For more than 30 years I have managed, taught and developed the skills of many successful sales professionals. Markets, competition, products and customers' demands have changed over the years, but the relationship between the buyer and the seller has always been the most important aspect of sales. Remember that U.S. businesses spend $10 billion a year on sales training programs.

In the past, electrical contractors had limited contact but today take a more active role and deal with customers directly. "Customer relations" once meant responding to bids and discussions with mediators such as general contractors. It's imperative to realize that sales skills are as important as technical know-how.

You must first understand that selling is an art, not a science. For the contractor used to dealing with specifications and tangible data, "selling" is often a difficult, abstract concept. So we gravitate into a comfortable style called "consultant selling," which relies on products to provide enough information to convince the customer to buy. But most contractors use similar products. If products sold themselves there would be no need for sales skills, salespeople or this article.

Customers buy for their own reasons, not yours. I'm sure you've wondered how one of your product-less, incompetent, high-bidding competitors won a project you wanted. It may be because you depended too much on products, reputation and history and spent little time finding the customer's "hot button."

Though much has changed during my 30 years in the business, the philosophy of selling has remained constant, and this same, simple theory will be in effect tomorrow: "Communicating the solution to the customers' problems and needs."

Notice the emphasis on the customer,not your company or product. Because of our traditional methods, we sometimes adapt the customer's problems and needs to fit our products or services. Understanding the customer's needs should dictate our products and services. Traditionally contractors have been product-, not market-oriented. To change our orientation is to change the product-driven foundation of our sales approach.

In my seminars I ask, "What is a salesperson?" I am amazed at the wide range of answers, but the most common one is "a salesperson is someone who represents our company and its products. His or her job is to convince customers that the features of the products and service are better than that of the competition." Notice the emphasis is on our company and products, not on the customer's problems and needs. Contractors must find a way to change that traditional approach to a customer-oriented approach. That way, your organization can win projects and compete in today's tough market.

Most customer organizations don't waste the time or resources to test the water. Their problems and needs exist, and contractors have to take them seriously. Yet sales people will spend 90 percent of the time talking about themselves, history, products and success stories. Though important, it's not as important as the customer is. Contractors who focus on the customer's problems and needs and communicate the solution in their bid separate themselves from other bidders and will be judged by more than price. Many jobs bid on in our business are won based strictly on price and not on ability. If we bid on the same projects, with the same products, then all responses are identical to the customer. The customer has little to choose from other than one item: price. Focusing 90 percent of your sales efforts in finding the solution to problems and needs makes you marketing-oriented and increases your chances of winning the project.

Knowing the customers' motivation

There are many books that try to explain customers' buying motivations. Company culture, objectives and needs have an influence on motivations and decisions. Objectives and needs vary in organizations and individuals, but companies have a "silver thread" common throughout the organization: the culture. It is, for the most part, the way they think. The old saying, "birds of a feather flock together," applies. We like to hire people who can do a good job, can get along with others and fit into the company culture. By identifying the culture, you have found the hot button, or motivation.

My theory is that there are only three recognizable business motivations: Security, Recognition and Achievement. It's not an exact science but it does apply to 90 percent of people and companies I've encountered.

SECURITY—They need to feel warm and fuzzy about you and your organization. High on their list is the need to know your history, reputation and the organization's future. They need to know you are stable and will be here in the future, and that you will not abandon them. Many older, well-established organizations become less progressive and more conservative. Their employees are used to a standard procedure, and change for the sake of change is not made. If it's not broke, they won't fix it.

RECOGNITION—People in this category want to be synonymous with a successful organization. They are flashier, boisterous, self-serving and need to be "stroked." Customer lists, affiliations, size and scope of your reputation and history all play a major role in decisions.

ACHIEVEMENT—They are motivated by their accomplishments and getting the best deal. They are controlling, demanding and hard-driving. It is hard to protect your profit margin with this group, because they are always pushing for more and they want it for less.

Conversations in sales meetings must be adapted to the appropriate motivational category. For example:

Security: "This product has been around for years."

Recognition: "This product is preferred by major organizations."

Achievement: "This product is the best on the market today and comes at the lowest price."

Talking about your product will be the same, tailored to the customer's motivation.

The cycle of sales

There are four steps in a sales cycle. Every sale will go through all four to some degree.

Step I — First Meeting: This critical stage sets the tone for the rest of the cycle. In sales, first impressions are important because you are what the customer perceives you to be. Your image as a professional businessperson representing a successful and capable organization will stay with the customer (unless you do something to > change it) through the cycle and at the critical decision-making point.

Step II — Proposal Development: At this step, the information you gather about the customer's problems and needs will separate your solution from that of your competition. You must ask the right questions that will encourage the customer to give in-depth information and revealing answers. Customers will ask questions about your company and products at this time. Most salespersons are tempted to answer in detail, but the successful ones will focus on the customer's problems and needs, allowing them to develop a proposal that will address the solutions.

Step III — Presentation: This step allows you the opportunity to discuss your company and products in response to your meeting or request for proposals and request for quotes. The key is making sure that response is delivered on the basis of the features, advantages and benefits formula. Any feature must have an advantage that results as a benefit to the customer. Customers buy on benefits, not features. If your features don't have a benefit, don't discuss them. The benefits are the solution to the customer's problems and needs, which you discovered from the information gathered in Step II.

Another point to remember is that staff other than your contact will review your written proposal. In today's information-sharing organizational structure, other departments, managerial staff and consultants participate in decisions. What you communicated to your contact may not have been shared with other decision-makers. You must repeat that information in your proposal. In a technical proposal, only data is presented. In a sales proposal, you present a total message about your solution and organization.

Step IV — Negotiating the Contract: The success of this stage is predicated on your ability to handle objections. The key is to not take them personally. Objections are the only vehicle customers have to communicate the unanswered questions from your presentation or proposal.

Welcome objections because it means customers have taken the time to review your response and still have interest in your proposal. This is your opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings. Listen to all objections and answer decisively. Upon accomplishing this task, you are entitled to ask for the their business. Remember, someone is going to be awarded the contract; I can't think of a more deserving organization than yours.

Sales skills for contractors may seem simple to understand but difficult to master. Contractors may not be able to master sales skills, but knowing the customer's motivation and becoming marketing-oriented will allow you to focus on customer problems and needs. Focusing on the customer is a major step in mastering sales skills. More important, it is a way to win more projects with greater profits and retain loyal customers. EC

MARTIN is a management consultant with the NECA Management Education Institute, based in Morris Plains, N.J. He can be reached at 973.540.1298 or necamartin@aol.com.