Anyone who has committed to a diet or weight-loss plan—and stuck with it for a solid four or five months—is surely familiar with the plateau phenomenon. At first, you’re making great progress, watching the pounds drop off and feeling really great. But, suddenly, although you haven’t changed your methods or goals at all, the scale sticks at a certain number, and you can’t lose any more. At this point, you need to reevaluate and shake up your routine to see continued results.
It’s much the same in the sales world. Most salespeople, especially when starting out, tend to target prospects in their comfort zone—people much like themselves, from a demographic standpoint—and may do very well selling to them. But only up to a point. Once that sphere of influence has been thoroughly explored and exhausted, it’s often necessary to push beyond it to continue to meet your numbers and succeed.
Or, perhaps you have a new product or service that’s geared toward people who are different from you, or you simply want to target a more affluent sector of the market—either way, reaching beyond your comfort zone is crucial.
In the Zone
“Salespeople are simply human,” says Kevin Hogan, author, psychologist and sales training expert. “Humans do everything in their power to avoid rejecting situations and moments. Being rejected by current loyal customers is much less likely, therefore it’s more comfortable and familiar to stay within the stronger circles of influence.”
This is especially true for people who are new to sales, says Bryan Flanagan, author and head of the Flanagan Training Group. “Because there are so many nontraditional salespeople entering the world of selling in this economy, we are going to see this trend continue,” he says. “Professionals who have lost jobs are finding that opportunities are often in commissioned sales jobs. We have a lot of untrained salespeople. They are what we call the ‘accidental salesperson.’ When you enter a new profession, you tend to gravitate to your comfort zones.”
But, much like FDR once told the nation, the only thing the salesperson has to fear is fear itself, says Andrea Waltz, co-author of Go for No!. “Fear is the primary force that holds most of us back from getting outside the comfort zone. In particular, it is a fear of failure and rejection.”
In fact, such a mindset—avoiding situations in which we have the potential to make mistakes and even fail—is extremely limiting and ultimately positions us to fail because we never even try to reach that next level of success.
Instead, Waltz suggests we consider our comfort zones as fluctuating areas that are continually expanding or contracting. When you make strides to push outside of your zone—like approaching prospects in a different part of town or in an unusual industry—you are, in fact, expanding your zone by transforming what was once uncomfortable into something familiar. “And now there is so much more opportunity,” she says.
Pick the Target
By now, you’re probably wondering: Who are these people I’ve been ignoring, and how do I identify them if they’re not even on my radar? First, it’s important to take a good look at your product or service and ask some fundamental questions, such as, What problems or needs does your product/service offer solutions for?
“Who or what organizations can benefit from your solutions?” asks Flanagan. “This could include the demographics of age, gender, income, etc. Once you have determined this, you should then seek people, companies, organizations that meet the criteria.”
Waltz agrees: “Focus on the problem that you are solving. When it comes down to it, all of selling is about solving people’s problems. I sell you water if you’re thirsty; you sell me paper if I need to print out documents or write letters. So you need to ask, ‘Who has the problem that I am trying to solve and where are they?’ ”
This method will help you objectively identify prospects based on their needs and not their current relationship with you or their similarities to you. Try to think outside the box and be open-minded when considering new prospects to target, Hogan says: “Be careful not to filter people or groups out too quickly.”
For example, sales trainer Tom Hopkins paints the scenario of someone selling bass boats: “You know several of the guys on your street love to fish but don’t believe any of them can afford a new boat. So, you don’t try to sell to them. You may never find out that one of them has an uncle or grandfather who taught them how to fish and is in the market for a new boat. If the right opportunity is presented, who’s to say that a few of your neighbors wouldn’t form a club of some sort and buy a boat jointly?” So, he suggests considering “every single person within 3 feet… as potential clients or potential sources of referral business.”
Do Your Homework
Once you’ve identified your new prospects, do your research. Try to learn everything you can about them—how they live, work and play, what their core values are, what their needs and goals are—so that you can approach them in an educated manner with relevant ways to solve their problems.
One of the easiest ways is also the most direct, Flanagan says. “Try this simple sales technique: Ask questions! The best tool a sales rep can possess is curiosity. Be curious. Learn to ask questions that will gather information about prospects.”
Hopkins recommends “developing your powers of observation.” Say you’re meeting at a home: Make sure to pay attention to all the telling details surrounding their place of residence that can further clue you in to what kind of person they are and give you starting points for conversation.
“Pay attention to the neighborhood as you drive in,” he says. “Watch for signs of outdoor activities in their yards or driveways (all-terrain vehicles, bicycles, volleyball nets, etc.). Note if their landscaping is an outward sign of pride. If it stands out compared to the neighbors, make a mental note to ask them about it. What does it tell you about them if they do the work themselves or if they pay a landscaper to do it? They could have a passion for it. Or, they might have more money than you initially thought.”
Waltz adds, “What publications do they read? Where do they go (events, trade shows, etc.)? Who do they listen to? Where do they socialize online?”
Indeed, online research is a great tool, especially social media, where you can learn everything about an individual or group, including “a person’s shoe size,” says Flanagan. “You may have to invest time, but there are ways to learn about prospects.”
Walk Among Them
The next step in the learning process involves networking and direct interaction with your target group because, while background research is important, nothing beats a face-to-face conversation.
“A good way to learn about an industry is to join associations in that specific industry,” Flanagan says. “You can become an associate member of associations. Once you join, however, you must involve yourself in the association. This does not mean attending meetings once a month or quarter. It means volunteering to contribute to the association or trade organization.”
Or, if the group has an important annual event, be sure to attend—and let them know that you’re there. Not only will you learn more about the group, but they’ll take note of your interest.
If you’re trying to reach prospects within a certain demographic, research their hobbies, pastimes and favorite charities, and get involved. Nothing breaks down barriers better than common interests and causes.
Which leads us to the final phase: convey to the prospect that you understand him, her or them, and that you recognize their unique needs. Positioning yourself as an expert on their particular requirements will lend you great credibility and leverage when it comes to making a deal.
Hogan says that a great way to do this is to create your own website that, likely via your umbrella company, you can use to champion your success and expertise.
“Sites that promote the salesperson as an expert will help facilitate sales,” he says. “Even with 10 other salespeople selling the same products with the same credentials, every salesperson has unique personal characteristics that make them sub-brands of the larger corporate structure. Taking advantage of the ability to sub-brand individual salespeople not only enhances the salesperson’s reputation, but causes greater personal pride and esteem in their work and client base.”
With testimonials and case studies, you can show prospects how you have helped other clients, just like them, meet their goals. And, because a prospect can peruse your site in private and at their own pace, it also takes a certain amount of pressure off their shoulders.
You can also concentrate what you’ve learned—from research and experience—into a journal article, an essay or blog, providing further proof to this once-foreign prospect that you know them like the back of your hand.
This article was published in January 2011 and has been updated. Photo by @criene/Twenty20