Guest blog by Jenny Langridge, Business Development Manager for Companion Consultancy. Jenny specialises in sales, marketing and media within the veterinary and animal health sectors. jenny@companionconsultancy.com

I’m a salesperson and I love selling. Are you thinking shiny suits, shark-like predatory instincts, unctuous patter and an unhealthy obsession with gaining money? It’s a common image when someone mentions sales, and even if you don’t subscribe to it, many find the idea of selling off-putting when it crops up in their work.

Even clinical roles have aspects of sales – perhaps viewed as a necessary evil – often with a drive to sign clients up to nurse clinics, a promotion to join a practice loyalty scheme or the instruction to upsell a care product.

Sales can solve your clients’ problems

The thought of being required to persuade a client to part with their cash, especially if it involves asking someone to try something they hadn’t considered before, can feel a bit daunting and an unwelcome distraction from the ‘real’ job. But reframe that thought: what if you can solve a tricky problem for someone? What if you can make their life easier and improve their relationship with their pet? That would feel worthwhile, right?

That is how sales can be if we see beyond the stereotype and consider the good that salespeople are doing: satisfying clients’ unmet needs, offering solutions to their problems and enabling them to get something they want – even if that’s not so much the product or service itself, but the less tangible feelings that result from their purchase.

It is also entirely possible to carry out sales activities with integrity. To work out what a client wants or needs, and to be able to offer a genuine solution, requires us to be prepared to interact on a deeper level. We need to really find out where their concerns or objections lie and seek ways to resolve them. We need to acknowledge that we are taking an authoritative role and ensure that our product knowledge and recommendations are solid and reliable. We also need to be prepared that sometimes there isn’t a perfect solution, and we’ll need to explore a compromise or advise a client against their offering. But these behaviours are normal in practice, and sales activities needn’t be any different.

Of course, although we get a warm feeling when a client buys from us and thanks us gratefully for the solution we’ve provided, we need to accept that there will also be rejections to our advances. Sometimes we need a bit of resilience. For that, it’s worth bearing in mind that people and their situations are both unique and imperfect and that we will not always be able to hit the spot in our understanding, communication, or product offering. This is not always within our control, so try not to take it personally when someone declines your offer. 

You’re always selling

We may doubt our ability – not everyone is a born salesperson – but we’ve all had plenty of practise. By the time we’re at preschool, we’ve already learned a lot about the art of persuasion: which words, behaviours or circumstances are likely to gain us what we want. We’ve learnt how to manage conversations to our advantage, and how to present an idea so that others are likely to buy-in to it.

We’ve all practised and honed sales skills, becoming more sophisticated and learning all the time how our own behaviour can influence that of others. As social creatures, it’s an innate human trait to anticipate the likely feelings and responses of others and adjust our behaviour accordingly. We do it all the time without even noticing.

It can also bring confidence to realise that selling is a consultative activity and there are tried and tested approaches which can break it down:

  • Probe: ask questions to find out what your client needs or what problem they are experiencing.

“You mentioned that Fluffy doesn’t like the renal diet biscuits you’ve tried and leaves his food. Does he prefer wet food?” 

  • Confirm: check back that you’ve understood the problem and give the opportunity for the client to raise any further objection.

“So, Fluffy isn’t very interested in the biscuits and you’re worried as he’s lost a bit of weight, but in the past he’s enjoyed various types of food.”

If the client raises more objections, you can go back to the ‘probe’ stage to work through them:

“He’s leaving his expensive food, so a lot is being wasted. How much do you currently pay for Fluffy’s food?”

  • Match: offer solutions that match the problem or need.

“We’ve got a very palatable wet diet that a lot of cats seem to enjoy. You can also heat it slightly to release the smell and make it more tempting to encourage Fluffy to eat. The wet food may work out at a couple of pence more a day, but if he’s enjoying it, there will be less waste.”

  • Close: the conclusion when you’ve discovered what the client needs, you’ve matched a solution and are making the offer of sale.

“Would you like me to put a couple of tins in for you to try with Fluffy, or would you like to go for a 12-pack, which works out a bit cheaper?” 

You can follow up by adding value and reassurance for the client by offering the opportunity of a future conversation:

“Give this a try and if you’d like to bring Fluffy in for a weight check with the nurse in a few weeks’ time, we can see how he’s doing.”

Sales is not just a man’s game

Don’t let anyone give you the impression that sales is a ‘man’s game’. Some quarters hold the opinion that negotiating skills and commercial awareness are male territory and that a sales interaction requires doing battle and ‘playing hardball’ to cut a deal.

I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of this belief: that the sales transaction brings the client an opportunity to dominate, bully or strongarm me into submission. I’ve been told such gems as, “I want to speak to the man in charge,” or, “A piece of fluff like you wouldn’t know.” Au contraire! The effect of such posturing can easily be undermined by remembering the simple fact that you are the one setting the price and controlling the sale.

A client attempting to bully their way into a discount is aware that they want the product or service, so a simple insistence on your price list or practice protocol, while continuing a calm demonstration of your product knowledge defuses the situation. If the client is not happy with the offering, they won’t buy. But equally, if you’re not satisfied with the client’s proposition, you’re not obliged to sell.

Interpersonal skills are crucial to sales success

In reality, it is interpersonal skills that are the most important in sales. It’s the ability to communicate with different people, understand their needs, empathise with their feelings, and respond to both verbal and non-verbal signals. If a client is making a distress purchase and showing anxiety, reassurance and emphasis on the relief it will bring are helpful. If a client is lavishing their love on their pet through their wallet, a warm appreciation of their caring behaviour will go a long way towards helping them enjoy their sales experience.

Sales, even when negotiation is a strong part of a transaction, need not be combative. You’re always looking for a mutually beneficial and satisfying solution.

Buying experiences, even around something as apparently mundane as cat food, can be enjoyable and bonding for clients. They provide opportunities for clients to feel listened to, recognised and looked after. Clients can feel that they are actively seeking the best care for their pets or are solving a problem they may have worried about raising during a consultation.

Good buying experiences can communicate how the practice pays attention to detail and seeks to anticipate and meet all the needs of clients and their pets.

And don’t forget, sales can be enjoyable for the salesperson, too. Who doesn’t like seeing a client leave the practice smiling? Remember, it’s all about how you perceive it.

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