Finding sales tactics that consistently deliver results is hard. Many startups run out of capital before acquiring the knowledge they would have needed to scale ― or even to make one sale.
For employees of established companies with a larger runway, the challenge is less one of survival and more one of optimisation. Sales reps are under pressure to learn what delivers results in their industry and repeatedly execute on that knowledge. It’s a gruelling process of failing better and better until you hit the tactic that works. I should know; I’ve been there before myself.
Going deep into various sales tactics is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, we’re going to discuss a sure-fire method to double down on the tactics that work:
- Try a combination of tactics
- Find out what works (and what doesn’t) — and why
- Repeatedly execute and scale
You could think of the above method as akin to the scientific method: hypothesise —> test —> analyse results —> come up with a better hypothesis.
Let’s start by discussing the sort of tactics that you can experiment with in your calls and emails.
Get your fundamentals right
Companies begin sales campaigns by thinking about the market and customer segment they want to target. For example, B2B sales teams might consider the size, budget and location of prospects against their goals, while B2C teams could be more focused on issues like gender, age and disposable income.
From there, there are loads of variables that sales reps can experiment with over the course of the campaign. The following is a brief, non-exhaustive list to give you some food for thought.
Sales medium: Is it preferable to contact prospects by phone, email, or in person?
Length of interaction: Do prospects respond better to a concise, 200-word email, or a meeting with legal that irons out compliance issues in detail?
Seniority: Who at your client’s company makes the buying decisions; is it the CEO, the CIO or a senior project manager?
Follow up: How many times do you need to follow up with leads before they show interest in your offering?
Referrals: How valuable are referrals in your industry?
With the wisdom that comes from experience, your manager will hopefully have an intuitive sense of what works best in each of these areas. As a sales rep, it’s your job to gather sales data from prospective leads to turn your manager’s intuition into tangible results.
Be honest with what’s working — and what’s not
Once you’ve contacted enough leads that you have a sense of the market, it’s time to step back and analyse the results of your endeavours together with your manager. Hopefully, you’ve made a few sales and can notice some patterns in the interactions that converted compared to those that didn’t. Your aim is to redouble your efforts on the sales tactics that bore fruit, while discarding approaches that were less successful.
An instructive lesson from the world of eCommerce
Rather than relying on intuition alone here, there’s a neat concept from the eCommerce world that can be useful to test your hunches about which sales tactics to use. A/B testing is when you make two versions of a webpage (A and B), divide traffic between the two and choose the version that delivers the best results – normally the most conversions.
Here’s a simple example to illustrate the point. Joe is cold-calling web development agencies to sell a SaaS product and notices that he has better results when he speaks with C-level management. To check his theory, he decides to conduct an experiment. He targets 10 prospects through junior project managers (A), and 10 more through referral to the most senior point in the hierarchy he can reach (B). If his theory is correct and all other sales tactics remain constant, he can expect to make more sales from the latter group.
Think for a moment about what else can you A/B-test, other than the simple fundamentals we talked about above.
Industry-specific sales tactics
The sales approach that works often has a lot to do with the specific industry you are targeting or working in.
For example, the restaurant industry is renowned for its long hours and uncompromising schedules. In a small restaurant, the owner could be the head chef, procurement manager and accountant — all simultaneously! Someone like this is very likely to ignore a cold email from someone they’ve never heard of. A phone call, by contrast, is harder to ignore.
Conversely, if you are a sales rep at a content marketing agency specializing in Internet copyrighting, cold-calling leads is unlikely to be a successful tactic. Given the nature of the service you are selling, cold leads will expect to read copy samples before they are even ready to communicate with you for the first time.
The size of your company and brand is just as important as the industry you work in. Household names like Walmart and Facebook have an instant credibility with sales prospects that your company might not have.
This has practical consequences when asking existing customers for referrals.
Referrals are a great way to build a business, but sales teams in small businesses often make the mistake of asking for a referral too soon. Before getting a referral, it’s important to first get a sense that the customer is overwhelmingly happy with your product or service, perhaps during a phone conversation a few months into the business relationship. Larger brands also face this problem to a degree, but their customers are likely to already have heard of the company, making them more likely to refer to other individuals or businesses in their network.
Soft skill development is key
Sometimes, you’ll be targeting perfectly-qualified members of senior management following a referral from an enthusiastic client, and you’ll still run into problems. In instances like these, where the fundamentals are so strong, it’s often the case that reps are executing the strategy poorly due to a lack of soft skills.
Make sure you listen actively
Most people think “selling” is the same as “talking”. But the most effective salespeople know that listening is the most important part of their job. – Roy Bartell
Average sales reps often push the product onto the buyer, instead of listening to their needs. A better selling tactic is to ask your prospect probing questions about their business. When your lead responds, briefly summarise the key parts to what they said in your own words. This technique is called “active listening,” and is used in fields as diverse as litigation and counselling.
TIP: Listening actively does not necessarily mean that you agree with everything the client said.
Imagine that you’re in a difficult one-on-one meeting with an imperious CEO who is sceptical about your offering. Your prospect is curious, but doesn’t think your product offers value for money — and spends 5 minutes telling you so in no uncertain terms. In this situation, a good sales rep would convey understanding of the prospect’s financial concerns, but not go as far as to agree.
Find the hot button and press it
Even if a lead has been extremely well-qualified, sales reps can still run into trouble if they don’t know why an individual prospect is interested in buying from them.
Entrepreneur-turned-professor Steven Osinski illustrates this point using a sales concept called the hot button. Standing in front of a student audience, he holds up a cuddly toy he says is for sale. For each student that offers to buy it, he asks them what their reason is for purchasing. Some find it cute, others like the colour, while some students are drawn in by the fact that the toy is made from solely plant-based fabrics.
The different reasons individuals have for buying the same product are known as hot buttons (also: pain points). Sales reps should use active listening to figure out a customer’s pain point as early in the interaction as possible.
Treat the competition with respect
You’ve found a qualified lead in your target industry; you’ve listened to them and worked out the problems your product can solve for them… but they’re still not buying from you. Sometimes the problem can be as simple as the lead’s perception of the rep’s level of maturity.
Bad-mouthing competitors, even if their product pales in comparison to what you’re selling, is never a good idea. There’s nothing wrong with an objective discussion of the advantages (and disadvantages!) of your product versus the competition, but steer clear of personal attacks and saying outright negative things about competitors. Even if you’ve otherwise executed your sales tactics flawlessly, it just takes one moment of immaturity to ruin your lead’s impression of you, your product and your employer. Treat such conversations with caution.
Rinse, repeat and scale
Let’s recap. By this point in the process, you have:
- Identified a profitable market niche;
- Optimised fundamental variables such as the sales medium;
- Discovered sales tactics that suit your industry and brand size; and
- Developed soft skills like active listening that smoothen the sales process
Once you have tried a combination of sales tactics and have filtered out the good from the bad, you should be well-equipped to double down on what works. As a rep, you will have found successful processes that you can repeat time after time, which will likely set you on the fast track to promotion.
Let’s close by looking at the bigger picture from the perspective of your employer. If you’ve discovered sales tactics that consistently bring in business, that should be a signal to senior management that it’s time to scale up sales operations. Normally, this means investing in the sales division by bringing on more reps to emulate your success.