August 30, 2018

Challenging the myths of selling

Jarkko Niemi

Postdoctoral researcher, digitalization in customer interaction, the University of Helsinki

Selling a product or service is interactional work, and the more complex the service being marketed, the more work it takes from the salesperson. The salesperson should build customer trust, meet the customer as an individual and convince the customer of the benefits of buying the service. Despite the deeply social nature of sales work, academic research has paid only little attention to the interaction between a salesperson and a customer. The majority of sales and marketing research has been indirect in the sense that it has focused on interviewing sales managers, salespeople or their customers, rather than analysing how people actually talk and behave when negotiating a deal.

In recent years, I’ve been involved in multidisciplinary research projects in which real-life sales negotiations between two organisations have been video-recorded. By analysing these recordings in depth, new customer encounters have been studied in the first 5-10 minutes during which the salesperson and customer should “break the ice” and build rapport. Whereas earlier sales research has usually emphasised salesperson initiatives in rapport building, a salesperson’s most important resource was in fact found to be in the appropriateness of their responses to each customer’s turn at talk.

Another area of interest is the conversational sequence that begins when a customer asks about the price of the service. The customer’s price question has generally been regarded as “dangerous” for a salesperson, as price may be used as an excuse to turn down the offer. However, our studies have found that the price question is in fact a positive signal for the salesperson. Data reveals that salespersons use the customer’s price question as an opportunity to reiterate the value that the customer would gain if s/he was to make a deal. They then proceed to tailor the price individually to the customer.

The analysis of video-recorded real-life sales interaction can open new perspectives on selling and challenge the conventional understanding of sales research. So, next time you are getting to know a new customer, take a moment to consider how you are responding to them. And, when that ‘dreaded’ price question appears, remember that it’s merely time to underline the value of your proposition.

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