A little while ago, I wrote a guest column advocating that we really need to have a conversation about sales in the multifamily industry. Judging from the number of comments and e-mails responding to the column, the argument that we’ve been seriously underinvesting in this function and not really considering how buyers have changed the way they shop seems to have struck a nerve. So I thought it only fair to put a little “meat on the bones” and talk more specifically about what I see.
All About “We”
Over the past few years, I’ve looked at more than a dozen sales models and/or sales training programs in the industry. They each have their own unique differences, but, in essence, they all fit into a very similar model.
They’re all about what we, the salespeople, want … what we need. They focus on how we handle the first contact, how we tour, how we ask for the business, and how we move residents in. It puts us and our processes front and center, with the prospects themselves merely actors going through our play. Not exactly prospect centered, eh?
Why does this matter? Why should we care about putting the prospects’ needs at the center instead of our own need to sell? As Stephen R. Covey notes in Habit 5 of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, if we seek first to understand and only then to be understood, we are much more likely to be successful. And as Daniel H. Pink notes in To Sell Is Human, “attunement” is one of the new keys to success in selling to an informed prospect base. This is the ability to bring our actions and outlook into harmony with others, and we can’t do that if our approach is all about us.
If we want an approach that truly and authentically puts prospects in the center, we need to think seriously about the processes they go through as they make their decisions, not how they go through our processes. We need to help our leasing associates align with them, not force them to align with us.
Aligning With the Prospect’s Journey
Research has shown that there are four clear stages prospects go through as they make their decisions:
So our job is now to align our processes with the prospect’s journey; and we can do that with a simple four-segment model of our own. Doing so puts the prospect at the center of everything instead of putting our processes in the center. It allows (I would even say requires) us to help our prospects make good decisions rather than “sell” them on anything. And since we tend to hire people who are more service than sales oriented, it lets salespeople serve the prospect rather than feel like they have to be someone they’re not in order to “sell” the prospect.
• In today’s Zero Moment of Truth (or ZMOT) world, prospects are often 65% or more of the way to their decision before they ever talk to a salesperson. Our job in Discovery, then, is often to catch up to them as quickly as possible.
• The most important segment is Inquiry. This is where we learn about our prospect’s needs and wants—and, more important, the difference between the two.
A key principle in this approach is that leasing associates should never enter a new segment until they’ve completely met the exit criteria for the previous segment. It may sound counterintuitive, but “if you want to shorten the sales cycle, then slow down the sale.” Where this most often plays out is in slowing down the process of entering Advocacy in order to better connect with the prospect through Inquiry.
As an example, most associates fall into an easy trap best called “ask … answer … respond.” Let’s say we’re presented with a couple and we ask the open-ended question, “So what’s most important in what you’re looking for in a new home?” They answer, “Well, we have a 6-year-old about to enter first grade, so being in a really good school district is important.”
We know we have an excellent elementary school, and we just can’t help ourselves in responding about how good the schools here are, and the pattern repeats itself with subsequent questions.
What’s wrong with that? We’re identifying needs, and we’re presenting benefits, not just features. And we’re personalizing them—all the things classic sales training tells us to do.
We think we’re building credibility by giving good answers, but the truth is you can’t build credibility giving good answers in Inquiry, because (a) let’s be honest, your competitors also generally give (or at least sound like they give) good answers; and (b) our prospects are naturally very skeptical at this stage. So our answers don’t really feel authentic, even if they are … they’re too self-serving.
Thus, the better approach is to “ask … listen; ask … listen; ask … listen” and then, when we’ve asked all of our questions and know everything we need to know, be ready to advocate … only then do we move from Inquiry into Advocacy.
There’s a lot more to building out an entire sales system based on this approach, but hopefully this gives some very practical insight into what needs to be done differently if we really want to put prospects at the center of the sales process.