Opening the Sale

A good opening sets up the interview process.

By Rick Heaston | July 31, 2001
Rick Heaston

Have you ever asked yourself, "What’s the purpose of opening the sale?" I ask this question of sales associates and always seem to get the same answers: "To develop rapport." "To build a relationship." "To build trust." While you want all those things to occur during the early stages of your opening, are they the real purpose of opening the sale, or are they just milestones along the way? Most people aren’t sure. For the answer, we have to look ahead in the sales process. Have you shopped for anything expensive lately? Did you notice that as you narrowed your options, you reached a point at which one choice stood out? It made sense for all the "right" reasons.

Your experience supports more than 15 years of research by Xerox and others that has proved that the sale doesn’t take place during the closing. Buyers don’t decide at closing that they want to buy, they decide much earlier. They reach "buy/no buy," when everything falls in place and makes sense for them. That happens during the interview process.

For new home sales associates, then, a successful opening is one that gets you to the interview process quickly and efficiently. That means the purpose of opening the sale is to set up the interview process, when the closing really happens.

Customer Agendas
Everyone has an agenda, including your customers. Some are in a hurry, others want to be left alone, and still others have lots of questions they need answered. Even though your customers seem different, most of them will follow the same pattern in the purchase process.

First, they begin to recognize that their current situation isn’t everything they want it to be. Second, they will shop to compare and differentiate. Next, they will evaluate their options and any issues that stand in their way. Finally, they will make a selection and proceed with the acquisition.

This thinking/shopping/deciding pattern is fixed. It defines how good decisions are reached. If your selling process takes your customers out of this pattern, you will hinder their ability to make good decisions.

Unfortunately, in all my years of selling new homes and later managing and working with new home sales associates, I have yet to find a traditional selling agenda that matches a customer’s shopping agenda.

Picture it. Your customer walks in and greets you: "Hi, thanks for having me out today. This is my first visit. I’m looking for something in the 2,000-square-foot range, $200,000 or below and 60 days from completion. Why don’t we take a few minutes to get to know each other? And while we’re at it, why don’t you go ahead and qualify me, and then you can show me your features and benefits. Then you can ..."

Customers don’t shop this way! So why do we try to sell them this way?

We hear customers complain in focus group after focus group that associates ignore their agendas. They tell us they are "put off" when they are taken through the same routine each place they visit, ignoring what they are trying to accomplish.

What happens, though, when you help your customers accomplish their agendas? What if you participate, acting as a partner to help them think and shop in ways they haven’t considered? In this case, you have the opportunity for a classic "win-win relationship." You stand a good chance of moving forward to the next step in the selling process.

Three Steps to a Successful Opening
Although a successful opening needs to be flexible and customer-focused, it’s not a haphazard process. You need a strategy that will match your selling agenda to your customer’s shopping/buying agenda. Without a strategy, you would have to start from scratch with each customer, which would quickly wear you out.

In Interview Sellinge, opening the sale consists of three steps. First, you establish rapport, which will help you recognize and react to your customer’s agenda. Second, you introduce your unique selling proposition (USP), which gives your customer a "big picture" of your unique differences. And third, you set your customer’s visit expectations, which will help you break your selling process into easily understood pieces.

Rapport: The purpose of rapport is to qualify your customers. Yes, qualify. You’re qualifying them not to determine whether to pursue the sale, but how to pursue the sale. The rapport process is your opportunity to watch your customers and see how they react to your opening. Their response becomes your directional cue to the next step in your selling process.

Our research has shown that the best way to establish rapport quickly is to use a "nonbusiness" strategy. This allows you to easily qualify your customers into one of two categories: Wills and Won’ts. A business approach in this situation could turn a Will into a Won’t and a Won’t into a Super-Won’t.

Wills are gregarious, friendly people who don’t mind spending a few minutes making conversation and answering questions. They’re happy to stand and talk for a minute or two.

Won’ts are not talkers. They don’t want your help. Even before you can greet them, they’re telling you, "No thanks, we’re just looking."

When you use a nonbusiness approach with Wills, they will join you in conversation. Once you’re talking, it’s easy to guide the conversation to the next step in the selling process.

Won’ts just want to get away from you and look at the models, so you need to adjust your approach. By adjusting your agenda, you can accomplish two things. You demonstrate respect for the customer’s agenda, and you put yourself in position to approach the customer again, preferably in the models, which most customers perceive as neutral ground.

In both cases, you have used a nonbusiness approach to identify the kind of customer with whom you are dealing. And in both cases, the customer has signaled how he or she wants to be sold, and you have complied.

"Our customers are amazed when we don’t try to sell them a house the moment that they walk in the door," says Michael Leckie-Ewing, director of training for Wayne Homes’ 13 divisions. "It really puts them at ease. We aren’t the pushy salespeople that they have come to expect. Something as simple as the nonbusiness greeting does wonders to set the stage for a more mutual relationship throughout the process."

USP: Unique selling proposition is a confusing and often misused term. Whenever I ask sales associates to define their USPs, all too often I get a list of words that have very loose or soft meanings. People say things like "We’re a quality builder," or "We’re known for our workmanship," or "We have fantastic service."

While all three answers might be sincere, they don’t help the customer. If you say to your customer, "We’re different because of three things: quality, workmanship and service," you are merely making a claim. Your competitor can say, "Me, too. I have great quality, workmanship and service." How helpful is that to your customer?

Vague words such as quality and workmanship are called soft differentiators. These words have a hundred definitions, and if you don’t teach your customers what your definition is, they’ll create a definition. Or worse yet, your competitor will create one for you. Our studies show that more than 85% of sales associates use soft differentiators to describe their unique selling differences. This means it’s easy for customers to view each builder in much the same way. And this spells confusion.

To teach your customers how you’re different, you need to be clear and easy to understand. The best way to do that is the "big-box strategy," which cements your USP in your customers’ minds by breaking it down to its simplest parts. In the big-box strategy, you start with a soft differentiator that the customers recognize, then you use two or three hard differentiators to prove your claim, and finally you boil it down to tell them what it really means.

In discussing your USP, you are not demonstrating. You are merely pointing out how you are different compared with the rest of the market. Each USP shouldn’t take more than 20 to 30 seconds. Your USP summary just gets things started; later in the process you will use another strategy to teach your customer how to shop and compare. Remember, your USP summary is just a small piece of a much bigger picture. For now, let’s just look at how everything might come together so that you can discuss your USP.

Somewhere toward the end of your nonbusiness opening, you should be able to ask your "Will" customers how much they know about you and your company. Assuming their answer is "Not very much," you can continue and ask, "May I take a minute, two at the most, to give you a quick overview of our company and how we’re different?"

Because you have given them a time frame, most buyers will give you permission. For buyers who don’t want to talk, immediately focus on getting them what they need and setting their expectations.

By successfully delivering your USP, you give yourself an advantage over your less diligent competitors. You create memory points that will remain with the buyers. And you have started the process that will set the standard by which your customers will judge other communities.

Expectations: Each time I visit a builder, I randomly shop new home salespeople. I’m always interested to see what they are doing in the field. And each time I shop, the results are almost always the same. Associates are great at making me feel welcome and all of the fuzzy stuff, great at qualifying (right or wrong at this point in the process), but they rarely set visit expectations. They don’t bother to break the selling process into small "next step" pieces.

Have you ever been the passenger on a trip that would take "just a few minutes"? And no matter how much you pleaded, the "tour guide" seemed to know only one answer: "Almost there, just a few more minutes"? Every minute seemed like an hour. On the way back, however, the trip was a snap. Why the difference in perception? Easy - you knew what to expect on the way home.

"Customers aren’t always comfortable when they arrive, so it’s imperative that I work with them in small steps," says Frank Satar, a sales associate with Del Webb Corp.’s Sun City Huntley near Chicago. "Ignoring this strategy, it’s almost impossible for me to create a scenario where we can both accomplish our goals."

Working with a salesperson and going through a sales process is much the same as taking a trip. The "trip" is much easier when you both know exactly how far it is and what will happen next - when you break things into pieces.

A friend of mine, Brooke Warrick, president of American LIVES, an international research company, calls it "chunking." His research shows that customers find information easier to follow and understand when it is introduced in small pieces. Chunking, or setting expectations, is the most important part of opening the sale and advancing it to closure.

The Right Way to Set Expectations
Setting a visit expectation is easy. Simply let your customers know what will happen at some point in the future. In selling, you’re letting your customer know what will happen next, or using the "next step" strategy. Your goal is to break your selling process into as many small pieces as you can. This strategy lets you build a bridge to each successive step in your customer’s shopping and buying process.

After you’ve opened with a nonbusiness approach and discussed your USP, it’s time to set your customer’s visit expectations. Here is an example of what you might say to a customer who seems to be comfortable and in no particular hurry:

"Why don’t you go ahead out to the models. I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes. The next step is for me to answer any questions you might have. So go ahead, have a good time, and I’ll see you in a few minutes."

In this case, it’s the associate’s style to let the customers go to the models alone and to "catch up" with them. Some associates feel more comfortable accompanying their customers to the models. Either style is all right; all you have to do is adjust your expectation summary accordingly. The important thing is that you have empowered yourself to approach your customers professionally and accomplish the expectation you have set. Most of all, this strategy helps you build credibility with your customers, which can be called the heart of any successful selling process.

Where Do You Stand?
Twenty years ago, value rested in your product. If your marketing and design team came up with something different, you created value for your customers. All your sales associates had to do was communicate that value, and you had a winner.

Today, in our "me too" world, it’s not so easy. Today, managing is about vision. In his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell discusses the perils of wait-and-see planning. He tells how employees need leaders who will select and chart the course for them. He offers a quote from Leroy Emins, who says, "A leader is one who sees more than others see, who sees further than others see and who sees before others do."

Dave Bessey, president of Maracay Homes, Phoenix’s Builder of the Year, re-frames things this way: "Builders are skeptics. I was, too. I’d seen all of the other programs, and it was easy for me to say, ‘I already do it that way.’ When I really listened, I found out how much I didn’t know. I also learned that it was time to change, move to the next level and take advantage of my competitors."



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