When to Tell and When to Sell


Your customers have an education dilemma. On the one hand, they can easily learn (via internet and social networks) about what they want, how much it costs and where they should get it. On the other hand, they often don’t know what they haven’t thought to ask.

A trend in selling over the past five years proposes a solution to this dilemma: Sell with insight.

As one group of experts have discovered, the most successful sales professionals today fit a “challenger” profile. They tell customers what the customer likely hasn’t yet thought to ask. They tell the customer about new applications for existing solutions. And they provoke thinking by telling the customer about relevant trends.

The challenge for the challenger, however, is when to shut up and listen.

Extensive research on sales effectiveness and the neuroscience of influence suggests that people buy products and ideas when they arrive at the conclusion themselves. In other words, when you have an epiphany about something, you’re likely to support it. Therefore, strong listening and questioning skills are critical if you want to sell.

When do you tell and when do you sell?

A recent conversation I had with a corporate leader may illustrate the answer. When we began the discussion, he thought that he had determined his solution. He just wanted to know how much it would cost.

First, I created context for the discussion to sell the case for change by asking:

  • What’s happening inside your company to make this urgent?
  • What market trends are impacting your success right now?
  • How does this tie to your overall company strategy?
  • How available are funds for making key investments?

Second, I proceeded to tell him about the evidence for new ways of looking at his options:

  • Here’s an example of another company that has used an innovative approach.
  • Research suggests that projects like this are most effective using this approach.
  • These are your options and the known trade-offs of each.
  • Companies can expect this level of ROI when they take this approach.

Finally, I asked further open-ended questions to sell the relevance for this leader:

  • How relatable is that example to your company?
  • What reactions do you have to that research?
  • How would you prioritize those trade-offs?
  • What impact would similar ROI have for you and your company?

When do you tell and when do you sell? You sell to earn the right to tell, and you tell so you can continue to sell.

Different sales conversations may require different approaches. This simple three-step structure blends everything we know about selling as a human being. Human beings are wired to make decisions based on what they are told and sold.

  1. Sell the context for change.
  2. Tell about evidence for new ways of thinking.
  3. Sell the relevance for the unique person making the decision.

What are you trying to sell?

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