Keller Center for Research

Necessary Condition #6 - The Right Approach Plan of Action

Sept. 1, 2011

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By Charles Fifield, MBA

Whether it is the first or a subsequent meeting, salespeople must have a clear understanding of their call objectives and how they plan to achieve their desired outcome. In broad terms, call objectives can be summarized along two dimensions:

  1. To achieve and implement a buying decision (order close), and
  2. To receive a follow-up meeting to shape the buying decision (process close).

When feeling the pressure of performance or emotional anxiety during a sales call exchange, salespeople should have a mental map of how they expect the interaction to flow. When under stress, for myriad reasons, the salesperson may wander during conversation. Wandering wastes valuable time and ultimately leads to less productive meeting results. To offset these tendencies, salespeople must learn the communication skills needed to be assertive without being aggressive, to lead without attempting to control, and conversely, to avoid becoming submissive. The artful use of both open- and closed-ended questions (and doing so in a progressive, mapped-out sequence) is an essential tool to achieve an effective buyer-seller interactive state.

Salespeople are often described as industry's agents of change. In addition to communicating critical market information to their product and service providers, salespeople often lead individual buyers through a challenging change process. A buyer may be experiencing deficiencies and problems as a result of his current conditions. Successful salespeople identify and bridge the gaps between a prospective buyer's current and desired states, working to guide him towards an improved, solution-minded state.

Building The Bridge For Change

Bridge the Gap

To picture this important bridge concept, let's use San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge as our discussion template. The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension-engineered structure, and it has three spans with two large support towers. Assuming we travel north from San Francisco to Marin County, we can name the three spans (see Exhibit) "What to Change" (span 1), "What to Change to" (span 2), and "How to Cause the Change" (span 3). These spans represent the natural progression that the buyer-seller relationship must traverse over time to achieve an improved change result.

The Golden Gate Bridge's two support towers are critical to its structural integrity. Likewise, the two support towers in our example, "Relationship Management Skills" and "Value-Adding Skills" are critical to the integrity of our model and essential to successful change selling. For purposes of defining value, we will assume Value = Benefits - Cost. The most important building block in this value equation is the production of benefits. Benefits can be defined as the product yielded when the salesperson successfully matches, demonstrates and validates capabilities (human and economic) to the discovered wants or needs of the buyer. In other words, salespeople are in the business of creating benefits for mutual gain.

The Recommended Sales Call Tactical Sequence

When planning a sales call to discuss a change proposal, five key sequential sales skills are recommended to a desired, interactive exchange. To prepare, address the following questions prior to making the sales call:

  1. How will I get the prospective buyer's attention to have a meaningful discussion? What is going to be the theme or "hook" to my story?
  2. How will I gain the prospect's interest to consider a change?
  3. How will I achieve the prospect's desire to implement a change?
  4. How will I validate my recommended change, cultivating the prospect's conviction to make the change?
  5. How will I earn a commitment to change or close?

Get the Prospective Buyer's Attention

Setting aside the first impression and rapport building elements discussed in our previous "Necessary Condition #5 - The Right Approach Priorities" discussion (Keller Center Research Report, June 2011), our next opportunity to gain the buyer's attention is in the opening of the sales portion of the call. The opening, or attention getter, should be designed to introduce the overall theme or "hook" for the discussion that you have planned. The opening is generally thought to be less important when conversing with an existing customer; however, getting the customer's attention should be rarely overlooked and should never be assumed.

Since there are several effective opening methods, the salesperson must be ready to adapt accordingly. Four opening techniques often employed include:

  • The referral opening - One of the most powerful ways to get a buyer's attention is to mention a satisfied customer, whom you believe has the buyer's respect or trust. A willing referrer can affirm and provide assurance of the salesperson's (and provider's) capabilities. This is not simply name-dropping, but rather receiving permission after successfully engaging another customer and earning permission to use the person's name and relationship as a reference with a selected prospective customer. The referral opening can be especially effective when used with prospects who tend to be people- versus task-oriented.
  • The benefit opening - Otherwise known as the Initial Benefit Statement or IBS, the benefit opening technique can be very effective, especially with results-oriented buyers. It is important to provide a very specific benefit and to avoid sales puffery or exaggeration to achieve desired results. Buyers, and especially first-time buyers, are highly sensitive to what may be perceived as strong "sales language" or forceful sales tactics.
  • The product opening - If the salesperson is representing a product with a unique or eye-catching feature, demonstrating the product at the opening can be effective. The salesperson should be prepared to manage the expected response and convert the product's features into appropriate, value-adding benefits.
  • The question opening - Beginning a sales call with a question can be dangerous, especially with first-time buyers. This technique may be perceived as overly assertive and sales-driven, or designed to manipulate the prospect. On the other hand, building upon a previous conversation through a questioning technique can be helpful. Asking a question can cause the buyer to quickly recover any previously attained buying interest. Since a significant element of telephone-generated appointments is to gain the prospect's curiosity before gaining the commitment, salespeople could pose questions based upon themes or ideas that gained them the original face-to-face appointment.

Gain the Prospect's Interest

Once the salesperson has successfully captured the buyer's attention, it is time to engage in the practice of active listening to investigate (or "mine") for the prospect's vision, needs, problems, or wants. Developing a prospect's interest to change is all about asking the right questions of the right people in the right sequence. At some point in the probing process, the salesperson will be compelled to discover and confirm gaps or deficiencies in the prospect's current state relative to their desired or envisioned state. Discovering and confirming potential gaps will open the door to defining the pain of the buyer's current condition. An accepted truth in selling is that buying decisions are emotion-based. If there is no pain there will be no change, and no gain can be made for either the buyer or the seller. This diagnostic approach is strongly recommended and will be discussed further in "Necessary Condition #7 - The Right Approach Method" (forthcoming, Keller Center Research Report, December 2011).

Achieve a Desire to Change

Following the development of interest to change, the salesperson must now lead the prospect to either see or feel that a solution or improved condition is readily available. Begin with a question such as, "If I could demonstrate to you today how our product/service could significantly help your company to overcome this deficient condition, would you consider making a change?" Real Estate agents might begin with a question such as, "If I could identify a variety of home for sale in this area that meet your search criteria, would you consider working with me to purchase your next house?" Questioning is then followed by a presentation or demonstration, which should include the answers to three questions:

  • In summary form, what is your product/service?
  • Why will your product/service, in general terms, benefit the buyer?
  • How will your product/service specifically generate benefits for the buyer? These illustrated benefits need to be highlighted in the form of what is termed WIIFY (what's in it for you - the buyer) language.

Cultivate the Prospect's Conviction to Change

During the course of the salesperson's presentation or demonstration, validate that your ideas or proposed changes will produce the desired results and confirm the benefits of your proposal. Without validation and confirmation, your suggested changes and their projected benefits lack necessary support. The buyer wants to manage risk and needs to be convinced that not only will the proposed changes work, but also that s/he is not being manipulated in the sales transaction. Providing third-party evidence that supports the effectiveness of your product/service can be very valuable information for the prospect.

One technique to encourage buyer conviction is to cultivate "units of conviction." Various selling techniques can increase a buyer's "units of conviction," but the most effective format usually includes the following features-to-benefits sequence:

  • Introduce a feature, characteristic or capability.
  • Review its resulting benefit(s) in WIIFY form.
  • Provide appropriate evidence or validation.
  • Gain the prospect's agreement or confirmation that the benefits would be favorable.

Another important conviction tool is the value analysis. Salespeople will strengthen the presentation or demonstration by illustrating a value proposition. Using an appropriate financial method, the projected value generated following the recommended change (less its attendant implementation costs) is calculated. The proposed price is often first discussed during a solution-quantifying discussion. To minimize buyer resistance to change and to improve the meaningfulness of the analysis, any quantified savings or benefits should be based on information provided by the buyer.

Earn a Commitment to Change

At this point, if the plan of action sequence has achieved the desired results, then the final closing step is greatly facilitated. Many sales trainers argue that the salesperson must always ask for the order. Conversely, I would suggest that the ideal (and most desired) close occurs when the buyer signals a strong desire to buy on his or her own terms. To achieve this desired result, the purchase decision must be earned. In other words, the salesperson must do many things right in the sales conversation to successfully motivate the buyer to move forward with the sale. Focus on influencing attention, interest, desire, and conviction to encourage the buyer to execute your suggested change(s).


Once you have successfully worked through the sales call preliminaries and gained a modicum of likeability, rapport, and trust, initiate a "bridge-to-change" process with your prospective buyer:

  • Step 1: engage the buyer in a discussion of her current state or condition, prompting her to the vision of her desired state.
  • Step 2: examine the unwanted deficiencies or problems between the buyer's current/desired conditions and help him identify his feelings towards the situation. Buying and change decisions are emotion-driven and often irrational.
  • Step 3: encourage the change to happen by focusing on the desired end result, creating a satisfied customer and earning a loyal customer relationship.

To effectively initiate and execute this flow in a consistent manner, salespeople need a schematic plan of action. The recommended step-by-step sequential process is AIDCC (attention, interest, desire, conviction and close). Each of these steps requires a multitude of professional sales skills. Keep in mind that these skills require significant practice, and that the steps are not readily interchangeable. Building a more productive sales result requires both strategic and tactical thinking. Sales agents not only need to have a clear understanding of what they desire to achieve during a particular sales call, but how they plan to tactically accomplish their goals. Sales research reveals that the more we standardize the sales process, the more effective and efficient we become as salespeople. The more intentional we are in our sales transactions, the better we can manage our results and needs for future sales productivity improvements.

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About The Author

Charles Fifield, MBA
Senior Lecturer and Sales Coach, Baylor University's Center for Professional Selling

Chuck Fifield is a Senior Lecturer for Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business, Marketing Department and serves as the faculty coach to Baylor's Sales Team and Uproar Music and Entertainment Group, a student managed business. He joined the faculty at Baylor University in 2001, where he has also taught in the Graduate Business School (Operations Management), the Management Department (Negotiations and Conflict Resolution) and the Economics Department (Principles of Macroeconomics). Chuck has taught or guest lectured at other Texas-based Universities in the fields of sales, international business, money and banking and finance/investments. Professor Fifield has conducted sales research and training for several organizations, including most recently State Farm Insurance. Prior to joining Baylor, Chuck was a financial consultant for nearly thirty years to businesses located throughout the U.S. He owned and operated several financial service businesses in the fields of securities, real estate, oil and gas and insurance.

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