You have a brilliant business idea, you have identified a market and you have set up shop. Build it and they will come, right?
Well, wrong. In today’s highly competitive business environment with plenty of ideas as wonderful as yours, if not more, you should know that products are sold, not bought.
And they are being sold aggressively and ingeniously. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a recent survey by Finland-based recruitment firm Fuzu found that most employers in Kenya are looking for business development managers (BDMs). A BDM, among other roles, builds key customer relationships, identifies business opportunities, negotiates and closes business deals.
But it is not easy being in sales, and it is as much an art as it is a calling. We spoke to salespeople from diverse sectors on their top tips for closing a deal.
1. Selling a bet to non-gamblers
There are a few Kenyans who like insurance, and even fewer want anything to do with insurance agents.
Patrick Makanga, an insurance agent at Britam, knew this all too well when he decided to walk into a high-end cocktail party at a hotel in Nairobi without an invite.
“I did not know anyone in that room,” remembers Patrick.
He did not want to sell his product, but he wanted to leave an impression on the people he would interact with. He wanted to sell himself first.
“You know, the moment you drop the word insurance, a conversation can go south,” he says.
Salespersons, particularly those dealing with services, are guided by one cardinal rule: a customer buys you first before they buy the product.
Patrick, who has been selling insurance for five years now, recalls staying at the cocktail party for about three hours, chatting and exchanging phone numbers.
Ask for people’s names and address them appropriately in conversation so that they feel a positive connection to you. Be interested in truly engaging and give them your attention. Also, make the conversation about your potential customers – ask for their opinion or experiences, and don’t interject with too many stories about yourself.
“By the time they realised I didn’t have badge, my business was done. My goal was not to sell the product, but to sell myself. I kept reminding myself: ‘I have to get these guys to like me and want to see me again’.”
He closed six deals from this room, and has since grown his portfolio value to millions of shillings from a low of Sh30,000.
He adds that sales agents need to be aggressive, but not greedy. It is also important to know when aggressiveness is veering towards being a nuisance.
You need to be patient and confident to sell yourself. After selling yourself, you can now sell your product. And for this, Patrick says you need to have done “an extensive need-analysis to then prescribe an appropriate solution for your customer.”
He says he spends 80 per cent of his time getting the facts right, and another 20 per cent presenting and closing the business. You should listen to the client, but above all, you need to be knowledgeable about the product.
This is how Patrick and other agents sells insurance, which is essentially a bet, to millions of Kenyans with insurance apathy. And for his efforts, Patrick has consistently made it onto Britam’s annual list of top insurance salespeople.
2. Selling publicity to a distressed corporation
Who wants anything from a bank that has been accused of swindling depositors’ cash? Well, Florence Maswache, a business executive, believes this is the time people like her who sell media advertising space can make a killing.
“When a company is struggling and wants to keep quiet, you tell them this is the time to get their name out there and reclaim their brand,” says Florence.
She adds that what she needs to know is the circulation figures for newspapers, viewership on local television stations and the traffic on digital sites. She also needs to stay abreast of any innovations in the advertising market.
“To sell, we first need to see a niche in the market. For example, one of these times was when the law on interest rates capping was introduced,” she explains, adding that this provided a unique opportunity for banks to inform their customers on what the next move was going to be.
She also maintains that people buy people.
“If I can’t buy you as a person, I can’t buy what you are selling,” she says.
“You need to have all the information a client would want at your fingertips, and be creative and confident when selling.”
Don’t mumble, hesitate or make excuses for any shortcomings in your product. Instead, focus the customer on what your product can do for them. Anticipate their needs, and show them how your product would meet these, adds Florence. She has been in sales for 10 years, and cautions against being overly aggressive even as you make the case for your company.
“There is a need for salespersons to attend trainings to learn how to relate with people, to know when to stop pushing so that they don’t become a nuisance.”
Florence adds that you need to give your customers a reason to buy what you’re selling. They don’t always have a need to advertise, but you can research their industry and their competitors and tell them how advertising would help them stand out.
3. Selling medicine to healthy people
Ochieng sells medication to people in buses that ply the Nairobi-Kisumu route. His entry point is Nakuru town.
It is easy to spot him in his well-pressed suit. He carries a leather bag that looks heavy and which, in your first encounter with him, you can’t quite tell what it bears.
Like many other brilliant salespersons, he starts from the unknown to the known. He starts, not by selling his products, but himself. He starts with politics, a relatable subject for the customers he’s targetting. He wades into the political discussion with finesse, touching on the day’s highs and the lows.
He talks politics for almost two hours, and encourages input from his audience. It makes for a lively discussion and it is easy to get carried away by the facts and figures Ochieng spouts. He is fluent, articulate and engaging.
And then he makes a smooth transition into the reason he’s really discussing politics when he spots a woman in the bus drinking soda.
Because he has already broken down barriers with his political discussion, no one takes offence when he shifts his attention to the woman and begins to talk health. Sodas are not necessarily bad, he says. He tells the captivated passengers that he took a certain soda, and never drank another after he read what sugar can do to our bodies. He shares this information, and the woman slowly seals her bottle and puts it in her bag.
To ensure she does not feel targeted, Ochieng launches into a discussion on general human health and safety. He speaks about the dangers of people riding on boda bodas without any safety equipment. In fact, he advices, people should stick to bicycles which, though slow, would ensure they get home safely. This draws the necessary laughs.
He then talks about the anatomy of the human body with ease, explaining what goes wrong every time a certain virus or bacteria attacks the human body, and paints a gloomy picture of how most people in the bus probably have certain lifestyle diseases or conditions.
It is after this that he rummages in his leather bag and removes a set of herbal drugs. He explains what they can do for the body and the passengers, already comfortable with Ochieng and each other, begin to discuss their health issues.
Ochieng prescribes the drug that would address the issue, and money changes hands. His products cost between Sh100 and Sh500.
4. The expert: Sales is all about your brains
Just as with painting or singing, you might spend ages in school but never master the art of selling. Still, you can perfect sales, even if you were not born with the qualities that make a great salesperson.
According to Dr Joseph Owino, a marketing lecturer at the University of Nairobi, selling is all about creativity.
“Sales is a product of the attributes of a person, with some element of training,” says Otieno. As such, salespersons think proactively and not reactively – they anticipate how people are likely to react.
They are normally focused, and set their eyes on a goal. Salespersons, he says, in addition to being confident, have to really understand their product.
“Salespeople must be confident. If they lack confidence then even the customer loses confidence with the product,” explains Owino.
On whether products are bought or sold, he thinks it is a combination of both.
“If people develop a relationship with a brand, they buy it. However, for new products and where competition is stiff, selling is much stronger. But when a product is weak, even a good salesperson will find it difficult to sell it.”
The fact that the moment people develop relationships with brands they tend to buy the product without much convincing explains why sales is a short-term venture for most business organisations.
And this also explains why the sales department, a revenue-generating arm of a business that should be strategic has been slowly but surely losing its stature in most organisations.
Owino says that after a long period during which sales sat at the high table of business, it has been pushed from this spot. Instead of being strategic, it is today considered simply operational.
Except for a few businesses, such as insurance and banking, most corporations only turn to sales when they realise their revenues are dipping.
“Finance has taken up sales’ position at the high table,” says Owino, explaining that most people do not consider sales a professional vocation.
“Salespersons are just born. People are not really turned into salespersons in school.”
He, however, notes that sales has been gaining prominence in recent times, especially as entrepreneurship gains more appeal, bringing with it more businesses that have to jostle for market share with more established brands.
But Owino insists that sales has to be balanced with marketing – which includes implementing promotional strategies to boos uptake – to have a long-term impact.