I recently caught up with the director of sales for a company I worked with. He’d come to me for help some months ago, saying that he sells a high-tech product whose benefits aren’t easy to explain.

“We’ve already sold to all the companies that are early adopters, the ones who already knew they needed a product like ours. Now we’re having a much harder time closing deals. Our old approach to selling just isn’t working any more. What can I do to help improve our closing ratio?”

I asked what he had done so far, and he talked about holding more pre-close meetings with sales reps to review all of the steps and make sure the rep had done everything required up to that point. But it hadn’t done any good.

I told this director that his approach was typical but had a fatal flaw. “You can’t improve closing ratios by going in at the end of the sales process,” I said. “You have to fix what your salespeople are doing at the very beginning—what they are doing to understand the customer’s buying process.”

This is key, I explained, because those first few meetings are when a customer decides whether they have a problem that you can fix and whether it’s worth their time to fix it. It’s also where, from the customer’s perspective, the size of the sale is determined. If you don’t get your salespeople to probe those issues, no amount of finesse at the end stages is going to secure a deal for you.

With my help, this sales director implemented a number of changes, including restructuring their sales model, sales, training, and CRM to reflect customer buying behavior. They also worked with sales managers so that they became much more customer focused in their coaching. Instead of asking reps “what steps have you taken,” they began asking, “what steps has the customer taken?”

Now it was six months later and he wanted to update me on the results they’d seen.

“Our closing ratio has gone up across all our offices. Every office has taken a leap in their ability to close sales faster,” he said.

I asked him what had made the difference.

He told me the focus on getting reps to better understand the customer very early on was the biggest factor. “We have found that having reps slow down to take more time in the first discussions with prospects has improved our ability to close more deals quicker,” he said.

His final comment to me was, “I’ve seen some of the best salespeople in our company fail because they were just trying to be salespeople. They were only thinking about their sales steps. They didn’t understand the process from the buyer’s seat—why that particular prospect may be looking to buy. Now that my sales force has that new perspective—and my sales managers are continually reinforcing that focus—my reps are much more effective.”

There’s a long-standing myth in the sales profession of having sales managers swoop in at the last minute to rescue deals that are in trouble. As this sales director discovered, a much more effective approach is to have to sales managers “swoop in” at the very beginning of the sales process and help reps develop their ability to make stronger connections between a customer’s needs and the company’s offering. That’s how you improve closing ratios.


Kevin F. Davis is the author of “The Sales Manager’s Guide to Greatness: 10 Essential Strategies for Leading Your Team to the Top.” Kevin is the president of TopLine Leadership, Inc. which specializes in sales management development and custom sales training.

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