February 2, 2010

Listening for Buying Signals

By Steve Atlas

Buying signals are all around us if we learn to recognize them, says John Pendley, sales manager for the Hampton Inn in Casper, WY. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to become so focused on your presentation that you may overlook these signals even if they are obvious.

“Years ago,” Pendley recalls, “I supervised high school students who sold door-to-door to raise money to attend college. We carefully prepped them with the proper sales script to use when someone opened their door. But we overlooked the fact that sometimes a long sales presentation was unnecessary.

“I remember once when a woman opened her door and saw a pleasant young person outside. Her expression showed she was sympathetic and ready to buy immediately. In that type of situation, a long sales pitch was unnecessary. If the pitch was too long, it might have persuaded the customer to change her first generous impulse and cancel the sale.”

Pendley compares listening for buying signals to a traffic light with red, yellow and green signals.

A red signal indicates a prospect is not interested in what you are offering. Red signals can be expressed in body language or the prospect’s tone of voice. A customer’s folded arms and crossed legs are examples of red body signals. A serious expression combined with few meaningful responses to your comments and questions indicates a probable decision not to buy.

Pendley described a red experience: “A potential customer was coming with 50 people on a specified date and wanted a good discount. However, we expected a sell-out at full price for that weekend. I had to say no to the discount in a way that wouldn’t discourage his group from coming.

“I began by asking him about his group. Then, I told him about our hotel and quoted the full price. When I asked him how he planned to pay, he responded reluctantly, ‘I guess with a credit card.’

“His ‘I guess’ was a wimpy response. Other dangerous expressions might be, ‘Oh, I’ll probably just…’ or ‘I’ll call you back.’

“If I’m doing all the talking, that might indicate a yellow buying situation where I need to proceed with caution and then watch the customer’s body language.

“If the customer is leaning across the table, making good eye contact with me, that’s probably a green (I’m ready, go ahead) buying signal. When the customer asks me questions (How do you do billing? How will you make sure everyone in our group gets the reduced rate?), especially ‘how’ questions, that’s a green signal.”

Ken Hermann, an account manager for Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) in Silver Spring, MD, believes a sales professional should build relationships that encourage customers to make a favorable buying decision. Hermann says, “When I meet a new potential customer my goal is to understand that person’s world, do a needs analysis and see if my products can help solve the customer’s problem. Only then, when I am sure our products match the customer’s needs, do I give my presentation.

“I ask open-ended questions to understand what is important to each prospect. Then, I summarize the customer’s answer and point out areas where we agree. Sometimes a customer will correct me. But often the person will get excited and say ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ Other times they may ask a question such as ‘What can you do for me?’ Both responses are buying signals.”

Hermann also recommends that sales professionals make sure the person with whom they are talking has the authority to make purchasing decisions.

After getting a buying signal, both Hermann and Pendley use trial closes to get the customer to move from an interest in buying to a decision to purchase their product or service.

Two of Hermann’s favorite trial close expressions are “If I could….(plug in a specific action), would that be a benefit for you?” and “If I can come up with an answer that would work for you, would you be interested?”

“Another of my strategies,” adds Hermann, “is to describe how we helped another customer solve a similar problem. Then, I ask the benefit question and follow up with ‘Could you elaborate? How would that help you?”

Pendley’s trial closes consist of identifying customer concerns (for example, “Could we get adjoining rooms?”) and proposing solutions (“Would it help you if we specified adjoining rooms in the contract?”). Pendley explains, “I’m not pressuring for a commitment, merely feeling out the customer. At a certain point, the customer begins to visualize staying at our hotel and enjoying the benefits I offer. Then, there’s an excellent chance that the prospect will become my customer and stay at my hotel.”