authorities in the marketplace. What client wouldn't want to do business with them?
Here's another example. When I started advertising in the Folio: card deck, I received numerous sales calls from various card-deck sales reps. Each one took the same tired approach: a mile-a-minute monologue of the features of their particular card deck. I had to wait for each one to take a breath so I could make my excuse and hang up.

Then came one more call. This salesperson calmly introduced himself and told me had had requested and received the free audiotape in my ad. He said he'd listened to and enjoyed the tape and had some ideas about how I could improve my response rate. Was I interested?

You bet. Here was someone who clearly knew his business and mine. Because he took the time to know me, he was the one I trusted with my business.

Bottom line: Sales is a people business. We not only want our clients to trust and respect us. We need to trust and respect our clients, and to honor their own individual decision-making processes. Once we rush in with our own ideas about what our clients should do, we've lost them. Once we apply patience and insight to the sales process, however, we'll find soon enough that we won't have to chase our clients. Eventually, they'll come to us.

An exciting speaker and inspiring sales mentor, Helen Berman has appeared at dozens of media conferences and seminars worldwide, in addition to writing popular sales columns for Folio and Expo magazines. She's also written the two-volume book, Ad Sales: Winning Secrets of the Magazine Pros and is working on a new book, Integrated Media Sales: Beyond the Page, Beyond the Banner. To contact Helen directly, call 310-230-3899 or learn more online

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