Stop closing the sale!
This article by commercial tire sales expert Jason Miller is the third installment in a multi-part series about how to land and keep commercial truck tire accounts. In the April 2008 edition of Commercial Tire Dealer, Miller discussed how to identify customers’ needs. In this installment, he tells you how to make the case for change. His book, “Selling by the Numbers,” is available through on-line booksellers, including Amazon.com. For more information about Miller’s company, The Tire Consultants, see www.thetireconsultants.com.
In previous articles, I’ve compared selling to flying an airplane. We discussed getting the sale off the ground and moving toward the destination. Now it’s time to land the sale. Some people call this the “close,” “asking for the order,” or “landing a new customer.” As with flying a plane, landing the sale can be the trickiest and most dangerous part of the journey. If you do it wrong, the results can be disastrous!
Some salespeople are so afraid of starting the landing process they just keep flying past the customer, hoping the customer will say, “Why don’t you bring some tires the next time you’re here?”
In essence, they’re hoping their customer will land the sale for them. It’s rare, but it happens.
However, it’s usually due to the customer’s impatience.
My first job selling tires was at the retail level, where I was taught to go through a specific step-by-step process with each customer that eventually led to a simple choice between two or three products. These were the steps:
1. Walk to the customer’s vehicle and feel the tires.
2. Ask open-ended questions about the car to learn about the customer’s needs and wants.
3. Bring the customer inside.
4. Bring out a few tires in the size used by the customer. Describe features and benefits.
5. Show and tell how features and benefits address customers’ concerns.
6. Try to get the customer to touch the tire you want them to buy, i.e., “the puppy dog close.”
7. Wrap up the transaction with the “assumptive close,” which sounds something like this: “We have the third bay open right now. Would you like us to install the less expensive all-season tire or the high performance tire?”
These steps are time-tested and easy to learn; they worked then and work now. Because of my success selling retail, I was given an opportunity in outside sales selling truck tires to fleets.
“How hard could that be?” I thought. “There are fewer sizes, fewer sidewall designs and they are on big, dirty trucks.” Well, I was in for a surprise! While car tires and truck tires have much in common, retail sales and commercial fleet sales are very different. In fact, in one area they’re polar opposites.
How are retail sales and outside fleet sales different? The most notable difference is the close. Your retail customer is there because he has a single, isolated problem and wants it fixed now. Once he buys his new tires, he isn’t likely to need tires again for quite some time, so retail salespeople must close the sale on the spot.
In contrast, your fleet customer will have ongoing tire issues. An effective truck tire salesperson will preserve the supplier-customer relationship even if it means delaying the sale.
This is a difficult game for new commercial tire salespeople to master. There is no formula or system for determining when to push and when to back off. Push too hard or too soon and your prospect will become irritated. If you never push, your prospect will become impatient and may even feel that you are wasting his time. In either case, the customer may become unavailable for future visits.
You must have something worthwhile to discuss on each sales call and a purpose for each visit. Along the way, you’ll establish a relationship of trust so that your prospect will let you dive in and look around.
Early in my career, I was told that what separates good salespeople from great salespeople is the ability to close a sale. Pick up any selling book (other than mine) and you’re likely to find numerous tips and techniques about how to perform this elusive skill.
One of my most embarrassing lessons occurred very early in my outside sales career. I had just come out of a high-volume retail environment in which I was programmed to close every sale on the spot. I walked into a prospective customer (a fleet manager) in a Chicago suburb. On the way in, I observed the brand he was using and was preparing how I was going to sell against it. I met the buyer and asked, “So I see you’re using Brand X? Have you ever run anything other than Brand X?”
“Nope,” he said.
“Would you consider running anything other than Brand X?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Well, thanks for your time,” I said. “I’ll be seeing you!”
I never saw him again. I was clearly an interruption to his day and he let me know it.
I was accustomed to people who already wanted to talk about tires coming onto my turf. Now I was going to their turf, and most of them had no initial interest in talking tires. I learned several valuable lessons:
1. The first sales call serves no purpose other than to show you’re worth talking with.
2. The most important goal of each visit is to gain permission to come back and see the prospect again.
3. Savvy buyers won’t let you box them into making a decision.
On the lighter side, I learned the hard way to steer clear of closed questions that can be answered with a single word or phrase. They make for a terribly awkward conversation!
Talk, time and tech
Instead of closing skills, here are the three most important skills for an outside fleet salesperson to possess:
1. Communication skills. Ever hear of “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”? Many years ago when my daughter was nine years old, I decided to bring her along as I made sales calls. We left the house around 8 a.m. and made our first visit to a regular customer around 8:30; he and I spent an hour discussing air pressures and alignments.
The next call was short and sweet — just a couple of billing issues. We arrived at the third customer around 11:30 and took him to lunch. Over lunch we talked about kids, vacations, sports and other unrelated issues. We drove the customer back to his shop and left.
When my daughter and I got back in the car, she looked over and with the complete naïveté and seriousness of a nine-year-old girl, asked,
“Daddy, when are we going to your work?”
I asked, “What do you think we’ve been doing all day?”
“We’ve just been driving around, talking to people!”
“What exactly do you think I do for a living, kiddo?” I asked.
She replied, “That’s what I was hoping to find out!”
Until that day, I never realized how peculiar our jobs are. Our primary task is to drive around and talk to people!
Fleet selling depends on your ability to make fast friends with
complete strangers, find out what’s important to them and convince them to change what they’re currently doing. Communication may be considered a “soft skill,” but fleet selling simply cannot be accomplished without it.
2. Time management skills. At any given time, a fleet salesperson may have to check inventory for one customer, adjustment status for another customer and more. While handling these and other housekeeping items for existing accounts, he or she must review calls made on each prospect to determine what to do next.
Successful fleet salespeople always have a number of irons in the fire. You cannot handle everything in a timely manner if you are not organized. When you don’t handle your customers’ issues in a timely manner, they think you don’t care. If they sense you don’t care about them, they’ll lose interest in you.
In the retail tire business, your sales cycle is over in the blink of an eye. In the fleet sales business, your sales cycle takes weeks, months and even years. Effective salespeople often have dozens of prospects in the funnel at the same time, each at a different stage in the solicitation process. They review where they are in the process prior to every sales call and plan for the next step. Without this approach, the sales cycle not only will take longer — it may even stall. As with an airplane flight, when the process stalls, it’s not going to be pretty.
3. Technical tire skills. Selling to fleets is a high-stakes game. For most fleets, the only expenses that outpace tires are drivers and fuel, both of which are impacted by buying tires. This explains why it takes longer to earn the customer’s trust in a truck tire sale versus a passenger tire sale. An incorrect recommendation could have dire consequences. That’s why you must constantly refine your tire knowledge. If your customer knows more about tires than you do, what do they need you for?
No sale is ever final. Every fleet has something that can be improved. There’s always something that can be better. If you aren’t looking for it, your competition is.
Commercial fleet sales will always be a business of relationships. You must be excited about your company, your products and yourself. You must become passionate about what you do for your customers and how you can make their lives better — how you can save them money, how you can improve their safety, how you can increase their driver retention and how you can enhance their bottom lines.
Selling is a transfer of enthusiasm. Once you’re enthusiastic about what you can do for your customers, you simply need to use your communication skills to make them equally enthusiastic.
Looking forward to changing suppliers is easier for some prospects than others. If your competitor made your prospect angry the day before you walked in, he or she will embrace change.
Once your prospect feels comfortable with the decision to change, he’ll close the door on your competitor. That’s the only close you want to see in commercial fleet tire sales.
In the August 2008 edition of CTD, Jason Miller discusses making the sale, including overcoming customer objections.