Selling Pencils – Selling Technology

PencilsWhat does selling pencils have to do with selling technology? Quite a lot, if you’d like to double or triple the effectiveness of your sales force!

Recently I was leading a sales training session for a life science company and used the time-worn example of selling pencils to explain the advantages of asking questions and focusing on benefits rather than features. You know the drill: having an eraser is a feature; being able to revise on-the-fly saves me time and paper. And if flexibility is a feature, then a benefit is being able to sketch in a diagram or illustration as I write, “unleashing my natural creativity”. We have to ask questions and listen to the answers to know which of these things are important to specific person.

As I made these points, I noticed that the people in the group began to grin and nudge each other, snaking sidelong glances toward one particular person in the room. “Alright,” I said, giving up on holding their attention, “let me in on the joke.” The woman who was the center of attention spoke up and admitted sheepishly, “

“It’s just that I’’m a little obsessive about using a particular pencil and everyone kids me about it. I like the ones that have a natural finish because they don’’t slip through my fingers when my hands get sweaty!””

She made my point for me that day! Who would have guessed that particular reason for preferring a particular writing tool? The only way to uncover that kind of “customer need” would be to ask some good customer-focused questions and listen carefully to the answers.

If you were interviewing each of your current sales people for a new position, and asked them to sell you a pencil, how many would ask questions to uncover your needs and then present on the benefits relevant to your needs?  Salespeople with technical products often have difficulty with this. We don’t want to seem naïve, so we don’’t want to ask questions that might be too simple. And our customers also don’’t want to admit it when they don’’t know much about a particular topic.

So while we talk technical terms with great assurance, assuming they know everything we do, they smile and nod and begin to think about something else. There is so much to know about these products and so much to know about how people use them that it is hard to resist the urge to unload a lot of that hard-earned knowledge on our audiences. But we’’ll never really know what drives buying decisions until we learn to ask … and to listen carefully to the answers. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak,” [] and it still is true.

Here’s an exercise for your next sales conference call:

  • Make a list of several top customers and some that have recently started buying from you.

  • In advance, ask the salesperson responsible for each one to find answers to these questions:

Why do they use the product? How exactly do they use it? Where does it fit in their process? What do they like most about it? What do they like least? How does it compare to competitors or alternatives?

  • Make a list of the answers share it with the group.

  • Don’’t accept top-of-the-head answers (like “they use ours because they get good service from me” or “we have the best price”); press for the more detailed reasons.

  • Finally, assign the group to work up a list of good questions that will help to bring out this kind of information from the customers you haven’t yet landed. Miller and Heiman’s book The New Conceptual Selling has a great section on “Learning to Listen” with guides for developing questions.

From this exercise, you can train your sales people to present benefits to doing business with your company that really matter to the people you are pursuing. And the sales results will improve.

A professional never stops practicing the basics.If you’’d like some help making this a productive and fun exercise at your next sales meeting, please contact us.

Good Selling,


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