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April 17, 2013

Closing (Part 2 of 2): When should you ask for the business?

A lawyer that I was coaching once said that she wanted to spend more time “learning how to close.” It’s a request I’ve heard repeatedly, not just from lawyers but also from sales professionals.

Often, when people ask this question, what they really mean is, “What can I do to get new business faster?” I know, because many years ago when I hired Don Schrello as my first sales coach, that’s what I asked him. I still remember his reply: “Jim, selling takes time. You can’t make the corn grow faster because you’re hungry.”

Closing may be the most controversial part of the selling process. There are two main schools of thought, and they could not be farther apart.

The old school preaches that you should “close early, close hard, and close often.” In this view, the ABC of sales is Always Be Closing. If you’d like to dig into this school of thought, see Zig Ziglar’s book, Secrets of Closing the Sale: 410 pages of techniques with names like the Three Question Close, the Presidential Close, and the Nieman Marcus Close. And if those don’t work, you can try the Challenge Close, the Opportunity Close, the Kreepy Krawly Close, or dozens of others.

Do these names remind you of all your worst fears about the tackiness of selling? Me too. And we are not the only ones. They also offend many sales pros.

I’ve written before about my respect for Neil Rackham’s research. His book SPIN® Selling has an unfortunately misleading name, but more data than any other sales system. Near the beginning of the book (page 6), Rackham wrote that the professionals who sell complex products and services:

Complain that traditional sales training treats them as if they were selling used cars. What’s worse, it treats their customers as simpletons waiting to be exploited by verbal trickery and manipulation.

Rackham belongs to the new school of “consultative selling.” When he did his first study of closing several decades ago, Rackham observed 190 sales calls for a company that sold complex and expensive office equipment. (I suspect it was Xerox.) In each call, he simply counted the number of closing behaviors each salesperson tried. When Rackham later looked at which clients actually purchased the equipment, he was surprised to find that salespeople who used a low number of closing techniques (an average of 1.4 per visit) got more new business than people who used a high number (5.8 per visit).

So he did another study. This time he measured the effects of training to improve the closing skills of 47 professionals at a high tech company. The good news was that the training was quite effective in getting professionals to use more closing techniques in each call (3.2 closing behaviors per call before training vs. 5.6 closing behaviors per call afterwards). The bad news was that when people closed more aggressively after the training, sales went down.

This led to a third study. This one was in a chain of photographic stores that sold both high cost and low cost items. Again, people completed training to use closing techniques, and again, Rackham looked at actual sales. With high cost items, the results were the same as before: more training led to more closing actions and fewer sales. (Low cost items were different. But I don’t think those results are relevant to lawyers, unless they are billing less than $10 per hour.)

Does this research imply that you should never again “ask for the business”? Of course not. As Rackham Page 38) summed it up:

It may sound as though I’m saying that you shouldn’t try to close the sale—that because closing techniques are ineffective, you should somehow wait for the sale to close itself—but clearly this doesn’t work either.

He goes on to nod towards lawyers (page 39) when he says:

If the overuse of closing is a problem in many industrial and capital goods sales, then its total absence may be an equally severe problem in some service industries.

The trick is to find the balance. If you never ask, you will never receive. But if you ask too much, it will do more harm than good.

 

This post was adapted from my Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide

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