An Uncertain Situation

By William F. Kendy

You’ve done everything just perfectly – or so you thought. You’ve qualified the customer. You’ve probed and asked questions and uncovered needs. You’ve made an exemplary presentation and responded to all objections. And yet, you can’t get the prospect to commit. You get nodding agreement to everything you say, but the sale keeps getting postponed and there’s still no signature on the dotted line. What can you do?

Andris Zoltners, professor of marketing at the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and author of The Complete Guide to Accelerating Sales Force Performance (AMACOM, 2001), believes that if a prospect or customer is hesitant to commit, then either the salesperson hasn’t offered enough value or there is a hidden objection that needs to be uncovered.

“It’s important that the salespeople dig to find out the real reason or what the hold-up really is. That takes persistence and asking open-ended questions,” says Zoltners. “It may be that there is another person in the picture in terms of making a buying decision, or the customer just doesn’t think that what you’re selling offers enough value. The hesitancy could stem from a host of things, some of which may not even involve you or your product.”

When confronted with a hesitant customer, Zoltners believes that salespeople may need to do some introspection. “Is the prospect hesitant to commit because of something the salesperson did or didn’t do?” asks Zoltners. “Maybe the salesperson hasn’t provided enough information. Maybe the value proposition isn’t clear. Maybe the economic benefit or payment terms aren’t clear. It could be a lot of things that the salesperson is doing that are hindering the sale from going forward.”

Salespeople have a tendency to speed things up. Zoltners says that the salesperson may simply need to slow down a little bit and proceed at the speed at which the prospect is comfortable.

“It may be that the customer has no hidden objection and simply wants to take more time before committing to the offer. Then it’s difficult to create a sense of urgency,” says Zoltners. “In that case, the salesperson needs to be patient, have understanding, and help nudge the customer along.”

Sales consultant Myers Barnes thinks that creating that sense of urgency is key in moving the sales process along. Salespeople need to keep the flow in mind when trying to get a prospect off the dime and make that buying decision.

“A good presentation can turn a want into a need. Because once a person wants something, they need it – and the job is to get them to make a commitment now,” says Barnes. “One way to do that is to use reverse engineering, which means starting with the commitment and building backwards.

“For example, say a prospect wants an October delivery date. Factor in the steps that need to be done before the order can be shipped. Let the prospect know exactly when he has to commit to hit his goals,” says Barnes. “It takes time to place the order, go through credit, manufacture the products, and deliver them. In order to make all of this happen, the order needs to be signed off by a certain date…period.

“There are four things that all customers need to have answered before they will ever make a commitment,” says Barnes. “They are: Why should I buy this from you? Why should I buy from your company? Why should I buy your products?, and Why should I buy this today?

“All of these questions are important and the salesperson should have answers, especially for the fourth one that deals with urgency,” says Barnes. “If a salesperson doesn’t provide a compelling reason for a customer to buy at a certain time, it lets the customer completely off the hook and the sale can stall.”

Barnes also believes that part of the reason buyers hesitate to make a commitment is that salespeople don’t have a sales strategy in place to continuously move the buyer forward and just don’t know how to handle objections or close prospects.

“Salespeople need to have a strong, well-planned presentation and know how they want that specific sale to progress,” says Barnes. “Customers need to be led. Once a customer starts making decisions in the sales process, the salesperson has lost control and now the customer is calling the shots.

“Remember, every great general who won battles had already won them before he arrived on the battlefield,” adds Barnes.

“Salespeople need to develop their own list of common objections and pre-plan responses,” says Barnes. “How can you overcome an objection if you don’t have preplanned responses and a selling strategy?

“It’s estimated that, depending on the industry, between 60 percent and 85 percent of all transactions aren’t really closed by salespeople,” says Barnes. “Salespeople think that they’re closing but they aren’t. For example, if a salesperson gives a presentation and then turns to the prospect and asks what they think, they’ve lost ownership of the sale to the customer and now they are order takers instead of order makers,” notes Barnes.

“Furthermore, they are imprinting on the buyer that maybe there is something else they should think about,” says Barnes. He can’t stress the closing part of a sales scenario enough and urges salespeople to be prepared.

“All professional salespeople have at least seven to nine strong closes they have rehearsed and know frontwards and backwards,” says Barnes. “Closing itself is a logical conclusion to a sales presentation. If you’ve qualified the prospect, uncovered needs and wants, made a good presentation, handled objections, and answered questions, the act of closing is a natural conclusion. But the closing questions still need to be asked.”

How patient should a salesperson be when dealing with a hesitant prospect? “The economists would say that it’s time to give up when the expected value of the sale drops below the cost of the effort,” says Zoltners. “It’s like the game of tennis. There are players who, if they’re down five games in the first set, decide to forget about it and concentrate on the next set. Then there are players who are going to play every point to the max.

“Personally, I don’t believe salespeople should ever give up,” says Zoltners.
– William F. Kendy