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A time-honored sales mantra over the years has been summed up in the acronym ABC – Always Be Closing. It was actually tarnished by the stereotypical and somewhat unsavoury salespeople portrayed in the hit movie Glengarry Glen Ross, but Markham, Ont., sales trainer Jill Harrington says it lives on in the subconscious and actions of modern salespeople nevertheless. "We dropped ABC from our vocabulary, but not from our mindset," she says in an interview.

Today's salespeople are busier than ever. They have little time to prepare for meetings – too often developing their plan and pitch on the way to visit a prospect. And their bosses are demanding they meet tough quotas.

She says they have to learn new behaviours by changing their thinking, including rethinking the notion of Always Be Selling. Instead, when you're selling, you need to adopt these three ABCs:

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  • Always Be Contributing: All activity on a file – every call, presentation, proposal, and meeting – must contribute value to the client. If you’re not contributing value, you’re just being a nuisance or a cost. And that value will be determined by the receiver. You are contributing value according to the buyer’s definition, not your own.
     
  • Always Be Curious: While Always Be Contributing is the fundamental ABC, she says you’ll fail at it unless you are always curious about your prospect. Always – in every interaction, as well as before those interactions – try to get inside their heads and figure out how to help them. Unfortunately, most salespeople aren’t all that curious about customers but try to paper that over through asking probing questions, a central feature of most sales strategies. “Who wants to be probed?” she says. “The word sounds bad – digging deeper and deeper into someone. Genuine curiosity is about being interested in people and their business.”
     
  • Always Be Connecting: In a wired age, it’s easy to connect. But are you truly connecting, or just giving clients an information dump in your e-mails and presentations? She says that in every interaction, prospects expect you to bring three things: An understanding of the customer’s world, relevant expertise, and the ability to connect those two items. Before you send that e-mail, consider how many messages the prospect receives a day and what in yours is special (and is that important element in the first sentence)? “It’s hard to get out of our own heads, which is filled with [the message] ‘I’ve got to make the sale.’ I’m saying put that aside and think about the other person in the situation.”

This probably seems like common sense. But in the title of her new book, it's often Uncommon Sense. It's not how salespeople operate, given their pressures, so they have to shift their thinking.

She says they have to stop striving to be the best. In the interview, she tells about one company that put out a request for proposal (RFP) and the five bidders each announced in their proposals they were the best. It was, according to the recipient of their bids, unhelpful and untrustworthy, "marketing fluff" – and since it wasn't made clear how that specifically helped the client, a waste of words. The Holy Grail of Selling has been the notion of "unique value proposition" – each seller needs to know what is unique about their offering.

But most company's unique value propositions, she has found, aren't very unique and often salespeople (and their bosses) can't ever articulate one. Instead, she advises salespeople to develop value propositions unique to every client. Stop generalizing. Be specific and relevant to the person across the table. Lead your proposal with what you know about the prospect and how you can help.

Uncommon sense is about relevance – not just of your product but also of the sales messages you create. It's about kicking off your shoes and getting into the shoes of your customer (she will ask people in her sales presentations to put on her shoes, making the point that won't happen unless they take off their own). It's also about viewing every interaction with your customer as a "once in a lifetime moment" – you'll never have another chance to be with the customer at this time and in this context again. Don't blow it off. Make the most of it, unlike the company that was presenting to a group of buyers and when the presentation finished after 20 minutes, left rather than use the remaining 40 minutes to pose questions to the prospects.

Always be curious. Always be contributing. Always be connecting. It's the new ABCs.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.

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