Marketing: Four Steps in Communicating to Sell

5018823584_25604c1003_oThere’s a simple four step process involved in convincing others to invest in you, your ideas, or your product. The major problem is that people get the steps in the wrong order…and skip the last step, which is critical.

While I’ve written before about changing people’s minds, sometimes you want to go beyond that. Sometimes, it’s not enough to change people’s minds — sometimes, you want to convince your audience to do something, perhaps even to spend money (and, if you’re really lucky, to spend that money on you).

When you take that extra step what you’re doing is called “sales.” If, for example, you’re creating a case for your organization to allocate funds to some proposal then convincing management is a critical part of creating your case (and, not surprisingly, a key part of Learning Tree’s Writing a Business Case course). If you’re in a leadership position, convincing others to invest their time and resources in the organization’s goals is part of being a leader (as discussed in Learning Tree’s High Impact Leadership course). And, as James Haner points out, if you’re in Project Management, then you are in sales.

The goal in sales is not to “trick” your audience into buying something they don’t want; the goal is to ensure that your audience knows what you’re offering in terms that matter to them. The good news here is that there is a simple process that works to convince others that they should “buy what you’re selling.” The bad news is that there’s also an equally simple process that doesn’t work. The major difference between the two processes is the order of the steps and whether you’re brave enough to take the last step.

Step 1 – Understanding Their Problem

The process that doesn’t work begins by telling your audience how great your idea/solution/product is (or how great you are). A process that begins that way gets the steps in the wrong order. Certainly, convincing your audience that your solution is great is an important part of the process that actually works…but it’s almost the last step, not the very first.

The process that works begins by showing your audience that you understand the problem that your audience wants you to solve.  This means that you must first take the time to find out what your audience thinks its problems are. Notice: not what you think the audience’s problems are – you must find out what your audience thinks its problems are.

One of the most important benefits of this process is that, if you understand what your audience thinks its problems are then you improve the chances that you will deliver a solution that your audience will value.

Step 2 – Understanding What They Value

Once you understand your audience’s problems the same way they do, your second step is to understand what the audience will value in any solution you provide. Does your audience value a solution that’s economical? fast? reliable? highly profitable? safest? environmentally friendly? socially conscious? popular with others? that provides them with meaningful involvement? While an ideal solution would provide every possible good result, your audience will value some results more than others. Gerald M. Weinberg discusses understanding what the client really wants as one of the critical success factors in successful consulting in his book The Secrets of Consulting (A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully).
Now that you have that information you’re ready to start talking to your audience. You should always begin by showing to your audience that you understand their problems the same way they do and that what you value as great solution is what they also value. When the audience finds that you understand their problem the same way that they do then you are well on the way to convincing the audience that they should buy what you’re selling (and if your understanding doesn’t match your audience’s then it’s probably better for both of you if they don’t buy what you’re selling).

Here’s another benefit with this process: When your audience feels that you understand their view of the problem and value the same results in a solution as they do then your audience automatically assumes you know what you’re talking about – you gain credibility with your audience.

I’ve applied this strategy with my clients over the 17 years (and counting) that I’ve been an independent consultant (I’ve discussed how I learned the process in an earlier post).

Step 3 – Describing Your Solution

Now that you have established credibility with your audience and convinced them that you understand their world, you can move to the next step: describing your solution (in my case, that’s convincing the audience they want to hire me). It’s critical at this stage that you point out the benefits of your solution in terms of results that the audience values. It’s useless to suggest that your solution is “easy to implement” if your audience values “meaningful involvement.” Certainly after you’ve assured your audience that your solution provides them with something they want, you can list any other benefits you can deliver – but put what the audience values first.

Now that you have credibility with your audience and shown them a solution that they value, you must convince your audience that you (or your product) can deliver that solution. You’ve already established that you’re a credible source of information, so your audience is more likely to believe you when you say you can deliver that solution. As I said, this is where most people go wrong: they begin with this step instead of doing it almost at the end of the process.

Step 4 – Exposing Potential Problems

In fact, after convincing your client that you can deliver the solution, there’s only one step left: Bringing up objections and problems with your solution. Don’t wait for your audience to do this! Bringing up the problems before your audience does enhances your credibility with your audience: It establishes that you are an “honest broker” and are putting your audience’s interests before your own. If, in a presentation, your audience starts to raise these problems earlier in the process, you should move to this phase immediately. Only after addressing all the problems should you return to any earlier phase.

Ideally, you’ll have a way to eliminate all the problems associated with your solution. But even if you can’t eliminate a problem, you should bring it up. If you don’t bring up a problem then your audience will think of the problem on their own and wonder why you ignored it. Ignoring a problem is fatal: It either reduces your credibility (your audience thinks you’re hiding the problem from them) or makes you look incompetent (you didn’t realize the problem existed).

Often, if you can’t eliminate the problem, your audience (having seen your proposed solution with results they value) will provide a way to eliminate the problem, usually by saying the problem isn’t as important to them as your solution. Where there is no way to eliminate the problem, you may simply have to specify that the costs associated with this problem will be have to be included as part of your solution. Your audience knows that no solution is perfect and are justifiably suspicious of “cost free” solutions.

I’ve had amazing successes with this phase even when I’ve begun by quoting the what’s usually the biggest problem: Cost. I can begin this phase by saying “Now, of course, this isn’t going to be cheap” and my client will respond with “That’s alright. It’s worth it to us.”

I can’t, of course, guarantee you success. But your chances of “selling” to your audience improve tremendously, if you:

  1. Assure your audience that you see the problem the way they do
  2. Show that there is a solution that gives the audience what they value
  3. Demonstrate that you can deliver that solution
  4. Address the problems that associated with your solution

As I said, it’s a simple process. Provided, of course, you get the steps in the right order.

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