The Demise of Traditional Sales Techniques

By Rob Foellinger

Have you ever suspected that the sales techniques you've been taught might be just a bit old-fashioned? If so, your suspicions are absolutely correct! In fact, the apartment industry continues to use sales techniques that are at least 25 years behind the times! And, these techniques are becoming less and less effective with each passing year.

Many leasing people proudly characterize themselves as "hard closers". Often, they mistakenly believe that manipulation and pressure are the keys to sales effectiveness. If these leasing staffers investigated further, they would find that their prospects rented at their community despite (rather that because of) the traditional techniques they used. The truth is, most prospects are very uncomfortable with leasing personnel who make them feel pressured. The first step in changing the way we interact with our prospects is to completely eliminate (not modify, not soften...eliminate) the traditional heavy-handed closing and objection-handling tactics most prospective residents despise. Leasing personnel need to be taught how to gracefully lead prospects toward a decision to choose their community.

Unfortunately, rather than doing this most leasing consultants equate selling with simply reciting product features and benefits. They ask three or four fact-finding questions then immediately start talking about their apartment community, all the while doing much more talking than listening. They try to read their prospects' minds and make presumptions about their needs, often pushing their communities on prospects. Prospects then feel pressured, which, in turn, causes powerful resistance to the sales message as well as other very negative responses.

As I researched the latest sales approaches used in other industries, the biggest difference I found between our outdated selling model and the latest sales technology is that the new strategies are designed to take the pressure off prospects (where it never belonged in the first place) and put the pressure on your competitors (where it does rightfully belong). Rather than applying pressure or attempting to manipulate the prospect, salespeople are taught how to help the prospect clearly recognize the important, often obscure, advantages and disadvantages of the various communities in their market.

In addition, leasing people trained in the new sales approach actively assist prospects in analyzing the benefits of each community. This requires that leasing people possess a crystal clear and accurate understanding of how these communities are positioned in their housing market. As the sales presentation continues, this vital information is imparted to the prospect at the most opportune time and in a form that the prospect can readily use in his personal decision-making process. In order for the salesperson to achieve this level of effectiveness, a strong understanding of how human beings make decisions is imperative.

Selling is not about memorizing closing and objection-handling techniques or fast-talking prospects into choosing your community. Rather, it is about understanding how prospects make their buying decisions and providing them with the information and guidance they need to make an informed choice. It is important for us to understand that our prospects are comparison shopping when they look for an apartment. We need to be doing comparison selling. The decision about which apartment community to choose is not "true or false", it is multiple choice. The decision is not simply whether or not to choose your particular apartment community; it is which community, out of all the many alternatives, to choose. It is not enough for leasing people to be willing and able to talk only about their our own community, they must also be able to intelligently discuss how each of the competing communities in their market compare. Because that is precisely what prospects are attempting to determine as they shop for an apartment.

The new approach to selling is based upon consultative (consultant-like) tactics and strategies. Leasing personnel are systematically taught to function like trustworthy, credible "consultants" rather than typical salespeople. Behaviors and techniques that cause leasing people to be perceived by prospects as typical salespeople are to be scrupulously avoided. Why must we avoid such behaviors? Because whenever prospects perceive us as typical salespeople, their resistance immediately increases and we are excluded from having meaningful input into their decision making process. Typical salespeople are just not allowed to participate in prospects' buying decisions. This is because prospects know from experience that typical salespeople are likely to exert pressure and try to manipulate them. Being allowed to actively participate in prospects' decision-making is a special privilege that must be earned. No traditional salespeople are allowed in this territory. Thus, pressure and manipulation which are the trademarks of a traditional salesperson have no place in today's sales environment.

Ironically, all of us have the natural ability to be tremendously persuasive. We have all been involved in other people's decisions throughout our lives. We know how to be naturally persuasive, how to help other people deal with the various important concerns they may have about an issue and how to assist them in making a sound decision. The problem is, traditional sales training with its awkward, memorized closing and objection-handling techniques has trained this ability out of most leasing people. Using more up-to-date selling techniques will help us get back in touch with our natural persuasive abilities. We can sell effectively to even the most sophisticated and skeptical 1990's prospects by using these new skills. By mastering these newly-developed selling tactics, we will be able to differentiate our apartment communities in the minds of our prospects and lease successfully in any market environment, even with lots of look-alike competitors. This ability to skillfully differentiate and position our communities will also, in many cases, enable us to avoid being drawn into the seemingly perpetual price and concessions wars which are so prevalent in our industry.

So, how do we, as an industry, go about modernizing our selling skills? I believe we should take a lesson from management and marketing guru Tom Peters, the best-selling author of "In Search Of Excellence" and "Thriving On Chaos". When he discovers a challenging business problem, such as outmoded sales strategies, he immediately begins looking for a company or industry that has already successfully remedied the problem. To emulate his problem-solving process, I believe we need to begin to look outside our own industry at how superstar salespeople do their jobs. We do not have to look far to find many useful examples of new thinking. Consultative sales techniques are used all over other industries with resounding success. Virtually any industry that sells a complicated, difficult-to-differentiate product (not unlike apartments) is likely to be utilizing consultative sales tactics.

When I began to research the selling styles used by successful salespeople in other industries, I was absolutely astounded by what I found! Watching successful salespersons in other industries do their jobs was so different from what I was accustomed to that it was like observing selling for the first time! I had no idea there were so many radically different ways to approach the sales process!

Please remember that the need to modernize our approach is nothing to be alarmed about. The job of today's leasing professional is just becoming more sophisticated and advanced. Right now, our industry is on the threshold of the latest stage in the evolution of selling. Actually, sales techniques have been steadily evolving since the 1920's and these new techniques are nothing particularly mysterious, they are simply the most advanced way, to date, of approaching the sales process. It is not that we have been doing things "wrong" in our industry; it is only that sales technology is getting better and better all the time.

Obviously, it is not possible to adequately describe consultative sales techniques in this article. However, I would like to recommend some excellent educational resources for outside study you can use to become acquainted with this wonderful new selling technology. Any of the following books will serve nicely as an introduction to today's new selling techniques:

"The Power Of Consultative Selling", 1992, Bryce Webster, Prentice-Hall, ISBN: 0136862705. "Relationship Selling", 1990, Jim Cathcart, Perigee Books, ISBN: 0399516441. "Stop Telling, Start Selling", 1994, Linda Richardson, McGraw-Hill, ISBN: 0070523681. "Non-Manipulative Selling", 1992, Alessandra, Wexler and Barrera, Fireside Press, ISBN: 0671764489. "Conceptual Selling", 1991, Miller, Heiman and Tuleja, Warner Books, ISBN: 0446389064. "Soft Selling In A Hard World", 1993, Jerry Vass, Running Press Publishers, ISBN: 1561382981. "Guerilla Selling", 1992, Gallagher, Wilson and Levinson, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN: 0395580390.

Consultative sales techniques are not just another repackaging of old selling techniques. Rather, they are a newly-developed, very effective approach to selling. It is likely that, in the next five years or so, virtually all apartment industry sales training will rely, at least partially, upon consultative sales techniques. How can I make such a prediction? Because, that's exactly what has happened in other similar industries.

When you choose to begin incorporating some of these new ideas into your sales and marketing efforts, you will be among the first to do so in our industry. And, I can assure you, there are enormous competitive advantages to being first.

Rob Foellinger is President of MarkeTactics Consulting Group, 1-800-770-3201. He is an award-winning national speaker who has earned recognition as a marketing consultant, strategist and author as well as a master trainer in leasing, marketing and resident retention. Rob Foellinger's Bio and list of his articles.

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