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This article first appeared in the PB November 2001 issue of Pro Builder.
Rick Heaston

Ever wonder about closing? I mean really wonder about it? Where it came from, what makes it so important, or why it seems so hard to master? The answers might not be what you think. Sure, closing brings everything to a definite conclusion, but when is the best time, and what’s the best way to make it happen?

From the Beginning
If you’re like me, you’ve heard all the clichés: "Close early, close often. ABC, always be closing. The sale doesn’t begin until you get your first no." And that’s just the beginning. There are all the different types of closes. There’s the puppy dog close, the ol’ Ben Franklin, the assumptive, the doorknob, the porcupine, the instant reverse and the raccoon to name a few. E.K. Strong, by some called the father of selling, introduced many of these concepts in the 1920s. His purpose was to enable sales associates to match closing to both the customer and the selling situation.

Not much has changed since then. Back then, the biggest part of sales training focused around the presentation, or "pitch," and the close.

The pitch required that all associates be flawless in the feature and benefit presentation. And they were taught that once they sensed that the presentation had piqued the customer’s emotions, they were to unleash one of their many specially prepared closing techniques. This usually consisted of something along the lines of pushing a purchase agreement and pen across the table and waiting to see who cracked first.

Even though we’ve all evolved and are more (gulp) relational, how different are things today than in Strong’s time? We still memorize presentations and closing stories, and our results are still about the same. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Current sales-training strategies make Katie La Foret, head of sales and marketing at Delcor Homes in Michigan, wonder. "I’ve been through so much sales training over the past 12 years, I feel like I could write a book," she says. "Not a single training session, especially the ones that covered closing, left me feeling satisfied or comfortable. It seemed like it was always about what was best for me as the salesperson, not what was best for me to help my customer. In the end, none of these ‘traditional’ approaches ever really worked for me or my customer."

Such comments make me wonder: Why do we keep doing what we’re doing if we aren’t getting any better? Could there be a better way?

The How and Why of Closing
If you ask salespeople which part of the selling process gives them the most trouble, the majority will say, "Closing the sale." Ask managers where their associates need the most help, and they’ll tell you the same thing.

Why are sales associates so uncomfortable with closing? Why is closing the sale the focus of so many training seminars and workshops? Why is it so hard to hire closers or to train associates to be closers? The answer is probably different from what you think.

Closing should be the easiest part of the selling process, but I even have had associates tell me how hard it is for them to ask for the order. Wonder why? Ask yourself, "What is the focus of the majority of all sales training?" If you said presentations and closings, like most managers, you’re right.

Companies spending the bulk of their training time on presentations and closings are really training their associates how not to close. Successful salespeople are successful because they know how to get the customer ready to be closed.

Sales associates who can’t close don’t have a problem closing or asking for the order, or a fear of rejection. They have a training problem. They haven’t been taught how to interview the customer. If they had, they wouldn’t have trouble closing the sale. It’s why some associates are good and some not so good.

Have you ever noticed that the salespeople who gather lots of information always seem to be great salespeople? Xerox proved this to be true in its 10-year research study. It found that specific types of questions asked in specific sequences are directly proportional to selling success. That shouldn’t surprise you. What should surprise you is how top producers are characterized.

Top-rated salespeople always seem to be described as "master closers" or "deal-makers" or "someone who really knows how to sell," ignoring the real reason they’re successful: A great interviewer is almost always a great closer. If you still have doubts, here’s another way to think about it:

How hard would it be to close the sale if you knew everything you needed to know about what your customers have, want and how they prioritize the things they value most? Not too hard, huh? Which brings me back to my original question.

Why are so many trainers providing closing workshops and seminars? They have to. They don’t teach you the interview process. If they did, capture rates would be higher, and you’d be selling more than you’re currently selling. Think about it like this: If you don’t have all the information you need, closing techniques are your last resort. They’re the only way you can try to salvage the sale.

"Most closing techniques are ridiculous," says Terry Bennett, a sales associate with Del Webb’s Anthem Country Club in Phoenix. "They’re like dead-end streets. They lead you to a point that you have nowhere to go. Closing should work for you and your customer, not just one or the other."

Laying the Foundation
I said it already, but I’ll say it again, just for effect: Successful salespeople are successful because they know how to get their customers ready to be closed. This means they ask a lot of questions and gather a lot of information. The trick is to end up with the right information. Let’s revisit the Xerox research I mentioned.

Xerox found that success depends not only on the amount of questions you ask but, more important, on the type of questions you ask. Associates should ask "feel-finding" questions instead of fact-finding questions. Understanding how the customer feels about various situations positions salespeople to be fantastic closers.

Have all the members of your sales team take out an 81/2211 sheet of paper. Ask them to record, line by line, the information they usually have before they try to close a sale; in other words, everything they know about the customer. This should take only about five to 10 minutes.

When they’re finished, have them put a check by the information that represents facts about the customer and a circle by the points that represent information about the customer’s feelings. Use the balance of your training time to discuss their answers.

If your associates’ fact-based information exceeds their "feel-based" information, they’re probably not making all the sales they could make. They’re probably just taking orders, and you’re losing sales to your competitors.

On the other hand, if they end up with more "feel" information than factual information, you can pat yourself on the back, knowing you’re taking sales from your competitors rather than losing them.

Three Steps to Closing the Sale

Your closing must always be based on your customers’ current situation, present needs and future decisions. This information is gathered during the interview process.

Buyers buy because it makes them feel good, but they still have an emotional hurdle to overcome. The emotion involves risk. The perception of risk can stall or kill your sale, so it’s important to deal with it directly. Make sure there are no loose ends and that everything makes sense to your customers for their reasons.

Here are the three steps that will help you reduce your customer’s perception of risk, clear up loose ends and gain your customer’s final commitment:

Matching: In matching, you discuss your product features in terms of your customer’s priorities. This means you can create benefits by discussing each of your customer’s priorities, priority by priority, and matching them to your product features.

Summary recommendation: In this step, you summarize all of your customer’s priorities, one after the other, and then make a recommendation. This strategy ensures that your recommendation is tied to your summary, which is tied to your customer’s priorities.

Commitment: When you ask for your customer’s commitment, you’re asking the customer to proceed with the purchase agreement. Because your closing question is based on a process that has been focused on the customer’s issues, values and priorities, it’s not hard to gain an agreement.

Closing the sale is not some mysterious form of black magic. It’s not some memorized script designed to pressure your customer into a one-sided decision. It’s a process to have your customer reaffirm and commit to everything that has already been decided during the interview process.

Matching means aligning your benefits with your customer’s priorities. It’s a tool for you to affirm or reaffirm that your product will work for the customer and that you haven’t missed anything.

Matching is easy if you get the right start. Starting right means letting your customer know what you intend to do and why you believe it’s necessary. In other words, tell the customer that you want to take time to review his or her priority list and to make sure you’re both on the same page. From this point forward, everything should be easy for you and your customer.

Begin the matching process by summarizing your customer’s top priority. This is not an information dump or a presentation of features. It’s a customized process that specifically connects the key pieces from your buyer’s priority list to what you have to offer. In this case, you summarize why this priority is important to the customer and how your product solves the problem.

If, for example, your customer’s first priority is a big kitchen, you would recount, in terms of the customer’s values, the reasons a big kitchen is important. This sets the stage for you to discuss why your kitchen will match and solve the customer’s problem. To finish, simply ask the customer if your solution will work. The matching process continues in the same fashion until you have worked your way through your customer’s entire priority list.

If your customer has trouble with one of your summaries, you’re in perfect position to find out why. "Why do you feel that way, have I missed something?" is a perfect way to stay involved in dialogue and keep the sale moving forward.

Again, Xerox research proves that this process is important. It found that if you try to close, trial-close or otherwise, without tying it to one of your customer’s core values or basic issues, your chance of sales success is reduced by about 25%.

How many times have you had someone tell you to close five times per visit? Do the math, and figure out your real chance of sales success. Pretty eye-opening, huh?

Summary Recommendation
A summary recommendation is a powerful tool. First you summarize all of your customer’s priority points, and then you make a recommendation. Because your summary aligns with your customer’s values, it will be easy for the customer to follow your recommendation and move forward with the sale.

Just like in the matching process, you start with a summary. There’s a difference, though. Instead of working with each priority individually, you work with all priorities at once. In other words, you summarize each of your customer’s priorities, one after the other, until you’ve worked your way through the entire list. To make sure it’s easy for your customer to follow, use numbers to transition from one priority to the next.

If, for example, we use a big kitchen again as your customer’s top priority, your summary might begin like this: "Your top priority is a big kitchen. You want the space to entertain and have large family dinners. You can’t do that now, but the kitchen in the Oak model allows you to do all of these things and is exactly what you want. You second priority is ..." Depending on the length of your customer’s priority list, your entire summary should take you only about a minute to a minute-and-a-half.

Once you have finished summarizing, it’s time to make your recommendation. Certainly there are different situations, but usually you’ll want to recommend that your customer proceed with the paperwork. Your recommendation should begin "Based on everything we’ve discussed," so you’ll always be aligned with your customer’s priorities.

What if your recommendation is off target? Have you lost the customer after all this work? Not in the least. You just need to gather more information to make another recommendation. No matter what happens, if your recommendation is based on what your customer told you, you’ll never lose an ounce of trust.

So if your customer rejects your recommendation, ask for an explanation of where you went wrong. Once you have that new information, you can adapt your recommendation to the new reality.

You’ve heard all the stories. Closing is easy, closing is the natural end to the selling process, and so on. I hate to tell some of you this, but it’s all true. Gaining customer commitment will probably turn out to be the easiest thing you’ll ever learn. Let’s find out why.

Gaining your customer’s commitment is easy because it boils down to one short question, "Do you want to proceed with the paperwork?" If everything makes sense and there are no loose ends, customers don’t mind your asking. It makes them feel comfortable and satisfied. By asking for commitment, you’re asking your customer to take action on your summary recommendation, which is based on the customer’s values and priorities.

Where Do You Stand?
If you look closely, closing today is about the same as it was in E.K. Strong’s day. Pressure is still the name of the game, even if it’s hard for us to admit. All you have to do is look at the source of selling pressure to illustrate my point. With traditional selling systems, pressure comes from the sales associate. You push to get your buyer to say "yes."

Interview Selling changes the game. It’s designed to take the uncertainty out of your customer’s decision. In this case, the pressure comes from the customer. It’s internal. If you have shown how your home will solve each and every one of the customer’s problems, whatever pressure felt is self-inflicted. Because everything makes sense, the next logical step is for the customer to say "yes."

Now that you’ve been introduced to a different alternative, where do you stand? Are your associates doing a great job, or can they improve and be better closers? A tough question, but one well worth answering.

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