If you don’t ask, you don’t get

Dec. 11, 2018

Having originally trained as a salesman, it will come as no surprise to hear that I’m a fervent believer in the old maxim: nothing happens until someone sells something. ‘Selling something’ is one of the most challenging and rewarding things you can do – and it’s a skill that can be learned. Of all the things we spent time on at sales training school – questioning, answering objections, making presentations, negotiation and so on - perhaps most was spent on the art of ‘closing’: getting the customer to place the order.

It’s one of the hardest skills to learn and, more importantly, to feel comfortable with. For a new, young salesman, there are several factors at play. One is being seen to be ‘pushy’. Perhaps more important is the fear of rejection (although why anyone who is afraid of rejection would be in sales I have no idea – it comes with the territory). New, young salesmen are, generally, afraid of closing.


So: what did I learn about closing at sales training school? Back then, the mantra we were taught was “ABC: always be closing” – in other words, make asking for the order a frequent part of your sales approach. That’s not without its pitfalls: asking for the order before you’ve understood the customer’s requirement and established that you can satisfy it is, to say the least, a risky strategy.

It does, however, contain more than a grain of sense. One of the things that asking a closing question will quickly do is to establish why the customer won’t order from you. That’s an opportunity to unearth an objection - a vital part of the sales process – and handle it.

But (and here’s something that was drilled into us from the beginning): you don’t answer objections ‘for free’. What does that mean? It’s a general truth that an objection is a closing opportunity. An example would be: “If I can show you how we can solve that problem, would you be in a position to place the order?” That’s often known as a ‘trial close’. Ideally, the answer is “yes” – and if it isn’t, you have an opportunity to uncover another reason why the customer won’t buy, and respond to that – using the same technique. Finally, the thinking is, you’ve answered all his objections – and you’re home free.

Come hell or high water

There are other reasons for closing early, though. Perhaps the best is a situation I saw over and over again during my time as a sales training manager. A trainee would be demonstrating his solution to me, playing the role of a customer - and I’d make a point of saying encouraging things (“That’s just what we need.” “I really like this.”) to encourage him to close. But, no: he was going to deliver his entire demonstration right to the end, come hell or high water. And, inevitably, something would go wrong – at which point, he’d lost a sale he could have made if he’d asked for the order at the outset. It’s easy to talk yourself out of a sale.

We were also taught the ‘assumptive close’. This works well because you never actually ask for the order: you assume you’ve got it. You ask questions like “So: when would you like delivery?” Or “Will you be taking the standard version or the enhanced version?” If you can get the customer thinking that he’s actually placed the order, getting him to actually place it is so much easier…

There’s much, much more to the art of closing than I can cover here (countless books have been written on the subject, so fundamental a part of the sales process it is) but let me leave you with a personal favourite.

Uncomfortable silence

Ask a closing question – and then shut up. Say nothing. Keep shtum. There’s psychology at work here. We’re all aware of the concept of an “uncomfortable silence”. Silence is something we find difficult in other people’s company. It’s awkward. It’s embarrassing. Someone will naturally want to break it.

And if the salesperson asks “So: would you like to go ahead and place the order?” and follows the advice he received at sales training school, the silence will, eventually, be broken by the customer. He’ll either place the order – or tell you why he won’t place the order. Either way, you’ve made progress towards your goal. An inexperienced salesman will buckle under the pressure of the silence – and the moment is lost.

Not long after I’d completed sales training, I met a life insurance salesman. From the outset of the meeting, I could clearly see he was good at his job, because he was doing what I’d been trained to do. It came as no surprise that our discussion led to him asking for the order. I knew I was going to buy from him, because his product met my needs – but I thought I’d have a bit of fun. He closed – and then remained silent, just as I expected he would. So I said nothing. And still nothing. And even more nothing. And he did exactly the same. Of course, eventually, I ‘gave in’ and bought the policy. After all these years, though, I still recall him as the epitome of a professional salesman.  

Selling has changed over the years since I trained, and some of the techniques I was taught are now (perhaps rightly) looked down on as little more than tricks – the kind of tricks that get salespeople a bad name. For sure, sales is now much more of a consultative process, and probably more honest than it was back then – and all the better for it. But still: a salesperson who doesn’t ask for the order is much less likely to get the order. Closing, in whatever form, still has a place.

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