Principles of Personal Selling

Personal selling is an ancient art. Effective salespeople today have more than instinct, however. Companies now spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to train them in methods of analysis and customer management and to transform them from passive order takers into active order getters. Reps are taught the SPIN method to build long-term relationships by asking prospects several types of questions:55

  1. Situation questions—These ask about facts or explore the buyer’s present situation. For example, “What system are you using to invoice your customers?”
  2. Problem questions—These deal with problems, difficulties, and dissatisfactions the buyer is experiencing. For example, “What parts of the system create errors?”
  3. Implication questions—These ask about the consequences or effects of a buyer’s problems, difficulties, or dissatisfactions. For example, “How does this problem affect your people’s productivity?”
  4. Need-payoff questions—These ask about the value or usefulness of a proposed solution. For example, “How much would you save if our company could help you reduce errors by 80 percent?”

Most sales training programs agree on the major steps in any effective sales process. We show these steps in Figure 22.4 and discuss their application to industrial selling next.56 Note that application of these selling practices can vary in different parts of the world. Pfizer has to sell very differently in Latin America than in North America.57


PROSPECTING AND QUALIFYING The first step in selling is to identify and qualify prospects. More companies are taking responsibility for finding and qualifying leads so salespeople can use their expensive time doing what they do best: selling. IBM qualifies leads according to the BANT acronym: Does the customer have the necessary budget, the authority to buy, a compelling need for the product or service, and a timeline for delivery that aligns with what is possible?

Marketers these days are going beyond BANT and getting increasingly sophisticated in their pursuit of qualified leads. One software firm, Infer, uses 150 different signals—including dozens of online data feeds—to rate customer leads. Using inputs as diverse as prospects’ hiring practices, job boards, and sample tweets from customers and employees, the company’s software classifies prospects as worth a call or offer—or not.58

PREAPPROACH The salesperson needs to learn as much as possible about the prospect company (what it needs, who takes part in the purchase decision) and its buyers (personal characteristics and buying styles). How is the purchasing process conducted at the company? How is it structured? Many purchasing departments in larger companies have been elevated to strategic supply departments with more professional practices. Centralized purchasing may put a premium on having larger suppliers able to meet all the company’s needs. At the same time, some companies are also decentralizing purchasing for smaller items such as coffeemakers, office supplies, and other inexpensive necessities.

The sales rep must thoroughly understand the purchasing process in terms of who, when, where, how, and why in order to set call objectives: to qualify the prospect, gather information, or make an immediate sale. Another task is to choose the best contact approach—a personal visit, phone call, e-mail, or letter. The right approach is crucial given that it has become harder for sales reps to get into the offices of purchasing agents, physicians, and other time-starved and Internet-enabled potential customers. Finally, the salesperson should plan an overall sales strategy for the account.

PRESENTATION AND DEMONSTRATION The salesperson tells the product “story” to the buyer, using a features, advantages, benefits, and value (FABV) approach. Features describe physical characteristics of a market offering, such as chip processing speeds or memory capacity. Advantages describe why the features give the

customer an edge. Benefits describe the economic, technical, service, and social pluses delivered. Value describes the offering’s worth (often in monetary terms).

Salespeople often spend too much time on product features (a product orienta­tion) and not enough time stressing benefits and value (a customer orientation), especially when selling individualized or premium-priced products and in highly competitive markets.59 The pitch to a prospective client must be highly relevant, engaging, and compelling—there is always another company waiting to take that business.60

2. OVERCOMING OBJECTIONS                                                                                     is.

Psychological resistance includes resistance to interference, preference for established supply sources or brands, apathy, reluctance to give up something, unpleasant associations created by the sales rep, predetermined ideas, dislike of making decisions, and a neurotic attitude toward money. Logical resistance might be objections to the price, delivery schedule, or product or company characteristics.

To handle these objections, the salesperson maintains a positive approach, asks the buyer to clarify the objection, questions in such a way that the buyer answers his own objection, denies the validity of the objection, or turns it into a reason for buying. Although price is the most frequently negotiated issue—especially in tight economic times—others include contract completion time, quality of goods and services offered, purchase volume, product safety, and responsibility for financing, risk taking, promotion, and title.

Salespeople sometimes give in too easily when customers demand a discount. One company recognized this problem when sales revenues went up 25 percent but profit remained flat. The company decided to retrain its salespeople to “sell the price” rather than “sell through price.” Salespeople were given richer informa­tion about each customer’s sales history and behavior. They received training to recognize value-adding opportunities rather than price-cutting opportunities. As a result, the company’s sales revenues climbed and so did its margins.61

CLOSING Closing signs from the buyer include physical actions, statements or comments, and questions. Reps can ask for the order, recapitulate the points of agreement, offer to help write up the order, ask whether the buyer wants A or B, get the buyer to make minor choices such as color or size, or indicate what the buyer will lose by not placing the order now. The salesperson might offer specific inducements to close, such as an additional service, an extra quantity, or a token gift.

If the client still isn’t budging, perhaps the salesperson is not interacting with the right executive—a more senior person may have the necessary authority. The salesperson also may need to find other ways to reinforce the value of the offering and how it alleviates financial or other pressures the client faces.62

FOLLOW-UP AND MAINTENANCE Follow-up and maintenance are necessary to ensure customer satisfaction and repeat business. Immediately after closing, the salesperson should cement any necessary details about delivery time, purchase terms, and other matters important to the customer. He or she should schedule a follow-up call after delivery to ensure proper installation, instruction, and servicing and to detect any problems, assure the buyer of his or her interest, and reduce any cognitive dissonance. The salesperson should develop a maintenance and growth plan for the account.


The principles of personal selling and negotiation are largely transaction-oriented because their purpose is to close a specific sale. But in many cases the company seeks not an immediate sale but rather a long-term supplier- customer relationship. Today’s customers prefer suppliers who can sell and deliver a coordinated set of products and services to many locations, who can quickly solve problems in different locations, and who can work closely with customer teams to improve products and processes.63

Salespeople working with key customers must do more than email or call only when they think customers might be ready to place orders. They should get in touch at other times and make useful suggestions about the business to create value. They should monitor key accounts, know customers’ problems, and be ready to serve them in a number of ways, adapting and responding to different customer needs or situations.64

Relationship marketing is not effective in all situations. But when it is the right strategy and is properly imple­mented, the organization will focus as much on managing its customers as on managing its products.

Source: Kotler Philip T., Keller Kevin Lane (2015), Marketing Management, Pearson; 15th Edition.

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