If someone can sell even the most unremarkable of items, we call that great salesmanship. But direct sales virtuosity lies not in making people buy something they don’t need. It lies in making them feel their decision is right. Persuasion, not manipulation.
The plain pen is a popularly illustrated example. A pen doesn’t have to look special, it doesn’t require extraordinary features. It overall doesn’t have to do much but write. Hence, a pen is hard to pitch.
I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in hell
I am a hustler baby, I’ll sell water to a well
Anyone who makes that sale, though, can “become one hell of a salesperson”, says Ian Adams. Here are some direct sales techniques to sell pretty much anything.
FAB (features – advantages – benefits)
The famous FAB technique consists of three consecutive steps that give a clear structure to sales talks. First you name features, attributes of your company or product. Then come advantages, what the feature actually does, then benefits, the positive impacts of that for the customer.
This technique addresses a common mistake among salespeople. That of being too convinced that features automatically translate to benefits for the customer.
They disregard the customer’s individual needs and overestimate their knowledge of the product offered. They end up presenting product attributes explaining the positive implications for their prospects. Who then think “Great! Now why would I need that?”
An example of the FAB technique in action. Naming features of our own live chat software could sound like this:
1. “Our software is optimized for mobile.”
This feature sounds nice but doesn’t target a customer’s problem nor offer a fix. It doesn’t incite to make a purchase. Thus, the FAB suggests to continue with advantages:
2. “Many of your customers are mobile when they enter your site. Serve them through a mobile-optimized chat window.”
At the end, explain how that advantage benefits your prospects:
3. “Offering your customers support wherever they are and whatever device they use will boost your sales.”
Sticking to the FAB structure will prevent you from empty feature bragging and make your product more comprehensible for your customers. They’ll receive a solid reason to buy.
The “I’m on your side” technique
With this technique out of Robert Cialdini’s Influence you pretend to team up with the customer against your own company.
In Cialdini’s example, the salesperson tells the customer he would like to make a deal for her, but that he has to convince his boss first. So, he puts the customer on hold for some minutes, while ostensibly talking to his superior in another room. Then he returns, worn out but happy to have sealed a deal for the customer. The assumed fraternization with the salesperson makes the customer trust the salesperson – a fertile ground for future sales.
But you don’t have to be in the same physical place as the customer, of course. Whether you’re on the phone or in live chat, you can create the impression of being on the customer’s side.
The favor upfront
The concept of reciprocity describes our intrinsic tendency to return in kind favors we receive by other people. This tendency remains fascinatingly stable, even when the favors are of rather symbolic value or of no real use.
Many experiments have shown how powerful a seemingly altruistic favor was in making the receiver want to return it. Free coke cans, mints or christmas cards reliably activated reciprocity.
As the donation-seeking letter by a health care foundation showed over the course of a decade, the system even works when a transaction between two parties is reframed as a favor of one of them at a later time.
To exploit reciprocity, start your sales talk with a favor. Think of the countless things that can force a smile on your face and you get an idea how versatile this technique is. Free samples, other gifts, or exceptional content made with dedication, like that of the SEO wizards of Moz, are a sure-fire method.
We despise no source that can pay us a pleasing attention.
But as Grant et al. proved in a 2010 study, the non-material compliment ensures compliance by the complimented through increased liking. So, also consider dropping a few nice words in a sales conversation.
The because justification
As the Xerox machine line experiment by psychologist Ellen Langer showed, the likelihood of a favor being granted is dramatically increased if a reason for the request is given. Langer found that even silly reasons, like “because I need to print”, work as solid justification to be allowed to cut the line.
So, when dealing with a lead, justify your request with the open sesame word “because”. This will get you to the first base from which on you can follow-up with the next direct sales technique.
For instance, imagine you’re reaching out to a prospect who’s likely never heard of you to sell them your software. Your first base would be getting the opportunity to introduce your product. Request that opportunity with a justification: “I think you’ll be very interested in hearing about our software, because we have many of your competitors as customers.” or “May I introduce our product in detail because we are running a special deal you could benefit from until tomorrow.”
Among because justifications, scarcity is one of the mightiest. If you’ve been wondering why your local carpet store has been running their ‘final’ clearance sale for years on end, yet never actually went bust, read this post by Nir Eyal. Customers will be more tempted to buy your product if they believe the availability is or could be going down.
But don’t grab the sledgehammer by saying that this is the absolute last item. Rather casually mention how your stock will probably run dry or bring up the interest of another customer. Play on the scarcity principle in a subtle manner.
Gather – respond – deliver – close
This four-step technique introduced by abovementioned Ian Adams focuses on dealing with information in a way that will guide you through any sales talk:
- Gather information
- Respond to information
- Deliver information
- Ask for something, the closing
Employed on the pen example in a more general way, Adams holistic four-step approach looks like this:
- Find out how they last used a pen (gather info)
- Emphasize the importance of the activity they last used a pen (respond to info)
- Sell something bigger than a pen, like a state of mind (deliver info)
- Ask for the buy (closing)
Questioning the status quo
One to realize point two and three of Adams’ technique is questioning the status quo. Look at this technique as a sibling to the because justification. It’s ideal when you lack information about your counterpart and seek to reach a first common ground with them. Thereby, it protects you from the darkest spell uninterested buyers cast on salespeople: “Nah, I’m alright.”
The because justification suggests dropping just any reason for asking for a favor. Questioning the status quo is a sharper blade and consequently requires special care. Your reason for offering a product is that the prospect’s current situation needs fixing.
Wouldn’t you say signing those new customer contracts is an important event for the business? (nods head) Then shouldn’t it be treated like one. What I mean by that is, here you are signing new customer contracts, an important and memorable event. All while using a very unmemorable pen.
If you take another look at Ian Adams’ pen selling example, you’ll find that he did exactly that. His prospect used to successfully sign contracts with normal pens. He could put his name on contracts with pretty much any pen and never care about the item in his hand.
But Adams came up with an issue that requires a fix: memorable events, like signing a customer contract, require a memorable pen.
Before challenging the status quo, Adams uses a highly agreeable, in fact nearly irrefutable statement to create agreement on his prospect’s side. Who cannot do other than agreeing when Adams claims that a different pen is required, like the one he’s got with him (say what?).
The “but you are free” (BYAF) technique
Backed up by 42 psychological studies with a total of more than 22,000 participants, this technique lacks no validation. In his blog post, Jeremy Dean described it as “the one (really easy) persuasion technique everyone should know”.
Of course this post would be pointless if I’d agree with that. But I do think it has some huge benefits, especially its simplicity and subtlety.
To gain compliance with the customer, the BYAF suggests, finish your sales pitch reminding them of their freedom of choice.
The BYAF technique is so effective because it makes the receiver feel like she’s not persuaded but given additional information for making a sovereign decision. A very rare thing in sales talks.
Ian Adams, after handing over the pen to sell to his prospect, says: “Try it out. If you’re not happy with it, I will personally come back next week to pick it up. And it won’t cost you a dime.” In this example, Adams’ “if you’re not happy” is the BYAF technique at work. The customer now knows that he can make the final call.
Throughout the studies, the researchers found the exact phrasing to be rather irrelevant. Anything from “but it’s your choice of course” to “your call” or “if you’re not happy, you can of course return the item free of charge” should work.
The low-balling technique, famously reproduced by Robert Cialdini, consists of two main steps when applied in a sales setting:
- Offering a product for a hot price below the actually intended one
- Subsequently raising the charge.
The psychological concept at work here is that of commitment. You reach loose agreement over the low price first, then follow-up with the actual higher quotation. Once the appealing idea of the great deal and owning the product has settled in the buyer’s mind, the higher price is more likely accepted as well. They just can’t let go of the auspicious feelings induced by your initial price.
Imagine you got a freshly maintained JEEP at hand that regularly goes for $7,000 on the market. You meet with a potential buyer and, despite the car’s actual value, offer it to him for $6,500. The guy is a little puzzled but happy to make a serious bargain considering the great condition of the vehicle. You agree to meet the next day for signing the contract.
When you meet again, though, your offer is $7,000. You explain the higher price with the great condition and a heated market, perhaps with saying that a friend just sold the same car for no less than 8 grand. After thinking on it for some minutes, the prospect finally exhales and accepts, teeth-gnashingly.
The first offer is no more than your hook to make buyers think they’re grabbing a bargain. It should not, however, make them believe you’re unaware of the product’s value or that there is some catch on it. Your entry level price should therefore be very attractive, yet not ridiculously low. In order for the low-ball to be effective, the buyer must not entertain suspicion.
The second offer should not be too high either, otherwise it will hit the buyer like a sucker punch and ruin your deal. Trivializing the additional money to be spent is a good way to prevent this.
The door-in-the-face technique
This direct selling technique follows the same systematics as the low-ball, only here they’re inverted. Professor Cialdini’s study found that if people first refuse an extreme initial request, they are more likely to comply with a smaller subsequent request.
His findings are instructive for any direct sales context. First, set the price for your product or service so high that you force a definite “no way” from your prospect. Then come back with a lower price that inevitably seems super legit in the light of your previous demand.
The idea behind that is the principle of making a concession, Cialdini describes this in Influence as well. If you make a concession, the other party feels obliged to do the same. You’ll often encounter this system in face to face situations on bazars of the Orient and markets throughout South East Asia. It also works via phone. But when direct feedback options are limited, like in live chat, you’ll risk losing the customer more easily.
The foot-in-the-door technique
Did you know that if you want to borrow your new neighbor’s car, you better ask her to lend you her bike on a previous occasion? The foot-in-the-door technique suggests exactly that.
Another technique similar to the low-ball, it consists of making a low initial request and then following up with a larger one. The difference is that here the first request is not to be replaced by follow-ups but much rather paves the way for them by being completed.
The same works for selling. You place your foot in the door with an attractive first price. Then you widen the door crack inch by inch with higher requests of comparable nature. This is a particularly effective technique for upselling.
This technique, first proven effective by Freedman and Fraser in 1966, plays into the principle of consistency. It explains our psychological urge to be consistent with previous behavior and opinion. Higher second and third requests are accepted because and as long as they are similar in kind to the one before.
Before turning it into a book, Consultant Neil Rackham based this technique on the results of his analysis of over 35,000 sales calls in the 1980s. It suggested that sales pitches are successful when the customer talks while the seller listens intently, following up with questions of these four types:
- Situation: Attempt to establish a common understanding of circumstances and background information, searching leverage points for relevant more in depth-questions.
- Problem: Question to center in on the prospect’s implied issues, troubles and dissatisfactions.
- Implication: Question about the consequences and impact of the issue.
- Need-payoff: Question asking about the need for a solution and the potential value of making the problem going away.
Using these questions as stages to progress on, the seller creates comfort on the prospect’s side, making him gradually open up and unveil his needs. Only after moving through all stages, the own product is introduced as a solution.
Profitworks has summarized this technique comprehensively on their blog with example question for each stage of the sales talk.
The referral technique
Sometimes people simply refuse to buy. Instead of dropping below your minimum or walking away without value, experienced salesmen will often use the customer’s natural tendency for making a concession. Instead of the sale, they ask the customer for the second best thing: a referral. The contact details of friends who might be interested in the product are especially valuable for future sales.
When in talks with the next prospect, drop the friend’s name who referred you to them. “Jim told me you might be interested”. This creates proximity and gains you trust. From here on, making a sale will be much easier.