Selling Services On the Phone – The Salesperson as Teacher

The telephone salesperson has a special set of challenges selling services. They are selling something which is intangible and has heterogeneity. Where strict uniformity is celebrated with products, the ability to customize, adapt and differentiate is praised with services. These salesperson challenges include teaching customers their roles.

Because customers often participate in the consumption of a service, they must be taught what to do. Several years ago, I was flying out of nearby city, and as I pulled into the long-term parking lot there was a big line in front of the areas where you’d normally get a ticket and enter. I was puzzled, because normally this is a quick procedure. When it was my turn, I saw the terminal no longer gave out tickets, the driver was expected to swipe a credit card and then park. When the driver left the parking lot after their trip, they would use the same credit card to leave the ramp which would be charged the appropriate amount. This all took place without the traditional ticket. A large sign was posted near the gate explaining the charges, but it was hard to read at 6:00 a.m. in the morning, and customers were frustrated because they were expecting a ticket.

As I left the garage, I rode in an elevator full of angry customers. One said his wife was coming to pick up their car, and she had different credit cards than he did, how was she going to get out of the lot he asked? Another said because of the long line waiting to get in, she was afraid of missing her flight. A third said this was his second time in under the new system, and it seemed to work well, but he was tired of waiting in line while everyone else figured it out.

Even with a simple service like a parking ramp, customers need to be taught their roles. What do they need to do to consume the service successfully and with maximum customer satisfaction? If your company does tax preparation services, what information does the customer need to gather for you to prepare the returns? If you offer HVAC maintenance services for commercial buildings, how do you gain access to the systems? How are you electronically notified of any problems, and how does this software tie into your systems? Often salespeople need to educate customers just to provide them with a quotation. This requires a great deal of patience, understanding and training.

The selling organization should study this problem of customer education, and use good adult learning principles to help the telephone salespeople. First, the customer must be motivated to participate. How can learning about the service be fun and engaging? Next, there should be entry points at various steps along the way for the inexperienced or experienced customer to tailor education appropriately. Finally, don’t neglect the importance of telephone salesperson and customer dialogue. Perhaps a one-on-one webinar can be offered as a logical education step. Regardless of how its designed, your customers must be comfortable with your service, and know their roles, before and after the sale.

Selling Services On the Phone – Bulletproof Sales Cycles

Service sales managers must help their salespeople construct bulletproof sales cycles. Services by their nature, often have some features that can be independently verified, some features that must be experienced to be understood, and other features where the buying organization must trust the selling organization. For example, a selling organization of Certified Public Accountants can proudly display their CPA certificates on the wall, on their website and promotional materials. Their skills at being accountants has been “badged” by a certifying body. Prospective customers can verify this for themselves. For experience features, the selling organization may invite a potential buyer into their “service factory” to meet their people and experience some of what they would purchase. Or, the selling organization may give away some small element of the service so the buyer can participate in an experience before committing – like a free trial. In other cases, the buyer must simply trust the seller. If the telephone salesperson uncovers a need which is covered by an experience feature, they need to add an experience step into the sales cycle if possible. If they uncover a need covered by a verification feature, they need to provide the support which shows the feature is held, such as an independent party verification. If they uncover a trust feature, they need to build the relationship sufficiently so trust is established.

The sales manager must study the features of their service and determine which are verifiable, which are experience and which are trust. Once this exercise is complete, they must determine how their salespeople will support each of these. For example, we have a client who sells a personality assessment aimed at companies who organize multifunctional teams to pursue high-stakes work projects. They have validated, independent research (theory backgrounds) for features that are verifiable, they offer a free trial for those features which demand an experience, and extensive case studies and referrals for trust attributes. I call these feature support details the “evidence locker” – salespeople should open it, and support the words they say.

A service sale is a process, not an event. The sales manager should study how sales cycles progress from newly minted lead to close, and look for ways to support features customers find important, whether they are verifiable, experience or trust. Often surveys of new customers can reveal features which were important to their decision-making process, but which were not seen as prominent by the selling organization at the time. Lost sales surveys can also uncover features customers found more compelling at competitors. Careful analysis of the sales cycle, and a chockful evidence locker, can dramatically increase the chances of sales success.

Finally, the sales manager should audit their sales group to see just how their telephone salespeople are pursuing their sales cycles. Whenever possible, features should be clearly supported, regardless of whether they are verify, experience or trust, and concrete support should be offered. Customers may only glance at the certificate on your website, or barely participate in a “test drive” that is offered, or neglect to call every reference proffered, but the fact that the salesperson freely offered says volumes – and closes sales.

Selling Services On the Phone – Positioning Your Service

A sales manager for a selling organization selling services or a product organization that is adding or expanding a service offering, must consider carefully how these services are positioned in the marketplace. Many services are experiential, they need to be experienced to be evaluated and enjoyed. Therefore, careful positioning is extremely valuable to provide a “mental signpost” for the customer, and to put definition and structure around something which might otherwise seem vague and fuzzy. For example, many product producers sell as a service “extended warranties” and “customer support agreements.” In the former, for a fee the selling organization will extend the warranty coverage of the product into the future, and in the latter, the selling organization will perform a prescribed set of maintenance offerings. Many organizations offer these services as cross-sell items once a customer has purchased the product. “Oh, and by the way,” says the salesperson. “Would you like either an extended warranty or customer support agreement where we’ll do your routine maintenance?”

The difficulty of positioning this becomes apparent when you consider how business-to-business companies evaluate risk. The customer has just gone through the period when they are most worried about risk, just before the sale closes. They have overcome their fears and agreed to buy, and the salesperson then infers they just made a risky purchase by indicating extending the warranty is a good idea. Wouldn’t they like to buy an insurance policy called an extended warranty, and wouldn’t they like to purchase something to take care of all that pesky maintenance they just signed up for? Whew!

Also, in many product purchases the salesperson deals with price objections. Some negotiation takes place perhaps, and a price agreed. The buyer mentally accepts the cost of the product, and then immediately after they say yes, the salesperson attempts to raise the price with services like extended warranties, and maybe a customer support agreement. The customer, who now has their investment firmly in their brain, finds it difficult to reopen the mental negotiations, even if the extended warranty, customer support agreement and perhaps other services make perfect business sense. Because of these challenges, customer acceptance of ancillary services may be suboptimal.

The sales manager may need to study their market, and test positioning services into the sale early, so services can be closed along with the product. For example, if the selling organization is selling an elevator for a high-rise building, they may add steps to the sales cycle to evaluate whether an extended warranty and preventative maintenance agreement would be valuable for the buyer to consider. This has three major benefits for the telephone salesperson. First, because the services are part of the sales cycle, the salesperson can involve the remainder of the buying committee and do all the additional needs analysis and presentations that may be required. Second, by their nature, many services reduce the inherent risk of purchasing the product. An extended warranty means the customer does not have to worry about a premature failure much further into the future. A customer support agreement means the customer doesn’t need to worry about figuring out how to maintain what they are considering purchasing. Other services may also serve to reduce the customer’s perception of risk. Third, when the final proposal is on the table the salesperson’s offering is likely to be an apple to the competitor’s orange. The extra services make side-by-side comparisons difficult, making customer decisions strictly on price alone seem risky and difficult. And that’s a valuable position to be in!

Selling Services On the Phone – Validating Service Features

Services by their nature, often have some features that can be independently verified, some features that must be experienced to be understood, and other features where the buying organization must simply trust the selling organization. For example, a selling organization of Certified Public Accountants can proudly display their CPA certificates on the wall, on their website and promotional materials. Their skill at being accountants has been verified by a third party certifying body. Prospective customers can verify this certification accordingly.

For experience features, the selling organization may invite a potential buyer into their “service factory” to meet their employees and service providers, and experience some of what they would purchase. Or, the selling organization may give away some small element of the service so the buyer can participate in an experience before committing – like a free trial.

For other features, the buyer must simply trust the seller will deliver.

If the telephone salesperson uncovers a need which is covered by an experience feature, the salesperson should add an experience step into the sales cycle. If they uncover a need covered by a verification feature, they should provide the support which verifies the feature, such as an independent party verification (badging of some sort). If they uncover a trust feature, they need to build the relationship sufficiently so trust is established, and provide documented support for the feature.

The sales manager must study the features of their service and determine which features are verifiable, which are experience, and which are trust. Once this exercise is completed, the sales manager must determine how the salespeople will support each. For example, consider a selling organization delivering a service of property management for owner-occupied commercial buildings.

If the telephone salesperson identifies the following feature as important for a prospective customer, “If a security alert occurs after business hours, we will respond with the police to secure your property”, it would be evaluated by trust. Until the customer signs a contract, and until the customer has an event like this, they will just have to trust the selling organization they will perform. How could the sales manager support this trust feature for the salesperson? Testimonials from current customers, perhaps copies of police reports showing they were quickly onsite for other customers, or case studies of how they responded and the result.

If the telephone salesperson identifies the following feature as important for a prospective customer, “we take care of all external grounds maintenance, including snow removal, mowing, tree trimming and ornamental flower and shrubbery maintenance.” How could the sales manager support this feature? Turn the feature into an experience! They could offer tours of various customer sites showing the maintenance of the grounds (or snow removal in winter), they could show videos of their crews in action and post them on-line, or if a prospective customer comes onsite to the “service factory”, they can have a crew foreman meet with the customer to discuss how they would service their property.

Finally, if the telephone salesperson identifies “all our employees undergo random drug tests, and we thoroughly screen all applicants before hiring” as a critical feature for a customer, this can be verified by a third party. For example, a drug testing company’s certification that they randomly test all employees and a screening bureau’s certification on the background check they perform could be made available by the sales manager for the salespeople to distribute. (After all privacy, anonymity and confidentiality requirements are met of course.)

Verify, experience and trust. Provide support for each type of service feature.

Selling Services On the Phone – The Mechanics

Customers evaluate services differently than products. For example, a few years ago, a relative of mine went in for heart surgery to have a pacemaker installed. When I asked her about the experience when she returned home, she told me the nurses were great but the food wasn’t very good. As we talked, I smiled to myself thinking “you just experienced a service which probably saved your life, and you evaluated the food and the nurses”. When she purchased this pacemaker installation, she did little research about the skills of the surgeon, and none about the brand of pacemaker used – I don’t think she was aware there is more than one – she just trusted the surgeon. The experience was evaluated in the rearview mirror by what she could get her mental arms around, the nurses and the food. All of us would probably walk on coals to get a pacemaker if that was required to solve a heart issue. The hospital, the device manufacture, the surgeon and the surgical team encompass a huge investment in executing the surgery flawlessly and safely, and the post-procedure evaluation all comes down to soggy French fries prepared by a short order cook and delivered by an entry level orderly.

A sales manager for a selling organization selling services or a product organization that is adding or expanding a service offering must consider carefully how these services are positioned in the marketplace and evaluated. Many services are experiential, they need to be experienced to be evaluated and enjoyed, and therefore a carefully constructed positioning is extremely valuable to provide a mental signpost for the customer, and to put definition and structure around something which might otherwise seem vague and fuzzy. For example, many product producers sell as a service “extended warranties” and “customer support agreements.” In the former, the selling organization will extend the warranty coverage of the product into the future for a fee, and in the later, the selling organization will perform a prescribed set of maintenance offerings in the future. Many organizations offer these services as cross-sell items once a customer has purchased the product. “Oh by the way, would you like either an extended warranty or a customer support agreement?” The difficulty of positioning this becomes apparent when you consider how business-to-business companies evaluate risk. The customer has just gone through the period when they are most worried about risk and what can go wrong – the time just before the sale closes. The customer has overcome their fears and agreed to buy the product, and the salesperson infers they just made a risky purchase by indicating extending the warranty is a good idea. Wouldn’t they like to buy an insurance policy called an extended warranty, and wouldn’t they like to purchase something to take care of all that pesky maintenance? This makes for a difficult sale.

In many instances, the sales manager may need to study their market, and test positioning services into the sale early, so services can be closed along with the product. Do you want French fries with that?