I got my start in sales by selling high-end knives to housewives I got through referrals. Cutco Cutlery. Have you heard of it? I had a sample kit of knives, a presentation binder with pictures and pricing, and the enthusiasm of a 19-year-old looking to make a buck. Selling knives was what turned me on to business and sales, but I wouldn’t go back to selling that way. Essentially, what my peers and I were doing was features and benefits selling or “promotional selling.” Find a prospect, show them your wares, educate them on why it’s better, smile, and close. It’s a numbers game. Promotional selling is always a numbers game. Talk to enough people, and some will buy.
Fast forward to 2013 when I entered the disaster restoration business. What I found was basically the same sales model, except we called it marketing. We hired enthusiastic young people, dressed them in a company polo, equipped them with boxes of swag and trifolds, and sent them out in a company car to promote our company to insurance agents, property managers, and plumbers.
Again, it was promotional selling. Stop at an agent’s office or apartment complex, butter them up with logoed mouse pads, pens, and stress balls, and let them know “what we do”, i.e., our scope of work, and ask them to “give us a shot” on their next loss.
Many of us use the same exact approach when targeting commercial accounts. The playbook looks very similar – get a charismatic networker-type, give them a company polo, a box of swag, some trifolds or fancy folders, a company car, and have them hit the road. Except this time, they’re pitching emergency response plans.
What we’re really counting on, with promotional selling, is that a decision maker will remember us when they experience a loss, or we’ll stumble on a prospect who’s had a terrible prior experience with one of our competitors. It’s less about us understanding the prospect and being able to solve a problem they have, and more about being in the right place at the right time. More about the charisma and the luck of the sales rep.
So is there a better way?
A mentor of mine early in my career told me, “Chris, there’s essentially three types of products or services anyone sells: painkillers, vitamins, and vaccines. Always sell painkillers, it’s easier.”
Typically, nothing motivates humans more than the prospect of getting out of their pain. They can’t consider the promise of “bigger/faster/stronger” that a vitamin offers, or the peace of mind that a vaccine offers, if they’re currently in pain.
That made sense to me, and it’s guided my sales approach across several industries since then.
But how do we apply this to our restoration company?
It begins with retraining ourselves to talk less about our company, and ask more questions of our prospect. It might mean leaving our trifolds in our back pocket, and instead getting curious about the person in front of us.
Here’s a quick list of curious questions that can help us really get to know our prospect and their situation:
- How long have you been in this role? At this location? Overseeing this portfolio? Etc.
- Tell me about the last damage event you dealt with.
- What was the hardest part?
- When you and your team are dealing with a damage event onsite, how does that impact your normal work and operations?
- (When they share a bad experience with a competitor) What was it about their people or their process that made it so hard?
- Beyond restoration, what vendor category do you seem to struggle with the most?
As you might imagine, the answers to these questions can provide an immense amount of information about the decision maker in front of us, what’s important to them, what pain they’ve experienced relative to our industry, what preferences they have when working with vendors, etc.
Once we have this info, we can speak directly to the very things they care about, like solving the pain they have with our competitor, or fulfilling an unmet need. But the important part is we didn’t promote anything – we only spoke to what the prospect actually cares about.
The role of curiosity doesn’t end with creating interest and scheduling a sales meeting. It’s the strategy for developing the relationship. Here’s a quick example from one of my first commercial accounts.
Larry was the general manager of a large convention hotel in Portland, with more than 200 rooms and more than 30,000 square feet of banquet space. I was trying to take their carpet cleaning account from Cintas, with the end goal of also taking care of all of their mitigation and restoration needs. The carpet cleaning piece was more than $36,000 a year by itself.
At the end of one of my sales visits with Larry, I asked him, “Hey, besides restoration, do you have any other issues or challenges with the facility you’re currently dealing with? Any issues that corporate is giving you a hard time over?”
He replied, “Well, funny you ask. During our last two compliance visits, they’ve dinged us for pee-stained grout in our public men’s restrooms. You know the area below the urinals? We’ve tried to put mats underneath them, but corporate won’t allow them because they’re the wrong color and they’re off-brand.”
I said, “Got it, I’ll take a look on my way out and see if there’s any way I can help.”
I checked both public restrooms, and sure enough, they had a problem. So, I went to work on Google searching “luxury pee mats” and other similar terms.
Bingo! I found a luxury pee mat in a sandstone-type color that I thought would fit in their restrooms. I pasted the link in a follow-up email to Larry and hit SEND.
The very next day I get a happy reply from Larry and he had cc’d his executive housekeeper. “Marcy, look at these fancy pee mats that Chris from XYZ Restoration found for us. I think they may solve our problem. Let’s order a couple boxes!”
Fun story, right? But, of course, we’re not in the business of selling pee mats, so what’s the angle?
I could have told you 10 similar stories of how being curious about a customer’s general business led to us helping them solve a problem. The cool thing we discovered was, whether we helped them solve a damage problem or some other totally unrelated issue, the prospect started to see me more as a peer, a partner, and resource.
The really fun part about the Larry story is roughly six weeks later I got a call on my cell from him:
“Hey Chris, we found out we have a pretty severe mold issue in nine of our units. The last time we had a similar issue, the company we used talked openly with our staff and the situation turned into a huge problem. I’m hoping you guys can help us this time instead.”
Later that afternoon, my colleague Brandon and I had a closed-door meeting with Larry and his chief engineer to discuss the situation. We left with a signed work authorization for the full remediation and build-back. It ended up being a six-figure job that month.
This story repeated itself over and over, and ultimately catalyzed our shift from candy and smiles promotional selling to a more professional commercial sales organization. It helped us grow from a small local business, to a regional multi-site enterprise.
So, what’s the next action for you to take in your business?
Here are a few suggestions to get you started on a path of leaving promotional selling behind, and establishing a more strategic solutions-based selling culture in your business:
1. Audit your sales person and team. If it’s been a while since you’ve had a day out in the
field selling, get that scheduled. It’s not a witch hunt; have a good time. Notice how many curious questions you’re hearing.
2. Begin asking your sales rep(s), when they get a new customer relationship, “Why are they switching to us?” Continue drilling into the response until you get a specific answer. Do the same with your field leaders when they talk about how happy Mrs. Jones was on the last job. “Why did they like us? Specifically?”
3. In the same vein, get more curious during your sales meetings in general. Ask, “What are you hearing in the field? What are people saying about us? What are you hearing about the industry when you’re talking with prospects and clients? What pain points are you hearing about from people?”
4. Commit, as an owner or senior leader, to learning as much as you can about your target customer segments as possible. Follow up on recently closed commercial jobs and take the primary contact or decision maker out to lunch. Be curious not just about the finished project, but that person’s role, their business, and their team. Notice the lingo and key terms. Don’t pretend to understand. Ask for definition and clarity. Then, bring that intel back and mentor your team with it. Do this routinely.
5. Set an expectation of curiosity across your entire team by religiously doing steps 1 – 4.
By asking the right questions, and providing solutions, you can transform your sales team from the old order of promotional selling into a method so well-suited for our service-based industry.