Why does one sales campaign end in success and another in abject failure? In almost every case, it's because the seller neglected an essential step in the selling process. Here are the most common errors, along with some advice on how to avoid them.

1. Failure to Research the Customer

In today's information-rich business world, customers expect you to know the following before you contact them:

  • Who they are
  • Whom they work for
  • Whom they work with
  • What their company does
  • Who their customers are
  • Why they might need your offering

Whenever you ask a customer a question that could be answered by spending 30 seconds on the Web, you're telling that customer that either you're stupid or you don't really give a damn. So why should they buy from you?

2. Failure to Qualify the Opportunity

It's easy to get excited when you see the opportunity to make a big sale. When visions of huge success float through your brain, you're already enjoying the pleasure of that success. That's why it's difficult to ask questions that might reveal that the opportunity isn't real.

Nevertheless, there's nothing worse than spending hours, days, and weeks of effort on making a sale that was never going to happen in the first place. That's why you must, within the first 10 minutes of meeting with a customer, ask qualifying questions that confirm there is a real need for your offering, that the need is a priority, and that there's money for it.

3. Failure to Research the Competition

In every sales campaign, there's a very real danger that the competition either already has the inside track or will swoop in and scoop the deal out from under you. The only way to keep from being blindsided and outsold is to know more about the competition than the competition knows about you.

It's not enough to simply know a competitor's offerings. You must also understand how that competitor positions those offerings against your products and services. Ideally, you should even know the names of the people calling on your potential customer and, even more important, whom they are talking to. (Hint: Use LinkedIn to suss out a competitor's possible allies.)

4. Failure to Define the Financial Impact

Even if you're sure the customer needs your offering, they're not going to spend money to buy it unless and until you can show them both the positive financial impact of buying and the negative financial impact of failing to buy.

Early in the sales cycle, work with the customer to define all the ways that your offering impacts their revenue and profit: direct costs, lost opportunity costs, lower personnel costs, higher sales, higher profit, and so forth. Then describe the specific elements of your offering that uniquely address those financial issues better than the offerings from the competition. Do this carefully and thoroughly, and nine times out of 10, the customer will say something like: "So, when do we start?"

5. Failure to Focus on Helping

More than anything else, customers want you to have their interests at heart, even if it means that you're not going to make the sale. Customers immediately sense when you're more concerned with closing the deal than helping them out and, Zip!, up go the barriers.

I don't know if the "hard sell" ever really worked, but today, anything that smacks of pressure is a great way to get yourself thrown out of the building. The only way to approach a selling situation is with honest curiosity combined with a willingness to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy…even if it means admitting that you've got nothing the customer really needs.

6. Failure to Discover the Buying Process

Every company has its own way to make buying decisions, with its own timetable for making them. If you want a sales campaign to end successfully, you had better know those stages or you will probably end up with some surprises: such as contracts that don't get signed and purchase orders that get issued.

During your initial conversations, work with your customer to define the way that they buy the sort of product or service you're offering. Create a brief document that defines that buying process and what to do (or whom to call) if something goes awry. That way, when you get a yes, you'll know that really means something!

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