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Secrets of Selling ServicesEverything You Need to Sell What Your Customer Can't See—from Pitch to Close
By Stephan Schiffman
McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Stephan Schiffman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSELLING WHAT YOU CAN'T SEE
In Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of Silver Blaze," there occurs the following dialogue between Holmes and the none-too-bright local inspector of police who has been called in to solve the crime of a kidnapped racehorse.
The inspector says, "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Holmes responds, "To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime."
"The dog did nothing in the nighttime."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes. It's one of the most famous exchanges in the whole Sherlock Holmes canon, and one that's stayed with me since I read it more than 50 years ago. It's like trying to put your foot onto a stair and realizing the stair isn't there. It disconcerts you at first because Holmes is calling your attention to something that didn't happen rather than something that did.
In a way, that's what selling a service can feel like. When you sell a physical product—say, computers—you're selling a product that can be described in terms of its physical attributes. The computer you're selling has so much memory, this many bytes of capacity, comes with this number of preinstalled programs, and so on. Furthermore, you can describe it very specifically in terms that anyone, including those who aren't computer geniuses, can understand: it's so many inches wide by so many inches tall, weighs thus and such many pounds, has a screen of so many inches in dimension, and so on.
In Holmesian terms, it's the thing that did happen, the object we can see, pick up, punch buttons on, and so forth.
But when you're selling service contracts for computers, what you're selling is a promise to fix a problem that hasn't happened yet. You're selling on the potential of your solution, something the client has a harder time envisioning.
In other words, you're asking the client to look at something that hasn't happened—a dog in the nighttime, so to speak.
As it happens, I experienced an illustration of this point a day or two before starting work on this chapter. I'd bought my wife a DVD player—something she could take on train or plane trips to watch movies or television shows. I'd given it to her as a Christmas present the previous year. Several weeks ago, it started to develop some hiccups. Finally, it pretty much stopped working, so I took it into the store from which I'd bought it.
"Do you have a service contract on this?" was the first question out of the mouth of the teenage salesperson at the customer service desk. (Why is it that the people who work in computer stores keep getting younger? I know it can't be because I'm getting older.)
Now, for the life of me I couldn't remember if I'd purchased a service contract. The kid looked it up on the computer for me, after giving me a look that said plainly that I must be doddering on the edge of senility. As it turned out, I'd bought a two-year service contract, so the repair on the player was free. I was struck by my foresight, but also by the fact that the person who'd originally sold me the DVD player had been convincing enough that I'd anticipated that something might go wrong with it in two years.
Service contracts, of course, can be a bit of a gamble. If nothing goes wrong with the appliance on which you've taken out the contract, you feel as if you've wasted your money—and, in one sense, you have. On the other hand, if the appliance breaks it's very nice to call up the company and tell them they're going to have to make the repairs for free. Selling something like a service contract requires you to make the customer aware of possibilities, most of which he doesn't really want to contemplate.
Insurance is another type of service contract that needs this kind of salesmanship. It's all about discussing various possible events with your client, none of which are going to be good for her or him. Who wants to sit down with a client and say, "So, let's talk about what happens when you're dismembered in a car crash"? It's this sort of thing that makes selling insurance such a challenge.
But selling other types of services can be equally difficult. For instance, let's imagine you're selling an accounting service to a growing company. The company representative may, quite reasonably, remark that they already have an accountant, so they don't need your more comprehensive service. What you've got to convince her of is that what you're selling will improve the kind of accounting she's getting, even though she can't see the results right in front of her. It will allow her to grow her company while expanding her accounting practices to meet increasingly complex challenges.
On the other hand, you might say that if she doesn't purchase your accounting service, she'll see negative results. As her company grows, the challenge of having just one in- house accountant will at some point become unsustainable. Inevitably, errors and problems will creep into her accounting and affect all parts of her business. Of course, none of this is happening right now, but you can predict that it will happen in the future.
In other words, you're drawing her attention to a possibility, an intangible. You're selling the dog that did nothing in the night-time.
SELLING A PROMISE
Something they can't see always seems much more difficult to get people to grasp than what they can see. It's not merely a matter of the sense experience, it's a question of getting them to think in abstract terms. For instance, it's relatively easy to describe an umbrella as long as you're thinking of it merely in specific terms. An umbrella is an object. It's about four feet long, in my case, black, and is made of a combination of plastic, nylon, and metal. Ask someone to tell you what an umbrella looks like, and chances are you'll get a pretty good description.
However, the minute you turn to the more complex problem of what an umbrella is used for, you enter a more complicated world. An umbrella, most obviously, can keep the rain off you. It can also keep off the sun, it can provide a privacy shield if you're walking in public, and—if you've ever read the Winnie the Pooh stories, as I did when I was young—it can be a boat during a flood. In other words, an umbrella is a series of possibilities.
In the same way, when you're selling a service, you're selling possibilities. You're selling something that hasn't yet happened but that you want the client to place a value on. You're asking the client to think not of what she can see or touch or value immediately but of something that's a promise from you to her.
Let's take the instance of legal services. These are often something that a business doesn't need immediately but on a case-by-case basis. It's true that you'll need someone to review your contracts and guide you through the complex thicket of federal and state regulations. But the real time legal representation comes in handy is when you encounter a lawsuit or some other kind of legal action. In that case, you want your lawyer to swing into action with no ifs, and, or buts. As playwright George S. Kaufman once remarked, "The kind of lawyer I want is one who, when he's not talking to me, is home studying law."
However, when you engage a legal firm to represent you on a permanent basis, chances are you're not faced with these conditions. You're hiring a service from the lawyers, based on their promise that when you need them, they'll be there.
We'll talk much more about this concept as we get into this book. But for right now, let's focus on this basic idea: A service is a promise. It's a promise that when you're needed, you'll do what's wanted.
This leads to a second concept that's essential to selling services. The most important thing you're selling to the client is your integrity. A promise isn't worth much of anything unless the client believes you'll deliver. So you've got to convince her or him that no matter what the circumstances, you'll be there. You're reliable and incorruptible. If you say you'll be in court on a certain date, you'll be there. If you promise a reliable, accurate accounting of the client's books, that's what you'll deliver. If you guarantee to keep your client's computers up and running 24–7, then that's what she or he can expect.
I have a theory about this that is based on restaurants. No, wait. Really.
I don't go out to eat at restaurants all that often, in the normal course of things. But since I'm away from home a lot, traveling, I've gotten used to dining out. And I've eaten in all levels of dining establishments. This has included everything from four-star restaurants in Manhattan to a greasy spoon diner in a small town in South Dakota. (Interestingly, the food in the greasy spoon was better than some four-star restaurants—at least I thought so at the time I ate it. But it may just have been the ambiance.)
When I go into a top restaurant in New York or Boston or Chicago or San Francisco, I generally expect a certain level of service:
I expect that when I sit down, my server will show up in a matter of a minute or so.
I expect that water will be on the table without me having to ask for it.
I expect my drink order will be taken within three or four minutes of sitting down.
I expect the waiter will check back with me after the meal has been served and will continue to check back at intervals of about 10 to 15 minutes.
I expect to be asked whether I want to see a dessert menu.
I expect all these things because that's what I'm paying for. When I receive the bill at the end of the evening, it's not just for the quality of the food (though, of course, that's part of it), it's for the level of service provided. And I'm paying a significant price in order not to worry about those things.
In the same way, a client who pays for top-of-the-line legal service is paying, in part, for a comfort level. She's forking over a huge amount of money so that she doesn't have to worry whether her lawyer is going to know what to say to whom in court and is going to have the latest case law at his fingertips.
From all of this, we can take away one of the fundamental truths of selling what people can't see: What you're really selling is trust. You need to make the client trust you. And that doesn't change, whether it's selling legal services or waiting tables.
Chapter TwoCLIENT CHALLENGE: "WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR ME, ANYWAY?"
Let's listen in on the following exchange:
Client: I don't know why we're talking this morning. There's no way you can possibly understand what we're going through.
Salesperson: No, I've got a very clear idea. I've got more than 10 years' experience in the field, and I can tell you, I've seen just about any kind of situation you can imagine.
Client: Uh huh. Right. Well, all right. Why don't you tell me what sort of changes you'd like to see around my company?
Salesperson: Well, for a start, there's much too long a lag time between the point when product arrives in your warehouse and the time when it gets to your factory floor. It seems as if you're missing some significant efficiencies there. I'll be happy to eliminate them for you and show you how to realize an immediate 10 percent in profit. But you'll have to be willing to change some of the antiquated ways you're used to doing things.
Client: Let's just end this right here.
Oh, dear. It's hard to see what went right in this sales call. It's over almost before it started, and when we look at it objectively, it's not hard to see why the client is angry.
LET THE CLIENT TELL YOU WHAT PROBLEMS TO SOLVE
For a start, let's consider the basics: Who's doing most of the talking in this call? That's right. The salesperson. And he shouldn't be. The general rule of thumb in any sales call is what's called the 80/20 rule—you should be doing about 20 percent of the talking, and the client should be doing 80 percent. There's quite a bit of flexibility here, it's true, but if you find yourself dominating the conversation, you're doing something wrong.
The way out of this situation is pretty simple, and it's the most basic sales technique I've taught during the past 30 years: start asking questions.
In the beginning it almost doesn't matter what the questions are. Ask anything:
Ask the client's relations with the rest of the industry.
Query the client's business practices.
Ask for a review of her inventory and how she determines what to keep in her warehouse.
These or a myriad of other questions will do the essential thing you want to do in an interview and what the salesperson in the scenario has singularly refused to do: get the client talking. Once you do that, the tone and dynamic of the conversation will shift. Rather than telling the client what to do about his business, you'll find that he's telling you what's wrong with it and asking for your help in fixing it.
That's the situation you want to be in.
The questions you ask should be open. In other words, they should require more than a yes or no answer. Your real object is to get the client to talk about the problems he sees in his business and how what you're selling can fix them.
A second problem with the sales call in the scenario is that the salesperson is dominating the discussion and clearly controlling the interview. You may say, "Well, what's wrong with that? After all, shouldn't the salesperson control the interview?"
Yes, but not in such an obvious way and not at the expense of the client. Control, after all, doesn't mean saying more words than the other person. It's not a contest. Control means determining the direction of the discussion and calling the turns in the conversation.
The third problem in the scenario is that the salesperson thinks he knows more about the client's problem than the client does. That's unlikely, since no one knows the inside of the client's business better than he does, but let's suppose for a moment that it's true. After all, salespeople are very intelligent, and I've never ceased to say that a salesperson should learn everything possible about the clients he's selling to.
But that doesn't mean you have to tell that to the client. No one, after all, likes a wiseass. And no one likes someone who barges in and starts telling people how to conduct their business. You wouldn't like it, would you?
All right then. Why do you think the client likes it?
Let's try it again.
Client: I don't know why we're talking this morning. There's no way you can possibly understand what we're going through.
Salesperson: I see. Why don't you tell me what you're going through, and then maybe we can figure out a way around it.
Client: Well, to start with, we're losing ground in the industry because everything's changing. We're providing the same kind of product we've always offered, but fewer people are buying it.
Salesperson: Why do you think that is?
Client: I don't know. That's what I want you to explain to me. What can we do to change that situation?
Client: So how are you going to help me?
Salesperson: I can show your employees how to deal with this kind of change. And once they can figure out what's really involved in the change, they can find a way to deal with it. And I'll help them through that process.
Client: I really don't know what you can do for me. The problem is with the entire industry, and you can't change that. Can't you find something that will improve my numbers right away?
Now the conversation at least has gotten off on the right foot. The salesperson is asking the right questions and is trying to figure out what's wrong. But there's still a problem here, and that's with the client.
FOCUS ON SPECIFIC SOLUTIONS
We've all had them: clients who don't really want the problem to be fixed. They're willing to tell you what's wrong, but they don't want a solution; instead, they want a sympathetic ear.
Anyone who sells services gets used to this kind of client, because they're particularly drawn to a salesperson who seems to deal in abstract narrative. They want a specific quick fix to the problem they're facing. In this case, the decline in revenue numbers has placed the executive who's the client in the sales call in a delicate position. He needs to convince his boss that he's got the situation under control while at the same time figuring out what the real problem is.
Excerpted from Secrets of Selling Services by Stephan Schiffman Copyright © 2013 by Stephan Schiffman. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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