By Jason Felts
Advanced Merchant Services Inc.
Many of today's business-to-business (B2B) merchant level salespeople (MLSs) have never weathered a true economic downturn. Many of us learned how to sell in the late 1980s through the early 2000s - a period that undoubtedly marked one of the longest business expansions in U.S. history.
In the good times, it's not hard to hit quotas while enjoying double-digit market returns, enormous escalations in property values creating easy access to equity lines of credit, and huge growth in the number of new jobs. But what do you do when the economy slams on the brakes?
Following are rules that will help you keep in business and thrive.
Make your offerings recession proof. Consumers still have to buy goods and services no matter the state of the economy. The fact is many consumers are indeed strapped for cash, and therefore the only alternative is credit.
Long gone are the days of 90-day terms in most establishments. So now, more than ever, merchants need to accept credit cards.
Additionally, merchants need guarantees on checks since desperate people do desperate things. Some people will take it well beyond just the "float" (the period between when a check is written and when it actually clears the bank) when they are hungry or need gas to get to work. Your prospects, now more than ever, must be set up to accept alternate forms of payment.
Alternative payments may come in the form of gift card programs that provide opportunities for additional cash flow with the promise of future delivery of goods and services along with optional reward programs. Cash now, redeem later, track consumer spending in their stores - how can merchants not love that?
Be part of the economic cure in the marketplace. If you present your products and services with enough enthusiasm and convey enough value to merchants, you will absolutely make sales.
To close more business in a slowing economy, ask the right questions.
Experience tells me chasing everything that looks like an opportunity keeps ISOs and MLSs busy but makes them ineffective. If you pursue business indiscriminately, you'll work hard, but not smart. Eventually you'll burn out your prospects and yourself. Make sure your time is invested wisely.
But what is a wise time investment? It is building relationships with genuine prospects and referral sources. Start today by requalifying every prospect that's already in the pipeline, and work on cleaning out your funnel.
Focus on your best opportunities. You'll create more business by investing the right resources into 20 solid opportunities this month than you will by chasing 50 half-baked leads.
Merchants should be impressed with your preparation for every sales call. Preparation starts with merchants' first impression of you. So dress the part; look sharp. Make sure you invest in the right clothes and shoes. And if you haven't had a haircut in six months, get one.
Merchants also notice your handshake. Be sure to exude confidence. If I'm ever greeted by an MLS with a dead-fish handshake, that's essentially the end of our meeting.
Once you have the professional appearance and confident manner down, prepare for every sales call. Research the business online. Know who each merchant customer or prospect is. When you demonstrate to merchants you've done your homework, it is easier for them to have an open, honest dialogue with you.
Especially when the economy is slow, merchants get nervous. They don't want to waste time meeting with MLSs unless they see potential value in the dialogue.
When you approach prospects, open your presentation with this simple phrase, "In preparing for this meeting I took some time to ..." Then simply highlight the two or three critical preparatory things you did.
Then watch what happens to the atmosphere. You would be blown away by the lame introductions of some MLSs, such as "just checking in to see if I could save you some money."
One mistake MLSs often make in sales calls is trying to "educate" merchants on the advantages of processor XYZ. Unless you engage merchants in an exciting value proposition, they won't care about the greatness of your company, your equipment or software, or your vast and amazing knowledge of interchange and stellar reputation in the industry.
I've often said selling is never telling. Engage merchants by asking questions about them and, from their answers, providing ideas to help them improve their bottom lines. By asking the right questions, listening to the answers and then communicating to them how your services can help them, you are leading merchants to a close, not pushing them.
I remember a funny story from very early in my bankcard career, back in the mid 1990s. A sales rep I trained told me a story I will never forget. He said:
Well, if I can confess, we sort of assisted this merchant in creating a need. I sent a family member to his shop and had the person take over $3,000 worth of items to the cash register and nonchalantly handed him a credit card. She said the guy's face turned pale white when he realized it was the only available method of payment for her.
Needless to say, I found myself in the area a day or two later and, boy, was he eager to see me. He told me the whole story. It was all I could do to keep from dropping to the floor in laughter. But I kept my cool and simply filled out the paperwork with a smile.
That's a classic story. While it isn't the method endorsed by Advanced Merchant Services Inc. to create a need, it's fun to think of the old war stories from my early days. The good news is I can attest that this merchant did, in fact, substantially increase revenues with AMS over the years. And the merchant never regretted establishing a merchant account from this AMS agent.
When you engage merchants, your interaction must be focused solely on them. How do you achieve this? By asking high-impact questions. But it takes time to formulate high-impact questions. Don't pick up the phone or walk into the lobby until you're absolutely ready to engage in a meaningful dialogue. Often, you're not going to get a second chance in a slowing economy, so make sure every introduction counts.
It is important to ask high-impact questions in order to gain a thorough and detailed understanding of each merchant's situation, including the merchant's needs, wants, desired results, decision-making processes, as well as potential concerns or roadblocks. Most MLSs understand this, at least at a fundamental level.
In virtually every sales training workshop I conduct, MLSs nod their heads in agreement when we discuss the importance of asking questions early in the sales process. Unfortunately, they often have the process completely backwards. In real life, they often skip over this stage in the selling process in order to make their pitch. They are too eager to discuss a solution before they have identified the merchant's needs.
It's only when merchants raise objections that many MLSs backtrack and start asking questions. But what are high-impact questions?
High-impact questions help you demonstrate that you are an expert in your field, not just an ordinary person trying to sell a product, service or solution. Remember, don't be ordinary if you have the potential to be extraordinary. High-impact questions help you stand out from the crowd. And the answers to such questions help you determine the best way to present your solution to the merchant.
High-impact questions are designed to make merchants think. The majority of MLSs I encounter are hesitant about asking deep, thought-provoking questions because they are afraid prospects will find such questions invasive.
But asking probing questions will help you know how to build presentations that specifically suit your prospects. Furthermore, asking substantive questions prevents merchants from feeling they are receiving a "canned" pitch.
Here are a few examples of high-impact questions:
These questions are high-impact because they show that you have done your homework on the business. Merchants appreciate that. These types of questions also demonstrate that you care about their business challenges.
I am not suggesting you spend 15 minutes showing off to your prospects; the goal is to be prepared and to demonstrate your preparation by asking key questions.
Assuming you have captured your prospect's attention, you can move the sales process forward by asking other high-impact questions that focus on your desired outcome - a sale.
Most people, especially merchants, do not make buying decisions based on your ability to spew out product specifications and pricing information. Instead, they want to know what results they can expect.
In essence, your prospects want to know how your solutions will affect their top line (sales) or bottom line (profits). Will they make more money? Will they gain more market share? Will they increase brand recognition?
Will they be able to compete in the marketplace more effectively? Increase productivity? Reduce risks of a security breach? Reduce costs? Will they see faster cash flow? Where is their return on investment?
A former National Football League star joined a recognizable B2B sales company. The sales manager of the company had been making appointments with follow-up prospects for weeks using this sports celebrity as the carrot. Sales had been off, during the Monday morning sales meeting, he really laid into his sales team. At the end of the tirade, he looked over to the NFL star and asked him, "What would happen in the NFL to people who were underperforming like this?"
The former football player's answer was not exactly what he was looking for. "Well, if it was one or two underperforming they would cut the player," the man said. "If the entire team was underperforming, they would cut the coach." Ours is a strange industry. Ninety percent of ISOs have their MLSs seek "sales help" from relationship managers who have never written deals in their lives. Sure, they have training knowledge, but no real-life experience.
In today's climate, MLSs need access to someone or a group of successful people who came from the street. MLSs need help from current of former feet on the street, not just from people with book smarts and theory.
Always remember, prospects are not interested in the fact that you need a sale. Your presentation must be geared to them, for them, about them; it must promise them significant value. Prospects must be given a vivid understanding of both the advantages of moving forward with you as their sales rep and the pain they would experience if they procrastinate.
If you do not, or worse, cannot deliver that message with precision, you will struggle in this competitive climate made even more cutthroat by the slow economy. It's not just shooting fish in a barrel anymore. You need to earn your merchants' business and then expect it.
If you find yourself struggling, more than likely you simply need a better coach who can provide you the training necessary to make you thrive when the competition is taking a dive.
Jason A. Felts is the founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of Florida-based Advanced Merchant Services Inc., a registered ISO/MSP with HSBC Bank. From its onset, AMS has placed top priority on supporting and servicing its sales partners. The company launched ISOPro Motion, its private-label training program, to provide state-of-the-art sales tools and actively promote the success and long-term development of its partners. For more information, visit www.amspartner.com, call 888-355-VISA (8472), ext. 211, or e-mail Felts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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