Close that Sale!

Is closing really a process?

I hear people utter phrases like "She didn't close them" and "He did great until the close" and I wonder — what is this closing of which they speak? I try to recall when making a decent sized business purchase became a nanosecond transition for a buyer or some magical words that go with an equally magical slide in a sales presentation.

Both of the above phrases refer to that under-examined block at the end of consultative sales process diagrams. While some folks seem to do better in that block than say the "Needs Discovery" block, the fact is that most salespeople pretty much fly through their sales process until the dreaded "Close" block. For these salespeople, closing is their bottleneck. Closing is the single thing that most keeps them from selling more.

We often view this closing constraint as if it was pretty much a fixed number and we call it our conversion rate. And our conversion rate is what it is; it's historical, industrial, and folklore-ical.

What's missing in the closing discussion is this — the goal of sales is to help a prospect buy. Yes, a prospect can make a decision in a blink, but that's not the same as buying. Buying requires internal and/or external justifications for taking a decision and converting it into a buying action. Closing is how sales facilitates this conversion and also how it can assist (as needed) in the decision making itself.

As it turns out, buyers decide and justify in the same way often enough that we can build a closing process to support them. We don't have to "make it up as we go along." And to be the most effective, the closing process needs to begin before a prospect begins making their decision and extend through the entire action of buying. To do less is to risk a sale escaping or stalling.

Backing up a bit — a sales process details the decisions and actions we take as someone moves from suspect to customer. Closing is simply the subprocess, which sits inside of the sales process, where we nurture the decisions and actions of someone else who we feel needs to be a buyer. The sales process is about our actions, the closing process is about their decisions.

This may be sad news to those who see closing as a special event — but unless a prospect will normally instantly become a buyer, thinking of closing as a process simply serves us better. And closing isn't merely an important process, closing, as our constraint, is the process that matters the most to our results.

Problem Identification

In addition to my work with Transformative Selling, I also serve on the Community Advisory Board of a local career college. From time to time they ask me to teach a sales and marketing management module or one on critical thinking skills. From these perspectives I continue to see just how similar teaching sales and teaching critical thinking are and, in fact, I just found yet another situation where they directly overlap:

Daniel Pink, in his highly recommended new book To Sell is Human, cited the Conference Board - "the well regarded U.S. business group, gave 155 public school superintendents and eighty-nine private employers a list of cognitive capacities and asked their respondents to rate these capacities according to which are most important in today's workforce. The superintendents ranked "problem solving" number one. But the employers ranked it number eight. Their top-ranked ability: "problem identification."

I could understand "problem solving" being ranked a spot or two differently by these two groups, but seven? It turns out being able to solve the wrong problem well is just not that great of a business skill. But this is often exactly what we try to do in sales. Don't believe me?

We all know we're selling solutions in consultative sales. If, however, you look closely, you'll see the solutions being sold are often those designed for specific problems that the seller is currently used to selling around. The solutions are pre-packaged or they are configurations of "off the shelf" components.

Either would be great if the solution proposed were to address a prospect's problem. But we know that's not always the case. Many times what's being sold is a solution to yesterday's problem, someday's problem, or someone else's problem. It's just not this prospect's problem; at least not right now. And selling the "solution in the can" can really irritate a prospect who knows their time is being wasted and that the "pitch and push" is coming.

How does this happen? The salesperson is sometimes trying to get through the various stages of their sales process as fast as they can. Or they might have a mindset where they try to fit everything into a standard order type. Or they could be limited by the range of their background or product training. Or, and this happens a lot, they could be afraid of loosing control of the account if they were to ask questions to which they didn't have an immediate answer.

Whatever the cause, by selling to their solution and not the prospect's problem a salesperson may be missing bigger opportunities for their company and for their prospect. In fact, sometimes the solutions needed can lead to the creation of a whole new business line for a seller.

Finding the right problem, the one with the biggest impact, often begins with determining what criteria is being used by the prospect. And they usually have no problems with telling you. If you've read my book, Close that Sale!, you could even consider agreeing on how problems are ranked as a precursor to the prospect's first decision. Once that criteria is know, the salesperson should begin facilitating a real dialog, hopefully like the one suggested in Close that Sale!

It's both a challenge and a high calling to sell solutions consultatively; let's sell the ones that actually solve someone's problem!