Art of the Soft Sell: How a Soft, Unassuming Style Leads to Stellar Sales Results

Too much talk about features, benefits, and trying to close the sale can scare customers away. Instead, focus your efforts on getting to know your customer and his business. The sales will naturally follow.

Picture yourself in this situation: You’ve just started a new sales position with a company in town. Or, perhaps you’re even starting your own business.

For the first several months, you’re without a computer, product training, brochures and even pricing information. Big name competitors dominate your territory; your company has less than 5% market share and most customers haven’t been called on in years.

Sounds like a set-up for failure – right?

That’s exactly the situation Michelle found herself in just six months ago when she took a job with a medical equipment manufacturer. But she didn’t let these obstacles get in her way. In just a few short months she’s received orders for four systems and has many more pending.

How did she do it?

Armed with only homemade business cards and photocopies of brochures, Michelle began her missionary work by dropping in and having short ten-minute meetings with key decision makers.

She readily told them, “I can’t tell you how exactly much it costs or everything it does, but I have a good idea what others (medical groups) are doing out there and I’ll gladly share what I know.”

If the doctors were even slightly interested or had questions, she set up appointments to get back and tell them more.

Meanwhile, Michelle was busy trying to understand the value proposition of her new product. Marketing information was either too vague or highly technical. So she decided to learn whatever she could from every resource available to her.

By combining what she knew from her previous job experience with what she learned from prospective customers and peers, she uncovered key concerns facing her decision makers. These were:

  • Declining payments from managed care.
  • How to increase billings.
  • Strong dislike of uncertainty; doctors wanted to know immediately if their procedures were effective.

Now her task was to figure out how her new product could impact physicians in these areas. Her follow-up meetings always began with questions such as:

  • What’s the next step for your business? 
  • What are your growth plans?
  • What are your key challenges?
  • What do you want to be doing that you’re not doing now?
  • Are you sending patients down the street for other tests that could potentially be done in-house?
  • In your opinion, where are the bottlenecks in your workflow?

Then she’d show the doctors sample images from her system. Rather than trying to pitch the features and benefits, Michelle took a different approach. She’d ask: “If you had this technology, where do you think you could use it? Could it help with any of the difficult cases you’ve worked on recently? How else might you use it? How would it benefit you?”

She prompted them with questions about patient care, diagnostic certainty and revenue lost to other service providers.

Because she wasn’t pushing, the physicians were very interested and open. They switched into their “teaching mode” to help Michelle learn what they could do with her system. They shared how it could help with tough cases, the value it provided for patients, how they could bring additional testing into their clinics and much more.

Most sellers would be drooling at this point. They’d be unable to resist the urge to start pitching or closing. But not Michelle.

She considered everything the doctors told her as “information” that needed further exploration. She asked more questions to find out additional implications, business ramifications and financial payback.

On every call she learned more from her prospective customers. When she called on the next doctor she would gently insert, “Here’s what other physicians have found useful …. Would this help you too?” If they answered affirmatively, she’d ask, “How would it help? Tell me more.”

Or she’d say, “I don’t know if it’s important to you, but another surgeon I was talking to say that it would enable him to …” If the tidbits she shared clicked in the doctor’s brains she’d explore their answers in more depth.

As a result of her approach, the physicians built their own cases for why they needed the system now – even if they didn’t have money currently allocated for it. And the sales started pouring in!

To what does Michelle attribute her extraordinary success? She says, “My product isn’t significantly different from my competitors. If you try to sell niftier bells and whistles, your superiority doesn’t last.

“What I bring to my customers is my knowledge — of the industry, key trends, how things are changing and how to improve their business. I understand their workflow and their typical day.

“Because I talk to lots of different clients, I know what’s happening out there. I may be in five or six clinics each day, talking to a wide variety of people. My customers rarely get out of their own offices.

“I know what the best practices are and I gladly share them with others. I use ideas from one doctor to prompt thinking with others. I’ve never had an original thought in my life, but I can plagiarize with the best of them.”

While Michelle’s thoughts may not be original, certainly her application of them to selling is!

Lessons Learned

  1. Sharing ideas and knowledge is irresistible to customers. As sellers you have an opportunity to learn so much more than any one customer. By willingly sharing what you know, you significantly enhance your value.
  2. Avoid pitching behaviors early in the sales process when you’re establishing a relationship. Instead focus on the customer’s needs, issues and concerns.
  3. Ask customers how they think they could benefit from new technology or services. To focus them on your key differentiators or value, gently prompt their thinking with what you’ve learned from other customers. Let them sell themselves.
  4. Being without brochures and pricing when you’re making first calls on prospective clients is really a plus. It keeps you from talking about all the features and capabilities of your offering and forces you to ‘just talk’ to your customers about what’s important to them.
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