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Sales Success Happens Below the Surface

sales success

By Troy Harrison

Recently, and for the first time, I was considering moving the hosting and servicing of my website to enhance the lead draw and conversion rates. I approached a professional web developer in my networking circles; he asked me a few quick questions, and then confidently responded, “I recommend Facebook ads.” He then looked at me as if he’d just given me the winning Powerball numbers for the next drawing.

I have nothing against Facebook ads. They haven’t worked for me in the past, but I know that is not a universal experience. My follow-up question was logical: “What is it, specifically, about my business that makes you think that Facebook ads are a good fit?”

He responded, “Well, uh, you can target a specific demographic with your message, and get the click-throughs.” I had asked a very specific question (even using the word “specifically”), and I’d received a general answer. For instance, he said “Your target demographic” instead of verbalizing what my actual target clients look like, what their patterns are on Facebook, and how they might respond to an ad. I felt that, although he knew what I did at a surface level, he really didn’t understand what I do or how I provide value to my clients, which makes it difficult for him to help market me.

To successfully sell to today’s customer, you must get beneath the surface. I’ve bought and sold many old cars in my life. When you’re looking at an old car, what lies below the surface is vital to knowing the actual condition of the car. That car might have shiny paint, but if it’s just covering up plastic filler and rust, that car’s not going to look good for long. The buyer who just buys shiny paint and doesn’t carefully inspect the car’s condition is going to get a raw deal when the paint starts cracking and bubbling.

Too many salespeople sell in a manner that’s as superficial as that coat of shiny paint covering up bad metal and structure. I think of that approach as surface selling.

In surface selling, salespeople ask questions without a structure to interpret answers or without dedicated time to drill down on the customer’s responses. Or, salespeople only offer a limited selection of solutions or recommendations. Many times, it’s a salesperson who simply doesn’t listen to what the customer is saying, using the time that the customer speaks to plot his/her next statements. Worse, the salesperson asks a handful of leading questions, then presents an offering not tied to the customer’s needs.

Today’s customer demands that not only do you know what they do, but that you “get it.” That requires more than asking good questions, and it requires more than listening or even active listening.

Consider two doctors. One doctor might run a standardized set of tests, read out the results, and tell you that the tests say that you should take a particular pill and that “should fix it.” The second doctor asks you numerous detailed questions, examines you closely, and then explains what he thinks is wrong with you, why your body is acting the way it is, and what – based on his expertise – you should change to solve the problem. Which doctor is going to solve your problem better? That’s the difference (from the customer’s perspective) of surface selling vs. specific selling. The first type sends you through the same discovery process as everyone and gives you a solution that many people hear. The second speaks directly to you and your situation. In the first case, if the pill doesn’t work, the doctor will say, “The tests said that it should have worked,” and have you try a different pill. If the second doctor’s solution doesn’t work, they have to admit that they were wrong.

When you strive to understand a customer’s unique situation and speak directly to it, you risk being wrong but the rewards are numerous, including better closing ratio and far better relationships. To sell this way, you should understand:

Your Contact: First and foremost, you should understand your contact and his/her viewpoint as it expresses itself in the business decisions and approach. You should understand how your contact is rewarded (whether the contact is the owner of the company or a middle manager), and how your contact prioritizes rewards. If your offering doesn’t fit with your contact’s priorities, your presentation will fall flat.

The Organization: Understanding the specific makeup and overall organizational approach is vital – as well as understanding the organization’s overall position. Even in the most struggling industries, there are wildly successful companies, and solving an “industry” problem might not have appeal if they have it figured out already. Not every company has the same goals. Fail to understand theirs, and your sale will be lost.

Staffing and Resources: What internal resources are available to implement your solution, and how enthusiastic will they be in doing so? Does the company have the manpower available to perform whatever internal functions will be necessary to a successful implementation? If not, can you provide a pathway to success?

The Organizational Culture: What are the people in the organization all about? Are they unified around a mission, or are they simply punching a clock and putting in their time? Is the organization focused on task completion, or on results? If your customer’s culture is highly change resistant, then the very best problem solutions can get mired down in resistance.

Their Value Proposition: Why do their customers buy from them, and what keeps them coming back? Again, this is next-level thinking, but what if instead of endeavoring to learn enough to sell to your customers, you learned enough to sell for them (theoretically), or at least become an enthusiastic advocate and referral source? Being an enthusiastic advocate of your customer is a great foundation for the kind of customer relationship that can withstand both competition and the occasional mistake in service.

My web developer was only selling to me at a surface level. Hence, he won’t be getting my business. If you’re only selling at a surface level, you’re probably missing a lot of business that you should be getting.

To eliminate surface selling, you should position yourself so that you have great and specific answers to the question, “Why is this a solution for my business in particular?”

Troy HarrisonTroy Harrison is the author of “Sell Like You Mean It!”, “The Pocket Sales Manager,” and a speaker, consultant and sales navigator. He helps companies build more profitable and productive sales forces. To schedule a free 45-minute sales strategy review, call (913) 645-3603, email or visit

This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2018 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2018, Direct Business Media.


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