No bullshit, I used to get coaches of people coming a hundred miles to watch me on the markets' - Chris Dawson, the rags-to-riches story behind The Range home and leisure superstore chain (which now pulls in a tidy £140 million a year), is waxing lyrical about his crowd-pulling sales technique, once described as ‘a phenomenon' by Plymouth's local news. ‘I had become a bloody tourist attraction, rather than a market trader.'
Dawson has been selling since he was seven, peddling ‘ice creams and Christ knows what' on his father's stall in the city. Still, like many professionals blessed with a natural talent, he has trouble explaining exactly how he does what he does. Ask him his secret and he'll tell you he's different every time he operates, putting most of it down to the sound of his voice, and ‘a magic you're born with'. Just as others are born to sing or tell jokes, Dawson says, he was born to sell. He will also tell you that selling and closing a deal in the boardroom is basically the same as on the street.
But is it really such a mystical art? There is certainly logic in the notion that entrepreneurs are natural sellers. Even if your company is worlds away from the market stall, you must have convinced somebody of the merits of your product or service at some point, otherwise the business would have simply belly-flopped off the drawing board.
Even so, not everyone is comfortable closing deals. If you're running a company, you will of course have an enviable skill-set: you may be adept at producing ideas, and operating the multitude of levers needed to keep the business on course is probably second nature. But the nitty-gritty of negotiation is another matter. People who are good at opening doors may not be so hot at closing them.
Unfortunately, whether you're a solo outfit or about to embark on a flotation, closing is intrinsic to success. So for those of us who weren't blessed at birth with the gift of the gab, here are a few methods - general rules of behaviour as well as specific clinching techniques - that will have you flogging coals to Newcastle in no time.
1. Sow the seeds
A deal is a complex process and one highly dependent on a strong continuing relationship. Effective closing isn't about emerging from the shadows to suddenly blurt out some over-rehearsed proposition, like an awkward, libidinous teen asking out the class stunner at a school disco. ‘It's not something you suddenly decide to close, playing all your cards at once,' says Caroline Plumb, MD of recruitment consultant FreshMinds. ‘Rather, from the begin- ning you're making a series of small steps - a succession of yeses - that take you closer to the deal. The ultimate decision may be them picking up the phone one day and saying yes, but that rarely comes out of the blue.'
2. Use your ears
You have to know what the other party wants; only then can you know how to convince them of your value. So the first rule is to listen. And that applies even to born talkers like Dawson. ‘Let them get it off their chest,' he advises. ‘People like the sound of their own voice, so let them do their crowing first. Ask questions, even if you know the bloody answer, and then act.'
3. Go for the win-win
Dawson has nailed a crucial truth of negotiation: deals are best made when both parties are happy. Thus, the best route to emerging triumphant is actually to go at the deal less hand-to-hand than hand-in-hand. ‘It's more like a partnership,' says Plumb. ‘Try to really understand what the other side wants to achieve, and then see how you can meet your objectives. People often have very different priorities to you, so you can both win, without feeling you've compromised very much.'
4. Be yourself
What's happened to the mind games? Surely dealmaking is supposed to be all about psychology, adopting the classic ploy of watching the movement of the eyes and mirroring their body language, before going in for the kill? Wasn't this what that costly neuro-linguistic programming course was all about? Maybe, but there's a problem: by now everyone has read the same manuals. Tricky deals can easily descend into a dire chess match, with two players jockeying for position and second-guessing each other into a stalemate. The simple truth is that if you need any tricks, you're probably not ready to close the deal anyway. You're better off having a genuinely good offering and simply being yourself.
5. Drop the script
A pre-planned spiel may make you feel more secure at the outset, but the danger is you'll be so concerned with getting it right that you will become insensitive to signs of interest from your counterparty. While you're moving diligently on to the third reason why they need to buy x, they're fast losing the concrete urge they once had to purchase y. Again, it all comes down to listening.
6. Keep an open mind
Nancy Cruickshank, MD of women's lifestyle website Handbag.com, highlights the importance of paying attention and being willing to change tack. Handbag's former owners, the Barclay brothers, were looking to sell off half the company in 2002, but after a rush of aggressive bids from the market, the decision was made to offer it completely to Hearst Corporation, a shareholder, which had previously expressed interest in a joint venture. ‘It's all about maintaining flexibility,' says Cruick- shank. ‘You just don't know what angle a deal will end up taking. Keep an open mind, and think about various potential outcomes.'
7. Make them happy but get what you want
As Dawson suggests (true to form for an ex-street trader), a more considerate approach doesn't mean a mutual mollycoddling followed by trudging home holding a child-size portion of the pie. Granted, the other party must think they've got a good deal - but very often the perception (or illusion) is enough. ‘I normally give people what they want, price-wise,' he says. ‘The clever thing is to pinch things around the outside: if buying a car, say: "Okay, here's a tenner. By the way, mate, you couldn't put a roof rack on that, could you? Any chance of changing those wheels?" That's a Dawson trademark - I pay for 10 apples, but you give me 15.'
8. Offer something extra
A good relationship will get you only so far. Assuming you've put time into nurturing it, your chances of closing can only be improved by knowing a few key concrete sales methods. Not least in the timing. Dawson will tell you that, for him, the right moment to close a deal is announced by a definite physical sensation. Yet technique is vital. Playing that moment properly will seal it. ‘I can feel when someone is ready to close: I'll get the signal, the eye contact. Then before they've said yes, I'll say: "Okay, I want to shake your hand on whatever. Oh, and by the way, here's another bag of plums." They hadn't even asked for it, but it changes the mood to "oh, go on then".'
9. Give them a choice
Avoid asking: ‘How does that sound?' Instead, ask which of the options they'd prefer. Be alert for signs that they're interested, whether that is ‘have you got many left?' or ‘how soon could we get this deal done?'
10. Get momentum
Once you've engaged the interest of the other party, you should be aiming to move the deal swiftly past the word yes to a more concrete commitment - whether that's something in writing or simply a spoken agreement. Creating a sense of urgency will minimise the chance of unforeseen events getting in the way of closure - a change of financial circumstance, the arrival of a competitor or a simple change of heart. Convince them they need to do the deal now.
11. Button it
As soon as you've got them interested, stop selling. Continue, and you run the risk of talking yourself into an awkward corner, so shut up while they decide. No matter what your arena - stock market or market stall - you'll almost certainly have some experience of that most meddlesome of beasts, the staller. Natural sellers may sweep the ‘buts' aside with aplomb, but for the rest of us the unpredictability of the counterparty can be the biggest stumbling-block to any deal. Even if someone likes a proposition, they often feel the need to delay, caught up in what can seem like interminable indecision; it doesn't help that such hesitancy can be down to personality traits - caution over dealing with large sums of money, for example - as much as any tangible problem with the package. Despite your best efforts to crank up the action, it can often seem like the deal's never going to come off. So…
12. Absorb knockbacks
The best way to claim some control over objections is to alter your own perception. Little is gained by treating knockbacks with trepidation, just waiting for your lovingly packaged proposal to get derailed. It's far more productive to recognise that every objection en- countered, and successfully negotiated, takes you a step nearer to closure. You have only to observe the two classic knee-jerk reactions of daily life - ‘I don't have time' or ‘It's too expensive' - to realise a person's first objection seldom represents their true feelings. The key is to get behind these false protestations and discover what's driving them. Ask questions.
13. ‘Same dinner-set, different story'
Dawson encountered his fair share of stallers on the market. He recounts how the sale of a dinner-set was going badly, so he backtracked, picked up an identical set and approached it from a different angle. Bingo, another satisfied customer. ‘I just said, "I'm sorry for insulting your intelligence, you're absolutely right, how about this one? It's got such and such." Same dinner set, different story.' But how does experience on the market stall shape up against running a £140 million-a-year superstore chain? ‘The noughts are different but the game's still the same. The trick is, the further up you go in your dealings, the better the stories need to be, because you're dealing with the people on top of the pile.'
14. Be prepared to pull out
New businesses tend to say yes to everything, and can be afraid to turn things down, even if they don't fit the brand. It's easy to get swept up, accepting something you don't need. ‘You soon learn your limits,' says Plumb. ‘Part of that is actually knowing when to stand your ground and not do the deal.' A demonstrable willingness to knock the whole thing on the head is one of your best weapons.
15. Stay cool
It's important not to get carried away with the emotion of the deal. Savour the thrill of the chase, but don't see it as a trophy. Running round the office exhorting the troops to ‘get the prize, damn it, and to hell with the cost', is not constructive behaviour.
16. Be firm on price, push the benefits
Gerard Burke, who runs the business growth programme at Cranfield School of Management, provides a prescient example, from among the course alumni: ‘We had a husband-and-wife team who ran a specialist consul- tancy. They were in a pitch meeting with a client, who came back with some objections around price. In similar situations in the past, the husband had always followed an instinct to concede and drop it. This time his wife got in before him and said: "This is who we are, this is what we stand for, and this is what we do better than anyone else." The conversation moved on, and the client never came back to the issue of price.' But what happens if it all goes wrong? What if you've kept your ears and mind open, you've established what you want, laid your cards on the table and knocked back every objection, but the whole thing still goes belly-up? You may have built a good relationship with a client and provided what you think is the perfect package for them, but that doesn't stop a competitor coming along and saying they'll deliver something better. Even so…
17. Stay visible
The message is not to be disheartened, but to stay alert and on the radar of the client. ‘It can really hurt at the time,' says Plumb. ‘But actually it's not unusual for the client to be disappointed with the deal, because someone has promised something that's not achievable. You can even be asked in to clear up the mess.' You may not have coach-loads of people driving a hundred miles to watch, but it'll still be great for your business.
Top tips for getting a result
1 Have a strong relationship in the first place. Deals are often closed long before any definitive ‘yes'
2 Do your homework: target one or two possibilities and research them into the ground
3 Listen to what they need; work out how you can deliver
4 Be candid, put your cards on the table. The other side needs to know what's in it for them
5 Be confident - in yourself, your team and the validity of your case
6 Don't use tricks - simply have the right solution. If you need tricks, you're not ready to close
7 Objections are good. Overcoming each one takes you a step closer to closing
8 Everyone must feel they got a good deal, even if they didn't
9 Create urgency to beat stalling. They need it - now!
10 Ask for the sale, and be persistent
11 Get beyond ‘yes'. Move it along quickly to solid commitment. Problems can creep in otherwise, such as second thoughts or late competition
12 Once all objections are dealt with, shut up while they decide
13 Don't be rude, but dispense with peripherals and get straight to the point
14 Never overpay. Resist the temptation to get the prize no matter what the cost
15 Walking away from a deal is the best weapon you have